If you ask most people what makes someone an amazing lover, they’ll probably say that it’s about being able to give your partner pleasure. There’s certainly a lot of truth in that, but it’s only half of the story. The other half is taking pleasure.
Let me explain that that means.
When you give someone pleasure, you’re touching them while focusing on their experience. Your attention is on what the receiver enjoys, and you are in service to their pleasure. You can think of it as if the sensation is moving from your hand into their skin.
This kind of touch is the topic of almost every article, book, and video about sexual technique. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of pieces with names like “12 Mind-blowing G-spot Moves” or “8 Blowjob Skills You Have to Have”. These articles are all about giving your partner pleasure, and they’re easy to write because they’re tell you how to take specific action. Touch here. Kiss that. Follow these instructions to make your partner feel good.
As Betty Martin frames it, when you’re having sex like this, the touch and the pleasure are both flowing in the same direction: from the giver to the receiver. It can be delicious fun for both people, but it’s only half of what’s available to you.
When you take pleasure, your focus is on touching your partner in the ways that feel good to you. It’s tracking the sensations that your hands enjoy and using that to guide your touch. The touch is moving from your hand to their body, but the pleasure is moving from their body into your hand.
Keep in mind that this all needs to happen within the boundaries of your partner’s consent. In that context, you can think of it as your partner allowing you to take your pleasure from them. That is what makes it a gift. When taking happens outside of consent that’s sexual assault, and that is most definitely not what I am talking about.
We don’t often talk about taking pleasure. It can be difficult to find the words, since the difference between giving and taking is one of intention. You can give someone a blowjob for their pleasure, you can do it for your own enjoyment, or you can go back and forth. If you’ve ever had a partner say, “I really enjoy going down on you,” there’s no way to know which intention is behind. But if you ask, you might be able to figure it out:
- I love seeing you feel good. (giving)
- It feels so good to my lips and it really turns me on. (taking)
If someone is interested in giving, they’ll talk about how much they enjoy your pleasure. If they want to take, they’ll talk about their own experience. The key difference is whose pleasure is the focus of the action. Both of them can be lots of fun, and it’s not as if one of these is better than the other. Being clear about which happening can make sex much more fulfilling.
The Pleasure in Allowing
So if taking is all about the pleasure of the person doing the touching, what about the person being touched?
When you allow your partner to take their pleasure from you, you experience their arousal and their excitement in a different way. Instead of focusing on your physical stimulation as the source of your enjoyment, you get to receive their passion and desire. There’s a delicious energy that you can feel when your partner is taking their pleasure from you, and it’s distinctly different from what you feel when they’re giving pleasure to you, even if the physical act is the same.
Allowing your partner to take pleasure from you can also be exciting because you’re the object of their attention and desire. You get to feel wanted, appreciated, and lusted over. You get to tune into how much they want you, and that can be an incredible aphrodisiac.
I’ve read plenty of surveys and interviews in which they ask people to identify what makes sex feel good and one answer that comes up over and over is feeling your partner’s enthusiasm. Experiencing someone’s eagerness and the intensity of their passion can be an amazing turn on, and it’s wonderfully easy to tune into that when they’re taking their pleasure and you’re allowing it.
I find that this is one of the reasons that so many people have fantasies of being taken. Although most people classify them as “rape fantasies,” I don’t think that’s the most accurate way to describe them. No matter how intense or extreme the fantasy, it’s rare that anything happens in them that the person doesn’t want. There is always consent in a fantasy, even when the story of the fantasy is that there isn’t.
Sometimes, these fantasies are about getting what you want without having to ask for it because the other person magically knows exactly how to satisfy you. But sometimes, these fantasies are about feeling the other person’s desire, lust, and gratification in taking pleasure from you. They can actually be “allowing fantasies.” Unfortunately, since most people don’t understand the exquisite enjoyment of allowing, we misunderstand these fantasies and add to the cultural confusion about their meanings.
Learning to Take
While it might sound easy, there are some hurdles that people might face when learning to take pleasure. Some of the common ones that I hear are: feeling guilty about being selfish, worrying about crossing boundaries, and habit.
I once heard it said that amazing sex happens when we can balance being selfless and being selfish. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But all too many of us have learned to not ask for what we want, that we don’t deserve to get it, or that we’ll be punished or shamed if we put our desires into words. Some folks lose their erotic voices because they’ve been trained out of them. And sometimes, people deal with that by focusing 100% on giving. After all, if you only ever do what your partner wants, you’re safe from worrying about being accused of selfishness. The problem with that is that you’re sacrificing a big part of your erotic potential in exchange for safety.
It makes a lot of sense when people say that they don’t want to take pleasure because they’re concerned about going too far or doing something their partner doesn’t want. I find that this is a good place to explore how they can let each other know when things need to slow down or stop. Sometimes, there are relationship dynamics that need to be addressed. There might be old wounds that need to be healed. There could be stories that someone is carrying from a past relationship that needs to be released. And sometimes, we need to learn to trust ourselves and our partners to be able to navigate erotically-charged situations with compassion and honesty.
When people are exploring taking pleasure, it’s easy to slip back into giving. For example, I often invite couples to learn the difference between giving and taking by touching each other’s arms. When they’re practicing giving, the focus is on having the receiver tell them where and how to touch them, through words or non-verbal cues. When they’re practicing taking, the focus is on having the toucher do what feels fun to them. Almost everyone finds themselves slipping into giving without realizing it. It really does take a lot of attention to make the change, at least until you get used to it.
There are lots of reasons that people feel guilt about being selfish, worry about going too far, or fall into familiar habits. There isn’t any one path forward because we each have our individual histories and experiences. We also face different challenges and have received varied messages about sex, depending on our gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc. But no matter what any one person’s experiences have been, there is always a way forward.
Learning to Allow
When I talk with folks about allowing they often worry that their partner will not honor their boundaries. Allowing can only happen to the degree that you feel safe enough to relax into the experience. That safety comes when you know that you can speak up when something doesn’t feel good, and that you will be heard.
Sometimes, people have challenges with that because of events that have happened in past relationships. Those difficulties might also be the result of things that happened at an earlier point in their current relationship. They can also arise when someone has experienced sexual shame or trauma, or simply weren’t taught the skills to navigate their desires.
Taking is safe to the degree that the allower can advocate for their needs and to the extent that the taker can respond with care. Given how rarely we learn these skills, it’s no surprise that so few people are aware of the incredible pleasure that they can feel from taking and allowing.
How to Move Forward
As a somatic sex educator, I find that the most effective step we can take to explore taking pleasure and allowing is to try it in small, controlled ways and then look at whatever comes up or gets in the way. Rather than talking about it and getting into an intellectual discussion, it’s far more effective to experiment with it and discover what stories, feelings, or sensations arise.
While you can certainly do that with a coach or other support, you can also do plenty on your own. Betty Martin, the amazing teacher who introduced me to this idea, has several free videos on her website and they are a wonderful resource for discovering the different kinds of touch. Her Wheel of Consent is also one of the best explanations of how consent works in the body. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that her videos changed everything they thought they knew about touch, boundaries, and consent.
The most important piece of this is to do it in small amounts and feel what comes up. When I ask people to explore taking and allowing by touching their partner on the arm, we only do it for three minutes and it’s limited to the forearm and hand. It might sound easy, but you’d probably be surprised at how much information we can get from that experiment. We also get different information when people try it with me, rather than their partner. Or they might go home and try it with a trusted friend or housemate. Each variation gives us different data about it, and all of it is useful. (You can get more info about these explorations on Betty’s website.)
It can also be helpful to try this exercise with the guidance of a coach or therapist. When I do that with my clients, I can see things that they might miss. For example, I can often spot it when the taker shifts into giving. Or I might notice that the allower doesn’t seem to be enjoying it and has shifted into compliance. Or I might need to step in if one of them seems checked out. If you’re working with a therapist already, you could send them the link to Betty’s videos and ask to do the Three Minute Game in a session. Their observations and support can be really useful.
Whatever path you choose, the important thing to remember is that you don’t need to have all the answers. What you need to do is move towards the direction that you want to go and then deal with whatever emerges. Exploring taking and allowing can be an incredibly satisfying and exciting way to do that.
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 30 minute Get Acquainted video call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.