Part of this originally appeared as one of my weekly MailOnline columns. It got so many hits, I thought I’d post it here, so it’s available permanently.
Couples who discuss tricky sex topics are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship. But even intelligent, otherwise articulate people, sometimes find sex difficult to talk about.
Lots think sex skills are innate: we’re born knowing how to have great sex. Sex is ‘natural’. Animals do it and they don’t have instruction manuals! We assume our partner is a mind-reader and should know what we want because, well, if they loved us, they would know!
Here’s the real deal: if you can’t talk about sex with your partner, you aren’t going to be having it long-term.
Kid yourself all you want that the odd grunt, groan or moan is all you need to communicate lust. That the six-year sex rut you’re in will just fix itself with time. That if you concentrate hard enough, he’ll finally work out where your clitoris is. But it’s still not going to make it happen.
Talking about sex doesn’t just fix these problems, it reassures us, deepens trust and makes us feel ‘normal’.
It creates desire, titillates and – most importantly of all – stops us sliding into the perilously tedious, God-do-we-really-have-to sexual doldrums.
Get into the habit of talking about sex often – discuss something you’ve read, something someone’s told you, critique the sex you see onscreen, talk about how much you enjoyed the last session (or didn’t) – and you’ll never run out of steam.
Start by having these crucial conversations all couples should have – but often don’t.
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY AND UPBRINGING MAKE YOU FEEL ABOUT SEX?
Ideally, we’d all be raised by parents who have open, non-judgemental attitudes about sex to set us up with a healthy foundation of beliefs.
Sadly, few people fall into this category.
Being brought up by strict, extremely conservative parents who were embarrassed by sex (or scared of it), leaves a lasting impact. If you’ve always been told sex was bad or dirty or something to be punished for, you’re unlikely to grow up to be an adventurous, fun lover (without actively challenging those beliefs).
The psychological assumption that if you ‘show me the child at seven, I’ll show you the man’ has a lot of truth to it. To truly understand your partner sexually, you need to know what their belief system is based on.
Good things to ask: Ask what their childhood was like. What did their parents tell them about sex? What sort of messages did they get about sex from their upbringing? Are they religious? What were their early experiences with masturbation? When did they lose their virginity? Was it a good experience?
WHAT’S YOUR ‘RESTING’ LIBIDO?
Mismatched libidos can cause big problems for couples: lots can be done to even things up but if you want to make life easier, choose someone who wants sex as often as you do.
This is harder than it sounds because our sex drive is artificially boosted at the start. Desires loves novelty and our bodies and brains are flooded with love and sex hormones when we first meet – even the laziest libido stands to attention during the ‘honeymoon’ period.
Any desire mismatch usually emerges around nine months to a year after you start having sex.
Our sex drive is determined by many factors – stress levels and lifestyle choices (too much alcohol, smoking, some medications) to name just two.
But there’s also a strong genetic link. If your Mum or Dad loved sex, chances are you will, too! If they could take it or leave it, you might be the same.
Our ‘resting libido’ is how often we generally feel like sex in a relationship once it’s moved past the lusty beginning bit.
Good things to ask: While you’re in the ‘at it like rabbits’ stage, say, ‘That was amazing! Are you always this keen?’. If they answer, ‘Yes! I have a high sex drive’, you have your answer. If they say something like, ‘Not really – but you turn me on so much’, it could mean their ideal frequency will be lower once you settle in.
WHAT ARE YOUR SEXUAL LIMITS?
We all have a ‘sex personality’ which determines how adventurous we are. For some people, sex is about romance and intimacy: eye contact and connection trumps trying new things every time.
For others, novelty and new stimulation is what drives them sexually. They’re up for all sorts of erotic experiences and routine is the enemy.
Obviously, it’s handy to know all this before you fall in love and commit.
Good things to ask: When you’re at the stage when it’s obvious you’re going to start having sex, ask what their idea of great sex is. A lusty romp around the bedroom that includes five different positions and three locations? Or having a bath together, then moving to the bedroom for lots of stroking and foreplay?
If your partner looks aghast at having to discuss sex at all, you can safely assume they’re a conservative lover.
Once you’re established as a couple, talk about what sort of things are ‘maybe’ and what are absolute ‘no-no’s sexually. How do you both feel about sharing fantasies, using sex toys, tie-up games, spanking or watching porn together? If they all get a tick, what about anal sex, threesomes, visiting a ‘sex club’?
The more comfortable you get with each other, the more open you can be. It’s also true that the longer you are together, the more likely it is that problems will surface. Which is why it’s imperative to…
TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE AND DON’T LIKE
Every single person has their own individual sexual likes and dislikes: what sent one lover into rapturous spasms of pleasure will leave another cold.
True, you can sense what’s working and what’s not by reading your partner’s body language but by far and away the best way to communicate your sexual needs is by talking to your partner.
Fear of offending our partner or upsetting them is usually what stops people telling their partner what’s working and what isn’t. Do it sensitively and tactfully and this doesn’t have to happen.
Good things to ask: Get into the habit of asking for feedback early. Say, ‘What can I do to make that feel even better?’. ‘Put your hand over mine to show me how you do this yourself’. If you want to change something your partner does, say, ‘I’d love it if you did this more’ rather than ‘I hate it when you do that’.
ADMIT THE ‘THING’ YOU NEED TO ORGASM
Take this one step further and confess your deepest, darkest desires, quirks and eccentricities and you’ll shift your sex life up a gear from ‘good’ to ‘spectacular’.
Your ‘thing’ might be sexual kink – like a foot or rubber fetish – or it might be that you like being penetrated with a finger (anally or otherwise) during oral sex to push you over the edge. Find out each other’s and you’re set for some REALLY satisfying erotic encounters.
Good things to ask: What’s something you’d like to try with me that we haven’t done already? ‘What’s your favourite sex fantasy?’ ‘What really does it for you, if you’re hovering on the edge of orgasm? What can I do to make it the best one you’ve ever had?’
OWN UP TO ANY SEX MALFUNCTIONS
For women, this tends to be issues around vaginal dryness or not being able to orgasm. For men, it’s erection difficulties or premature ejaculation.
Women are generally better at talking through problems but both sexes struggle when it comes to sex.
No-one wants to be thought of as ‘unsexy’ but this is one conversation you can’t avoid. If sexual dysfunction becomes the elephant in the room and you both stick your heads in the sand, it won’t be long before you stop having sex at all.
Good things to say: Do some research first to find solutions. Vaginal dryness can be solved by using a good quality lube or vaginal moisturiser. A simple request for more foreplay can also sort it: the more aroused you are, the better. Say, “That feels amazing but can you do it for longer?”. Know what you need to orgasm and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
If he’s struggling with erection issues, stop making intercourse the main event. Focus more on oral sex and let him know you don’t need an erect penis to be satisfied. Don’t pretend it’s not happening if it’s abundantly obvious it is. Keep it light and say, ‘Is he not interested in coming out to play today? That’s OK. I get to enjoy your tongue for longer!’. If it’s an ongoing thing, let him know it’s normal and happens to most men at some stage. Let each other know, any problem is a couple problem. You’ll solve it together.
CONFESS IF ANY PAST SEXUAL TRAUMAS HAVE REARED THEIR HEAD
Any trauma leaves a mental scar and it’s true we tend to take the bad things that have happened to us out on the ones who love us the most. But it’s often not until we trust someone completely, that we feel safe sharing our secrets.
Sexual trauma can affect people in different ways. If your partner has extreme or confusing reactions to sex or certain aspects of it, it could be they have experienced a trauma they haven’t confessed.
Good things to ask: Wait until you’ve built up a comfortable level of trust and then say, ‘I’ve noticed that when we do X, you seem uncomfortable. Is there a reason for that? I want you to know you can trust me implicitly and talk about anything that may have happened to you in the past.”
SPEAK UP IF YOU FEEL STUCK IN A RUT
Even couples who communicate well about sex can get stuck in an ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ cycle.
Once you know doing it doggie-style triggers your partner’s orgasm, it can quickly become your go-to position.
Most couples have sex in exactly the same way, every single time they have sex. Some people like knowing what’s coming (literally) but our bodies quickly become desensitised if they’re treated to the same stimulation constantly. If you’re not enjoying your sex sessions as much as you used to, you’ll eventually start avoiding them.
Good things to say: Say to your partner, ‘I love our sex and want to make sure it stays good. Do you think we could try a few new things?’ Dive into a good sex book for inspiration or do some sleuthing online (Traceycox.com has lots of suggestions of new things to try.)
Aim to change one thing every time you have sex. A different room, different order of events, different position. Even facing the opposite end of the bed helps!
CHECK IN EVERY THREE MONTHS Our tastes change, our bodies change – what worked last month, might not be working now. Make a list of new things you can do together to keep things fresh and add to it all the time. Keep a notebook or open a document that you can both add to regularly. Don’t forget to lavish each other with sexual compliments as well as share constructive, sensitive feedback. Being told you’re a great lover is huge incentive to keep being one!