As a sex researcher, people often ask me the same question. “Given everything you know about sex science, what’s your top piece of advice?”

That’s easy. Communicate.

Research Supports Good Communication

There’s a wealth of research supporting the notion that communication is good for your sex life. Several studies have concluded that telling your partner what you want and don’t want in the boudoir has a positive effect on sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Communication About Sex Isn't Always Easy

Despite knowing this, we also know that communicating about sex isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Communication between partners about sex isn’t always easy or smooth. Partners can experience fear, shame, or embarrassment. Many people worry that their partner will judge them, or that they’ll learn something about their partner they didn’t want to know. Some people worry they won’t be able to fulfill their partner's wishes or will feel “out of their league.” Any of these anxieties could lead to an avoidance of more conversations. Yet, it’s clear that communication about sex is important to a healthy sex life and relationship.

How do couples tend to talk about sex?

A recent study from the University of Waterloo looked at how couples talk about sex versus non-sexual topics. Do couples show any more warmth or dominance during sexual conversations than they do during non-sexual conversations? They recorded couples discussing a sexual conflict, followed by a non-sexual conflict. Then they coded the conversations using a comprehensive method that measures various behaviors. Their main interests were hostility and warmth, and dominance and submission.

They found that couples express more warmth during sexual conflicts than during non-sexual conflicts. This could be because the topics were more sensitive, so partners wanted to avoid further conflict. Interestingly, they found no difference in dominance between the two discussion types.

They also found that partners are more “in sync” and cautious with each other when talking about sex. The cautiousness could be partly explained by higher levels of anxiety. Discussing sex made them more nervous than discussing non-sexual topics. It could also be explained by a reciprocal attentiveness for their partner when talking about things that could hurt their ego.

Gentle and Frank Conversations about Sex

The more we know about communication, the more we can help couples get through uncomfortable barriers. Partners often enter a relationship from different backgrounds or levels of experience. Conversations about sex have to be carefully navigated. Especially if you aren’t sure of your partner’s experience or knowledge. If your partner has only been tied up with pink fluffy cuffs, it can be a little overwhelming when you lash them with a riding crop and call them your Pretty Little Bitch. Sitting down and having a talk about expectations beforehand will yield a better experience.

What if you want kids but you’re unsure where your partner sits on the issue? That’s a big question that needs to be discussed. Or, what if you have a history of STIs, or you want to know if your partner does? That’s a potentially embarrassing, but important, conversation to have. Some people are liberal about testing and safety, and some are strict. What if you’re concerned your partner isn’t being faithful? That’s a conversation that needs to happen. Harboring a secret like that will eat you up and breed resentment.

There are many issues that could warrant a frank, open conversation. Yet, many of those conversations aren't necessarily ones that force you to make a life-altering decision. Maybe your partner isn’t hitting that special spot, but you can show them how to do it. Perhaps sex is painful or uncomfortable. Maybe one or both of you is having a hard time orgasming. Maybe you want to explore something new or spice things up. All these things are important topics to discuss with your partner. Or if you just want to know how things are going; if you’re pleasing them. That’s important to know, too.

Sex Talk Tips

“But we communicate all the time” you might say. There’s a disconnect between what professionals consider healthy sexual communication and what many couples think it looks like. Rolling over after sex and asking, “Was it good for you?” doesn’t count. Ideally, partners would be able to discuss sex like they do other relationship topics. Intimacy is important to the health of your relationship, so talking about it should be a priority.

Sometimes it’s easier to start small. Here are some tips on how to start a conversation about sex in a non-threatening way.

  • Write down three to five things you want your partner to do to/with you. Then, write down three to five things you want to change or may want less of. Finally, write down three to five things you love that your partner does to/with you. When you’re both done, trade answers and read them privately. When you’re ready, talk about them together.
  • Sit down with your partner. Take turns asking the question, “What makes you feel good?” You can alternate that question with, “Do you like it when I [blank]?” If it’s too uncomfortable to answer, you can use blinks, a smile/frown, or other nonverbal cues as your answers instead.
  • Agree on a word of affirmation that will represent “I love this!” It could be “Yum,” “Yes,” or “Tittywampus.” Anything you want. When your partner does something you like, say, moan, or scream the word you agreed upon. It's operant conditioning at its finest!
  • Avoid using words like “should,” “you,” “always,” and “never.” Unless agreed upon or established as safe, avoid using too many clinical terms (like “penis” and “clitoris”) or words that can be interpreted as dirty (like “fuck” or “screw”).

Talking about sex can be scary. Studies show that people would rather have sex than talk about it. There are lots of reasons to fight the avoidant urge and talk the talk. The most important reason of all is consent. The clearest way to know what’s going on is to ask, and the fastest way to get what you want is to ask.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. With a positive attitude, the right intentions, and partners who want to please each other, talking about sex can be an exciting and sexy experience in itself. Today’s sex talk is tomorrow’s foreplay.