Sexual communication can be a little intimidating. It might mean telling someone you like them (gulp), saying what you want (eek!) or describing exactly how you want it (oh my…).

One of the reasons that talking about sex is tricky for so many of us is our lack of role models. Most of us don’t learn how to communicate through explicit instruction (the way we learn, say, how to do algebra), but implicitly, through observation. For example, we probably picked up ideas (helpful or unhelpful) about how to communicate during conflict from observing the relationships around us since we were kids.

As we tend not to observe people having sex, and we live in a culture in which even conversations about sex are few and far between, we’re left to look to movies and porn for ideas, or make it up as we go along...

The most important thing to communicate about when it comes to sex is consent: making sure that all parties actively want what is happening to be happening. Consent is so important that it has its own info page! Check it out here, or read on for some tips about sexual communication in general.

Say it loud and proud!

You can imagine telling someone about your kinks as giving them a gift, or delivering a bonus prize: “here’s this extra thing you get to do with me”! In fact, sharing any of the things that make you you is a totally hot gift.

None of us comes with a sexual instruction manual, and anything you can share – your hotspots, dislikes, wildest fantasies, quirks, squicks, preferences – is solid gold for your lover. Of course, you don’t have an instruction manual, either, and you may not have so many ideas about what you like – but even that is information your lover doesn’t have yet! Sharing your uncertainties and letting someone know what you’d like to explore makes sure you’re both on the same page.

For some people, the easiest, hottest and most fun way to communicate about sex is to make it part of sex itself. Dirty talk doesn’t need to mean playing a role (though it can, if that’s your bag). However you feel most comfortable – and most sexy – you can find your very own dirty talk voice.

Could you pass the salt and go down on me tonight?

Talking about sex in a non-sexual moment has its benefits, too! Some things need to be communicated right away (e.g. consent), but others can wait. Sexy times have some very real effects on the body and mind. When we’re aroused, blood rushes to our genitals, meaning that there’s less of it elsewhere – such as in our brains. Hormones released on orgasm have an immediate emotional impact – for example, Oxytocin might make us feel closer to the person we just got down with than we generally do. And, of course, with clothes off and intimacy heightened, all parties may feel more vulnerable than they do over breakfast the next day.

If you’re making a suggestion or have a new request, bringing it up away from sex gives your lover more time and space to consider their desires and boundaries, reducing the chance of your pressuring someone into something.

Whether you’re chatting in bed, at the kitchen table, or while taking a stroll in the park, honesty, a sense of humour and pushing through the fear of things getting a little awkward will all help immensely. And remember: no-one ever died from awkward.

Show and tell

We all know that communication is both verbal and non-verbal: throughout our daily lives, we pick up on body language, facial expression and gesture just as much as we pay attention to the words we hear. Body language plays a big role in sexual communication – unsurprisingly, as we’re mostly having sex with our bodies. Showing someone where and how to touch you – or asking them to show you what they like – can, for example, be very effective.

That said, perhaps because talking during sex is so rarely portrayed in the media, we’re probably likely to over-rely on body language in the bedroom. Non-verbal communication varies a lot more from person-to-person than verbal communication does (there’s no agreed-upon dictionary of body language), which means it’s relatively easy for messages to get lost. Gently pushing someone’s torso away might mean “Stop”, or it could mean “I want to look at you while we do this” or maybe it means something else entirely.  Relying 100% on non-verbal communication to express something to your lover or to understand what they want, is therefore risky.  And, of course, silence does not indicate consent.

Asking about people’s body language helps to clear up ambiguity, and once a lover decodes their gestures, you’ll know for next time. As we get to know our lover/s, we might shift from using more verbal communication to more non-verbal cues. Even with long-term relationships, talking things through is a great idea when introducing something new, making changes, or if someone has feelings they want to discuss.

Let’s talk (not fight) about sex, baby

Got something tricky to get off your chest? The mainstream media creates a lot of pressure to be “good in bed” (whatever that means), and most people genuinely want to please their lovers. In combination with the general silence around sex, this can make any communication feel like criticism.

Here are some tips for making sex chat constructive – and not the beginning of a fight:

  • Check in with your lover about whether it’s a good moment to have a chat about sex, rather than jumping into something they might not be in the right headspace for. Work out a good time for both/all of you.

  • Ask questions, rather than making assumptions (e.g. “does the porn you watch influence how you feel about the sex you have?” as opposed to “I know you’re comparing me to the pornstars you watch”)

  • Talk about your own experiences, and be specific, rather than labelling the other person or their actions (e.g. “I feel neglected and lonely when you fall asleep right after you cum”, as opposed to “you’re selfish” or “you neglect me”)

  • Avoid “always” and “never” - these words can trigger defensiveness in the best of us!

  • Wherever it’s honestly possible, highlight positives (e.g. “I really loved that time when you caught me off-guard on my way to work – it was so hot. Can we do more of that kind of thing?” rather than “you’re not spontaneous anymore”.)

  • Gentle physical touch, such as holding hands, along with eye contact, can help some people maintain a feeling of connection during difficult conversations…

  • ...equally, others find that motion helps to process emotion. Going for a walk creates literal space around the topic being discussed, and takes off the pressure for eye contact, which can sometimes be too intense.

  • Remember that 50% of communication is listening. Pay attention to what your lover is actually saying, and, if anything’s not clear to you, paraphrase what you’re hearing or check in with them for clarification.

Who is in the conversation?

Communication is a multiple-person activity, involves talking, asking questions, and listening, and is the shared responsibility of everyone involved.

Aspects of our identity, personal history, and the position(s) we occupy within asymmetrical power structures are likely to impact all kinds of things relating to communication, including how safe we feel expressing our desires and boundaries; how equipped we are to identify and name our emotions; and whether we expect to be listened to and respected. Paying attention to how these things play out for you and others can ease communication difficulties and create compassion.