CW: Reader is advised that there is a discussion of sexual assault below. Proceed accordingly.
Myth-busting Monday: Talking about sex douses the spark
Going to have to disagree with this one. This idea about communication dampening pleasure or sexual interest is such an intriguing cultural construct to me, and I kind of (no, full disclosure, completely) nerd out over it.
As a culture, we (in the USA and I presume other Euro-colonialist types) are incredibly uncomfortable talking about sex in a meaningful way, in the personal, familial, spiritual, and professional realms (no I am not talking board meetings, but thinking of professional encounters where sex might be more directly relevant, like healthcare). The topic is taboo – as if talking about sex will get you pregnant or implicate you in some kind of deviancy or sluttiness.
But why? Where did this discomfort with communicating about sex come from? My understanding is imperfect, but what I have currently figured out is below.
Lack of Communication Instruction in Sex Education
We are uneducated about sex – in real life dynamics and expectations secondary to generations of miseducation, silencing, and using explicit, adult media to teach us instead (this is problematic as media is fantasy and catered to certain tastes and scripts, and no I am not anti-porn). Sex education often does not teach communication – how to communicate your needs and consent, how to negotiate encounters. (Sex education in the USA is lacking in many ways, and this has been an on-going problem. For more information, see: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/for-educators/whats-state-sex-education-us https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/18/11/harvard-edcast-state-sex-ed-america https://siecus.org/state-profiles-2019-2020/ )
Our Sex Scripts Don’t Include Communication
The sex scripts (i.e. sexual norms) we inherited about what sex looks like and how/if it is discussed are flawed. Sexual communication doesn’t occur. Sex, according to these cultural scripts, just flows and happens naturally, planning is another buzz kill (see my thoughts on scheduled sex here: http://ignitewell-being.com/spontaneous-sex/ ), and consent is assumed to be corollary.
To be clear, nonconsensual sex is rape. Things to consider: what is consent and how do you navigate it? Do your current techniques serve you and your partner(s)? What are other ways to assess consent outside of verbal communication? How do you model consent outside of sexual encounters (such as with friends or children)? Consent is a topic we have discussed in our S E X Positive Parenting group and will be examined later this year for book club. Stay tuned.
According to our normative scripts, we should “just know” what our partner(s) want or like. This is part of why sex education classes for adults that focus on technique (such as oral sex) sell out, but ones regarding communication attract less participation. Ideally, it would be the opposite engagement – we would all gravitate to educational opportunities to hone our communication skills – technique will come from communication. No one is a mind reader. Every body is literally different, from each other and over time. Further, wants and needs change over time, even in a day.
We need to be able to speak to our sexuality. Otherwise, we are left dissatisfied in our encounters, unable to ask for what we need or want, and sometimes with the belief, accurate or not, that our partner(s) will not listen and respond (part of communication also involves listening and reception; can you partner(s) create space to listen to your sexual communication or do they shut down?).
The lack of education and the stifling social norms keep us disempowered. We don’t know how to talk about sex or ask for what we need, we don’t believe that this communication has value, and/or we don’t believe that our partners can receive and value our requests.
Power Imbalances and Privilege Reinforce the Lack of Communication
When talking about disempowerment, there’s the word power, and a power dynamic that is implied. Power dynamics and privilege show up in sexual encounters secondary to the intersection of identities and systems of oppression in our culture. Some individuals are fine with this skew in power and don’t consider their privilege, as they benefit from both. Sex to the empowered and privileged might be about taking without thorough asking or consideration, doing without reflection and feedback. I’ve noticed that those claiming that speaking to sex kills the spark are also the ones more empowered by the current social scripts and sexual norms.
By giving voice to desire and needs, these individuals are reclaiming some power for themselves and engaging in a more balanced dynamic.
Power dynamics also show up in the lack of communication about sexual well-being in healthcare. Providers, in positions of power, are hesitant or embarrassed to bring it up or secondary to our sex negative culture, don’t understand how critically important sexual well-being is to clients. Clients assume providers will bring it up and are embarrassed to discuss it as well. The silence reinforces the stigma.
Some Marginalized Groups Do Communication Much Better
Let’s contrast the idea about talking as a buzz kill to the sexual models conveyed in the queer, disabled, consensual nonmonogamy, and kink communities. These communities do a much better job discussing and negotiating sex. Why? Because the cis-gender, heteronormative, patriarchal, able-bodied, ways of doing things don’t work, literally or figuratively. These communities navigate goals in-addition-to or beyond PIV sex (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=piv ) and sometimes these encounters are sexual but do not involve the genitals at all (such as for the BDSM community. How would most heterosexual couples even handle this? Would they even label these activities as sex?). Relationship assumptions and norms have to be deconstructed when practicing non-monogamy ethically to ensure partner/s’ consent.
All of these communities talk about their encounters, expectations, desires, consent more openly because they have to. Those that fall outside of these communities would benefit to get curious and learn more, even if you never identify as queer or disabled for example (but no, reader, I am not implying that these communities should teach you, particularly if you do not identify as part of these communities – the folks are marginalized and have enough to do; please start by educating yourself – there are so many great books, podcasts, and workshops out there. Work and pay for that education)
How to Improve Your Communication: Where to even start?
- To change, start where you are. Consider your current communication style and if it serves you during your encounters.
- Start talking about sex. With friends, with professionals, with consciousness rising groups, as a part of book clubs. With each conversation had, the dialog gets easier.
- Use cards to engage your partner/s in communication. For example, The Gottman Institute has a card deck made specifically for creating intimacy and communication in relationship.
- Consider how current sex scripts limit your own communication and experiences during your encounters.
- Check out the books Tongue Tied by Stella Harris, Sexual Intelligence by Marty Klein, Magnificent Sex by Peggy Kleinplatz and So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex by Ian Kerner for communication suggestions and ideas on how to rewrite your own sexual scripts.
- As you learn how to communication with you partner(s), think of how to balance their needs and growth too – do they prefer more direct language or diluted language (ex do you use the anatomical names for genitals or do you have your own words for them that are more comfortable)?
- Notice how communication about sex is often best outside of encounters – if communication about sex only happens during sex, individuals might not be authentic in their communication. For example, it might be hard to say no to an activity that you would have preferred not to engage in when you are turned on. When can you talk about sex? Asking your partner(s) to set aside specific time to do so can be helpful for some individuals.
- Play with using communication to create an erotic thread – to plan an encounter, flirt with your partner(s), create anticipation, and enhance creativity (by allowing more time to consider what you might enjoy during the encounter itself). In fact, according to Kleinplatz, communication is a component of magnificent sex.
- Part of communication with your partner(s) involves discussing STI status – is this something you have done?, how did that go?, and could there be more open discussion about this challenging topic in your relationship(s)?
- Take care not to individualize these societal problems fully – systems of oppression and social norms cannot be dismantled by you changing communication strategies. Work within your reach and capacity and give yourself lots of grace as you learn.
By communicating about sex, we normalize the importance of sexual well-being and lessen the taboo. We can enjoy more satisfaction and sense of ownership over our desires and activities. We are creating a new sexual ethic of care, concern, mutual pleasure, and social/emotional/sexual intelligence. We are not just rewriting scripts for ourselves and our partners but for future generations as well.
Communication doesn’t douse the spark of sex; instead it sets little fires to harmful and expired norms. Happy myth-busting and fire-starting, community.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), sexuality counselor and educator; copyright protected, please cite accordingly. Image is from Pexels.
For questions or to work with me, email email@example.com If this topic interests you, please consider attending a sexual well-being event, including yoga, book club, Pleasure Café, and S E X Positive Parenting Group: http://ignitewell-being.com/sexual-well-being-main/
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