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How to talk about sexual desires | Psyche

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Guide

How to talk about sexual desires

It’s not always easy to open up about sex. But letting a partner in on your wants and fantasies can strengthen your bond

by Sarah Hunter Murray + BIO

Photo by Willie B Thomas/Getty

Need to know

We are inundated with ideas about what ‘great sex’ looks like. We see countless romantic movies featuring couples who are completely in rhythm with one another, who never need to discuss what they want, never misread each other’s sexual cues, never bump heads or act awkwardly. They just fall effortlessly into bed in a loving embrace – then cut to the scene where they smile up at the camera, basking in a warm sexual glow. On the other end of the spectrum, we see pornographic videos that depict women as ready to have sex at the drop of a hat (often without any foreplay) and men who take control and know exactly which sexual manoeuvre and position will instantaneously lead to pleasure and orgasms for all involved.

But as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows all too well, romantic movies and pornographic videos are a far cry from what people typically experience when they engage in sexual activity with another. In the real world, you don’t automatically know what your partner is thinking or what they want. You need to talk to them to figure out what feels satisfying. You need to check in with your partner about whether you are both ‘in the mood’ at the same time, or what they might need to help them get interested. You need to figure out what kind of sex you feel like having – whether that’s making love, having a ‘quickie’ or trying something new and adventurous. You need to give in-the-moment feedback so your partner knows what feels good and what doesn’t. And, if you want to effectively navigate and even improve your sexual relationships, you need to talk openly and honestly about your sexual desires and fantasies.

Sex, however, remains a topic that many feel uncomfortable talking about. Not only have many of us grown up receiving direct and indirect messages suggesting that sex isn’t something to discuss with others, we can also feel shame about our desires (what turns us on sexually) and fantasies (sexually arousing thoughts that we might, or might not, want to act upon), and wonder if our partners will be open to hearing about them.

For instance, perhaps you worry that your partner might feel uncomfortable if you were to suggest that you want to role-play as a nurse and a patient. Or that they might be offended that you think it could be sexy to watch pornography together, or to include another person in your sexual experiences. Maybe you’re concerned that if you didn’t share a desire earlier on in your relationship – that you’d like to use a vibrator during sex, for instance – it might be too late in the game to share that now. Or you might worry that your partner will take it as a sign that they aren’t good enough.

But whether your relationship is relatively new or long-running, talking about sex is a key component of sexual satisfaction. Research reliably shows that those of us who communicate more openly about sex (during sexual activity and between sexual encounters) tend to be more sexually satisfied. And the potential benefits don’t stop there: sexual satisfaction is itself associated with general relationship satisfaction. When we communicate openly about our sexuality, it’s possible that it will have a positive spillover effect in other areas of our intimate relationships.

As a registered marriage and family therapist who works with clients who have various sexual concerns, I have seen firsthand the value of being vulnerable enough to share sexual desires and fantasies with partners. Whether it involves identifying and embracing ‘vanilla’ desires (such as wanting more deep kissing during sex or setting aside time to cuddle after making love) or exploring the kinkier side of sexuality (such as suggesting the introduction of bondage or the possibility of including multiple sexual partners), sharing what we want sexually – while perhaps a bit scary – can ultimately be incredibly rewarding for ourselves and our relationships.

What to do

Take time to discover your desires

Before you start a conversation with your partner, take the time to thoughtfully consider – and be curious about – your sexual desires and fantasies. Many people fall into patterns of what they think they should want based on social norms and gender roles. For example, many are taught that women should want romantic, intimate sex while men are mostly looking for physical release and sexual pleasure.

But a lot of the time these stereotypes don’t fit what many of us actually want. For example, my research on men’s sexual desire suggests that men’s sexuality is a lot more ‘touchy-feely’ than it’s typically described as being, and that many men want to feel desired and less dominant during sexual encounters. Similarly, many women like being dominant or more in control during sex, but sometimes don’t feel comfortable, or take the opportunity, to lean into their sexual agency.

If you aren’t sure where to start, consider the best sex you’ve had and then ask yourself: what made it so good? How did you feel? What kind of sex were you having? Is there a specific act (eg, oral sex) that made it fun? Was it passionate? Was there a lot of kissing? Did you wear something that made you feel sexy? Was it somewhere unexpected? These are all avenues to increased insights into your desires and could give you ideas about what to discuss with your partner.

Another helpful way to get in touch with your sexual desires – particularly if you haven’t had sex before, or wouldn’t describe the sex you have had as ‘good’ – is to reflect on whether there are any scenes in TV shows, films or books that you find intriguing or titillating. Perhaps it’s the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ sexual tension that builds between characters such as Jim and Pam in the US version of The Office (2005-13). Maybe it’s the forbidden sexual urges depicted in period dramas such as Bridgerton (2020-). Or maybe it’s the dominant/submissive dynamics in a book such as E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). Whatever you find yourself drawn to, take note of what captures your sexual attention, and then get curious about what it is that turns you on.

Stop judging your sexuality

Even after you know what you desire, you might have to take some time to work through how you feel about your wants and needs before sharing them. As a therapist, I regularly speak with individuals who have concerns about whether their desires and fantasies are normal or if there is something ‘wrong’ with them.

For instance, some clients ask me if they should be worried that they sometimes fantasise about steamy sex they had with an ex, or they wonder if their desire to be sexually dominated means they have self-esteem issues. (For the record: remembering good sex with a past partner is totally normal, and there is no evidence that BDSM – which includes sexual activities such as bondage, domination and submission – is linked to low self-esteem or self-worth.)

So it’s important to ask yourself: are you comfortable with your sexual desires? Or do you judge them as ‘abnormal’ or ‘weird’? As a general rule, as long as sexual fantasies consist of consensual acts between adults (ie, people over 18 who are cognitively able to consent to sexual activity) you most likely don’t need to worry that your fantasies are a cause for concern. Many sexual desires and fantasies that might seem unusual to you are actually surprisingly common (see Learn More, below). Assessing your comfort level with your desires is a really important step, as we need to have some acceptance of our own desires and fantasies if we are going to be able to effectively share them with a partner.

Consider the underlying meaning(s) of your sexual thoughts

Once you can recognise and describe your desires, it’s important to consider: what is the underlying appeal? For example, if you dream of having threesomes, the meaning could be straightforward, in that you literally want to include another person in your sexual experiences. However, it might also signify that you crave more sexual attention; imagining an additional person focusing on you during sex could mean you want more of that from your current partner. Similarly, you might fantasise about being physically restrained with ropes or handcuffs, which, again, could be literal. Or, it might be a sign that you want to be less in control during sexual activity and would like your partner to take a more active role – say, by being the initiator of sexual activity or being the one to suggest which position or act you try that day.

Having an answer (or at least a hunch) as to why a desire or fantasy is appealing could determine what sort of conversation you have with your partner. Unless you take the time to examine it, you might express an apparent desire that doesn’t align with what you truly want.

Accept that some fantasies are just for you

Remember that you don’t have to share every sexual thought you’ve ever had. It’s important to consider which fantasies you might want to keep to yourself and which ones you want to share with your partner. For example, maybe you’ve enjoyed fantasising about that one wild night with your ex, or an imagined sexual romp with a celebrity or someone you met at a party. If you’re generally satisfied in your relationship, having such a fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to be with that person or that your relationship is in jeopardy because you’re sexually attracted to other people. It also doesn’t mean that you need to (or should) share it with your partner.

If you’re wondering whether or not you should share a fantasy with your partner, consider whether doing so would be helpful or hurtful. Does your fantasy represent something that you want to try with your partner or think would enhance your sexual satisfaction? If so, then it is most likely worth having the conversation. But if you suspect that sharing the fantasy might simply worry your partner or make them feel uneasy or jealous, it’s probably better not to share.

Take it one step at a time

When you know what desires and fantasies you do want to share, start small and, if possible, try to build on what is already working in your relationship. For example, if sex is feeling somewhat disconnected and you desire more deep kissing to increase your sense of connection, it might be helpful to share memories of earlier on in your relationship when you really enjoyed making out for longer periods of time, and to suggest that it would be fun to do more of that again now. If your desire is to have your partner be more assertive during sex, and if there was a time or two in the past when they initiated or took control, share how much you enjoy that memory, and talk about whether that could be something you try again or build from.

If you’re sharing a desire or fantasy that is entirely new to your partner, consider whether you could start by sharing a piece of it to see how it feels and how your partner reacts. For example, if you’re interested in kink, you could point out that the dominant/submissive dynamic you’ve seen in a show is arousing to you. If your partner seems thrown off, take it as a cue to slow down or try again another day. If they seem intrigued, you could take the conversation one step further – for instance, talking about the possibility of including fuzzy handcuffs or a silk blindfold in a future sexual encounter.

Starting a conversation about sex can feel awkward for many of us. I often remind clients that the goal of having a conversation about sex is not to avoid feeling awkward. The important thing is to start sharing and embrace the awkward – giggle, blush, stumble over your words but do just go for it. If you don’t know where to start, consider saying to your partner something along the lines of: ‘Our relationship is really important to me, and the connection we feel during sex is something I really value. I’m wondering if you would be open to talking a bit more about our sex life?’

Try making a game of it

Talking about desires doesn’t have to be a serious, intense experience. If you want to approach the conversation in a more lighthearted way, consider making a game of it. Try this: brainstorm with your partner as many sexual acts and activities as you can think of, from deep kissing and massages, to blindfolds and making your own personal pornography, to being naked in public and swinging. Then you each put a green, yellow or red dot beside each one – green for ‘yes, this sounds fun’, yellow for ‘maybe/I would need to think about that some more’, and red for a ‘hard no’.

Not only could this be a helpful jumping-off point for thinking and talking about why you put certain activities in each category, it could also be a fun way to learn whether you have some areas of overlap that you haven’t yet discussed.

Prepare for a conversation, not a monologue

Consider your partner’s perspective and give them time to process what you decide to share. They may be excited and pleased that you chose to open up and let them into your sexual inner world. In my clinical practice, I have seen many people feel closer to their partner after one of them shares something they desire (whether that’s watching a certain kind of porn together, sending sexy pictures or texts during the day, or dressing sexy for a night out). That’s because most of us want to please our partner sexually and have them please us in return. Plus, novelty is a key piece to keeping the spark alive in a longer-term relationship.

However, your desire or fantasy could be something your partner has never considered and that they need time to process or make sense of, or something they have considered but already know they aren’t into. For example, the idea of nonmonogamy can be a definite ‘no’ for some people, even if one partner finds the idea enticing. Maybe your partner won’t feel comfortable acting out your fantasy, but they might be happy to discuss it or learn more about what you find exciting about it.

Also, it’s possible that your partner has their own desires and fantasies to share and hasn’t known how to discuss them with you. Be prepared for a two-way exchange. Try to respond to their sexual wants in the same way you hope they will respond to yours: with curiosity rather than judgment.

Leave the door open for further discussion

If your conversation about sexual desires goes well, that’s wonderful – enjoy it! But, if it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped (eg, your partner has nothing to say, the conversation falls flat, or your partner gets upset and doesn’t like what you’ve shared with them), there are some ways to recover. You can tell them that you know you’re talking about something new and it’s OK to take some time to process the information. You can let them know that the conversation is valuable to you, and you hope you might revisit it at another time, when they feel up for it. If your relationship is important to you – and more important than a particular sexual desire – remind your partner that they matter, and that, while you’d like to keep the door open to future conversations, specific desires are not critical to your relationship.

Remember that the process of talking about sexuality in a relationship is a marathon, not a sprint. Exploring our sexual desires and fantasies is an ongoing part of a healthy sex life. What you liked last month or last year could be different from what you like now or what you might desire in the future.

Take time to know and grow yourself, and to know and grow sexually with your partner. Sexuality isn’t stagnant. The same way that you perhaps used to drink rum and cokes on a Saturday night but now prefer a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc, your sexual preferences can also evolve with time. Accepting this about yourself and accepting this about your partner can give you both more space to talk about your sexual desires.

Key points – How to talk about sexual desires

  1. Know that talking about sex is valuable. Bringing up sexual desires and fantasies can be challenging for many of us, even in longer-term relationships. But sexual communication is important for finding sexual satisfaction.
  2. Take time to discover your desires. Be open to sexual wants that diverge from strict social norms. Think about what you’ve enjoyed most in your best sexual encounters – or what intrigues you about fictional sexual scenarios.
  3. Stop judging your sexuality. If you notice any discomfort or self-judgment around your desires and fantasies, remember that non-‘vanilla’ thoughts and wants are quite common and can be perfectly healthy.
  4. Consider the underlying meaning(s) of your sexual thoughts. A fantasy might literally signal a specific desire (eg, to have a threesome), or it could indicate a broader sexual want (eg, increased attention during sex). The kind of talk you have with a partner depends on what you think a fantasy means.
  5. Accept that some fantasies are just for you. Consider sharing if it would be helpful – such as by introducing a new sexual activity into your relationship. But you needn’t share if it’s likely to just cause worry, jealousy or discomfort.
  6. Take it one step at a time. When you’re ready to share a fantasy or desire, do so a little bit at a time and consider your partner’s comfort level. If possible, treat what you’re describing as a way to build on what has already worked in your relationship.
  7. Try making a game of it. An exercise such as listing and rating your feelings about various sexual activities can help open up conversation without it getting overly serious.
  8. Prepare for a conversation, not a monologue. Your partner could have different desires and fantasies than you have, and they might need time to process what you’ve shared about yours.
  9. Leave the door open for further discussion. If you’re not satisfied with the first talk, express a desire to revisit the topic later and remind your partner how much they matter to you. Remember that sexuality evolves along with relationships, and anticipate further conversations down the road.

Learn more

A common barrier to talking about sexual desires and fantasies is worrying that what turns us on might be weird or abnormal. The good news is that sex researchers are accumulating an increasing volume of knowledge about sexual fantasies, including what people tend to fantasise about and how common various fantasies are.

In the largest study of its kind, the American psychologist and author Justin Lehmiller asked more than 4,000 adults in the US about their sexual fantasies. He discovered that the most common sexual fantasies they listed fit into (at least one of) seven categories:

  1. Multipartner sex (eg, threesomes, orgies)
  2. Power, control and rough sex (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism)
  3. Novelty, adventure and variety (something you don’t do that often, like a new position, or having sex in the kitchen if you normally do it in the bedroom)
  4. Taboo sex (anything that might be forbidden by your culture or society)
  5. Passion, romance and intimacy (eg, feeling desired and loved)
  6. Nonmonogamy (eg, swinging, open relationships, cuckolding)
  7. Gender bending and homoeroticism (pushing the boundaries of what is expected from your gender or sexual orientation, such as being with a person of the same sex if you’re heterosexual)

If you’re concerned that your fantasy or desire is unusual, chances are that other people – perhaps many other people – fantasise about similar things, and that you are not alone, nor ‘abnormal’, in what turns you on.

However, if you’re still wondering about your sexual fantasies, including what they mean, if they are ‘normal’, and whether it would be useful to share them with your partner, there are professionals who can help you navigate these questions. Sex therapists, sex educators and counsellors with a background in human sexuality can help you explore your sexual wants and needs in a confidential, safe and nonjudgmental environment. Additionally, some therapists – especially those who specialise in relationship dynamics, such as marriage and family therapists – can help structure a conversation between you and your partner about sexual desires and serve as a resource for handling any related challenges.

Links & books

As already mentioned, the book Tell Me What You Want (2018) by the social psychologist Justin Lehmiller presents his firsthand research on the most common sexual fantasies. His website includes blog posts that examine various sexual desires and fantasies.

The book Come As You Are (2015) by the American sex educator Emily Nagoski explores how women can better understand their sexuality and identify their sexual wants and needs. She has appeared on several podcasts to discuss her research, including the Better Sex Podcast. She also has a popular TED Talk about sexual arousal.

My book, Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships (2019), based on research and my clinical experience, is about the lesser-known side of men’s sexual desire and what many men really want from their sexual encounters. I also summarise my research whenever possible on my blog, Myths of Desire.

The book Mating in Captivity (2006) by the psychotherapist Esther Perel identifies the issues that many of us in long-term relationships face with regard to waning passion, and offers tips for how to increase sexual desire. Perel also has an engaging podcast – Where Should We Begin? – in which she helps real people navigate various sexual and intimate concerns.

The iconic relationship researchers (and married couple) John and Julie Gottman have a very helpful website that contains blogs, quizzes, links to their bestselling books, courses and numerous other resources to help couples communicate more effectively about all topics, including sex.

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24 November 2021