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“Imagine going to a restaurant where the chef served you whatever he or she felt like fixing instead of giving you a choice. Imagine a gardener who never asked, ‘How do you like your bushes trimmed?’ Yet when it comes to sex many of us assume that we know what our partner wants, or we clam up instead of giving feedback.”
—Paul Joannides, Psy.D., The Guide to Getting It On (6th ed.)

It is perfectly okay to keep some things private, especially fantasies that you enjoy on your own and do not care to share with someone else. But in any relationship, whether for one night or many years, there are things about which you do need to communicate. Talking about sex openly makes for relationships that are more fun and satisfying.

You can’t expect a partner to know what you like unless you tell them. People sometimes think that if their partner really loved them or cared about them the other person would do exactly what they wanted. But none of us is a mind reader! No two people want the same things, have the same fantasies, or want to be touched in the same ways.

Remember that whether you feel physical pleasure in response to something a partner does is not an indicator of their “skill” as a lover. What a previous partner liked may not be what gets you off, since each of us is different.

What is there to talk about?

Type of relationship that you want: Committed or non-committed? Friendly or romantic? Sexual or non-sexual? Monogamous or non-monogamous?

STI status: When were you last tested for STIs, and what were the results? Which STIs were you tested for? Not tested for? How many sexual partners have you had since your last round of testing? What were the STI statuses of those partners? What is your history of STI infection?

Here's a tip: If you have been diagnosed with an STI, you will need to share this information with potential partners. The more positive, honest, and straightforward you can be, the more positively your partner will hear you. Having an STI does not mean the end of a good sex life, but if you feel ashamed of your STI your partner will likely pick up on this. Gather as much factual information as you can about both your STI(s), including transmission, prevention, treatment, and the actual physical effects of the infection. Allow them to ask you questions, and do your best to answer them all honestly and without getting defensive. Remember that this is new news to your partner, and it may take him or her some time to adjust

Birth control: Are you currently using birth control? Are you open to the possibility of pregnancy? What birth control precautions do you want to use?

Safer sex precautions: What barriers do you want to use? What kind of sexual activities are you willing to enjoy without barriers?

Sexual pleasure: What kind of touch feels good to you? Where are the places that you especially enjoy being touched? How do you want to be touched, caressed, kissed, and/or held? The more you explore and know your own body through masturbation, the clearer you can be about what kind of touch you enjoy.

Here's a tip: One way to communicate what you enjoy is by showing your partner how you like to touch yourself. Masturbating in front of a partner is both hot and informative! If your partner can watch the way you stroke your penis/rub your clitoris or use a sex toy, he or she can touch you in similar ways.

Sexual desires: What are sexual activities you know you like and want to do? Ones you have never done but think you might like to try? Ones you might be willing to try? Do you have fantasies you would like to talk about, role play (pretend to act out), or act out?

Sexual boundaries: What are the sexual activities or fantasies you are not willing to explore? Are there places on your body that you do not want to be touched? Make a Yes-No-Maybe chart: Off by yourself, make a list of the things you like to do (Yes!), are not open to trying or don’t want to try again (No!), and things you might like to consider doing (Maybe!). Then get together and share your lists. You might both find some happy surprises!

Starting the Conversation

Communication is necessary throughout a relationship, from the very beginning to the very end. No matter how long you and your partner have been together, you will need to keep communicating about your sexual expectations, desires and needs, as you will both change and grow over your lifetime and as the relationship changes.

When a relationship is new, we may be nervous to share intimate sexual details because we want this new person to like us. As the relationship develops, we may be hesitant to give feedback in case we hurt a partner’s feelings. Perhaps we assume our interests are not supposed to change, but remember that what you liked ten years ago, a month ago, or even five minutes ago may not feel good now!

Here's a tip: It can be hard to talk to a partner about sex, especially if you have never has a conversation about sex before. Be as straight-forward, confident, and honest as you can be. Here are some ways you might start a conversation:
  • "I am really attracted to you and would like to have sex with you. Before we do that I'd like to talk about ways to make our sex together both enjoyable and safe for both of us."
  • "I enjoy sex a lot and am so excited about having sex with you. After we made out last night I went home and thought about you all night. If you would like to go farther physically with me, I'd love to talk to you about what kinds of things you enjoy, what you might like to try, what boundaries you have, and how we both want to make sure to have safer sex?"
  • "Since we've decided we both want to have sex, at our next date would you bring a print-out of your most recent STI testing and a "yes-no-maybe" list and I will bring mine as well. Then we can compare notes."
  • (Once in a sexual relationship) "I absolutely love having sex with you. The more I get to know you the more enjoyable sex has become. Now that we know each other better I'd love to find out about other things which turn you on, things that you'd like to explore together."
  • "I have this fantasy that I would like to tell you about. I'm a little nervous, so it'd help me to know that you want to hear it and won't laugh at me."

Though talking about sex can feel a little scary, it can also be incredibly sexy, even if you both have your clothes on. Many people find that when they get up the nerve to talk about sex, their partner really appreciates it. Most likely they’ve been trying to work up the nerve, too! Many respect a partner even more once they’ve brought up the topic of sex. It is ok to be nervous–that lets you know that what you are doing is both important to you and also exciting. See if you can enjoy the nervousness–the butterflies! The nervousness might even be a turn on!

Remember though—it is a good idea to talk about any sexual subject before you get all hot and bothered, but this is especially important for topics which require logical thinking skills, like safer sex expectations. Remember, most of us don’t act rationally in the heat of the moment. Think about your boundaries ahead of time, and discuss them with a partner when you are not currently in a sexual mood. If you are turned on and in bed (or the kitchen or the back seat of the car!), you are less likely to make the decision to use a condom or another barrier if your partner has a different agenda. Having the conversation before you are in a sexual situation makes it more likely you will be able to act according to your own boundaries and preferences.

Other conversations are great fun to have while you are turned on and may even enhance the sexual experience. Telling someone how great it feels when they touch you in that certain spot or in that certain way…or what you want them to do with you (especially if it is something you already know they enjoy)…sharing a sexual fantasy you think they’d like… these are all great things to talk about, and they can make a hot experience even steamier.

Here's a tip: Though it is important to say "no" to something you don't like, especially if it is uncomfortable or painful, remember to be positive about what you do like and to direct a partner in a way that lets them know specifically what you enjoy.
  • "I like it when you touch me this way."
  • "I get so hot when you bite my neck!"
  • "My clitoris/penis is too sensitive for that kind of touch right now. Could you touch me like this?" (And show your partner!)
  • "It turns me on to hear you moan that way."

How to tell a partner about an STI

This video from Planned Parenthood offers helpful tips for telling a sexual partner about an STI diagnosis.

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