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What if my boyfriend doesn't listen to me when we have sex?

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Violet asks:

I have never ever had sex before. My BF is great: he knows me, and he likes having fun. We're both about the same age. If he's energetic, what should I do if he gets out of control? His listening skills aren't that great.

Heather Corinna replies:

You can -- and should, in my book -- talk about this with him in advance if you have this concern.

Neither men nor women lack the ability to be sure, when having any kind of sex with a partner, that we are paying just as much attention to them and what they want as we are to ourselves and what we want. Some people have this idea that with men, specifically, they have some sort of chemical or biological handicap where when they get sexually aroused or are having sex, they're less capable of paying attention to their partners than women are.

Thing is, there's no actual science to back that up: if and when men don't listen -- just like if and when women don't -- it's got nothing to do with gonads or chromosomes. Men can listen just as well as women can if they choose to listen and care about listening. The idea that men can't is based more on stereotypes about men than it is on fact or the way most men really behave.

Even for those who aren't so hot with their listening skills, there are other things we can pay attention to beside someone's words, like their body language. If a partner, for instance, during sex, stops being very physically engaged (if they seem to "just be lying there"), if they aren't engaging us at all with their eyes, or even if they are pushing us away or making a move to switch a position, we can have a pretty good idea of where they're at without a word.

We can get as excited (sexually or otherwise) or energetic as we want to and still do so while being mindful of our partners. When you say your boyfriend is energetic, it sounds to me like you're trying to be coy about something pretty serious: not about having energy, but about concerns with a lack of self-control on his part and a respect for you. If someone isn't mindful of their partner during sex, and just goes off as if the other person isn't even there, they're no longer having sex with someone at all, but masturbating on them, which, unless that's something a partner asks for, isn't often something someone wants when they go into sex with the idea that they're doing something together. Sure, we can all get a little carried away sometimes when we're having sex or feeling very excited, and have moments where we slide into our own world, but sliding right back into the actual moment where there is another person present is hardly a big challenge when we want to be present with that other person; to be really sharing sex with them, rather than just getting ourselves off the way we do when we're alone. If and when we have partners who don't pay attention to us during sex or who don't listen, sex can feel like one of the loneliest things in the world (at best: at worst, it can escalate into rape and sexual abuse) instead of something where we're really coming together, finding a union, with another person.

How well we listen isn't like being a certain height or being born a certain race: it's a behavior, and behavior is something we all have the ability to change. By all means, some people have a certain talent or knack for being great listeners, and for others, it doesn't come so easy, but it's more a learned skill than it is a talent, and a skill can always be improved or refined.

Those listening skills are important in a whole lot of ways, but they're very important when we are doing something which involves someone else, especially something which has the capacity to give someone both pleasure or pain, both positive consequences or negative ones. Obviously, his being able to pay attention to you during sex matters when it comes to being sure you're not in pain, or he isn't doing something you're okay with. But it's equally important that he learns to listen and be attentive so you can also actually experience pleasure and mutual caring with sex: if our partners aren't paying attention to us (and vice-versa), we're not very likely to enjoy ourselves much physically or emotionally. Every single one of us can work on our listening skills and improve them: if you've noticed your partner doesn't listen (maybe during other kinds of sex you have already had?), then it's likely you've already experienced some problems when he doesn't, and it's something you should probably bring up with him, sex or no sex.

So, initiate a conversation about this with him. Let him know that you have concerns that because he doesn't seem to listen so well, you're worried that with sex, he won't pay attention or be responsive when you don't want to do something, want something done differently, or need him to stop what he's doing.

Heck, a lack of listening is going to impact all of your relationship, so you can make clear that you really need him to work on listening a little better, full-stop. If we're going to care for or love someone, we have to learn to be attentive. Ask what he thinks about that. If he has a disability or other issue where listening to words is a serious challenge, discuss things you both might do in order to assure you can both pay attention to each other during sex, like just being sure to make eye contact sometimes to check in with one another, like each vowing to use your words during sex and hear them: a lot of people have the idea from movies that people don't talk during sex, but in real life, most people use words during sex to communicate as much as they use body language.

You can both also voice, in advance, things you think you might and might not want to do, any limits or boundaries you both have. If past of your sexual communication is going to involve things like shared safer sex and birth control practices -- such as using a condom -- make clear now that those responsibilities should be shared, and no one of you should need to be the person reminding the other to stop and use them.

Of course, if you don't feel like he has the emotional maturity yet to have these kinds of conversations or be invested in listening, or if your relationship isn't quite there yet in you feeling comfortable bringing them up, then it's probably a good idea to put sex on the shelf until you can have these kinds of talks and address basic issues like listening and communicating. Being able to listen and to be heard during sex -- and the rest of any part of our life or self we share with someone -- is a very big deal.

By all means, sex can bring us closer and can be a way for us to refine listening skills, but it can't -- all by itself -- teach us to listen or create intimacy if attentiveness and listening aren't already going on. And I'd say that's not a sound arena to try and first learn to listen, just like I'd say that being out in the middle of shark-infested waters isn't exactly the best place to first learn to swim.

Sex between people is a sort of a mirror of the relationship we already have. It's our existing intimacy and an existing relationship where both partners listen to one another and care about or love each other that often makes sex so special. When all that good stuff is already there, and already something both of you are doing your best with, having it be part of sex is something that usually comes pretty naturally.

Here are a few articles I think will help you sort this out, and a couple which are probably good for both of you to look at before your relationship becomes sexual or more sexual than it is now:

written 14 Jul 2008 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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