In the classic romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally (if you haven’t seen it yet, drop this article and watch it immediately; we’ll wait for you), Sally finds out her ex is getting married. Her best friend Harry rushes over to comfort her, one thing leads to another, and Harry and Sally have sex for the first time.
The sex is good, but not everything afterwards is. They both agree that night was a mistake, but things simmer under the surface until a major confrontation:
Sally: Fuck you!
What Harry should’ve done at the time, of course, is tell Sally that he is hesitant to sleep with her in such an unsteady time when she is dealing with an identity crisis. And while he does want her, they should wait for a moment where they focus on themselves more fully. And then he should have waited to see what she thinks.
He doesn’t do that, and everything ends happily anyway (if that’s a spoiler, your fault: we told you to watch the movie), because that’s how Nora Ephron screenplays are. But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in Harry and Sally’s life post-marriage, where Sally perhaps has had a distressing confrontation at work, and cries to Harry, and any ensuing foreplay causes doubt in her mind: does he really want sex? Or is he just trying to comfort me?
The science is clear – sexual communication in a relationship leads to greater sexual satisfaction and sexual wellbeing1,2, all key components to a healthy and lasting relationship. So what exactly do we mean by ‘sexual communication’? It’s more complicated than moaning and making wild noises, though those can definitely help. Read on.
- Don’t make assumptions. This is especially true of consent – no means no. Studies have found that verbal coercion, or plastering your preferences over your partners and making them doubt themselves, inevitably lead to sexual coercion3. This is also true of smaller things – why did they have to use that word in that context? Why did they make that face? Don’t assume motives for your partner’s actions without asking for them. And if you feel your partner is hiding something, take it slow. Ask about it gently, explain where you’re at, and then give them the chance to clarify where they’re at.
Overcommunication is better than undercommunication. Imagine there’s a monster trying to break through the floor of your living room. Would you scream for help, or would you spend precious minutes deciding who to scream to, and how, and how not to offend anybody…
If you sit on something for too long, fearing that you’ll articulate it all wrong, you may never articulate it. And it may not quite result in a monster chewing your head off, but it will feel very, very similar. Overcommunicate, even if you feel incoherent. You and your partner can then figure out the root cause of how you’re feeling and why. And even if you can’t get to the bottom of it at that moment, it will occur to one of you later. The important thing is to keep it in your mind.
- Express your likes and your dislikes. Both are important. More often than not for us, a serious sexual talk only involves what is to be avoided, for fear of not hurting your partner. But being vocal about what you like is just as important, to give your partner a better chance at pleasing you. As Dr. Sandra Byers writes4, disclosing what you like and dislike “leads to engaging in a sexual script that includes more pleasing and fewer displeasing activities; and, a more pleasurable sexual script results in higher sexual satisfaction.” So don’t stop at the moaning ladies – tell your partner exactly why you were moaning, and how they can get you to do it again ;)
- Keep the door open for reactions, discussions, and mutual solutions. What is a ‘sexual script’5 ? Studies have found that all of us rely on scripts to tell us how to act in a sexual situation -- kissing is always followed by foreplay, which is always followed by sex. These scripts are heavily dictated by cultural expectations -- India is no exception. We aren’t used to pausing in the middle of a ‘script’, or taking it off track. Women in particular are expected to follow men’s lead. So it’s important to know that it is normal and good for you to pause, express yourself, wait for your partner to digest what you’re saying, and ask for their reaction. It will feel unnatural at first (“Should we pause this seriously hot fingering to talk about our feelings?”), but this way, decisions will feel mutually formed, rather than imposed.
Check in with your partner from time to time. Preferences are not static. Our preferences can change – sometimes from minute to minute, sometimes from a decade to the next. I started a relationship loving choking, and when that relationship got more serious, I realised I didn’t anymore. Why? That’s between me and my therapist, but the important thing is to track your own preferences over time, and make sure your partner is tracking theirs too.
If you get even one of these right, you’re well on your way to a mind-blowing and sexually satisfying relationship. Go, get it on!
(1) Green and Faulker, Gender, Belief in the Sexual Double Standard, and Sexual Talk in Heterosexual Dating Relationships (2005)
(2) Byers, Beyond the Birds and the Bees and Was It Good for You?: Thirty Years of Research on Sexual Communication (2011)
(3) Byers 2011, op. cit.
(4) Byers 2011, op. cit.
(5) Green and Faulker 2005, op. cit.