How To Advocate For Your Own Pleasure During Sex
How To Ask For What You Want In Bed
When I first started having sex, I thought my partner would know what to do. I counted on my body to respond in the way I thought it was “supposed to”—and by supposed to, I mean that my partner and I would climax together before falling asleep in each other’s arms (just like in the movies). I’d always assumed sex would be easy and intuitive, that by merely showing up and stripping down, pleasure and satisfaction would follow.
Of course, this wasn’t the case, and I soon realized that I really didn’t know anything about my body or how I liked to be touched. After a while, I finally admitted to my partner that certain things deemed “normal” didn’t feel that great and that I’d been pretending because I was scared to hurt his feelings.
It wasn’t because of my abstinence-only education either, although that didn’t help. I grew up in the ‘90s and ‘00s when mainstream media often portrayed sex as easy and intuitive, not to mention heteronormative and favoring of the missionary position. Especially for those of us with vulvas, the assumption was (and perhaps still is) that women climax quickly and during intercourse (often without foreplay). Studies tell a different story: less than 20 percent of surveyed women orgasm solely from vaginal penetration.
The good news is, while discussions about sex and pleasure within mainstream media are slow to become accurate and inclusive, pleasure is actually readily available. By getting to know our bodies and advocating for what we want and need, we can have more empowered and satisfying sexual experiences. We can also help to normalize conversations about sex—and I’m talking about internal monologues as well as the talks we have with our partners. For me, this has looked like interrogating my original sex ethic through therapy, a spiritual practice, and personal writing. It’s looked like redefining sex as it applies to my body and my relationship with my partner.
The more we talk about sex and pleasure, and how it looks different from one person to another, the less taboo this topic becomes—because nothing is one size fits all, and there is no one or right way to give and receive pleasure. This is an invitation to tell ourselves a different story.
Learning What Brings Your Body Pleasure
Before having a conversation with your partner(s) about sex, it’s important to know what you like and what brings your body pleasure—and these things aren’t necessarily intuitive. Bodies and sex organs come in all shapes and sizes, so what feels good for one person may not be so great for you.
If you’re open to exploring self-pleasure, solo sex allows you to explore your body’s nuances and figure out what feels good. (For first-timers, try these mindful masturbation tips.)
It’s also totally normal and okay to rely on resources and educators to better understand your body and what you like. Understanding your body can take time, especially if you’re rewriting personal narratives about sex. Maybe you start by looking at your body in the mirror or reintroducing yourself to sex education.
Keep in mind that sex isn’t only about orgasms, either, so don’t only focus on achieving climax. Think about non-genital touch that feels good too. Do you like being kissed? Having your hair played with? There are many ways to experience satisfaction and intimacy, so I’d encourage you to consider these things as well. Dr. Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of “Come As You Are,” also has these helpful worksheets to explore your sexual desires and help identify points of arousal.
And perhaps you’re physically satisfied in sex (yay!), but you want to feel emotionally closer to your partner. This is a want and a need that’s valid and worth vocalizing too, and something that can be cultivated through practices like eye contact and tantric sex.
Talking To Your Partner(s) About Pleasure
No matter what your relationship status looks like, you can ask for what you want and need in the bedroom. Likewise, you can extend the invitation to your partner(s), encouraging them to share their preferences. By choosing to ask for what you want during sex, you’re advocating for yourself, creating a safe space for your partner(s), and ultimately helping to write new scripts about sex and pleasure.
Approach the conversation with curiosity and playfulness
Yes, having these conversations may feel hard and awkward, especially at first. But that’s okay and to be expected. It also doesn’t mean that the conversation itself needs to be serious.
While I recommend using plain and straightforward language (“I like being touched here and in this way”), this doesn’t mean you can’t be curious and playful with your partner(s). You may blush or laugh or even get aroused during the conversation. Try to keep an open mind and allow it to be fun.
Don’t shy away from questions, either. Your partner may surprise with what they want or like, and you may surprise them. Again, many of us have an inaccurate framework of sex and pleasure—sex isn’t only about penetration and orgasms (you can learn more about non-goal-oriented sex here). Be open, honest, and gentle with yourself and your partner(s), and I promise the conversation won’t be as scary as it initially seemed.
Use instructions and nonverbal cues during sex
While having this conversation before and after sex is great (and something I recommend), you may find you feel more empowered asking for what we want during sex, as the heat of the moment can sometimes give us that extra ounce of courage. For the ultimate hands-on learning experience, try affirming your partner when they do something that feels good (“I like that”). You can also redirect them when it’s just not working (“Try this instead”).
Nonverbal cues are great, too, though this form of communication should be agreed upon beforehand to ensure consent. If you don’t feel as comfortable using your voice, ask your partner(s) if you can guide them with your body, breath, and hands instead. Eye contact can also be an excellent tool for affirmation.
Give the pleasure you receive
Instructions can be empowering for both parties and instill confidence. For example, I’ve noticed that when my partner doesn’t offer me direction or affirmation during sex, I feel like I’m guessing what he wants. But when he does speak up, it’s as empowering for him as it is for me.
If your partner is shy about speaking up, extend the invitation by asking questions (“How does that feel? Can you show me?”) All of us want to know that what we’re doing is working. And, no surprise here, but offering pleasure can actually be just as enjoyable as receiving it.
Reinforce your sexual boundaries
Finally, having a talk about sexual pleasure is also a great time to reinforce sexual boundaries. Don’t be scared to tell your partner(s) what you do and don’t feel comfortable with. Silence is never consent, and we must always ask permission before advancing physical intimacy. Plus, all involved parties will feel more comfortable and empowered if the boundaries are clear. Having this peace of mind can actually help with pleasure, as it allows us to relax and fully enjoy sexual experiences.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.