Self-Help: Communication in Sexual Behavior

What is the basis for good sexual communication?

When each person in a couple knows that their partner cares about them, we say that they have "mutual empathy."

  • One sign of mutual empathy is that each person is able to tell their partner what is important to the partner about a situation and have the partner agree that they have been understood.
  • Another sign is that when one person says something, the partner hears what is said correctly.    

Here is an exercise to try

Each of you should have a paper and pencil. Sit across the table or room from each other.

  1. Write down 3 things you would like to have more of in your relationship.
  2. Then write down what you think your partner answered.
  3. Write down 3 things you would like to have less of.
  4. Write what you think your partner wrote.
  5. Now write down three things you appreciate in your partner or that your partner has done for you this week. 

Next, communicate about your answers:

  • Person 1 says what they answered in question 2. Then Person 2 reads their answers to question 1. Now Person 2 reads what they answered on question 2 and Person 1 reads their answer to question 1.
  • Repeat this process for questions 3 and 4.
  • Now look at your partner. Make eye contact. Tell him or her what you wrote on question 5 above. Trade answers. 

If you were fairly correct in what you thought your partner would write down, then probably you are doing well with listening. If you guessed incorrectly, practice learning to listen.

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Why do many couples find it difficult to talk about sexual needs?

  • In our society we often learn early in life that sex is not an acceptable topic for conversation. If parents don't talk about sex at home, children do not learn good ways and good words to talk about sex later in life.
  • Often, the words we use to describe sex are associated with negative emotions such as anger and/or sexist attitudes. The same words that we use to tell someone off or to show we got treated badly or taken advantage of are words that also describe having sex!

What are two words that commonly are used to express both anger and to describe having sex?

Answer: Two such words are "fucking" and "screwing." A person can "fuck someone over" when they are angry at them or get "fucked over" by someone who takes advantage of them. Similarly someone might say "I screwed them to the wall" to indicate that they got even or took advantage of the other person. Or they might say, "I got screwed" when they lost money or were treated poorly. On the other hand, they might say this, meaning "I had a great time with my lover last night."

  • Words relating to sexuality tend to represent the extremes of "street language" at one end and "clinical terminology" at the other. When we want to express loving and sexual thoughts, we struggle to find the right language. The words that one person uses may feel "dirty" to the other person.

The words penis and clitoris are examples of clinical terms. What are some street terms for each one?

Answer: In the fetus, the clitoris in a girl baby comes from the same tissue as the penis in the boy baby. The clitoris and penis have the same number of nerve endings even though the penis is much larger. The technical term for this is that the penis and clitoris are "homologous tissues." It is interesting because these two structures are responsible for the biggest part of most people's physical sexual feelings. Our society has many words for the penis [such as peter, dick, member, tool, thing, pee-pee, twinkie, hammer, john henry, root, man hood, family jewels (includes the testes)] but very few names for the clitoris [clit, hot button, little man in a boat, cherry seed]. If you make a list of all the words you know for these two body parts, which list is the longest and why? How many of the words in your two lists are words that sound like love versus words that sound like a machine? Do you think this has anything to do with sexual communication?

  • Sexual communication involves a degree of risk. By talking about sex, we become vulnerable to judgment, criticism, and even rejection. The willingness to take risks is often related to the amount of trust that exists within a relationship. When couples lack mutual empathy and trust, openly talking about sexual needs can be scary.

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What can I do to make it easier to talk to my partner about sex?

Try talking about why it is hard to talk about sex.

  • Share your early experiences about your parents' attitudes about sex, your first sexual experience, what were you told about masturbation, etc. Find a book for you and your partner to read about sex.
  • Read it to each other or set up a time after each person has read the first 50 pages to discuss what you like and don't like about the book. Ask your partner what they like most about sex and what would make it better for them. Then tell your favorite parts. Be a good listener.

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What are some key traits of a good listener?

An active listener is someone who communicates that s/he is both listening to and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.

  • This involves body language, such as looking at your partner, nodding your head, and using sympathetic caring facial expressions.
  • It also involves asking questions, making brief comments about what your partner says, and sharing personal experiences to encourage your partner to continue.
  • Listening is not the same thing as waiting for the other person to quit talking so that you can start! You can't be thinking about your answer back to them and be fully listening to them.
  • Paraphrasing involves summarizing the other person's message in our own words. It allows you to find out if you really understand what your partner meant.
  • Sometimes partners will set rules for their discussions such as: No one will interrupt the other person while they are talking. Before the second person talks, they will paraphrase what they just heard, making sure they heard it right, and then say what they want to say. Their partner will then paraphrase, check for accuracy and then share their reaction. This slows the conversation down, which may also make a difficult discussion feel safer.
  • Making eye contact is one of the most vital aspects of good face-to-face communication.
  • Providing feedback to your partner in words can show that you are actively listening.
  • Supportive comments will lessen their fear about talking about sex. These comments create mutual empathy and increase the love that flows between you.
  • Expressing positive regard for your partner by telling them that you care about them and respect their feelings may encourage a person to talk about difficult or painful topics.
  • Let them know you will continue to care for and value them, even when you have disagreements. 

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How can I learn about my partner's wants and needs? How can I let them know what I want without hurting their feelings?

Two individuals willing to communicate their desires and take responsibility for their own pleasure create an excellent framework for effective, fulfilling sexual intimacy. The more specific, clear, and concise the request, the more likely it is to be understood and heeded.

  • Start with "I" messages. Talk about yourself. "I like this. I don't like that." After you have shared what you like, ask your partner what s/he likes.
  • Don't start with "you" messages which tend to make people feel defensive. "You never do this for me. You are always saying…"

More examples

"When you touch me like that, a shiver runs up and down my spine and I want to have you touching me all over."

"When I am having my period, my breasts swell up and hurt. I really don't like to have them touched then."

"Oooh, that tickles. Sometimes I like that feeling, but usually, I like a firmer touch."

(The partner, rather than feeling they are doing something wrong, becomes curious and replies, "Hmmm, show me the level of firmness you like.")

  • Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that can not be answered with one word or "yes" or "no." The advantage is that the person responding has the freedom to share any feelings or information s/he thinks is relevant.
  • It takes courage to be the first one to share vulnerable feelings, however, sharing a personal feeling rather than an abstract concept, makes it easier to talk about hard emotional issues. Such disclosures work best when both parties are willing to share.
  • Comparing notes on what kinds of touch, which words, what time of day or month a person feels most sexual allows partners to share information about sexual preferences rather than discovering them by trial and error. Sharing may include specific information about both bodily and emotional responses and is intended to promote mutually pleasurable activities.

Here's something to try

Ask your partner if s/he would like to try something that might improve your love life. If s/he agrees, say "I am going to tell you three things you do that I REALLY like and then I'm going to ask you to tell me 3 things you REALLY like that I do. Then I'm going to tell you three things that I wish we could try or do more often. Then I hope you will tell me three things you would like to do more often. When it is your turn be specific about what you would like.

  • Giving permission involves providing encouragement and reassurance that it is okay to talk about specific feelings or needs.

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What if I don't like something that my partner does? How can I tell them without hurting their feelings?

It is inevitable in an intimate relationship that people will need to request changes or register complaints.

  • A sensitive approach to giving criticism involves being aware of our motivation (e.g., approaching the situation wanting to make things better and staying away from blame), choosing the right time and place, and tempering criticism with praise.
  • If you are angry, be angry about the behavior not at the person. Love the person; dislike the behavior. You might say, "Although I love you, when you watch TV all day while I am working hard, I do not feel very loving when we go to bed." "When we have a fight, I keep thinking about the names you call me and I stay angry. I don't want to make love when I am hurting over things that were said during our fight."
  • Limit criticism to one complaint per discussion. Some couples "gunny sack" their complaints, storing them up for a fight. Then when they are criticized, they upend their gunny sack and pour out all the old hurts and angers from past fights. Nothing gets settled and the person who tried to bring up a criticism no longer feels safe. Then no changes that could make the relationship better will occur.
  • Avoid "why" questions. Many people get defensive when they are asked why they did something. It probably reminds them of being a teenager when their parents demanded "why." Find a different way to ask a question. Be genuinely curious about their answer. Don't assume that, after five years of marriage, you already know the answer.
  • Try to avoid using the word "should" because it suggests that there is a right and moral way to do something. It tends to cause people to think they are being criticized. Words like "always" and "never" also raise red flags and lead to arguments. Usually they are not even accurate!
  • Express appreciation for your partner as a person. Nurture small steps toward change.

What does a dog bone have to do with talking about sex?

Most people know that when you are teaching a dog a new trick, giving them a reward such as a biscuit or a pat on the head with a "good dog" helps the dog learn the trick. However, people forget to do this with their human partners. If your partner does something you want to happen again (responds thoughtfully instead of defensively, touches you in a wonderful way) express your appreciation immediately and clearly. This  can be done with words, a kiss, a purr, a wiggle...as long as they understand.

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How can I learn to accept criticism in a way that helps me grow as a person and as a part of a couple?

How you respond to criticism may have a big impact on your partner's willingness to share concerns in the future. Wouldn't you rather know what your partner likes or does not like than to have to guess?

  • Take time to gather your thoughts and feelings. You don't have to respond right away. Say, "I would like to think about what you said. Can we talk about it tonight? (Make sure that you do go back to the topic with your partner. Sometimes, it is too convenient to pretend that the discussion never took place.),
  • Paraphrase the criticism to insure that you understand what your partner was saying. Ask clarifying questions and be truly curious. This conversation may actually increase the closeness you feel, once you have sorted out and talked about what they are asking from you.
  • Focus on the future and changes that can be made rather than on the past which can never be made better.
  • In general, intent to learn and strengthen the relationship is more constructive than intent to defend a position or past behavior.
  • In a good relationship, each person will grow to be more the person they want to be because they have a partner who lovingly helps them become the lover, partner, and person that they have in them to be. This can only happen if they trust each other enough to listen to criticism.

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How can I say "No" to intimacy that I do not want?

Many people have difficulty saying no to others. Have a definite strategy in mind for saying no to invitations for intimate involvement. One approach involves three steps:

  1. Express appreciation for the invitation and/or validate the other person (e.g., "thanks for your interest, invitation, etc." or "you're a good person").
  2. Say no in a clear, unequivocal fashion, (e.g., "I would prefer not to make love, go to the party, etc.").
  3. Offer an alternative (e.g., "I would like to have lunch, to give you a back rub, etc.").

In general, clear, unmistakable language is essential to avoiding mixed messages, which may result in the other person feeling uncertain, inadequate, or even in withdrawal.

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How do nonverbal behaviors affect sexual communication?

Four important components of nonverbal sexual communication include facial expression, interpersonal distance, touching, and sounds. All of these non-verbal behaviors differ by culture. It is important to realize that the message you think you are sending may mean something very different if your partner is from another culture.

  • Facial expression often communicates feelings and provides helpful cues to your partner's experience. Eye contact is a very important part of inviting or discouraging sexual overtures for many Americans. However, for some, looking directly into the other person's eyes may be seen as a rude or aggressive behavior.
  • Interpersonal distance may suggest the other person's attraction and/or withdrawal. Standing close to someone may be interpreted as an invitation to be more intimate or it may simply feel like you are crowding him or her. Folding your arms in front of you may be a message that you don't want the person to get closer.
  • Touch can signal readiness to become closer and/or diffuse anger and express care in a difficult interaction but it can also feel threatening if an argument is occurring or invasive.
  • Both sounds and silences can enhance communication during intimacy and, depending on preferences, can be a potentially powerful and enjoyable form of communication.

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When communication results in a standoff, what options are available?

Even an ample supply of openness, candor, support, and understanding cannot assure a meeting of minds on all issues.

  • Continued discussion and validating the reasonableness of the other's viewpoint (despite disagreement) may help you get past a "stuck" place. This means that you agree that your partner has a right to his/her feelings, perceptions, etc., even if you do not agree with their interpretation, demands, or expectations.
  • When emotions get too strong, it may be good to schedule another time to talk. It is essential that you make sure the talk does happen or your partner may think you are avoiding the situation.
  • If the problems are getting worse or threaten the relationship, professional counseling may help.

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What is wrong with the following statements?

Some couples make love every day. I think we should. Do you want to?

Starts with a non personal statement. Uses a should statement that may sound judgmental. Uses a closed-ended question. If your partner says only "no," she has answered your question but you don't understand why you got that answer.

I miss the closeness I feel for you when we share lovemaking. I would like to do it more often. How do you feel about this?

This has a good "I" statement. It conveys feeling. It clearly tells your partner what you want. It asks an open-ended question about her/his feelings. You will probably understand your partner better once you have their answer. Trick question—this is good communication.

I like you a lot. Wanna fuck?

This may be a good communication if your partner is turned on by the language. It contains a clear "I" message and communicates clearly what you want. However, if your partner does not like the street language, he or she may feel you are disrespectful, among other things.

You always have a headache. I don't think you really love me. You just want my paycheck.

This is a "you" statement that may sound like an accusation. "Always" is a red flag word. This communication is not likely to lead to a better relationship although it might make you feel that you had "really gotten a load of anger out.

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Partially adapted from: Crooks, R. & Bauer, K. Our Sexuality, (1996).