We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: culturally, we are not good at talking about sex. Somehow, even sex within committed monogomous relationships is a taboo subject—nevermind more “alternative” lifestyles like polyamory, open relationships, kink, BDSM, and heaven forbid we discuss masturbation.
But talking openly and honestly about sex is vitally important for partners of any stripe. No matter what type of sexuality you engage in, sharing it with another person is sharing your entire past of experiences and memories and fears.
If you do it right, it’s never too late to talk about sex in a relationship. No matter how routine or rare sex has become.
How to start a conversation about sex
The key is to approach sex talk from a stance of active empathy—you may not know something, but that doesn’t make it not true. You may disagree with something, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel that way. Learning something new doesn’t change who your partner is—it’s already a part of them.
All that’s changed is you knowing it.
How you listen and receive your partner’s communication is the one variable that you can control. Choose empathy and listen—without thinking about what to say next—and conflict becomes an opportunity for deepening your connection.
And that can lead to some exciting sexploration. Don’t miss your chance!
Before you go any further, are you familiar with the sex therapy communication technique called mirroring dialogue?
If not, then read this to upgrade your system. Mirroring is a strategic approach to communicating about complex and sensitive subjects. Its framework replaces the defensive ego-response with conversational empathy by requiring the “receiver” to listen—at least well enough to repeat back what was said—until the “sender” is finished with the topic.
It goes like this: Listen...reflect. Listen...reflect. Ask for more. Validate. Switch roles. Repeat as needed. Apply its values to every important conversation you have.
9 sex topics partners should discuss
Initiation and frequency (desire discrepancy)
Monogamy agreement & scope
Each of these sexuality conversations deserves its own rabbit hole—but we’ll get to that. Strategic communication works best if you stick to one topic at a time. Otherwise you introduce too many variables and you wind up nowhere.
When you have a topic you’d like to discuss with your partner, tell them you’d like to talk about it, and ask when would be a good time.
Focus on empathy; on understanding each other’s needs. Explain your feelings and listen openly to theirs. Try not to be accusatory. Avoid being pushy or threatening. And refrain from comparing yourselves to other people or other relationships.
Learn what to avoid from these real-world scenarios (names changed to protect the innocent):
3 sex therapy conversations that didn’t start well
Sex Therapy Scenario 1: Can we talk?
Classic misstep in sex talk with a partner! Springing an intimate conversation on someone triggers a fight-or-flight response—no matter how much in love someone is.
Person One and Person Two have been married since it became legal in 2015. They work overlapping schedules, which gives them only a short time together in the evening before bed.
Person One wasn’t feeling satisfied with their sexual activity but was afraid to bring up the idea of being tied up. Over time, frustration built up, leading to this encounter:
ONE: Okay can we talk about something?
TWO: [freezes] What? What about?
ONE: Relax, it’s nothing bad.
TWO: [on guard] Okay…? What is it?
ONE: Well...this might sound kinda weird...don’t hate me!
TWO: What? Just tell me, I don’t have time for this.
ONE: Well don’t judge me or take this the wrong way but…
TWO: Oh my god please just tell me.
ONE: I want to try being tied up.
TWO: Tied up?
ONE: During sex.
TWO: Sex? What the hell are you talking about? I have a Zoom meeting in 15 minutes! How can you bring this up right now?
BOTH: [fight ensues for 14.5 minutes]
TWO: [stumbles through meeting]
BOTH: [fight resumes]
After that, Person One and Person Two decided to begin relationship coaching to help them work through their next steps with professional communication guidance.
Sex Therapy Scenario 2: If you really love me…
We all know this one. We’ve all been there—or have a friend who got entangled. Loyalty threats and conditional requests are early warning signs of gaslighting. Sexuality, relationships, and communication are journeys—never transactions. That’s not to say there isn’t give-and-take...but there’s no accounting.
Person One and Person Two were struggling with desire discrepancy—a mismatch in sexual interest which is a common cause of marital discord:
ONE: It wasn’t a threat—I said people who really love each other don’t leave each other unsatisfied.
TWO: Then you said, If you really loved me you’d want to have sex as much as I do!
ONE: Well that’s how it feels...what’s the point of being married if we rarely have sex? You might as well be my roommate!
TWO: Well I want to have sex—but I feel really pressured when you’re constantly on me about it. Then I get in my head about my ability to satisfy you and just decide it’s not worth it. Even if I wanted to.
SEX THERAPIST: One, have you tried asking Two about specific turn-ons or times of the day that might be better for sex? And, do you both feel confident that you know what turns each other on, versus what makes sex the last thing you want to do?
SEX THERAPIST: Okay, let’s create a communication action plan for the two of you to work on before our next session.
Their sex therapy communication plan will include empathy and mindfulness exercises, regularly scheduled conversations about intimacy, and occasional worksheets—supported by regular check-ins with their relationship coach.
Sex Therapy Scenario 3: Why can’t we be more like...
This conversation is a little less familiar to those in more traditional romantic partnerships—but the empathy and communication required to mediate the problem is relevant to everyone.
Person Two and Person Three have been romantically involved for a while, though it’s neither’s primary relationship. They’re struggling to align their intimacy needs:
THREE: I thought we had planned to spend more time together throughout the week in order to increase our connection and intimacy...
THREE: But when we’re together for our designated night, half the time we don’t even wind up having sex.
TWO: That’s because you get impatient and frustrated when I want to go slow and like, foreplay—and it really kills the mood.
THREE: But you and One have sex all the time!
TWO: Well, maybe that’s because One prioritizes intimacy over orgasm.
THREE: I don’t even know what that means! Are you saying One doesn’t care about cumming? Do you mean I shouldn’t focus on pleasure during sex!?
TWO: Ugh! No, I mean if we could just slow down some; maybe enjoy exploring each other’s bodies instead of just going straight for the wham-bam thing...maybe then we’d do it more often and it would be better.
SEX THERAPIST: Okay, it sounds like you’re both struggling with how to improve sexual intimacy—which for Two might mean slowing things down, and for Three might mean feeling less pressure to accomplish something during your time together.
TWO and THREE: [nodding]
SEX THERAPIST: Let’s talk about a technique called Sensate Focus that will help you become reacquainted with each other’s bodies through slow, sensual exploration—the goal focusing on the various body parts, instead of only on intercourse.
What happened after that is their story to share.
Remember: learning how to talk about sex with a partner takes patience & empathy
Everyone is unique in terms of experiences, desires, traumas, and understanding of intimacy. The important thing to do when it comes to talking about sex in relationships is try, try, and try again.
Practice makes perfect—and communication techniques like mirroring are just tools for helping you practice. The only way to get comfortable having complex intimacy conversations is to practice.
So go forth and talk about sex!
Pssst! Here's a free sex therapy tool to help you get started.
Wordwork by Quillpower