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Our sexual partners can't read our minds. The good news is, they don't have to.

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XmimiX asks:

I've been with my boyfriend for around 7 months now, and I love him to bits! We get on so well, but when it comes to sex, I'm really let down. I lost my virginity to him when we first started going out. Being new to it, I was learning and exploring, but after months of the same thing I'm really dismayed. He always comes really soon - not prematurely - but soon enough its over before I've realised its begun! He only can go for a while if he moves slow, which is boring. Also, like most girls I can't orgasm through actual penetration easily, so I'd have to rely on oral sex for stimulation, but he never makes the effort... I always go down on him and hope he returns the favour but he never does. He does care and tries to make sex good, but when I tell him I can "come in other ways" he never takes the hint and never goes down on me. I don't like to ask him directly as I'm self conscious of the situation, and I don't want to offend. I love him so much but please help! It's really putting me off sex :(

Robin Mandell replies:

I'm sorry to hear that sex has been a disappointment. Let's see if I can help shed some light on this for you.

A partner cannot be a mind-reader. No one can, but being someone's sexual partner doesn't magically imbue them with that skill. There's just no way your boyfriend can know what you've been thinking about, what you think would feel good, what you'd like to try with him, unless you tell him.

I know it may not feel like it, but it's really as simple as that. It's also the only way our partners can truly find out what we want and we like.

When you say you feel self-conscious, I'm not really clear on what you feel self-conscious about. Since I can't ask you, I can only guess.

One guess is that you're embarrassed by the idea of asking for something aimed at giving you pleasure. Many of us have been taught not to ask for the things we want, things we know will make us feel good.

It's strange, since there's a lot of focus on encouraging us to speak up for what we don't want--from (rightly) voicing our objection to unwanted physical contact to sending the soup back in a restaurant if it's not hot enough. Yet, I feel we don't get encouraged to speak up for the things we do want. I'd even say we get messaging telling us that it's wrong, selfish, or greedy for us to ask for what we want, but then we often find ourselves in the position, as you're finding now, of wondering why someone else doesn't just know what we are thinking.

While I wish this still weren't so, I think gender can also play a part in how we see our right to pleasure. For starters, when it comes to sex and women, that tends to be something a lot of women grow up getting a lot of messages around, messages that say women shouldn't ask for what they want sexually, or shouldn't "have" to ask. That's a real lose-lose for both women and their partners, because women's partners, whatever their gender, again, can't read minds, and then women also wind up in the kind of spot you're in, where you are dissatisfied with sex because you're not asking for what you want and viewing asking as something scary, rude or a drag.

I also don't know if you feel this way, but sometimes I hear young women conveying that they don't want to divert attention from their male partner's pleasure, or inconvenience or distract him from his pleasure. Here are the facts: it's not unusual for men, particularly young men, to reach orgasm quickly. But it's also not necessary for sexual interaction to be entirely focused around his orgasm, and to finish when he's had one, and I think that most guys don't want it to be about just that either. There are lots of reasons, including the potential for pleasure why it's ideal, for both of you, for the focus to be on both of you. For all you know, your boyfriend doesn't want it that way, but again, if you aren't saying anything's wrong, he can't know.
 
There's also a piece of this where, in a sexual relationship, the pleasure isn't just one-sided for the person receiving. The idea that in some sexual situations one person is doing while the other is done to ignores the existence of emotional pleasure, enjoyment of a partner's physical pleasure, happy feelings from making someone feel good, physical pleasure that isn't specifically sexual. Reciprocity in sexual interactions (or most other things, for that matter) isn't just about people doing the same, or comparable, things to each other. In fact, I'd actually say that a sexual relationship is a lot more about doing things with each other rather than to each other.

You voice a worry that you'll offend him by starting a conversation about what you need from your sexual relationship. It actually strikes me as being unfair -- and maybe even offensive? -- to your boyfriend for you to continue not enjoying sex when you know some things that could help an just aren't telling him. Meanwhile, he struggles on his own to figure out what will make it good for you, or perhaps thinks that it is okay since you're not giving him specific feedback otherwise.

It's sort of like if someone eats a meal we prepared for them, right down to the very last crumb, then tells us they didn't like it, or worse yet, that they have a sensitivity to one of the ingredients and will spend time tomorrow feeling sick. (Or, even worse yet, if they eat the meal, go home, and never tell us that they didn't like it, plus it made them sick.) Had they told us in the first place, we could have prepared the salmon instead of the chicken and used the olive oil instead of the butter so as not to exacerbate a food sensitivity. We potentially could have guessed that the person didn't like chicken based on a conversation from three years back, or intuited that butter was a problem because dairy is a problem for a lot of people, but that's an awful lot of guesswork, taking up an awful lot of mental energy.

If we aren't told things specifically, it becomes pretty hard for us to choose to do them or choose how to do them.

Maybe you feel self-conscious because it feels awkward talking about sex. Using sexual words, whether anatomical or slang, might seem taboo, especially when we're young. So the idea of frank, open discussion using those words feels foreign and forbidden, and not in the squishy-sexy way. The commonly understood formulas for how we talk about sex aren't usually very helpful in developing a mutually satisfying, healthy sexual relationship, but the nice thing is that we can come up with scripts that work better for us and respect the autonomy, humanity, and pleasure of both partners. Communicating what we want and need, and giving our partners the space and attention to communicate what they want and need, is, I think, one of the most caring gestures we can make as a loving partner.

Thinking about it, it seems a little odd to me that there's this cultural restriction around talking about sex with a sexual partner, as people who feel this restriction are often still comfortable engaging in sexual activities. How odd that we can touch other people's bodies and have them touch ours, but we can't or won't use the words to talk about that touching or being touched. We get this cultural messaging that sex is somehow just supposed to take care of itself, especially where our pleasure is concerned.

Sex isn't a self-propelling machine. I often get the impression that people think that once they've attained intercourse, that there are no more sexual frontiers to meet or negotiate, that a sexual relationship, like a well-oiled machine, or perhaps more like a sophisticated computer program, will chug along, performing functions at appropriate intervals without specific input from us.

The way we want to enjoy, or even if we enjoy, everything, from kissing to touching to oral sex, and so on, is constantly evolving, following bodily fluctuations, as relationships develop and deepen, and our personal needs change.

There is no one formula for sex of any kind. You've indicated that your boyfriend is your first sexual partner. Were you his or did he have another partner before? At Scarleteen, we often hear from folks who think that since their sexual partner has previous experience, that they should be worldly-wise to the realm of sex; given the individual uniqueness I just mentioned, it's impossible to generalize sexual knowledge to individuals or specific relationships. If your boyfriend did have another partner before, know that that doesn't make him any more knowledgeable about how to have sex, or about how to have sex with you. (Getting back to the computer metaphor, if we were to write a computer program that came even close to mimicking that experience, there'd have to be a team of programmers and engineers modifying and updating it twenty-four hours a day!) Not only that, but not all sexual activities are going to be enjoyed by partners in the same way.

Let's take kissing as an example. Kissing is rarely given a lot of thought. People do it together because they like to, or they don't do it because they don't like to. Some folks do it even though they don't like it, but think that's what they're supposed to do. For some of these folks, they just don't like kissing, and I would encourage them to be confident in their own dislikes and likes, and to articulate those to a partner; no one has to do something they don't like to do.

For other folks, it's more a matter of not liking how their partner kisses. Now, this can be sticky since no one wants to tell someone they're doing something wrong...but it's not a matter of wrong so much as it is a matter of adjusting things so that both people are enjoying themselves.

A sex educator friend of mine likes to say that we're in charge of our own orgasms. I think she's got something there. A partner doesn't live inside our body; they don't and can't know what we want or how we feel, and it's not their responsibility to guess. It's our responsibility to communicate those things to them; that's one part of us being a partner in a real way. While a healthy, mutually-satisfying sexual relationship usually has partners sharing pleasure, what that looks like specifically will vary from relationship to relationship. For example, I often hear concerns expressed that someone doesn't reach orgasm through having a person giving them oral or manual sex and ends up having to give themselves an orgasm through masturbation. This isn't uncommon, or doesn't have to be problematic. For some people, there's a subtlety to being able to reach orgasm that a partner might not be able to get as they don't live inside the person's body to be able to follow the second-by-second nuances of physical sensation.

It's not your boyfriend's responsibility to decode what you mean when you tell him that you can come in other ways. After all, if he did decode it, he might decide you can reach orgasm by hanging from your toes from the ceiling fan, which unless you're really into danger, or have a secret fantasy about circus acts, probably isn't going to do it for you. (For the record, this is not an activity I recommend.)

So, the first place I would suggest you start is to talk to your boyfriend. Yes, it might be awkward. But the more you do it, the less awkward it's going to get. And the longer you wait to do it, the more awkward and dissatisfying your sexual life is going to become. In other words, you've got awkward and uncomfortable already. Talking about it might be a new kind of awkward or uncomfortable at first, but in the long run, it's the recipe to a lot less awkward, not more.

There are a lot of sound reasons why communication between partners is the only way a sexual relationship can really develop. It's possible your boyfriend really doesn't know what you mean when you drop hints, like by telling him that you can come in other ways. (Which really doesn't tell him anything at all, honestly, save that you can't come in that one way.) It's also possible that he's reluctant to initiate other sexual activities without your express say-so, and it's not like that's a bad thing on his part if that's the case, either: that's part of doing well with consent, after all. As you can see from the answer to this question, there's also a lot of cultural baggage around gender and sexual decision-making that isn't as old--historically speaking--as we'd like it to be.

How do you start the conversation? You could start it a lot of ways. One way would be to just be perfectly honest and say "I've really wanted to talk to you about this but I've felt self-conscious, and was afraid to offend you. I have some ideas about things to do with sex that might bring me more pleasure and I want to share them with you." You can choose words that sound natural to you, but that's the basic idea.

When having a conversation about sex with a partner, it can be really helpful to do so in a nonsexual setting, so, not before you're planning to engage in sexual activities, and not right after. Emotions tend to run higher when we're anticipating sexual interaction or have just experienced it. It can be helpful to make sure, as best you can, that you'll have plenty of uninterrupted time with each other. I think it can be nice to have these kinds of discussions while sharing a meal together, or after or during a walk or other exercise together, but your mileage may vary with that. For some more thoughts on how to initiate this kind of conversation, check out Be A Blabbermouth: The Whys, Whats, and Hows of Talking About Sex With A Partner.

It is always possible that your boyfriend won't go for your suggestions; maybe even that he'll be offended. If so, that's about him though, not you. When we honestly give what we have to someone, we can't control how they respond, but we can know we gave them our level best in being caring and communicating that we want everyone in the relationship to be happy. If it turns out that he isn't receptive, then it may very well be that the two of you, despite how much you love each other, just aren't sexually compatible right now and would both be happier not being each other's sexual partner.

From what I hear in your question though, your a long way from that possibility yet. There's still a lot that can be done to increase your communication and see where this world of a sexual relationship can lead both of you. I'm including some links to more information, as well as answers to questions similar to yours, and am wishing you all the best.

written 30 Dec 2012 . updated 11 Jan 2013

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