Communication, communication, communication. It’s everybody’s favorite word for describing the most important thing about sex. Communicate your needs, your boundaries, your pleasure. Communicate to ensure consent and satisfaction. Communicate about your sexual health.
But what when we talk about sexual health with partners new and old, what should we be communicating?
- Your STI status, how frequently you get tested, and what your status means for your next sexual encounter.
Disclosing your status is part of seeking informed consent. Be unapologetic (“hey, I wanted to tell you I have HSV-1/herpes” vs “sorry, I have something to tell you”), non-stigmatizing (“I’m HIV negative” vs “I’m clean”), and open to clarification (“can you explain U=U?”) when you discuss your status. This helps facilitate mutual understanding and trust, and allows both you and your potential partner(s) to feel more relaxed with what your statuses mean to your potential hook-up.
These conversations are important even with longtime partners. Perhaps you’re non-monogamous, or you’re considering opening up your relationship. Maybe your feelings about your status (and the precautions you do or don’t take) have changed and you want to share your evolving thoughts with your partner.
- Your desire to utilize – or not utilize – barrier methods, pregnancy preventatives, and PrEP.
Every day we evaluate the risks of certain activities (“if I stop and get a latte on the way to work, I might be late...”) and make decisions about what risks we’re comfortable taking, and what precautions we’re willing to make room for. It’s important to find out if our partner(s) are on the same page. It’s never okay to cajole a partner into taking less precaution than they’re comfortable with, or pressure them into your personal definition of safer sex. If your risk profiles are incompatible, then you’re incompatible sexually.
- Your sex preparation routines.
Is it important to you to douche before anal sex? Do you enjoy performing oral sex, but only after taking a shower? Do you have back problems, and need to stop and stretch before sex, or avoid certain positions?
Whether you’re introducing a new partner to your preferences, or finally fessing up to an established partner, it’s good to let your lover(s) know your pre-sex prep routine. It makes dashing to the bathroom a lot less awkward.
- What your sexual boundaries and limits are.
Quite a few things fall under the definition of “boundaries.” Maybe you don’t like your stomach to be touched. Maybe you have sensory processing issues and find the scratch of beard hair on your thighs unbearable. Maybe certain positions remind you of being assaulted. Maybe you don’t like spanking your partners, or you’re not into rimming.
Having limits – whether they’re intrinsic or change over time – is totally normal, and any partner (potential or present) that doesn’t respect them is a partner that doesn’t deserve access to you. You don’t have to test your limits to please someone else, no matter how arbitrary those limits may seem in moments of self-doubt or anxiety.
Telling a respectful partner about your boundaries gives them the opportunity to honor them. It can be incredibly vulnerable to share your limits and triggers, but the result can be better, safer sex – and partner(s) who are ready to listen if something changes or goes wrong.
- How best to honor your body.
Sex is an experience, and that experience is not one-act-suits-all. People who are marginalized in some way (such as being trans, fat, Indigenous, disabled) will be the first to tell you that.
Of having sex with trans people, I explain in What Does It Mean to Be Attracted to a Nonbinary Person, “Don’t use language that will alienate your partner, such as gendered petnames or terms for their body parts that they don’t use for themselves. […] Don’t pressure or cajole them into performing acts or roles that cause discomfort or dysphoria.”
“All bodies deserve to be appreciated, but not all bodies are given the same respect and recognition; in particular, folks with fat bodies are made to feel inadequate or ashamed of their shape, and it takes a lot of work to reject and unlearn that culturally-seeded toxicity,” I point out in Fat Self-Love: Making Your Masturbation Body Positive.
What words, gestures, and acts make you feel affirmed and desired? What can your partners do to make sure you’re comfortable – and what can you do to make sure you’re doing the same?
- What “sexual satisfaction” means to you.
“Satisfaction isn’t always about orgasms, and all the tips and tricks in the book (which will never apply to everyone and thus are kinda… moot) won’t trump a genuine conversation about needs and pleasure,” I say in Making Sex Accessible. What is satisfaction to you? Is it shared intimacy that ends with a snuggle? Is it an hour of pleasure – with or without coming – and a swift goodbye? Is it 3 orgasms with a Hitachi Magic Wand?
“When you’re seeking to tailor your sexual experience to your needs and your partner(s)’s needs, you have to decide what’s actually important to you. These goals will help ensure you and your partner(s) are happy with your sex life, but they’ll also help you decide where you’re willing to compromise or get creative.”
“Illness – both mental and physical – can have a profound impact on every aspect of someone’s life, so it’s no surprise that sex becomes complicated and sometimes unwanted,” I point out in How Depression Can Affect Your Sex Life. “Consider the addition of physical complications – such as painful sensory sensitivities, gastrointestinal problems, or painful and/or limited mobility – and the negative side effects of the medications often necessary to manage illnesses both mental and physical, and you have an entirely new set of hurdles in the way of sexual intimacy.”
It’s so important to talk about your individual, ever-changing needs. What does your sex life in 2020 look like? How can you best support your partners in times of stress, grief, or lethargy – and how can you extend that to include wanted forms of intimacy? What do you want and need from your sexual partners when you’re triggered, in pain, or tired?
- How to support your sex life outside of the sex itself.
Sex is about so much more than the physical acts themselves. Sex is about making time and spending energy. You have to pick a time, a place, potential accessories; if you use safer sex barriers or positioning aids, you have to make sure you have access to them. Sex is about setting a mood, negotiating desires and boundaries, and – for some folks – building arousal. Even spontaneous sex requires a lot of background effort, like budgeting time and money for maintaining a birth control prescription.
If you’re having sex regularly with someone else, this often unspoken labor should be shared – or in the very least discussed. Maybe that means sharing the cost of barriers and birth control, or helping a partner with dilating, or giving a partner time to masturbate, or researching safe practices for a new kink a partner is interested in. How can you better attend to your partner’s sexual needs outside of the bedroom? What do you need from potential or present partners to go into sex with comfort and confidence?