Talking about sex is hard … here’s why

Talking about sex is hard … here’s why

Talking about sex is hard. What do I mean by this? I mean that talking about sex in a relationship is hard, talking in any real detail about desires and fantasies, or techniques and positions, or wanted and unwanted things, or biologies and physiologies, or health problems, or touches and strokes … it’s all so difficult that sexual pleasure is rarely, if ever, discussed. This essay considers the context of generally of talking about sex. We’ll look at some of the obvious in-the-moment reasons and, finally one of the more significant Big-reasons why talking about sex is so hard. Come for a ride!

The difficulty of talking about sex

The lay of the land is pretty basic. Talking about sex is so hard that most people don’t do it. Have you ever asked anyone if they regularly talk about sex in any sort of detail? Do you have the belief that everyone else talks about sex in their relationship in a healthy way in their relationships apart from you? If you do, then you are mistaken.

Sex is one of those areas where everyone makes up what other people do and know, and we make up what we think other people think we do, and we make up what they think we think they do. We make up stories about the pleasures of others and their successes or failures. Why do we make it up? Why didn’t we simply ask or talk about it with them? Try this: if we find it hard to talk about sex with the people we do have sex with, then how much harder is it to talk about sex with friends, acquaintances, neighbours, or strangers?

Sometimes certain people do talk about aspects of their sex life: their conquests, successes, or profound experiences. But does this then trap us into wondering why we are not like that … or perhaps never were? Are they even telling the truth or are they bragging? Are they making everything up? But even if they are manufacturing their stories, do we still wonder about the subject of their stories: how often? how big? how hot? how easy? how juicy? Possibly they are making it up because they think everyone else has a wonderful sex life and they are just trying to feel good about themselves. It could be straight out of ‘My parent is better than your parent’ territory from childhood. They are also making it all up but about us. We simply don’t know what others are up to, and neither do they know about you or I. Because nobody talks about sex.

Maybe you think that women talk about sex all the time and it’s only males and others who don’t? In this rather terrific TED talk Debby Hebenick points out that from results of her studies for the Kinsey Foundation indicate that up to 30% of women in the USA have some pain related to sex, but do not talk about it. She asks if they cannot talk about pain, how are they ever going to talk about pleasure? This is a good point. Hebernick offers some cogent practical ways to increase our culture’s capacity to talk about sex.

The nitty gritty reasons we don’t talk about sex

One reason we don’t talk about sex with the people we are in relationships with is because we don’t talk about sex anywhere at all. We have had little experience of talking about sex and we don’t know the language of sex. We have no idea how to discuss the biology and physiology of sex, sexual or erotic desires, or pleasure, or satisfaction. When was the last time you heard of a face-to-face friendly discussion about ways to improve your masturbation technique?

As Millman and Pink point out, talking about sex in a relationship is hard because a difficult conversation may result. We can risk a difficult conversation about housework but not a difficult conversation about sex. We could gently introduce a discussion about changes to a family routine, for instance TV shows or bed-times, and risk a difficult conversation but not one about sex. Risking a difficult conversation about changing a holiday destination might be worth it, say changing Disneyworld for a tropical island getaway, but risking it for a difficult conversation about sex, never. Consequently, partners in relationships are constantly making up stories about one another to do with sex because actually discussing it is relegated to the too-hard basket.

What stops us in our tracks? Millman and Pink and others suggest that versions of fear of pain stops us. Pain usually comes from some form of perceived rejection that may in fact be something else entirely: projected imagination. Consider the following and see if it makes any sense to you:

“Honey, would it be OK if we try this technique that I read about, in the bedroom tonight?”, they say tentatively, while looking somewhat pained, holding their breath, and gazing at their partner with doggy eyes.

A short delay of 10 seconds follows. The one who asked the question is held in time-freeze awaiting a response. Ten seconds at a moment like this one can be a long time.

The distracted partner has been thinking absently about their work for tomorrow and whether or not they will have to work later tonight. They only half-hear what their beloved partner has asked. They were in the process of turning their head away to look at the clock, just when their partner asked their question. They drag themselves out of their revery and are just about to answer when their partner says,

“Oh, it’s OK. I know you are busy so maybe we can try it another time” They begin to lose their nerve and spiral down into the depths of embarrassment and humiliation, feeling isolated and stupid. They do this while keeping their face blank to hide their pain. They feel 5 years old. In future, they resolve to leave well enough alone.

Their partner is slightly relieved because, while they would willingly gone along with the suggestion, they do need to work. Their wonderful partner must have sensed this, they think to themselves.

And all because of that short 10 second delay.

Our fear of talking about sex can come from the various painful sources of: not being responded to (ignored again), responded to with misplaced humour (feeling mocked), responded to with derision (asking too much, again) or rejection (not good enough), not responded to at all (not cared about), responded to in a half-hearted manner (not being taken seriously), responded as though they will do me a favour (me and my sexual needs are just a problem to be sorted out), they get angry (I’m worse than annoying), they hear me as demanding (I’m too pushy or not understanding enough). So many possible responses are imaginable. All those painful responses from a supposedly natural process that should bring couples together and produce great heights of pleasure.

Why would anyone try and start these conversations? Well, because of the promise of great heights of pleasure and getting close with a partner. Isn’t it worth the risk?

The larger reason why talking about sex is hard

There is a Big reason why talking about sex is hard. We have more to lose than we have to gain. This is called loss aversion, a simple idea developed by Daniel Kahneman and highlighted in his book Thinking fast and slow.

Loss aversion is mostly discussed in financial terms when considering risk. We prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. While we may want to make $100, the pleasure of making that cash would not make up for the pain of losing it. In fact, we need to have a large financial upside, to take the risk of making any loss at all. As Kahneman (p.297) puts it,

“When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce”

So, we are fighting a couple of million years of evolution. That’s good to know.

And how does this translate into the subject at hand? Talking about sex is a risky business. Talking about sex might have a pay-off. But is the pay-off sufficient to expose ourselves to the downside? The pay-off might be wonderful if we are asking for something sexual that we have not experienced, but there is a chance that it will not be so wonderful. It might be OK, or it might not be. It might not be worth all the extra effort. It might be painful or difficult to implement. For an ambiguous positive outcome, the far larger potential looms of loss of our dignity, shame, criticism, rejection and perhaps even losing whatever sex we are already having!

This is the real reason why talking about sex is so hard. Most of us have so little confidence around sex and sexuality and erotic play; We’re not sure what we might or might not like, and to put all this on the line and begin talking about sex with our partner is far away in the realm of the impossible.

Numerous sitcoms play with our inability to talk about sex. For instance, this Seinfeld episode, where they have a completely understandable conversation about trying to not masturbate. Notice how we all know what they are talking about without the actual subject of masturbation and orgasm explicitly mentioned.

We are all strangers in our own strange lands.

If you would like to explore this area safely and begin to develop the possibility of talking reasonably and rationally about sex then please schedule a free consultation to see if we’re a good fit by clicking here