When I was 20, I had a classic sexual experience no man wants to have: I lost my erection during sex. Due to some combination of nerves, the four gross beers I drank that night, and the pressure I was putting on myself to be “good in bed,” I went soft while hooking up with an extremely cool upperclassman with a septum piercing. When ignoring it became impossible, she asked, “Are you OK?”
Of course I wasn’t OK. I was feeling ashamed and inadequate. Though I had been having sex for years, and talking about it with my friends for even longer, I’d never actually talked to a partner about the sex we were having.
But instead of being vulnerable with her, I said, “Yeah. Fine.” My tone was clipped, shutting down further discussion. More than anything, I just wanted the encounter to end. She left shortly after. We remained friends, though we never talked about it.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how badly I handled that situation, but not surprised. Attitudes regarding sex are relaxing more and more: Disapproval of pre-marital sex has halved since the ‘70s, and acceptance of same-sex partnership has more than tripled since 1990. Our society is becoming increasingly open and honest when it comes to sexuality, and more recently, this space has better accommodated marginalized voices.
But there is one group that is conspicuously missing from the conversation: cis dudes.
Despite the fact that we are an outsized participant in basically all other aspects of life, the public discourse about sexual pleasure and wellness is virtually cis dude-free. Our inability to talk about this in public seeps into our private lives, too. A 2019 study by sociologist Jaqui Gabb found that while women and queer men were able to defuse “emotionally fraught sexual scenarios” with humor, heterosexual men couldn’t. Instead, they “found the experience of sexual dysfunction personally undermining.”
Cis men are discouraged from admitting any sexual anxiety and instead taught to conform to the always-horny, no-nuance mold.
The root cause here, according to sex researcher and therapist Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray, is that cis men, or those who have spent much of their lives as cis men, “are exposed to a pervading social script that their sexuality is supposed to be simple. They want to have sex, the more the better, and that’s it.” If we internalize this narrative, as I did, we shouldn’t have anything to talk about. And if we do have something to talk about, we worry there must be something wrong with us. Human sexuality is complicated regardless of gender, but from a young age men are discouraged from admitting any sexual anxiety, and instead taught to conform to the always-horny, no-nuance mold Dr. Murray describes.
So what do you do when you want to open these communication channels with your cis male partner? Whether you’re having a one-night stand or are in a long-term relationship, here are a few suggestions.
Men aren’t the only ones who struggle to talk about this—there are many women and non-binary folks who are just as cagey. It’s easy for sex partners to be mutually non-communicative, which makes it even harder for either person to broach the topic. So the best thing you can do to help your cis male partner talk about sex is to be open and explicit yourself. He will see that the sky didn’t fall, and that might be enough to get him talking. So much of the how-tos across the internet suggest hinting at your desires obliquely, so you don’t scare him off. While well-meaning, this does more harm than good. In an attempt to protect his feelings, you’re modeling unclear and incomplete communication, which reinforces the stigma against real, robust communication.
Be Ready For His Reaction
The modern male is essentially a hard candy shell of bravado wrapped around a gooey center of insecurity. Many men, particularly when they have sex with women, “see themselves as the pleasure provider, and they have a lot of ego wrapped up in that,” Dr. Murray told me. When it comes to sex, men are under so much social pressure to be a stud that this insecurity borders on paranoia. As a result, he will tend to interpret any attempts at sex talk to mean that he’s bad at sex.
Lots of cis dudes talk about sex with basically everyone in their lives except their actual sex partners.
If you want him to do something different, ask him directly. If he clams up or gets defensive, let him know that if you didn’t like having sex with him, you wouldn’t. Reassure him that he should take your inquiries as proof of your desire to further explore your sexuality with him. In other words, be sensitive, but don’t duck!
Talk About Sex in The Abstract
As wild as this might seem, lots of cis dudes talk about sex with basically everyone in their lives except their actual sex partners. Talking about sex with a partner requires a lot more vulnerability than, say, bragging about all the awesome sex you’re having to your friends. Asking your partner what they like means opening yourself up to the possibility that you haven’t been providing it. This applies regardless of your gender, or the gender of the person you’re having sex with. It’s much less scary to talk about sex than our sex.
But there’s an opportunity here. According to Dr. Murray, talking about sex in the abstract can be a stepping stone towards discussing your own sex life. ”Any talking is better than not talking,” she says.
Colin Adamo, a sex researcher at the University of Utah and a couple’s therapist, suggests talking through a fantasy: “Tell him that you want to tell you about a fantasy, and you want him to listen to all the details, not so he’ll do it, but just to practice sharing this kind of thing.” Again, he might be a little taken aback at first, especially if you’re a woman. Don’t let that freak you out—he just has deprogramming to do. The eventual goal should be to bring it into the here and now, to be able to talk about the sexuality you share.
Throw Out The Script
Another reason why your partner might be unable to talk about these things, beyond social stigma, is that he doesn’t know what he wants. In researching her book Not Always in the Mood, Dr. Murray found that the sex we have isn’t often conducive to truly asking ourselves what we want, especially for men.
It’s important to gently but firmly and persistently demand that sexuality is not off-limits to talk about.
“One of the biggest things that men say is missing from their sex lives is being desired, being pursued, and being complimented,” Dr. Murray says. They tend to be the ones doing (and expected to do) these things, putting their partner in the position of the gatekeeper, who reacts to all of this. One partner (usually the guy in cis-het relationships) makes an overture and the other says “yes” or “no.” If you reverse these roles, he’ll have to figure out what he likes and what turns him on, a prerequisite for having an open dialogue about your sex together.
If you are a cis-het couple, Adamo suggests looking beyond the cis-het sexual script. “Queer you sex, get out of the highly ritualized, structured dance, and be more expansive,” he says. This might not be easy, because as a cis-het person, you’ve been absorbing restrictive norms for your entire life. But it’s worth unlearning them. By queering these rules—by denying yourselves the rote first-base-second-base-third-base progression—you’ll both be forced to determine what you truly want.
Facilitating communication is important, but it’s not worth doing it at the expense of protecting yourself. That means holding men to high standards. My unwillingness to talk about losing my erection might have come across as angry, leading my partner to believe that she had done something wrong. That wasn’t cool. It’s important to gently but firmly and persistently demand that sexuality is not off-limits to talk about. He may try to make you feel like you made a mistake or that you “ruined it” by bringing it up. Don’t internalize that.
In any sexual situation, whether it’s in the context of a casual or committed relationship, it’s the responsibility of all participants to make everyone else feel comfortable talking openly about their desires. Once you’ve voiced your needs, it’s his job to try to meet them. If talking about this is like pulling teeth, or you feel he’s not really listening to you, that’s a big problem—and the onus to fix it is on him, not you.
Alex is a freelance writer living in New York.