Have you ever noticed how often people talk about sex in terms of the “active partner” and the “passive partner?” It’s a fascinating euphemism, and of course, what they’re referring to is who’s giving and receiving penetration. But separate from the fact that sex doesn’t have to mean penetration, I don’t see any reason to assume that receiving is a passive act.
Of course, it’s certainly possible to passively receive. It can happen if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, but you don’t feel comfortable speaking up. It can happen if you’re not really in the mood, but you want to please your partner. It can happen if you’ve internalized messages that say that you’re not supposed to enjoy sex, especially when there’s an element of slut-shaming involved. It can happen if you believe that you can’t or shouldn’t demonstrate your pleasure in receiving. It can happen when your partner doesn’t know what they’re doing, or if you don’t know how to tell them about your specific sexual desires, or if you’re drunk, or any other of a number of circumstances.
What all of these situations have in common is that they aren’t all that conducive to having great sex. The best way to make sex amazing is to get away from thinking about it as active/passive and make it about giving/receiving. We need to stop thinking of giving/receiving in terms of who’s doing the penetrating. Not only does focusing on penetration leave out lots of other pleasure options like cunnilingus and hand jobs, it makes no sense in terms of fellatio since you can be the giver a blow job and be penetrated. If the giver is penetrated and the receiver is penetrating, it flips the idea of giver = active and receiver = passive upside down.
Besides, it’s definitely possible to be really active while being penetrated during vaginal or anal intercourse. If your partner is lying on the bed while you ride them, you’re probably far more active that they are, even though you’re the one being penetrated. That’s not limited to any specific position, either.
But more importantly, there are some skills to being an active receiver that I think make sex better. The more you cultivate them, the more you’ll make room for your own pleasure. You’ll also be a more responsive lover, which makes you a lot more fun to have sex with.
When I think of active receptivity, the first word that comes to my mind is “engagement.” When you’re engaged in the experience, you’re contributing to it, you’re participating in it, and you’re involved. Rather than simply sitting (or lying back) and letting the other person do all the work, you give them your attention and you take an equal share in shaping the experience.
Part of that is being able to set your boundaries and state your desires. In other words, you need to have the capacity to say no when you need to and yes when you want to. Those are both a lot harder than many people realize. There are a few exercises I do with some of my somatic sex coaching clients that help them learn these skills, and lots of folks are surprised at how difficult they can be.
In one exercise, I touch the person’s arm from the elbow to the wrist. Their job is to tell me how they want me to do it: tapping, light touch, scratching, circles, massaging, squeezing, etc. Once a minute, a bell goes off to remind them to give me a new instruction because some people get caught up in the sensation and forget that the purpose is to practice giving me directions.
While it sounds simple, plenty of folks get stuck. They worry about how I’ll react, or whether it’s ok to tell me what they want, or whether they deserve to ask for what they want. It can be difficult enough to do this with non-sexual touch on your arm, but that’s a step towards being able to do it with a sexual partner. After all, if it’s hard for someone to say “now, scratch my arm lightly,” imagine how much trickier it is to say “circle my clitoris with your tongue” or “squeeze the head of my penis.” One of the most common barriers to engagement is believing that you aren’t allowed to speak your desires. And that makes us shift into passivity.
Another exercise I sometimes use also focuses on touching someone’s arm. But in this one, every so often, they tell me to stop. My job in that moment is to take my hand off of them and wait for them to give me permission to start again. While the first exercise offers an opportunity to explore what it means to ask for something, the second one gives them a chance to discover what it’s like to say no and have that honored without question, pressure, or judgement.
That’s an unfortunately rare experience for most people, and it’s an essential part of being engaged. Knowing that you deserve to have your boundaries respected gives you the freedom to relax into the experience, let down your guard, and express your desires. That makes more space to engage with your partner and be an active participant.
Another piece to active receptivity is being responsive to your partner. That doesn’t mean that you have to thrash around on the bed and scream at the top of your lungs. Being responsive doesn’t have to be loud, especially if you have nosy neighbors or curious kids. But it does mean that you let your partner know what’s working for you.
You can be responsive with your body, your sounds, and your words. And while I think it’s great when someone’s body language or the sex sounds they make express their pleasure, there’s a limit to how well they can work. I once spoke with a guy who thought that his girlfriend’s shifting and wiggling meant that she was enjoying what he was doing, but it turned out that it was uncomfortable for her and she was trying to get him to move to a different angle. She thought she was asking for something else, and he thought she was asking for more of the same. Some words would have made all the difference.
Being responsive can be as simple as saying “oh, that’s good” or “wow. I like that.” While it’s great if you can tell your partner what you like (engagement), being responsive takes it a step further by offering positive feedback. In addition to letting your partner know what works for you, responsiveness encourages them to keep doing it. You might need to clarify what you mean, especially if they assume that “that’s good” means “do it harder/faster.” But the more you can let your movement, sounds, and words express your pleasure, the more they’ll be able to keep doing what feels good.
That’s an incredibly active part of receptivity, and it’s one that often gets left out. I find that it’s particularly common for women who have absorbed messages of slut-shaming to believe that they have to limit their responsiveness, because a “good girl” isn’t supposed to do that. And I also talk with some men who have difficulty being responsive because they believe that they have to be in control of their emotions or their sexuality. Whatever the root cause (and there are certainly plenty of other reasons for these patterns), making yourself smaller in order to contain your pleasure is pretty much the opposite of being active, whether you’re the receiver or not.
The third piece to active receptivity is reciprocity. That means that you give back to your partner as much as they give to you. For some people, that might look like taking turns giving and receiving the same thing. For example, person A gives oral sex for a while and then person B does. But it can also be much more flexible than that, since each partner might have different desires. If A really likes to hear fantasy talk and B likes to receive blow jobs, then they can both actively give and receive at the same time. Sometimes, you can take turns and other times, you can do both simultaneously.
The tricky thing about reciprocity is that it can be easy to assume that you know what your partner likes and be totally off base. Fantasy talk is a great example of that- I’ve had several clients who were annoyed by their partner’s choice of words in a sexy moment. For that matter, I’ve worked with plenty of people who were doing a particular sex move because they mistakenly thought it was something that turned the other person on. Asking your partner what they enjoy is far more effective. Then, you can decide whether to alternate or do them both at the same time.
One of the challenges when you cultivate the skill of reciprocity is that you might need to take some time to rethink your definitions of sexual roles. I once talked with a woman about her experiences as a BDSM submissive. When I asked her what her partners got out of their interactions, the only answer she had was that many of them had told her that she was fun to spank. She didn’t know what it was she was doing that elicited that response, which meant that she was limited in how much she could express it. As we talked about her situation, it eventually emerged that she assumed that being a submissive woman meant that all she was supposed to do was receive whatever her partner gave her. When she explored the possibilities of offering the gift of service, she was able to give back as much as she was given. And as she increased her capacity for reciprocity within her kinky relationships, things became much more fun for her and her partners because she was actively reciprocating.
If you’d like to expand your capacity for reciprocity, take a moment to think about a situation in which you received sexual attention from a partner. And then, ask yourself what you were giving back to them, either in that moment or later on. If you’re not sure how to answer that question, you could start a conversation with them and ask about it. They might have a surprising response, and they might have some specific requests to make. Either way, it’ll go a long way to improving your ability to give and take during sex.
Learning Active Receptivity
Engagement, responsiveness, and reciprocity are all skills we can learn and practice, but they can be tricky when you’re first starting out. You might have feelings of self-consciousness. You might feel embarrassment or have a shame reaction. You might discover that you have a judgement about sex, yourself, or your partner. Your partner might not respond the way you hoped. Making changes to how you have sex can bring up lots of different emotions, and sometimes, people in relationships start bouncing them off of each other. That can quickly escalate into a fight.
One way to avoid that is to bring up the topic during a conversation, rather than simply doing something differently during sex. A sudden change in the middle of sex is a lot more likely to trigger big emotions, simply because the energy is already high. Any feelings that come up can have more momentum, which makes them harder to navigate. Besides, talking about it first gives you and your partner a chance to identify possible pitfalls and give your consent to trying something new. That’s much better than simply springing it on them.
For many people, working with a coach can also help by offering an outside perspective on your situation, suggesting new language or tools for having these conversations, helping you stay present in the moment rather then spinning out into a trigger, or simply holding space while you work through something. Learning to actively receive can be immensely rewarding, and if you’d like some support to make it easier, get in touch with me and to set up a coaching session. Let’s talk about how to integrate active receptivity into your sex life so you can discover just how amazing it can be!