When I tell people that I write about sexuality, some are enthusiastic or curious. More often, people cringe, or get pale, or flush. Sex is such an uncomfortable topic that we have a physical reaction to the mere mention of it. Folks have sex and (hopefully) enjoy it…but talking about it is a whole ‘nuther thing.
Since I aim to help people feel more comfortable talking about sexuality, especially with their partners and their children, I’ve been paying attention to what makes that so hard. Here are some things that get in the way, along with some ideas about handling them.
It’s not “polite” to talk about sex. You probably didn’t grow up talking much about sexuality. In most circles, it’s a risky topic to bring up at social gatherings. This means that we don’t get to practice talking about it. We may even be uncomfortable using words to describe parts of our bodies.
The only way to strengthen your “talking about sex” muscle is to exercise it. Practice talking aloud about sex—naming body parts and activities, say–anything that gets you using the words. It’s fine to do it alone at first. It’s fine if you blush or giggle or stammer. By all means choose carefully whom you practice with; maybe your partner, maybe a close friend. Once you’ve started, you’ll find it gets easier.
We don’t want to look ignorant. Of course, no one wants to feel clueless about anything. But that seems truer of sex than of many things. Because sex may not have been talked about in our families of origin, people sometimes feel that sexual information is something you’re supposed to just inherently know or figure out for yourself, rather than something you can actually learn about. Which is silly, but it might feel that way.
It may seem like everyone around knows more about sex than you do. That’s probably not true. But even if it is, that’s not a good reason to stay silent. You can look things up on the internet. You can talk to your close friends about it. (“This is sort of embarrassing, but I keep hearing about x and I don’t really know what it is. What do you know about it?”) You can talk to your partner about your discomfort and your curiosity. You may find that other people are as puzzled as you are.
We believe that some feelings are more acceptable than others. We may be afraid to admit how much we love sex, or to admit that we don’t like it at all. We may feel that our tastes or libido don’t fit what society expects for our age or gender. We may not like to think about how our needs differ from our partner’s.
The truth is that what’s “normal” for humans includes a huge range of possibilities. There are all kinds of sexual feelings and styles. There are often variations in sex drive between partners. Sex drive can change when we’re under stress or as we age (which we may not want to admit even to ourselves). It’s far better to accept there’s all kinds of sex and all kinds of feelings about it, and (provided it’s consensual), it’s all good. Rather than judging your feelings, try to be curious about them.
We’re uncomfortable with the fact that our children are sexual beings. If you’re a parent, talking to your kid about sexuality may feel extremely uncomfortable. It is just weird to think that your little girl (or boy) can experience sexual feelings from infancy on (and of course much more so after puberty). But all human beings are sexual to one degree or another; it’s normal. Don’t let your feeling weirded-out prevent you from giving your child the information he or she needs about sex.
It all gets lumped together. Somehow the wide variety of sexual topics are linked in people’s minds; we worry that saying one thing will open the floodgates. But it’s possible to, say, tell our children the mechanics of reproduction without also talking about sexual choices and our views on sexual minorities. They’re all valid, important conversations, but they don’t have to happen at the same time. Or you might not feel ready to tell your partner about your fantasies, but maybe you could talk about a time of day that’s better for you. If some aspects of sexuality feel possible for you to talk about and some don’t, start with what you can.
It’s so personal. Our sex lives are deeply personal. What we do in the bedroom, what thrills us, what we long for—all that is intimate, private, no one else’s business. You may choose to tell some things to someone close to you, but you don’t have to.
You certainly don’t have to tell your kids anything about your sex life—in fact, you shouldn’t. (Would you want to know what your parents do/did in bed? I didn’t think so.) If your kids ask, all they need to know is that “Yes, we have sex,” said (hopefully) with a smile and a warm tone so they know that’s a good thing. Anything more is Too Much Information.
With your regular partner, though, it’s different. It’s not essential to talk about sex with the one you love, but it helps a lot. This is the person with whom you’ve chosen to be intimate. It’s worth struggling through your discomfort to at least talk about any ways of being touched that are uncomfortable for you, about important sex-related experiences from your early years (e.g., if your parents were really uptight or shaming about sex, or if your first boyfriend/girlfriend betrayed you) and about what you do together that you especially like. Try to be curious about what your partner particularly likes. If you start with those sorts of things, in time you may find it easier to talk about more challenging topics (say, new things you might like to try).
None of this will make talking about sex completely un-awkward. But each little bit does help. It’s worth pushing through some discomfort to be able to talk about such an important topic with the one(s) you love.