Greta Christina has a great piece on the Blowfish blog (note: the original link is broken) about asking for what you want from a lover. And I think that, for the most part, she’s right when she says:
“Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
It took me way too many years to learn that this is not always a nice thing to say. That, in fact, it’s usually not a nice thing to say. It took me way too many years to learn that, although “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” may seem like a good way to be polite and accommodating and easy-going, much of the time it’s actually a gigantic buzz-kill. It’s a great way to wind up not doing anything fun at all. Especially if everyone involved is playing the same game, in endless rounds of, “After you, my dear Alphonse.”
One of the most common ways to avoid speaking up and stating your own needs, desires, and fantasies is to defer to someone else, whether the topic is sex, what to eat for dinner, or where to go for a walk. When it causes resentment, as it so often does, it becomes an even bigger problem because unspoken resentments undermine relationships.
I also agree with Greta that when people always defer to each other, it’s a recipe for mediocre sex because being able to both give and receive, to offer and accept, is essential if we want to build the passion. Expecting our partners to always do all the work simply isn’t fair and it limits the experience. Of course, it can be a lot of fun to sometimes be in charge or to lay back and receive, but that’s a different situation if you’ve asked for it.
I’ve seen plenty of sex advice that says that women should use body language and non-verbal communication like moaning to tell a partner what they like. And while that can be a useful addition to communication, it’s simply not enough on its own. Imagine that you & I are walking down the street and I want to get some dinner. Would you think it’s ok if I bump into you every time we walk past a restaurant, as if I was trying to push you through the door? Would it work if I stared in the window as we walked past, but never actually said, “Let’s get something eat”? Probably not. So what makes us think that’ll work when it comes to sex?
Part of the problem is that some people simply don’t have the language to describe what they like. Sure, if you like having your nipples squeezed, that’s probably not too hard to find words for. But if you like having your G-spot stimulated in a circular motion, that might not be as easy to describe, simply because you can’t always determine what someone is doing with their fingers inside you. Maybe you can’t distinguish the details of the sensation. Maybe you’re so excited by it that the “let’s find the words to describe this” part of your brain shuts off. Maybe you just don’t have the language for it.
That’s why it’s a great idea to ask your partner, “hey, what was that amazing thing you were doing?” That’s also why it’s a wonderful idea to creatively pleasure yourself, so you can figure out what you like. Both of these steps can make it easier to find the words to describe your likes and dislikes, which is a big part of being able to tell someone what they are.
Another piece of the puzzle is that a lot of people have internalized all sorts of shames around sex and shame has an annoying tendency to make us freeze. We lose our words and our ability to think clearly. Time slows down or speeds up, making our responses less effective. We dissociate from the present moment and lose ourselves in the shame response. If our shame reactions cause any kind of disconnection or conflict with our partner, it can spiral out of control. Even worse, if our shame reaction triggers our partner’s shame, we can both speed up the cycle and things can get totally shut down.
On the flip side, being able to speak our desires only works to the degree that our partners can hear them and respond to them. Some men, for example, have so deeply absorbed the idea that a Real Mantm always knows how to “give a woman an orgasm” that any suggestions can set off a defensive reaction along the lines of “don’t tell me what to do!” in order to protect his self-image. Of course, this isn’t limited to men or to male/female dynamics, but it is especially common among them. And if someone has been on the receiving end of that sort of reaction, it can be a lot harder to speak up the next time. The same thing can happen with any kind of negative response. If you’ve ever had a partner respond to your requests by saying, “eewww!”, then you know how much harder it makes it the next time, even with a different partner.
There are lots of ways that we can learn to both give and receive information about our sexual interests. Sometimes, we just need a little help getting started. Yes/No/Maybe lists can be really useful. There are also card decks and books with lots of tips. Or you can get a how-to book and work your way through the suggestions. Of course, you don’t have to do everything the books or cards offer, but they can give you some good ideas. You could even try reading some erotica and highlighting the things that sound interesting.
It can also be really helpful to figure out whether you actually want to act out your fantasies and desires, or whether you want to play with them in other ways. Sometimes, our fantasies work best when they stay inside our heads, or when we talk about them during sex, or when we act out parts of them without going all the way. And no, it doesn’t have to be a slippery slope, although we sometimes try a milder version out before deciding to go a bit further.
I also think it’s a good idea to talk about what we like and don’t like BEFORE sex starts, for a few reasons. First, when we’re turned on, we sometimes ask for things that are beyond our comfort zones or that we’re not really ready to do. If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping when you’re hungry and come home with strange food that you have no idea what to do with, you know what this can be like. Arousal can make us shift our boundaries and sometimes, we do things we later regret. Having the conversation before things get hot & heavy makes that less likely.
Second, some sexual acts require some prep. Getting lube for anal sex, or learning how to do bondage safely, for example, will be a lot easier if it happens in advance. A little know-how can go a long way towards making things work well, and that’s much easier if you have the conversation before hand.
Third, if your partner simply isn’t interested in the same things, for whatever reason, it’s usually a lot easier to hear that and not take it personally if you’re not in a sexual situation. If you’re already turned on and your partner says “I don’t think so,” it can feel like a bucket of ice water has been dumped on you. You’re more likely to be able to ask them why and/or to come up with mutually-agreeable alternatives if you haven’t started getting frisky.
I know that it can be frustrating when a partner can’t or won’t ask for what they want. For that matter, it can be frustrating to want to be able to ask and not be able to. It’s important to have some compassion when it happens- when you push for it, that can make it even harder to do. It can be really helpful to step back and ask, “what’s making it hard to tell me?” or “what’s holding you back from sharing this with me?” It can be useful to write it down, perhaps without any immediate intention of showing the paper to anyone, as a way to practice getting the words out. Being gentle with yourself and your partner(s) if anyone is getting stuck and taking small steps is much more likely to work well.
And maybe, before you ask your partner what they want, you can get the ball rolling by telling them what you want. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.