Good sex is hard to find. Maybe it’s a chemistry thing. Maybe it circles back to attraction. Or, maybe, it has more to do with our inhibitions around talking about what we like and want in bed with the people we like and want in bed. That’s at least where Stella Harris has landed. A sex educator, intimacy coach and BDSM instructor, Harris unpacks this argument in her book, Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink and Relationships. Within it, she discusses the prevalence of American non-communication and the reasoning behind it. She also provides insights and exercises designed to steer audiences away from this unsatisfactory standard. We spoke to Harris about how, exactly, couples can up the intimacy by way of communication.
Why is it so essential to talk about sex regularly with your partner?
All bodies are different. And there’s only so much you can figure out through trial and error. There’s no way to guess what someone is going to be into or what fantasies they have. When you aren’t talking about sex, you’re only scratching the surface of what experiences you could be having and the amount of pleasure you could be experiencing. We aren’t mind readers, and honestly, that’s probably for the best.
Was there anything, in particular, that inspired you to write this book?
People so badly want that quick fix, or that “one move” that will blow their partner’s mind. And they hate it when I tell them they have to talk to the person they’re touching. There’s nothing I can teach you that will get you out of having to talk to the person you’re having sex with. People are just so horrified by that. They think it’s going to “ruin the mood.” Other folks will come into my office and tell me about a secret fantasy they’ve been sitting on for 20 years but they won’t tell their partner. It’s too high stakes. If someone you’re partnered with rejects you or thinks you’re weird after you’ve told them about your fantasy, well, that’s really hard to live with. So much so that telling a stranger feels easier.
How can partners help each other find comfort in communication?
Part of what the book talks about is not just communicating your own interests but how to hear about other people’s desires in a way that is full of compassion; in a way that won’t shame them, even if you’re not into what they’re into. If you want someone to be vulnerable and upfront with you about their interests, you have to listen and answer compassionately. You have to think about what you’re putting out there. You have to figure out your own biases so you know what you have to work on before you accidentally hurt someone’s feelings. If you’re making fun of things, like, say Trump and his urine play, and it turns out that’s something your partner is into, they’re never going to mention it to you. We do a lot of offhand shaming. Sex makes for an easy punch line. Sometimes, I have to remind clients that certain behaviors are okay.
You do a lot with the kink community. What do you think more mild audiences can gain from the way they conduct themselves around sex?
I like to bring in some examples from the kink community when dealing with folks who think talking “ruins the mood.” Think about planning play-parties, for example. It’s not ruining the mood; it’s like planning a vacation. It’s part of the excitement. I try to bring them away from the mindset that anything that isn’t entirely spontaneous is “boring” or “unsexy.”
How can couples in long-term commitments benefit from better communication?
The best way to keep a long-term relationship strong is by experiencing novelty together. Sex is an amazing place to keep adding novelty. It doesn’t have to be kink or anything you might consider weird. Adding sex toys, adding role-play, even just adding a new position can help. There are so many ways to change things up. But you can’t surprise somebody with that stuff. You have to make sure they’re up for it.
What about parents?
Communication is especially important after having kids. Bodies change. Even if you thought you knew what you’re partner was into before, there’s a good chance what they’re body is up for has changed. This is really the time where you need to talk about maybe doing new things. You’re not going to stumble into it by accident.
How can people get the ball rolling? Where is a good place to talk about, well, talking?
I suggest people schedule conversations. Tell your partner you want to talk to them about some fun, new and sexy thing you want to try. You want to make sure they’re in a receptive place before you open up that conversation. Sometimes it helps to be in a more neutral environment than at home. I often suggest people go out to dinner and discuss things. There’s a saying, “don’t negotiate naked.” And I think that works really well here. The idea is that, if sex is imminent, you’re not going to have as clear a head going into the conversation, as you should. If you’re in the moment you’re not going to think of all the questions and all the caveats that you might want to cover. It really helps to do it outside of a sexual setting.
So, ideally, how should people communicate during sex?
I actually quote Dan Savage’s formula in the book. He says the best way to ease people into dirty talk is by telling your partner what you’re going to do, what you’re doing, and what you did. I basically encourage people to narrate. Coming up with what to say seems to be the most terrifying thing for people. It’s easier when you simply narrate what’s happening. Say how attractive your partner looks, or how good they look against the sheets, how they look under the light, how they feel against your body… Take your imagination out of the equation, at least at first. Just throwing out positive affirmations can go a long way.