Content warning: This article on why conversations about sex are hard includes mentions of sexual violence, white supremacy culture, and racist and sexist behaviors and stereotypes.
“I don’t talk about this stuff with anyone.”
“Every time we try to talk about sex, we end up fighting.”
“You’re the first person I’ve ever told this to.”
“We tried talking about it and nothing changed.”
Over the past 11+ years, I’ve heard refrains such as these from 1000s of individuals—in my sex coaching and couples counseling practice, at workshops and events, and in casual conversations. People of all genders, sexualities, ages, races, ability, religions, relationship structures, politics, and more. None of us, it seems, are exempt from struggling to talk about sex and other vulnerable topics.
It doesn’t matter what “this stuff” is
Here’s a short list of things I’ve heard just this week:
- low and mismatched desire
- struggling to orgasm
- wanting to be spanked (or tied up or any other sex fantasy)
- dealing with pelvic pain or other sexual health issues
- feeling disconnected from each other
- struggling to enjoy sex after major life changes like giving birth, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, menopause, etc.
- feeling bored in the bedroom when you crave more adventure
Read More: 16 Reasons Couples See A Sex Coach
Often these issues are a facade for a lack of open, non- judgmental communication
Sometimes that looks like never talking about sex at all. “Going with the flow.” Hoping it’ll magically fix itself or there’s a quick fix. Blaming yourself for perceived shortcomings. Pressuring yourself to meet the expectations of someone else (society, your partner, etc).
And sometimes, it looks like trying and having the conversations about sex go south, quickly (and not in the sexy fun way). Someone isn’t being heard. You always end up fighting. Nothing changes.
Either way, the outcome is the same: you aren’t satisfied with your sex life.
Read More: How to Talk to Your Partner about Intimacy Issues: 17 Reasons Past Conversations have Failed
Talking about it is the vital first step…
Bringing your desire(s) or the issue(s) to light within your relationship (aka not just keeping it to yourself) and talking about it in a productive way are the only way things can change. It’s how you give yourself the opportunity to make a different choice. It’s how you start trying new things, whether for fun or to test out solutions. It’s how you start having more pleasure, confidence, and connection.
…it’s also one of the hardest
The Big 4 Reasons: Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Self-Judgment
These are what I call the Big 4—the baddies that, to some degree, live in all of us. Because they are so common, begin forming at an early age, and often are upheld by the micro—and macro—communities we’re part of, they often work on a subconscious level.
This makes them hard to spot or know when they’re running the show.
Simply knowing that they’re part of your conversations about sex and noticing when and how they show up in your body—we offer some common suggestions below—are good first steps towards limiting their power.
Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…” (Source) It says YOU, your sexuality, and your expression of it are bad. Unworthy. Evil. Wrong.
You are not.
Shame comes from many places including but not limited to:
- purity culture
- your family and caretakers
- religious education
- abstinence only, inaccurate, or missing sex education
- societal messages about and depictions of sex
During conversations about sex, shame shows up in many ways including feeling stuck, getting choked up, a clenching or gripping sensation in the chest, throat, and/or belly, wanting to run away, feeling trapped, not being able to find the right words, and many more.
Again, we turn to Brene to differentiate between shame and guilt. The latter is the feeling or perception that your desires go against your values—and the subsequent “psychological discomfort” that results.
It’s not the belief that YOU are bad, but your desires are.
One common example of this is the badass woman who loves being submissive but worries that makes her less of a feminist Another is feeling like you’re letting your partner down if you need (or want) to use a vibrator during partner sex.
Guilt can be adaptive—someone who violated consent, for example, ideally (hopefully) can use their guilt as a motivator for making amends, being more proactive, calling in the people in their lives, etc—BUT when it comes to sexual desires and struggles, it often just cock-blocks you.
When talking about sex, guilt might show up as feeling bad about your desires or issues, believing you “shouldn’t” [fill in the blank], or apologizing for or downplaying your desires as not that important. It also often goes hand-in-hand with…
Maybe you don’t really feel bad about your desire but you do judge yourself for having them—and not in an affirming, “go you!” way.
If you struggle with self judgement, you might notice that your thoughts and words during vulnerable talks tend towards beating yourself up for wanting, needing, or struggling with something, feeling like you shouldn’t want or need X in order to enjoy sex, and making fun of your desires.
Different from—but informed by—believing you’re bad, feeling bad about your desires, or judging yourself, embarrassment is a sense of awkwardness or self-consciousness about your desires.
When (trying to) talking about vulnerable topics, embarrassment often shows up as getting tongue-tied, blushing, nervous tics or giggles, or a sense of wanting to hide.
Any or all can show up at once
There’s a good amount of overlap in when these show up and how they manifest. Avoiding eye contact, for example, is a common result of all four.
Often, during vulnerable conversations, all four co-exist to different degrees, with different ones stepping up to take control at different points.
11 More Reasons Conversations About Sex Are So Damn Hard
Beyond these big four reasons, there are numerous less personal, more universal, and completely practical reasons that these conversations are hard.
- No good models. For all the reasons listed above and below, many of us reach adulthood without ever seeing quality examples of the adults in our lives talking about vulnerable topics like sex, money, etc. This means we end up copying what we see, which might look like silence, shaming, judgment, avoidance, lashing out, arguing, etc.
- Media (mis)representation. If TV, movies, magazines, books, music, etc show conversations about sex they tend to fall into one of two categories: idealized or problematic. For example, we stan an emotionally intelligent, mind-reading hero who “just knows” in romance novels. Finding one IRL is easier said than done. Romcoms are known for their “fade to black” after a sweeping kiss. No one ever seems to have any sort of health issue that impacts the mechanics of sex. Yeah – not real or particularly helpful!
- Lack of education. Few schools, if any, include communication as part of their curriculum. If you’ve never seen something more productive and empathetic modeled, how do you know a better approach exists?
- Lack of perceived value. In a patriarchal and capitalist society, only those skills associated with men and money are valued. Communication isn’t one of them (see also: the adage of “its easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission” 🤢) In fact, this so-called “soft-skill” has long been associated with women and femininity and only recently has begun to be viewed as an asset…in the workforce.
- Lack of emotional intelligence (EI). EI is defined as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others” (Source). Considered a soft skill like communication, it’s also generally not taught or modeled well. In any given conversation about sex, there might be a lack of EI from all parties or a mismatch in the amount each person can offer (in the moment or overall). As a result, one person may find themselves therapizing, coaching, or otherwise tending to the other—and growing resentful over time if their partner doesn’t return the effort. This mismatch or lack often plays out along gender and/or race lines. Women, especially trans women and women of color (and especially Black women) are socialized and expected to have more EI.
- A fear of conflict and/or belief that it’s inherently bad. Did you know that this belief is tied to white supremacy culture? What could change if you instead viewed conflict as an important and necessary part of any relationship—and approached it as such? Doing so can help decrease the Big 4 and patterns in a new, more supportive behavior for yourself and whomever you interact with.
- Not knowing your conflict response and pattern. How do you and your partner(s) respond to tension, shame, and arguing? Typically this is a combination of what you saw modeled as well as your attachment style. Not understanding your own cycle means that it’s in control—not you. Spoiler: that cycle is also where you want to focus your efforts at mending or repairing.
- Vulnerability. Intimate communication with your partner requires a degree of revealing your vulnerability. But we live in a society that discourages people from even being aware of their vulnerabilities and fears, let alone acknowledge them.
- Fear of rejection. Sharing your intimate desires, fantasies, and struggles means opening yourself up to rejection or not getting your needs met. Unfortunately, we’re neither taught how to recognize and sit with uncomfortable emotions like rejection nor how to process them. Here again, you may find yourself leaning on your conflict cycle—lashing out, turtling away, etc—instead of tending the hurt or working together to find a solution.
- Worries about offending your partner. This comes both from societal messages about sex (e.g. how our partners “give” us orgasms, the sexual roles people of different genders are socialized to play, etc) as well a lack of being taught how to receive “no,” set and uphold boundaries, or speak our truth in a way that’s also empathetic. It also connects to power—who has it and who doesn’t. Even within a healthy, supportive relationship, dynamics of privilege along gender, race, ability, and class lines often seep through. For example, women often are socialized not to upset people or “cause trouble”, or that someone else’s happiness or discomfort is our responsibility. Meanwhile, men are taught to be the pursuer, being rewarded for being “the last one standing.” In a heterosexual relationship, this can translate into deep fear around offending a partner or having a more intense response when hearing no—which is not a great context in which to open a vulnerable conversation.
- Shitty communication advice. So much of the advice that’s out there doesn’t take into account the ways in which trauma + shame impact the brain-body. It doesn’t talk about how your identities impact what you were taught about sex and how that may still influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions today. It doesn’t help you take care of your self and your relationship before, during, and after vulnerable conversations. Ultimately, it doesn’t take a holistic approach to communication, which means that important aspects may be missing for you.
In a world that demeans, shames, and diminishes sex, its no wonder that we struggle to talk about it
At least here in the US, there are a million covert and overt ways in which sex—especially for women, people of color, disabled folx, and LGBTQIA+ folx—is shamed.
It shows up in the lack of comprehensive, inclusive, and medically accurate sex education. It shows up in how we both glorify “losing” one’s virginity and warn against doing so. It shows up in how we slut shame women and femme-presenting folx, how people of color are fetishized, sexualized, and stereoptyped, in the higher rates of homelessness, joblessness, and murder among trans folx, especially Black trans women, and more.
With this as the background, the context in which you try to have conversations about sex, it’s easy to see why it wouldn’t be the easiest thing.
So, cut yourself some slack
Now that you see all that’s working against you having open, nonjudgmental, and productive sex talks, I hope you can offer yourself—and your partner(s)—a bit more grace. After all, here you are doing the damn thing and taking the steps towards getting the intimate, exciting, and fulfilling sex you crave.
Oh—and don’t forget to try, try again.