Dear Captain Awkward:
Hi, Captain! Here’s a happy question for you. I recently started dating and sleeping with a really awesome man. We have great chemistry, he’s very respectful, and I’m having a wonderful time getting to know him in and out of the bedroom. The issue that I’m having is that I think I’m a little too eager to be the best sex partner of ALL TIME and have sex ALL THE TIME. For some background, my last relationship was long-term and co-habiting, and it died because we essentially stopped having sex 6 months into it (it lasted 20 more months after that). My ex had a lot of hang ups surrounding sex, and we just could not communicate about our needs without starting a huge shame spiral. We’re still very close friends, and it was basically the only issue that torpedoed what was otherwise a very good thing. So now that I’m starting up a new very good thing, I’m overly aware of communicating about sex and making sure that both of us are getting our needs met.
My partner is very enthusiastic and open to things, but after we’d slept together a few times, he admitted to me that he gets uncomfortable talking about sex. If I ask him what he’d like, I’m met with “I just want you,” or “whatever you want to do!” It came up again recently (we’ve been together for a few months), and he asked me to talk about my sexual needs and desires since I seem a lot more comfortable with it than him, and he is trying to work on feeling at ease with it. He has had partners in the past so it’s not a lack of experience, but I haven’t unpacked the cause of the mental block. It might be nothing but feeling awkward in a situation society gives us no scripts for! But I don’t want to push him and I do get the sense he’s felt sexually rejected before. So I want to create an environment that feels safe for both of us, and do my best to make sure we’re getting what we want. The frequency seems great for both of us, but we don’t talk about fantasies or anything particularly kinky.
There’s no one thing I feel like we are missing, I just want to continue to have a healthy sex life and experiment with him. So my question is, how can I approach this in the future without feeling like I’m doing all the work and our sex life is all about ME and my desires because I’m the more vocal one, and help him feel comfortable enough to speak up and let him know the bedroom is a judgment-free zone with me? Maybe it’s a problem that can only be solved with time and increased intimacy, but if you have any scripts or tips for how or when to talk about this in a pressure-free way, I would really appreciate it! Or if I should just calm down and stop trying to be the best ever and I’m overthinking sex because of my past, I think it might help to hear that, too.
Let’s set the mood with a poem by Sharon Olds. Consider it my way of saying Gurl. I. Have. Been. There. and I understand why your new boyfriend looks like a New Orleans Jazz Brunch after 20 months of meagre prison gruel.
Your dude sounds great. He wants you, he wants to play with you, he wants you to have everything you want, and, he does communicate about sex. He says “I get uncomfortable talking about sex, but I’d like you to keep doing so.” That’s as direct as it comes. Think of how much worse it would be if you could tell something wasn’t quite right, but he didn’t tell you and kept insisting everything was fine, no really, and let you blunder around until you became too scared or quietly resentful to bring anything up.
The site motto is “use your words,” and truly, there are many things about sex that should be negotiated explicitly, especially surrounding consent & safety. In an ideal world, how often would we have sex? Does that feel good? Would you like to try _____? That doesn’t feel good, I don’t like it. I am not up for sex right now, can we just snuggle? I am okay with ______and ______, but please ask me before _______. For people who love talking about sex, sharing fantasies out loud is a sexual act in itself, and I think that given the shame and misinformation and silence around sexuality in our culture, more talking overall has to be a good thing, or at least an integral part of rescripting sex & having sex on purpose. (Those last two links to go The Pervocracy, where Cliff is the resident genius).
However, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that someone who likes talking about sex is somehow …sexier… than someone who doesn’t, and that sexual reticence is automatically something to be corrected & improved upon. One woman’s sensual dirty talking is another’s horribly awkward narration, like Ben Stiller yelling “You! And I! Are! In! Complete! Harmony!” during sex with Catherine Keener in Your Friends & Neighbors. We all made a lot of fun of the book where the religious couple puts the bead in the dish to communicate “we should do it soon” but for some established partners having a non-verbal way to communicate will be as important as sexy conversations.
The number of tries you have to make each other happy in bed currently stands at infinity. There is no one day, one act, one conversation, one experience, or one fantasy that has to do the whole job of satisfying you. So take the pressure off yourself and off of him to play all the keys on the piano in a single song.
Not everything has to be shared in order to have value. Right now, the potential of this guy’s sexuality shines like a magical toy box. You did your time in the Island of Misfit Toys in your last relationship, and you’ve gotten a peek inside his toy box and gotten to take a few things out for a spin, and you sense that there is some serious brand-name Christmas Wishbook shit hiding in there, like, Hungry Hungry Hippos or an entire Ewok Tree House (please substitute the much-desired toy of your childhood) and you are like, dude, your Weebles don’t fall down and all, but LET’S PLAY EWOKS.
And you have a basically sound strategy. You’re like, here, play with my ColecoVision! I’ll show you how to kill Zaxxon and get ahead in Fraction Fever. My Barbie camper? Your GI Joes can ride in it! Strawberry Shortcake, Optimus Prime, and Gargamel can be friends and go on adventures! And they do, and you do, and it’s awesome.
But all the while you’re looking at the toy box wondering when you’re going to see what else is in there. After all, you shared your toys! You did it freely! So shouldn’t he share his in the spirit of openness? Isn’t that how this is supposed to work?
And the answer is, kinda, yeah, somewhat, but actually….no.
You have a sexuality that is separate from your partner. And he has one, too. It’s made up of memories, fantasies, kinks, wishes, sometimes traumas, sometimes shame – all the things that are written on the body and the heart. Finding someone you can share your secret desires with is amazing, but your sharing does not obligate someone else to share in the exact same way, and the other person isn’t obligated to act out everything you share or have corresponding wishes of his own. Your partner may not have fantasies, as such, and they may not be as racy or specific as yours. His fantasies might literally be “I want to do what you want” and “I want you”, so of course talking about anything beyond that will be uncomfortable because it will be a command performance given under pressure. This isn’t a “quid pro quo, Clarice” situation. Maybe he only likes to watch Return of the Jedi, and his Ewoks aren’t for sharing.
So there is his sexuality (which is a story that is in the process of being written) and there is your sexuality (which is also a story in the process of being written), and there is the story of you together (which is a third story that you are writing together). The third story tells us that if two people do certain sex acts in a particular order, and two different people repeat exactly what they did in exactly that order, each couple would have a totally different experience of sex. Abstinence-only sex educators, embarrassing New York Times columnists named Ross, and people threatened by a partner’s greater experience, insecure about their own lack of sexual experience, or worried they have too much sexual experience all have something in common. They see sex as math, as a calculation where a woman is diminished by having multiple partners and experiences but an inexperienced man is also diminished if he cannot surmount or keep up with her number of sex acts & partners therefore true love is disappearing from the world and the species is doomed. That’s why they are obsessed with people’s number of sexual partners and looking for the threshold where you get to call someone a name that means you think they are less human. I want to yell at them that sex is not math, it’s a story. It can be a good story no matter how and where you start. It’s a story anyone can tell with anyone else, as long as everyone is of age and willing. I want to tell them, you can fuck none of the people, you can fuck ALL the people, and when love finds you, it will shine for you like a jewel. You will know it for what it is and you will deserve it no matter what your math looks like.
You’ve been invited to share the things you want, so do it. Don’t be shy. Don’t assume you are automatically steamrolling him. It sounds like your partner would prefer to have things brought up more concretely and immediately (“Howabout you turn over and I’ll put my ____ there and you put your _____ here?”) than in the abstract (Have you ever thought about….). If the thing you want is, “I want, for the next hour, to be a little passive and let you decide & control everything that happens,” express that and see what he does with it. Fun stuff, I’ll bet. If you are worried that your desires have been front and center, decide that for the next little while you’ll do only things you know he likes and make his pleasure central.
If this question is about you figuring out that you are kinkier than you previously knew you were/were allowed to be/suspect that he is, realize that some kinks need to be discussed well in advance and agreed upon before you even go near trying them out. But other things are safer & less scary when first suggested in the intimacy of the dark than brought up merrily over pancakes in the harsh light of day as long as suggesting it doesn’t mean automatically doing it and you give the other person actual time to react. Kinks thrive on trust and trust thrives on time and on demonstrating that boundaries will be respected without pressure or coercion.
Above all, resist the urge to make every sexual encounter a referendum on your mojo. I am sympathetic to the desire to make up for lost time and to prove that this relationship won’t fizzle out like your last one, but that’s too much pressure for one dude to carry. Enjoy what is working. This relationship is so new, so please give yourself time to figure out if you are compatible – sexually & emotionally – for the long term. One concrete suggestion: I know way back when I was in my own sexless relationship, masturbation went from “fun!” to “coping strategy” to “a crushing reminder of how very, very lonely I am” to “eh, the whole thing smacks of effort” by the end. If it was the same for you, it’s maybe time to rediscover the fun version. Pull out your dirty stories or your mental greatest hits reel or whatever you need and make yourself happy. Use your big sexy brain to please yourself and no one but yourself. Don’t feel like you have to share that with him or make it about him.
It sounds a little like you want your partner to step into your fantasies and act them out (which he might be willing to do, at least some of the time), or have ready-made fantasies that you can star in in turn (which it sounds like he does not have, or, if he does, he is not ready to share them). You guys are at the beginning of your story. You have infinity tries and infinity time and infinity conversations to try to shape the story that you want, so please, take the pressure off yourself and your partner to skip ahead to some kind of end or complete a checklist of experiences by a certain deadline. “I want you” is a good beginning. You can live lifetimes on “I want you.”