Why Can’t I Ask For What I Want In Bed?

I’m neither shy nor insecure. I have never been accused of being too quiet or unwilling to offer my opinion . . . on anything. Ever. In fact, I’ve only encountered one situation that can render me an Ariel-level of mute nearly 100% of the time: a sex partner asking what I want or need.

Considering my full-spectrum feminist platform, publicly admitting this psyche glitch is easily the most terrifying thing I’ve ever written or talked about. And that’s really saying something. I can — with zero hesitation or flush of embarrassment — talk about sex, consent, rape culture, reproductive health care, sex worker rights, the intersection of our puritanical, patriarchal culture and personal hangups, and our politicians’ obsessive need to dictate what we do in our bedrooms and with our bodies. I have written about my fucked-up adoptive family, my abortion, being a SNAP recipient, being a rape and abuse survivor, the time my self-medication habit almost killed me, and being non-monogamous.

I’ve also had my share of public attacks over the past couple of years. My face has been on a “wanted-style” poster for my dedication to protecting patients at abortion clinics, and I have been chastised by the right-wing media for unapologetically declaring that I am an adult woman who enjoys sex. If something was going to shut me up, surely it would have been something potentially dangerous or something controversial — or at least something public for fuck’s sake.

But instead it’s a private and far too rare conversation. A paralyzingly hard-as-fuck conversation. Even right now — well after deciding to write about it — I’m stalling like a champion. Which is exactly what I do when a partner turns to me and says, “So . . . what are you into?”

I absolutely love being asked that question because it conveys an understanding of consent and giving a shit about their partner’s needs — my needs. It’s so hot that I’m always flushed with an initial flood of excitement. But unfortunately, that sensation quickly gives way — usually in under three seconds — to being rendered hopelessly tongue-tied. I think it would be less awkward for me to actually tap dance spontaneously than my search in silence for a way to pivot or dodge the discussion.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, could be causing my brain to throw up its hands and tap out entirely when a partner wants to have a frank discussion about sex. I’ve ruled out personal boundaries about privacy and prudishness, as well as the possibility that I might have some kind of developmental delay due to how long it took me to find and take the advice of sex and relationship expert Reid Mihalko to date “my species” — for me, other polyamorous people.

No, my involuntary and insurmountable frozen state seems to be about the conversation itself.

WHY IS THIS TOPIC SO UNIQUELY CHALLENGING?

Mihalko, America’s favorite sex geek, was kind enough to work through my frozen brain situation with me, deconstructing how it’s happening and what to do about it. Join me in feeling better about yourself and each other, won’t you?

First, Mihalko laid out some refreshingly simple components to this apparently nearly universal problem by willingly admitting he struggles with it too.

“I teach this stuff for a living, I have a helluva lot of sex, and I still feel a lot of shame. And I still feel like I’m broken,” Mihalko told me. “To start investigating having the sex that you want, [start from the] understanding that we all, for the most part, think we’re broken. We all, for the most part, have some sort of shame and guilt around pleasure because of culture.”

Oh, how I love an expert that starts with self-blame reduction!

“You have to hear the voices in your head, which is easy for those of us who are hyper aware — you can’t escape it. But when you realize ‘Oh, this is what’s happening,’ and then you realize it’s happening to everybody, then what happens is that you have an immediate way to connect with everybody and to start absolving yourself…You get to realize nothing’s wrong.”

Whoa. I can use the widespread lack of communication about sex as a communication tool? NIFTY.

With “baseline insight” in place, we acknowledged that we aren’t, as a people, especially great at communicating about anything — including our emotional needs. This communication gap leaves us without the tools — or even the words! — to recognize and express what we want. When the “overachieving-ness of American culture” as well as our own personal traumas and histories are thrown into the mix, you have the perfect recipe for brain freeze. We all carry our own personal inhibitions, the experience of developing and living in a culture that doesn’t talk about sex in any real way, and we’re pushed to be the best and outdo our neighbors at basically everything.

Additionally, most of us fundamentally don’t know what we want because we are wholly without examples of healthy, consensual, sensual connection. Not only can you not articulate what you want when you don’t have the words at your disposal, it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to seek out experiences we don’t even know we’re looking for.

So says Mihalko:

“Most people just don’t know what feels good to their body because they were never encouraged to explore it. When you don’t know what you want because you can’t tune into your body — which you haven’t really explored — and you don’t know how to speak up about sex and intimacy to begin with [or] how to process your feelings, you come into this logjam that you can’t get out of.”

Mihalko suggests recognizing where and when you lock up, and start considering what it is you’re not saying. It turns out, the discomfort and inability to say a thing can often be overcome by acknowledging that it’s happening and verbalizing it to yourself and others. If that sounds terrifying, you don’t have to start with the example he gave me of expressing vulnerability and a touch of insecurity to the two people you’re hoping will also be interested in a three-way.

You can start by using your voice around the house — talk to your cat or your dog or yourself in a mirror — so that you get accustomed to hearing yourself say the individual words. You’re much less likely to stumble over the words themselves in a situation with pressure or anxiety if that space isn’t the first time they’ve crossed your lips.

Saying the words also forces us to get in touch with the reality of how our bodies work on a physiological level. Try saying the word “lube,” for example. Mihalko explained that a solid chunk of people don’t want to use it alone or with partners because they feel shame for needing it or enjoying the sensation — “like every vulva and vagina is just supposed to magically self-lubricate.”

Not only is it JUST FINE to simply dig the feel of masturbating or having partnered sex with lube, it is ALSO FINE to need it because of things like age, other health conditions, and the way your body happens to be designed.

“The same thing for penis owners — like we’re supposed to get hard and stay hard whenever, ya know, we’re needed,” Mihalko said with a knowing grin. “Now that I’m in my late 40’s, I’m like ‘Well, fuck all that! That doesn’t happen all the time.’”

Wanting things that are actually possible is helpful, not just from a practical standpoint, but also to further reduce self-blame and residual shaming from our rather closed-off culture. You can’t think outside the box until you’ve familiarized yourself with the box itself.

“The more that we can normalize [the language and the way bodies physiologically work], the more you . . . see when culture’s having its way with you and impacting you in a negative way — to be able to empower yourself and have more choice,” Mihalko said before lamenting the lack of choice and options in our pleasure-shaming hetero- and mono-normative culture.

“We only have like four crayons in the crayon box of what sex is,” he said. “And now, because of the blessings and the curses of the world wide web, most people have a very limited idea of what sex is and then they have a lot of bad visual role modeling because they have no porn literacy.”

No one’s shaming porn consumers or performers. Mihalko was making the important distinction between the entertainment sphere and the educational sphere: “Trying to be a better lover by watching porn is like trying to be a better driver by watching ‘The Fast and the Furious.’”

So, with the new knowledge that basically everybody has this hangup, that the problematic components are a culturally cultivated combination of deemphasizing communication and feeling our feelings, and that even renowned sex educators struggle with expressing their needs, it was solution time!

Mihalko laid out some general and specific-to-me suggestions (he offers individual coaching and mentoring that I’ll be daydreaming about for the foreseeable future) for tackling this issue head-on. The two I can use immediately are to just name the weirdness when I feel it and remember that I get more than one shot at answering the question “So, what are you into?” because this is a conversation, not a sound bite. Stricken silent by an overload of influences and experiences telling me what’s acceptable and expected? SAY SO.

‘We only have like four crayons in the crayon box of what sex is.’

My new, go-to response that I’m not afraid of because it’s sex educator approved: “I love this question, but I have the hardest time answering it.”

As Mihalko later reminded me, “This is just musicians jamming. You aren’t cutting a record right now; you’re having fun.”

Admitting that I’m overthinking my answer shows a willingness to be vulnerable and creates a safe space for further communication — even if whatever full response I dance my way through isn’t particularly memorable.

I also came away from our interview with a renewed focus on prioritizing fun and play over whether I can provide a detailed road map to Destination Orgasm. As Mihalko said, this is supposed to be fun, after all. And if I’m overly focused on how I’m perceived in that one small snapshot of an encounter or relationship, I’m not going to be present or able to determine if the person I’m with is even a good fit for me and the ecosystem Mihalko suggests I cultivate. I think I even like his fish tank analogy.

“You have your fish tank,” said Mihalko. “Well, Alison — who is my primary partner — is a very particular kind of fish. So, I can’t just throw any other fish into the tank. Sometimes I have two tanks: I have my freshwater tank and a saltwater tank.”

As a particular kind of fish myself (probably a beta), I appreciated the intentional nature of the analogy. It wasn’t that he was judging the ability of different partners to get along, he was considerately taking their individual needs into account. Forcing fish — or people — into a habitat they aren’t designed for is unhealthy for them and the entire ecosystem.

“If there’s this third tank — this fresh water/salt water estuary, then yeah. But that’s a very particular fish that loves that,” Mihalko added, encouraging me to seek out partners I mesh well with. “And, so we’re back to dating your species.”

With class — er, the interview — coming to a close, I did what any good geek would do: I asked for homework. First up: lists, lists, lists.

List #1: sensations I know my body likes, e.g. positions and ways I like to be touched; anything I can think of that I know turns me on most of the time.

List #2: things that turn my brain on, e.g. visuals and scenarios used for fantasizing.

Next up: sharing the lists with a partner after using the exercises designed to make the words themselves more comfortable. Luckily, Joe Black Cat is very used to me talking to both myself and her.

“Starting to identify those and make lists will start to give us words for how we can talk to people about those things,” explained Mihalko. “What are things that you find sensual and what are things that you find erotic — and asking your lovers if they’re vulnerable enough to share.”

Get the words → use the words → ask your partner(s) about their words. Sounds suspiciously easy so far. Especially since Mihalko tells me that even my partners who haven’t done the list exercise may respond to the vulnerability and suggestions with their own scenarios and desires.

Mihalko wove me an example of how being open minded and sharing first gives your partner(s) a chance to surprise you.

“When you start to learn what’s erotic for people, you can start to have words to play with. And you start sharing and making it normal for them to tell you what their things are,” he said. “You’re normalizing that when I’m fucking you, you’re thinking about pirates kidnapping you. And then I’m like ‘Really?? . . . Well . . . should I dress up like a pirate?’ And then a whole other thing is possible, right?”

Like any self-respecting Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom fan, I drifted off in a daydream. When I snapped myself out of it, Mihalko was explaining how to make talking about sex fun instead of nerve-wracking.

“Start exploring your body — and especially your genitals with lube because that heightens sensation for almost everybody. And it starts to normalize that it’s OK to have lube in the bedroom which starts setting up for a host of other things around performance.”

It’s a lot easier to dream up new scenarios and challenges when you have the tools on hand.

“Lube changes lives, really,” Mihalko added before asking me if I wanted a third exercise to “go black belt level.” Um, OBVIOUSLY.

“Start exploring your body while you say nice things to yourself and while you use those words you created in your lists,” he directed just before interrupting himself with a spontaneous wave of intense empathy for basically all of us.

“OH! This is the other thing! OMGOMG . . . This is happening to everybody,” he exclaimed before taking a frustrated dramatic pause. “Most people have been masturbating or exploring pleasure while being quiet.”

RIGHT. Because most of us have parents, and so as teenagers we do everything as quietly as possible so as not to be embarrassed or found out.

“And when you grow up in a culture where you’re not allowed to talk about sex and you’ve been practicing feeling pleasure with being quiet . . . you’ve been reinforcing your entire life that ‘I’m supposed to shut up,’” Mihalko continued. “So how do you expect your partner to tell you what they want in a full sentence during sex when both people have been like that?”

OF COURSE. It’s so obvious, we have all missed it.

Mihalko explained that the “black belt exercise” is designed to break down some of those habits by having me (and you!) both express and hear words rather than quiet while experiencing pleasure. He warns that you might feel a bit “dorky” talking to yourself about yourself, but promises that it’s a very powerful way to overcome the intense and entrenched effects our culture has on us. Not only are you normalizing the words and turning up the volume, you’re intentionally kicking up and dealing with our culture’s hidden shame traps about being narcissistic for seeking pleasure.

I don’t know about you, but I’m more than willing to risk a little solitary dorkiness to shed the last of the negative self-talk and deeply embedded shame about tending to my physical needs. I’m even down to ignore how much I hate listening to my voice out loud and record myself reading the lists so I can work all the way through the exercise.

I have my eye on achieving certified Sex Geek status. So, if you’ll excuse me, my homework awaits…