The Scaries: On Getting Over the Fear of Speaking Up During Sex

Photo by Leah Flores

This roundtable explores advice for the bedroom from a human sexuality expert, intimacy coach, clinician and author. Let’s learn to ask for what we want.

By Laura Wheatman Hill

As much as we’d like to have a psychic, unspoken connection with our partners, when it comes to sex, sometimes we have to let go of the idea that our partners can read our minds. We have to tell them what we want, explicitly. 

However, telling a partner what you want, especially if that’s not your custom, might be scary. What if you hurt their feelings? What if they think differently of you when you express your needs? What if you don’t know what you want but you want to find out together? Four sex experts weigh in and share advice to help you get what you want in the bedroom.

The Professor:

There’s all these false images. One is that, during sex, everyone knows what to do, they do it just right, no talking is needed, and it really seems perfect. You’d be hard pressed to find a really good erotic sex scene that includes accurate communication. Instead there are false media images of women having fast and fabulous orgasms from penetration alone, when, in reality, only 4-18% of people with vulvas can reach orgasm from penetration alone. 

All of this goes back to the patriarchy to tell you the truth. It’s not men’s fault. It’s the culture. Men are harmed by this as well. We’re socialized to not say our needs. We are socialized to ask questions instead of telling our partner’s what we want. Be empowered and straightforward about communication.

The first thing you should do is get to know your own body. Masturbate. Look at yourself. Figure out what kind of stimulation brings you to orgasm. It’s easier to figure out by yourself. Know what you’ve got down there so you can share that with a partner.

Next, change your thinking on two levels. One: work with the idea of feeling equally entitled to pleasure as your partner. Two: train your mind. Mindfulness, which is really easy to explain and hard to accomplish, is putting your mind and body in the same place. Stop thinking distracting, critical thoughts. Think positive thoughts about yourself in and out of the bedroom.

Have a conversation outside of the bedroom. I tell clients jokingly that it’s easier to learn to speak up during sex than turn their partner into a mind reader. 

Next, do sex differently. In the bedroom, it’s okay to talk during sex. Use words; use sentences. Put your hand on top of your partner’s; move their hand. Change your syncing and try turn taking. Lesbian sex is more orgasmic due to more clitoral stimulation and turn taking.

Talk during sex… It’s a good screening device to see how your partner reacts.

Lauri Mintz

Talk after sex about how it was and how it could have been better. Do things together that are educational out of the bedroom. Honestly, so many times people’s fears are way bigger than what actually happens. I rarely, in over 30 years of clinical practice, have found that a fear of communication comes true, that the partner will freak. Most partners are relieved to have the conversation. 

Being afraid of talking to your partner might feel like standing on the end of the diving board and saying, “I can’t go in,” but when you jump, it’s kinda nice and refreshing. Take the plunge; take the risk. Frankly, if you tell your partner what you like and want in bed outside the bedroom or during sex and they shame you for it, I would contend that’s a really good sign that person is not the partner for you. It’s a good screening device to see how your partner reacts.

Laurie Mintz, PhD, psychology professor and human sexuality expert, author of Becoming Cliterate, popularized the term, “orgasm gap.” 

Photo by Lucas Ottone

The Kink Coach:

Speaking up during sex makes us vulnerable. It leaves us open to being judged for our desires. Our culture sets up a lose/lose scenario where it’s impossible to have the “right” amount of interest in sex, or the right amount of experience. People have learned this is a trap and that makes it feel easier to just be quiet.

People rarely get accurate sex education, and even when they do, it doesn’t mention pleasure. Add to that the messy cultural politics around sex, and the toxic power imbalances typically found between cis-men and cis-women, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for sex that’s unpleasant for the partner with less power.

As a coach, I hear from people on both sides of this equation: people who worry they’re finishing too quickly and people who worry they’re taking too long. There’s no right amount of time for sex to take. People start getting self-conscious about it only when it feels like their timeline is mismatched with that of their partner. It’s a communication and coordination issue, not a sexual performance issue.

As for taking up too much space, this is another fear that keeps people from speaking up. It’s important to cultivate a relationship where all parties want to hear each other’s fantasies, desires, needs, and preferences. It’s important to speak from personal experience and share feelings in a way that doesn’t judge or shame the other person.

There’s no right amount of time for sex to take.

Stella Harris

If a partner makes a request you don’t understand how to fulfill, try something like, “I’d love to explore that fantasy with you but I’m worried about doing it wrong or hurting you. Can you show me exactly how you want to be touched?”

It can also be helpful to explore the topic together with open minds and curiosity, finding books and classes, and maybe even a coach, so you can learn together.

Regarding her specialty in kink:

Communication is essential in all relationships. I generally say it’s just that you’ll get in trouble faster when engaging in something like kink or open relationships without these skills. For example, if you don’t know how to drive, that lack of skill will be more apparent if you get behind the wheel of a race car than if you try a carnival bumper car ride.

Kink and BDSM is risky — both physically and emotionally — so it’s essential that you have the skills to talk about what you do and don’t want, what does and doesn’t feel good, in order to do it safely. That means being able to negotiate in advance, being able to speak up during play, and being able to debrief later on.

Stella Harris, intimacy coach, author Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships and The Ultimate Guide to Threesomes

The Clinician: 

Most people have been taught that sexuality is a taboo topic because they were brought up with little to no discussion in their families of origin. Or, (sex was) a deeply shameful thing that their family or community deemed only (be) permitted within the confines of heterosexual marriage. Thus the self-esteem and language one learns as one grows their abilities and watches how peers change through academic, social, and extracurricular activities is absent growing up.

Young people tend to rely on online sources that are usually created for entertainment purposes (like sexually explicit media, mainstream films, or advertising) that are imbalanced, frequently created for a heterosexual male gaze, and not based on scientific understanding of genital anatomy, male, female, and gender non-binary sexual response cycles, and consensual models beyond yes or no. 

Stay in your body, focus on your breath & create an internal mantra.

Sari Cooper

There is still so much misinformation regarding women’s pleasure centers, and vulva owners tend to feel less Sex Esteem (the term I coined) in letting their partners know what would turn them on and what they need to feel most aroused. Depictions of vaginal penetration are primarily focusing on a performative style of response by vulva owners in sexually explicit media as well a mainstream media without actually showing a slower ramp up style, oral sex, and use of vibrators that most women report would more likely lead to an orgasm.

Stay in your body, focus on your breath and create an internal mantra that speaks to your agency around your needs in the erotic sexual realm.

Inviting someone to show you how they like to be touched, spoken to, undressed, kissed are sexy ways to communicate sexstyles to a partner when done in a seductive, open hearted manner. 

Sari Cooper, LCSW, CST, Creator of Sex Esteem® Events for Adults and Parents and Founder of Center for Love and Sex

Photo by Marc Bordons

The Bestseller:

Think about why you’re having this fear and where it’s coming from. Usually it’s shame about how you feel you should be having sex and contrary to how you’d like to be having sex. We carry beliefs that aren’t necessarily true. First, challenge those beliefs. Sex is such a vulnerable topic because it can be tied to shame, cultural beliefs, or values, but it is essential to talk about sex in a relationship as soon as possible. 

Having been a couples therapist and doing sex therapy for 20 years, when couples come in to talk about sex, they’re triggering each other’s defenses and there isn’t an emotional safety about communicating about sex. When you talk to your partner, you won’t get what you want when you put your partner on the defensive. A tricky conversation might lead to a partner who won’t listen, who will jump to their own point of view. 

Connect with your own vulnerable emotions and the vulnerability of bringing it up. Look past the defensiveness. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. It is as difficult for your partner to hear something as it is for you to say something. Check in with each other’s feelings of loneliness, neglect, or rejection. Create space for the conversation. Ask to be heard.

Another mistake couples make quite a bit: They know quite a bit about the problem they’re expressing but they don’t know the solution. Take the problem you’re experiencing, understand the problem, name the problem to yourself, but also think about the solution before you talk about it with your partner. 

Create space for conversation.

Ian Kerner

The first thing would be to solve the problem for yourself. Getting focused, getting absorbed, getting turned on and aroused, reaching certain points and stalling out, you have to work on that a little bit yourself and start to communicate with your partner. Explore your own body and your own sexuality a little bit. If we can pleasure ourselves and bring ourselves to orgasm, if we can focus on the sensation, then we can communicate it to our partners. 

Once you’ve gone from the problem to the solution, go to the fantasy and then express that fantasy to your partner. I tell clients to use a sexy dream approach. Say, “I had the sexiest dream about you last night,” and describe what you were doing. An engaged partner wants to hear about that dream.

Then the wonderful thing is the language of sex can actually be arousing and tap into our fantasies and turn ons. Good sex is simmering sex. Good sex is the cultivation of arousal. Good sex is about a feedback loop between giving and receiving pleasure. The giving of pleasure is arousing. 

Ian Kerner, PhD, LMFT, licensed psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy. NYT best-selling author of She Comes First, So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, and others.

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