Communication Conundrum

Don’t give up! It’s so important to be able to talk about sex. In order to get what we want and need, we have to communicate. Remember that talking is only half the battle. We have to be able to listen, as well.” “Finding and Revealing Your Sexual Self: A Guide to Communicating about Sex,” Libby Bennett & Ginger Holczer.

In general, we are not good at communicating about sex in this culture for many reasons. While there are some exceptions, most of us grew up in families that did not openly discuss sex at all, let alone in a positive manner. As a result, we never learned to candidly talk about our bodies, our sexual feelings, or sexual desires. In many families, sex was an “off limits” topic, and we learned that at best, it was not ok to talk openly about sex.

Because our families did not teach us that sex is normal and that talking about it is healthy, many of us never learned or became comfortable with an appropriate sexual vocabulary. How many of us know women who still say, “down there,” when referring to their vulva? And consider all the slang words for genitalia! It is as if people are truly embarrassed to use correct terminology. When I was in middle school, I was called on during a sex ed quiz to answer a question, the answer being “vagina.” So filled with shame at that age, I could not bring myself to say the word! (Ok. I know. For those of you who have seen my lip sync of Storm Large's "Eight Miles Wide," I'm sure that's hard to believe....)

We feel vulnerable talking about sex on so many fronts:

  • We fear rejection from our partner if we believe that what we want to experience either isn’t “normal” or might make our partner feel uncomfortable; perhaps our partner already has belittled us sexually, which makes it even more difficult to talk about exploring;
  •  We feel afraid if our partner wants to try something different or outside of our comfort zone and we shut down rather than risk listening and exploring our discomfort;
  • Many feel shame over normal changes related to aging, such as experiencing a decline in lubrication or a loss of psychogenic erections (erections attained without physical stimulation);
  • We’re afraid that if we insist that a new partner use a condom the person won’t want to be with us—so we let it go, thus compromising our sexual health. 

As important, harmful experiences or strict religious or family influences can seriously impede our ability to communicate about sex:

  • Any person with unhealed sexual wounding: sex abuse, rape, incest, or date rape, will find it very challenging to communicate about sex;
  • A person raised in a strict religious family with strong moral proscriptions about sex will find even the most routine sexual communication nearly impossible without a significant effort to override proscriptive messaging; 

Think about your history with communicating about sex. Do you have a good sexual vocabulary? Are you comfortable initiating a conversation about sex with your long-time partner/spouse? With new partners? Are you able to ask for what you want, or hear your partner out on something he or she may want to try? How has your early life training influenced how you communicate (or not!) in the present? Might you be willing to challenge yourself and ask if there’s something you can do this week to work on your sexual communication skills?