“It’s All About Communication” Is The Worst Sex Advice Ever
There’s a piece of advice that sex educators and writers always seem to give folks that I find both accurate and useless. “It’s all about communication” is certainly true, and it doesn’t do a lot of good.
Part of that is because almost everyone thinks that they’re great at communicating, in the same way that most people think that they’re above-average drivers. If the majority of people believe that they’re good communicators, advice about the importance of communication becomes sort of pointless.
Another reason “it’s all about communication” is useless advice is that it often turns people off. When I write blurbs for my workshops, I can use phrases like “tell your partner what you want” or “share your desires with your partner” and people show up. But if I use words like “communicate” or “negotiate,” far fewer people want to be there, even if the rest of the workshop description is exactly the same.
Finding Your Authentic Voice
Even more important than those two factors, though, is that telling someone to communicate with their partner ignores the many reasons folks find it challenging. It doesn’t take into account that there are so many different ways to talk about what you want. Each person needs to find their own voice and their own words, and simply telling them to communicate doesn’t help as much as you might think.
I once had a client who wanted to figure out how to tell her husband that she sometimes didn’t like it when he massaged her neck. They’d be watching TV and cuddling, and at first, she’d enjoy it. Somewhere along the way, he’d start rubbing her neck, but it wasn’t what she wanted because it distracted her from the show. She’d grit her teeth and wait for him to change what he was doing. By the time he did, all of her pleasure had evaporated. She was enduring unpleasant touch and resenting it, which was killing her enjoyment.
So we decided to do a little experiment. We sat on the couch in my office and I gently put my hand on the back of her neck. The goal was to give her an opportunity to practice finding her words. The first time, she simply reached up and moved my hand. While that was certainly an effective way to let me know that she didn’t want my hand there, I shared with her that it felt rather jarring and left me with the feeling that I’d done something wrong. Of course, her husband might not have the same experience with that, which we also talked about.
In the second round, she tried using words to tell me, and I let her know that if I hadn’t been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have understood what she was asking for. Her voice was soft and her words were so gentle that I would have missed her meaning. And so we went, with her trying different combinations of words and non-verbal cues, while I offered feedback and reflections on what it felt like to receive them. We were looking for language that felt authentic to her experience and maintained the connection between us. After a little while, she came up with this: “I’m enjoying the contact between us and I’d prefer to have your hand here,” along with her moving my hand to her leg. It sounds so simple, and yet, it took quite a few experiments before we found the sweet spot.
The best part is that she emailed me the next day to say that she’d tried it that very evening and her husband’s response was, “Ok. No problem.” He truly had no idea that she was enduring something she didn’t want, and he had no difficulty in changing things up. Of course, it isn’t always that easy. I’ve certainly worked with folks whose partners were resistant to receiving feedback or who had very specific ideas about what kind of touch “should” be enjoyable. And yet, I have to wonder how many people are enduring touch they don’t want, while their partners would be perfectly fine making adjustments.
My client knew the importance of communication. The challenge was that she didn’t know what to say or how to say it. She couldn’t find her words in the moment because it felt high-stakes, and she couldn’t figure it out on her own because that’s not how communication works. She needed a space where she could practice without consequences, get feedback and ideas, and try again. Since she hadn’t yet had that opportunity, each time she read or heard that great sex requires communication, she internalized the belief that there must be something wrong with her. She felt shame because she couldn’t do it on her own.
Different People, Different Approaches
I’ve applied this sort of experiment to many different people and couples, and I’ve seen lots of different reasons people struggle to find their authentic voices. Each person brings their own experiences and patterns, including:
- Sexual orientation
- Attachment style
- Relationship history
- Love language
- Experiences of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse or trauma
- Communication patterns from their family of origin
- Experiences in previous or current relationships
Someone who has an anxious attachment pattern might be prone to softening their language because they worry about their partner leaving them. They might need some help in finding stronger words. Someone with an avoidant attachment pattern might tend to use overly harsh words that push their partner away. They might benefit from exploring ways to keep the connection while maintaining their boundaries or stating their needs.
A person whose primary love language is words of affirmation would probably find different words helpful than someone whose primary love language is physical touch, even in similar situations. Someone who was shamed and criticized by their parents might need to hear something affirming or validating when being told a boundary. And it can be useful to use different words with a casual partner, a one-night stand, a newly-committed partner, or a long-established relationship.
The genders of the people involved also shape the dynamic. Many cisgender men take it personally if a partner asks for something different because guys often internalize the belief that they’re supposed to know what to do in bed. And lots of women have had their sexual desires and needs set aside for so long that they don’t believe that they’ll be met. Of course, that’s a vast oversimplification of a complex topic, but the important point is that telling someone what you want (or don’t want) is affected by both your gender training and theirs. Communication doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Finding Your Words
With all of these different variables, it doesn’t surprise me that simply telling people to communicate is rarely effective. There are too many reasons people have challenges with finding their words, and there are too many emotional and psychological patterns for a one-size fits all approach. That’s why I like to create opportunities for people to experiment.
A lesbian couple that I was working with over video was struggling with sexual communication. Susan (not her real name) had experienced deep shame and emotional abuse as a child. As a result, she was scared to tell her wife Pamela (also, not her real name) what she wanted. She had a deep fear that she would be attacked and blamed, or that Pamela would leave her. They both wanted to learn how to change that.
For this experiment, we identified two ways that Susan wanted to be touched on her arm and two ways that she didn’t want. Pamela started off touching her in one of the ways that Susan liked and after 10 or 15 seconds, switched to the ways that she didn’t like. That allowed us to simulate how sexual touch can switch from yes to no, and gave Susan an opportunity to try using her words. For each round, Pamela was able to let Susan know how it felt. My job was to suggest different words or phrases, based on what Pamela said. After several tries, we found that “I’d like you to do something different” was the most effective way for Susan to say it.
But even then, we weren’t done. Susan needed to know that Pamela wasn’t upset or angry. So we kept going, and we added Pamela’s reply. We figured out that “Thanks for telling me. I’m happy to do that.” was the best way for Pamela to acknowledge Susan’s request and let her know that there was nothing to worry about. That gave Susan the reassurance that she could ask for what she wanted and set boundaries without worrying about Pamela’s reactions.
Both of them knew that they needed to communicate about what they wanted from each other, but they didn’t know how to find their words. They needed a brave space to do it in, and they needed someone else to offer options for words and phrases that felt both authentic and safe. Before they had that, they were convinced that there was something wrong in their relationship because they couldn’t find the right language. They both felt embarrassed about that, which added to their frustration and disconnection. Once we talked about Susan’s fears and took them into consideration, the three of us were able to come up with something that was effective, safe, and authentic to their relationship.
We All Get Stuck, Sometimes
Just to be clear, I don’t think that you always need to work with a coach or a therapist to find your words. Depending on what’s going on for you and how much practice you have, you might be able to do it on your own, either individually or with your partner. That’s a skill you can develop, and it makes a big difference.
But even folks who have that ability will get stuck every now and then. There are times when it’s impossible to objectively see situation, especially if it’s triggering or if your habits are so deeply ingrained that you can’t see the forest for the trees. One way you can tell when that’s going on is that the same difficulties or miscommunications show up over and over. That probably means that the solutions you’re coming up with aren’t working. If you find yourself repeating the same conflicts or if you’re complaining to your friends repeatedly about the same difficulties, that’s a great time to get some outside perspective. On the other hand, if the communication challenges get resolved and don’t keep cropping up, then you’ve probably done a solid job of addressing them.
Communication Is Complicated
Given all of the ways that people are different from each other and all of the reasons it’s hard to find the right words, I don’t think there’s much value in telling folks that “it’s all about communication.” Yes, that is an absolutely true statement and I know that the goal behind it is to help others. At the same time, I’ve spoken with many folks who struggle with communication or who feel shame for not being able to figure it out. I’ve come to see that despite the desired intention, it’s not particularly helpful. In fact, in many situations, it makes things worse.
Communication is shaped by so many different factors that I’m not surprised when someone tells me that they’re struggling with it. Unfortunately, I’m also not surprised when they tell me that they’re feeling embarrassment or shame about their difficulties. And while there are ways in which shame can motivate us to make positive changes, it doesn’t help much in these situations.
So when someone tells you that it’s all about communication, that’s a good time to ask them for specifics. Ask them for ideas or suggestions for whatever is going on for you. Ask them how to apply their experiences to your circumstances. Or take their words with a grain of salt because you’re a different person, dealing with different things.
For my colleagues in sex education, coaching, or therapy, I think it’s time that we set this tired advice aside. At best, it doesn’t do much good. At worst, it can be inadvertently shaming. Yes, it is all about communication. And communication is about so much more.
As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new tools to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. I offer in-person sessions in Seattle, as well as coaching over video. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted video call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.