A simple enough question. In fact, I’m glad you asked.
Me?! Little ol’ me? How nice of you to notice. How wonderful that you care.
I’m writing about this question in a sexual context. Hmm, maybe a romantic, intimate context. Or! Maybe a fumbling, heated, hungry context.
You’re in bed — or on the kitchen counter, whatever — with someone new, or maybe established. And they’re wanting to put the spotlight on you. To give you a little something something. To bestow upon you the gift of sexual pleasures.
What do you do if you, um, don’t know the answer to this question….?!
First off, I’m glad you’re in this position. You have found yourself with a sexual partner who gives a shit about you, and doesn’t intend on just masturbating into your body tonight. Wonderful!
Your partner has good intentions on asking you what you’d like to receive, or what makes you feel good. They want to create a positive sexual experience for you, and with you.
An exercise in empathy: it’s likely that you’ve been in those shoes before — wanting to know how to create a positive sexual environment for the partner(s) that you’re currently involved with. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of ourselves in sexual experiences with others, instead seeing ourselves as a vehicle to the others’ pleasure. By inquiring about your experience, your partner has recentered the expectations on the experience to be one of collaboration, and is including you in the receiving as well as the giving.
That being said, there’s more to this experience than good intentions alone.
Being in the spotlight is hard.
Hey, it takes two! To have a collaborative sexual experience, it’s likely that there will be a sharing of the spotlight, or at the very least a trading off here and there.
Maybe you’ve dodged this experience by being that good in bed that it’s all you, pleasing your partner, all the time. Newsflash: there’s more to being that stereotypical “good in bed” than pleasing your partner all the damn time. Stepping back and allowing sex to be a collaborative experience also allows your partner to feel that kickass, “look what I did” feeling you’re likely familiar with from offering pleasure and reciprocation. It is a good sexual experience you offer a partner to also receive sexual acts and pleasure from them.
Maybe you’ve felt uncomfortable in the spotlight because it feels selfish to receive. There’s some societal programming in there that says you’re allowed to give a neighbor a cup of sugar, but not ask for eggs, or some bullshit. Cool, I have that lesson stored away somewhere in me, too.
It is not selfish to receive sexual pleasure during a collaborative sexual experience. That’s what we’re here for, right?
What is “selfish,” anyway? There’s such a negative connotation to that word. The fact is, your “self” is going to be present for sex acts. And so some of the focus is going to land on you, and some of the focus is going to land on your partner’s self, also. There is no negative connotation to being a human that takes up space sometimes. Or there shouldn’t be, anyway. And this applies to sex also.
Sometimes your partner is going to be selfish. Their back is going to hurt, so can we please not do that position tonight? They’re going to receive some oral. They’re going to not rush their orgasm. They’re sometimes pulled out of the mood because the roast in the oven is burning and they have to leap out of the bed. Sometimes the sex is going to revolve around them, their needs, and their pleasure. Are we going to hold this against them? (Read: no.)
It’s acceptable and welcome for you to, just, lie back and enjoy it sometimes. But that involves you flexing this muscle, and leaning into the discomfort zone of being OK being in the spotlight sometimes.
Sometimes it’s hard to relax into sexual situations because there’s some self consciousness about one’s appearance.
Look, I get it. How can anyone like going down on me when I look like that??? I look gross! The fact of the matter is, the person being intimate with you has likely seen you from every compromising angle that exists, and has somehow still chosen to interact with you sexually, intimately, romantically, what have you.
It’s hard to allow oneself to be in the moment sexually when it’s so much more advisable to remain in one’s head, petrified and critical about one’s appearance. But, putting yourself in fight or flight mode is going to sap you of feeling sexual enjoyment (unless that’s, like, your thing). To allow yourself to become aroused, there’s some suspension of disbelief that must occur about your own insecurities.
Easier said than done, but refocusing on the present moment and practicing mindfulness can help. Sensate focus techniques, like paying attention to physical sensations such as pressure, temperature, and texture, can help. If you’re refocusing attention on “How does penetration feel for me right now?” there’s less space for “What is my torso doing?!” That said, mindfulness is a skill. It takes conscious rehearsal and practice before it becomes more accessible and unconscious.
It might also be hard to be in the spotlight, and in the moment, if you’re timing yourself. We know what I mean, right?
Ugh, they’ve been going down on me for ten minutes. I should have orgasmed by now!
When you set a timer for yourself, that’s basically guaranteeing that a sexual outcome won’t occur, or will feel late, or disappointing. I understand and affirm this tendency to watch the clock: you probably don’t want your partner’s jaw to fall off! Wonderful, I am very glad for your empathy. This makes you a caring and attentive partner.
Combat this empathy with trust: Trust that your partner is enjoying themselves when they say they are. Trust that your partner knows how and when to take breaks if they are needed. Trust that if your partner needs a break or wants to try something new, that they will communicate this with you. Trust that your partner is enjoying their sexual experience with you, as you have enjoyed sexual experiences before (whether with yourself, with them, with another partner, with a favorite movie, whatever).
It’s OK if you don’t know what you like.
So, back to the question. Yeah yeah Sara, my partner is cool, I’m allowed to take up space, but what if I don’t know what to even say to that question??
Alright, so we’ve found a gap in knowledge, or experience. That’s alright. We are learning while engaging in a relationship with someone else, which is fine, understandable, and welcome. Or maybe you are checking out these ideas preemptively! Cool.
This quandary occurs for all sorts of folks: people with less sexual experience than they’d like, people with their first-time partner, people with the first partner that gave a damn enough to ask. Maybe you’ve known what you liked before, or thought you knew, but it changed. Maybe partners have asked before but now you’re in a place where you’re ready to work on developing this knowledge of yourself and providing a more substantial answer. Whatever the case.
There’s a stigma in not having this sexual knowledge, or as perceiving oneself as “sexualy inexperienced.” This stigma comes from what Emily Nagoski in “Come As You Are” calls “the media message” —
The Media Message: “You Are Inadequate.” Spanking, food play, ménages à trois . . . you’ve done all these things, right? Well, you’ve at least had clitoral orgasms, vaginal orgasms, uterine orgasms, energy orgasms, extended orgasms, and multiple orgasms? And you’ve mastered at least thirty-five different positions for intercourse? If you don’t try all these things, you’re frigid. If you’ve had too few partners, don’t watch porn, and don’t have a collection of vibrators in your bedside table, you’re a prude. Also: You’re too fat and too thin; your breasts are too big and too small. Your body is wrong. If you’re not trying to change it, you’re lazy. If you’re satisfied with yourself as you are, you’re settling. And if you dare to actively like yourself, you’re a conceited bitch. In short, you are doing it wrong. Do it differently. No, that’s wrong too, try something else. Forever.
There’s a pretty strong script in our culture that to be a sexual being, you have to be some sort of vixen, or stud. That to not know the answer to such a sexual query should be grounds for embarassment or shame.
We can agree, you’re not going to know what you like, or what you’re into, until you’ve figured that out for yourself. It feels self explanatory, sure. But ask yourself, “Have I had the opportunity to figure out for myself what I like sexually? What my turn ons are, what brings me pleasure, how and where I like to be touched?”
This is that time. We’ve hit a gap in knowledge and/or experience and now is the time to delve deeper into some of these questions, that of course you have. We all do. They’re absolutely worth exploring.
Let’s problem solve this together. How do we figure out what we like?
OK, so step 1 is: let’s make an agreement to pay attention to how stuff feels, and particularly what feels good.
Has there been a TV show, book, movie that made your brain go, “MmmHMMMM?!” Maybe there was some scene where folks were kissing up against a wall and your brain was like, yes please. Maybe there was some kidnapping scene and you were like, am I allowed to like this?! Maybe there was a couple working together collaboratively and expressing love and affection and you just felt fucking great inside. Whatever. The media we consume has clues for what we like, what feels good, and what is exciting. Not just for sex acts like “this goes there,” but also for contexts and situations that we find hot, pleasing, erotic.
That said, while investigating stuff on your own, it might feel easy or intuitive to watch porn to be like, “Heh heh, well I am gonna get the one up on what goes where, Sara.” OK, I’m with you. My advice for this is, be sure to take the scenes you see in porn with a freaking bucket of salt, not just a grain. Or, be a critical media consumer. Porn is not real. Porn actors do all sorts of weird shit because it looks better on camera, scenes cut away, orgasms are faked, etc. etc. So while you may consume porn and be like, Actually that does look pretty cool, make space for the common experience too, of feeling pressured by porn to do certain things, or to feel let down by what “real life sex” actually is.
To continue this journey of discovering what feels good, masturbating can be a great step forward. Maybe you’re new to masturbating. Maybe you’ve done it so goddamn much it feels like a freaking science at this point. Whatever the case, I am recommending a masturbation session focused on sensual experiences, rather than cumming. That’s right: we are not racing toward an orgasm finish line. I recommend taking it slow, and focusing on the sensations in your body, and learning yourself and your sexual response cycle.
Maybe you like the feeling of running water on those genitals, and that’s similar to receiving oral. Maybe your clitoral hood needs to remain down, or it’s too sensitive. Maybe you like focused, direct pressure. Or maybe you like spread out, dispersed pressure. Maybe you like to close your eyes to focus on physical sensations. And maybe you like to look around and take it aaaall in. Maybe flexing pelvic floor muscles helps things to feel great. Maybe doing diaphragmatic breathing allows you to relax and stuff feels more pleasurable and less painful. Maybe your body benefits from lube. Maybe nipple stimulation feels fab! Whatever the case, you can learn about your body from making time and space to experience it with yourself.
Discovering what you like, co-op edition —
It’s also possible to develop this sexual knowledge with a partner, if that feels preferable to doing so on one’s own.
Firstly, sometimes it’s harder to do this with another person because it can feel harder to let go with a peer. That spotlight, remember? I guess it’s fair to say this feeling of self-consciousness (literally being conscious of the self, sometimes overly so) can also apply if having a self-serve sexual experience, so maybe my point is moot. Anyways! If it turns out that it’s feeling hard for you to embark on this journey with a teammate, it is ok to sit down and refocus a little on continuing to build your trust and camaraderie. Maybe, like, going for the DP together feels too soon. The good news is, you can build trust and feel closer to one another by engaging in all sorts of non-sexual intimacy, as well. Playing a board game, or some Halo co-op, volunteering together, making a dessert together, having an intimate conversation, whatever. Look at all sorts of activities as working toward this goal of continuing to develop mutual intimacy.
A major player here is going to be communication. It’s OK if this is still a growing skill for you. It’s OK if some of the language gives you pause. It’s reasonable if you haven’t done so before, that it would be hard for you to respond to “What do you like?” with, “Love me some pussy lickin’.” A good step forward to take here is to practice sexual communication on your own and with your partner. If you see a sexual article in your internet travels, read the title aloud to yourself, or select passages. Get used to saying some of the words and phrases. The more sexual communciation you have, the more you model healthy sexual communication. Talking with friends, in therapy, online, and to yourself are all steps forward in continuing to develop this competency. And it’s OK to use immediacy! “I feel so weird with every word to describe vulvas and vaginas. Why do the penis ones feel so much easier?!” Your partner is likely open to hearing your thoughts on sexual communication.
Share your feelings and thoughts. Ask for support.
“I like that you’re asking what I like. It feels like a tough question! Maybe we can figure it out together.”
“The other night when you asked what I like, it gave me pause. I thought on it more and found that I never really gave this a bunch of thought myself. Can you help me out on this journey?”
“Can you model this conversation for me? Like, tell me what you like and I can understand how you communicate about it. Thank you!”
“I want to learn more about what I like. I would really love if we could figure it out together. I have to say, I’m feeling a little self conscious about this. Any words of love would be helpful right now!!”
It’s an exciting time, for you and your partner, to be able to discover your bodies and sexualities together. Or should I say, you can frame it as, WE are discovering OUR sexuality, and OUR bodies together. Here we are not placing emphasis on rating one of you as less sexually experienced or less sexually knowledgeable. Reframe this as a collaborative sexual exercise to discover pleasure and intimacy together, because that’s what this is.
Helping a partner along on the self-love and self-knowledge journey
In the same vein, it is your privilege if a partner expresses a desire for you to accompany them on this journey, or asks for help, love, and/or support. What an exciting time in your relationship, to grow closer, together.
Use your empathy. Ask thoughtful questions. Be aware and conscious of the potential that your partner might feel pressured, self-conscious, or embarrassed, so check in often. Offer affirmation and positive feedback readily.
Welcome feedback. Ask for it. Accept direction and feedback into your life to become a better partner, sexually and otherwise. It’s OK if hearing direction might poke a little part of yourself that whispers, “I’m not good enough.” We all have that part.
Accept that you will not be perfect in bed. Accept that feedback will help you to be a better partner to the specific person that you are wanting to give pleasure to.
If a partner expresses that they don’t like something you are doing, then accept it, change what you are doing, and move forward from there. One of the best ways to be good at sex is to be open minded and communicative, rather than sitting in defensiveness or insecurity.
We all started somewhere on this sexual self-knowledge journey. Some get started when they’re a kid on the internet, and some get started after transitioning at middle age. Some make a bunch of steps forward, and back, and around again, throughout the different seasons and relationships of their lives. It’s all normal. I’m excited to hear about your progress.