Left Foot, Red, Right Hand, Green: The Deal on Sex Positions

Anyone who works in sex ed can tell you that some of the most common questions they get are about sexual positions.

What positions are there? How do you do them? Which one is most exciting? Which is the very best one of all?

Or, what's missionary position? (It's a position for genital intercourse where people are face-to-face.) What about 69? (A position for oral sex where two people are engaging in oral sex with the other at the same time.) Suspended congress? (That's when the Republican Party gets their knickers in a twist about others insisting on basic human rights and -- oh wait, no. It's when people are engaging in intercourse with both standing up, but one partner using something like a stair for support.) What about the Wicked Cobra on Ice, Twisted Double? (Heck if we know, but it sure sounds uncomfortable. Also, we're oddly thirsty.)

Those questions -- having them or hearing them -- can make it seem like figuring out positioning, for any kind of sex, is a really difficult thing to do, and also the thing people need to know how to do in order to engage in sex. But it's so not.

Sexual positioning -- for any kind of sex -- isn't usually complicated. It also isn't something where anyone has to try and unlock some big secrets of the universe or sexuality (and as cool as sex can be, a sexual position isn't something with the power to do that either, despite media or advertising hype to the contrary). And if you're asking someone else about positions, or tell you the "best" one, someone who isn't in bed with you, you've got to know it's also something where someone else really won't have the answers, even someone whose job is providing sex education and information. Especially when the question is the common, "Okay, but what is the best position?"

Since you can pick up any number of magazines that tell you, often in very big letters -- and with the overuse of so many clichéd words like, "naughty"," "spicy," or "steamy," it can almost make you not want to have sex ever again -- they can give you that information, it wouldn't be surprising if you're wondering why most sex educators, including us, are telling you we can't.

Long story short? That's because we're not usually trying to sell you something, but more importantly, that's because we know that all of our bodies and sexualities are so different, and how we put any two or more bodies and sexualities together for something is so unique. We know that figuring out how to do that, with any given partner, with any kind of sex, and in any given situation, with your unique body is something that only you can really figure out for yourself.

But what we can tell you is how you can figure out what positions work and are best for you, for yourself.

Finding a position to engage in any kind of sex with really just comes down to doing three basic things:

  1. Deciding what kind of sex you want to engage in, and figuring out what body parts it involves or you want it to involve.
  2. Knowing or finding out what your body and the body of anyone else involved are actually capable of doing comfortably and realistically at the time you want to engage in that kind of sex, by just trying things out, communicating and bringing what you already know about yourself and your partner to the table.
  3. Finding out what feels good, physically and emotionally, for everyone involved by, again, communicating and experimenting.

twisterBefore we dig into those three parts some more, it might help to think of positioning like this: it's a lot like playing Twister™.

(Which is probably a big reason why Twister™ is one of those games which can get people feeling sexy sometimes. That graphic over there doesn't make it look that way, mind, and it also makes the game look a whole lot creepier than it actually is. Someone in the marketing department that day perhaps drank one Wicked Cobra on Ice Twisted Double too many.)

If you've never played, here's how it goes: the game consists of a board with a spinner that has a bunch of colors and sections for the right and left hands and feet, and a big mat you put on the floor with the same colored dots. You spin the dial, and it'll land on something like "right foot, blue." So, you put your right foot on a blue dot. Next spin, you get "left hand, green." So, you need to put your left hand on green while keeping your right foot on the blue dot you put it on. Next time, you might get, "left foot, red." This is where it usually starts to get tricky: you've got one foot over here, the other over there, and you've got to figure out how to get your other foot over there, and do it in a way where you can hold yourself up, without falling, and also ideally without hurting yourself or someone else in any way.

Sometimes it's super-easy.  Other times, not so much. It may be you've got to crawl over someone else to get there and that doesn't feel good to them (or maybe it does). Sometimes it'll seem like you can do all that in a given way, but then you try that way, and it doesn't work, or you wind up unable to sustain the position you're in for more than a few seconds without falling on your face. Sometimes you can't get there at all, because there's just no way this foot can be here, that hand there, and that foot over there.

But there's almost always a bunch of different ways you could do what the game is calling for, meaning that one time you do right foot blue, left hand green, and left foot red you can do it one way, while the next time you can do the same thing in a different way.  And a way you can do those things at once that works for you might not be a way that works for someone else's body, and vice-versa. One way of doing it might be totally comfy, while another gives you a charley horse.

I played Twister once with about five or six other visually impaired girls. We arranged ourselves on the Twister mat, while someone who could see not only called out where everyone's hands and feet should go, but specific instructions for how each of us should get there since most of us couldn't see where the different coloured spots were. So, it sounded something like this: "Robin, move your left hand forward. A little more. A little more. Now back a bit....no, you'll have to go around Karen's arm the other way."  - Robin

Let's go back to our list of three things, and walk through an example of how that all works. Let's say you and a partner want to engage in oral sex, and oral sex where their genitals are the ones being stimulated by your mouth. So:

1) This kind of sex involves, at least, their genitals, and your mouth. If you can't reach their genitals with your mouth, this obviously isn't going to work. Whatever you come up with to try, it's got to be something where your mouth can reach their genitals.

2) Realistically, you can't do this kind of sex when one of you is five feet from the other, or where your lips or tongue have to stretch halfway around their body, or where their genitals would need to be longer than they actually are. Your mouth and their genitals also can probably only be at certain angles comfortably, especially if you're going to be doing this for more than few seconds or minutes. You or they might have certain limitations of your body, like with height, size or flexibility, or maybe more specific things, like finding you gag or can't breathe well in certain positions. Some of these things may be things you already know, from doing this with them or others before: some of these things might be things you need to first try with them to find out.  So, you try some things, and probably find some ways of doing this that are comfortable for both of you and don't seem likely to have the evening end in the emergency room.  Bonus!

3) Now you're on to the last part, figuring out what also feels good.  Of the ways to position yourselves with this kind of sex which are plain-old-doable and also comfortable, it might be all of them also feel good for both of you, or only some of them do.  (It might also be none of them do, which may or may not have anything to do with positions, since not everyone enjoys every kind of sex, or enjoys a given kind of sex every time.) One way of having your bodies for this might feel awesome at first, but then in a couple of minutes, feel ouchy for one of you, or just not very stimulating anymore.  In that case, you just try something new again, or change up a way you or they are positioned a little, to see if all you need is to adjust yourselves slightly, like not staying in a position that's putting your foot to sleep, or moving yourself a little so that you're better able to stimulate the particular spots on your partner's genitals they find feels best for them.

From there,  it's pretty much lather, rinse, repeat: for this or any given sexual activity, or when we want to add things to that activity, or move on to something new, we go back to step one and start all over, adjusting and changing things up as need be, which often just means trying things out to see how they do, or don't, work for us and our partners.

Finding comfortable, doable, pleasurable positions for everyone isn't just about how or where we move our bodies or their parts, either.  That can include bringing in the surrounding environment. Just as you might use pillows and blankets to find the most comfortable and satisfying position in which to read a book or watch a movie, same goes for using pillows, blankets, walls, furniture, and so on for supporting, or making possible, positions with a partner or partners.

Need to prop a pillow under your head so you can reach someone else's genitals? Go ahead. Need a wall for leverage when you're rubbing your genitals (or any other body parts) against a partner's genitals (or any other body parts)? Sure thing. Need a rolled up blanket under the small of your back to allow you to sustain a position for as long as you and any other partners want to? Then roll up a blanket or towel. There are no rules, and no requirements to attain positions, no matter what the artful pictures in books or magazines might tell you, or what you might see in porn.

Then there's that part where you say things to each other.

Just like with Twister™, whether you can or can't see, finding a position isn't just about putting your body places.  It's got a lot to do with communication.  With Twister™, the board tells us what to put where: with a sexual partner, we talk with each other to each find that out.  And then, much like the round of Twister™ Robin played, we'll often still communicate a bit more than that, getting more specific, like asking someone to sit there, but then talking about how much weight on us feels okay or doesn't.  Or agreeing on a position, but then having a partner ask us if we'll adjust a little bit more to the left or right, or lean forward or back.

When it comes to positioning our bodies during any kind of sex, using our words, or, if not words, whatever tools we use to effectively communicate with another person, not only communicates information, but also adds another dimension to a sexual experience. The ongoing dialogue you have about likes and dislikes, needs and wants, what works and what doesn't tends to be a big part of the sexual connection we make and can have with someone else.

Maybe you feel like you don't have to communicate that specifically with a partner about sex. And maybe you don't have to, sometimes, but other times, or in general, everyone would actually have a much better time and be more comfortable and clued in if you did. We find that a lot of people who are willing to engage in, and are interested in, sex with a partner are put off by the idea of actually talking about, and during, sex. But giving the kind of specific instructions that include what someone should do with their body parts, or what you'd like to do with your body parts, can take some of the wondering and fumbling out of the process, and it also allows your partner the kindness of not having to try and read your mind. Communicating may be, and often is, exactly what you need to help you and your partner or partners get into the positions you need to with comfort, ease, and pleasure, as well as the tool that helps you enjoy your sexual life and experiences to the fullest.

So many position names, what do they mean? Even though experimenting is the name of the game with positioning, that doesn't stop us from being curious about a given position we hear about, wanting a name so we can have some shorthand, or take away our desire to check out some possible positions for ideas or inspiration. For a start with that, you can check out Wikipedia's page on sexual positioning, or check your library, or, if you're over 18 and have access to one, your local sexuality store for books that are expressly sexual position guides. There are a ton of them published: it'll just be about finding which ones appeal to you. On the whole, guides aimed at specific populations -- like for people of a certain body type, with specific disabilities, or for a specific group of sexual activities, like bondage or oral sex -- often tend to be more useful than more general guides. You can also put a position name into the Urban Dictionary, which is often illuminating, as well as a fine lesson in how for any position with a name, people don't always have the same ideas about what it is or how to do it.

Comfort Vs. Pleasure: Which Wins?

Ideally, both.  Most of the time, we can have both. But sometimes we or our partners may have to choose between them, whether that comfort or pleasure is about ours or theirs.

For example, the way a partner has been positioned through a given kind of sex is clearly a big part of what has us thisclose to orgasm: they might be getting the cramp from hell in their wrists, but they don't want to stop because they are enjoying our enjoyment. Or, we might be positioned in such a way that isn't feeling good at all to one part of our bodies, but is making another part feel freaking amazing.

Each person will have their own thresholds for what is important; sexual pleasure may take priority over immediate physical comfort for some people some of the time, maybe even all of the time. There's not really a right or wrong here, just choices we get to make when we're in this kind of spot. The priorities of comfort and pleasure will vary from person to person, and even for one person, based on the sexual activity, partner, relationship, or the way the stars are aligned that day. The way someone experiences something physically and emotionally, and their preference for what they experience, isn't a static thing and can change. This is why one sexual activity or way of doing that activity might feel really great one day, and so-so on another, or why a position that worked really well with one partner works not at all well with another.

As sex educators, we're also advocates for everyone's general well-being and safety, so do know that often enough, we can find positions that feel awesome while not being in pain or uncomfortable in any way.  Too, we always have to remember that pain, particularly, is our bodies way of telling us to stop something we're doing. Sex injuries do happen sometimes, and sometimes they're minor enough to just be funny.  But, like anything where we exert our bodies, we can also seriously injure ourselves through sex, and we want to do what we can to avoid injuries, which includes not pushing our bodies too much when it comes to positioning.

Positioning: The Trues, Maybe-Buts, and Totally Falses

Reaching orgasm, and having the best sex of ever, requires the perfect position: It may be that for you, or a partner, reaching orgasm does require certain positions. It may also be that for you, or a partner, one of the things that made sex at a given time feel like the best sex of ever is a position. But experiencing orgasm and enjoying sex is not only about way more than a given position, nobody's got to worry about "perfect" here.  And sometimes, you'll find both of these things have zilch to do with positioning at all.

Certain positions make sex better than other positions: They can. Plenty of people find that one position versus another works better for them, and makes things feel better for them in any number of ways.  But that's personal, not universal.  Any one way of positioning for a given kind of sex can make that sex better for one person, while for another, it doesn't feel good at all.

Elaborate positions are exciting for everyone: They are for some people, or some people sometimes, sure. But for others, they might feel scared of you hurting yourself, or of hurting themselves, or might feel a little weirded out, like they went to have sex and took a wrong turn, winding up being asked to perform at a circus sideshow. Some people would like that, too; others, not so much.

You've got to know positions in advance to know "how to do sex." You really don't, just like you can dance without knowing the steps of the Foxtrot, the Electric Slide or the Macarena. If you want to do those specific dances, then yep, there are steps to know and learn.  But you can still dance without doing a specific dance, just like you can still engage in sex without knowing or doing a specific position, either ahead of time, or at the time.

People who ask partners about what feels good or doesn't, or ask to experiment with a few positions, will look inexperienced or like they don't know what they're doing: Actually, we'd say that it's most often people who have experience with sex, and sex everyone has enjoyed, who tend to know better than others that communicating and experimenting is the name of the game. It's folks without sexual experience, or without the experience of sexual interactions and relationships which are satisfying for everyone, who'll be more likely to think they don't need to ask questions or experiment with partners to find out what works for them.

With any position, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it: This isn't classical ballet. This is the unique puzzle and its pieces that are your body and someone else's fitting together, and what works for you. If it feels right, it's right.

Once you get into a position one of you wanted, you have to stay in it until that person is done. Or else: Just like once food is prepared, you still get to add salt, pepper or catchup to it, or even change your mind and eat something else entirely, so it goes with positions. You, or a partner, get to change things up however and whenever you need to, so long as those changes work for everyone involved.

Positions are only for two partners, or only for a vaginal intercourse: Positions are ultimately just a way we can talk about or explain how are body relates to other objects and bodies in space, and how they relate in space itself. They're not about gender, orientation, or only one kind of sex, even though some people talk about them, or present them, like they are.

You can learn all the sexual positions you'll ever need to know, and how to do them, just from porn, books or magazines. And then you will be Lord Champion Ruler of All the Sex: You certainly can learn about sexual positions and some basics of how to do them from porn, books or magazines. But you're still often, if not always, going to have to fiddle around when you're doing them in real life to find a way to do them that works and feels good for you and yours.  And not only are positions hardly all there is to sex, or even the most important parts of what can make sex great, there is no Lord Champion Ruler of All the Sex. If this has been your "When I grow up I want to be..." thing, we're sorry to dash your dreams.

Certain positions will rock every partners' world: Nope. Different strokes, different folks. Sure, if you're someone with say, three partners through your life, it might turn out that a given position is super-fantastico for all of those partners.  But that's not a giant sample size, and even then, chances are good that one of those three people won't be as in love with a position the other two were. We're just all that different, as are our bodies and the ways they do, or don't, fit together.

If you know some sexual positions, you can have sex with people without ever having to talk during sex, or about sex, period: You could. Just like you could play football knowing all the plays and just doing them yourself without consulting anyone.  But if you approached football that way, you'd have a lot of team members with no idea what you were doing, and who got awfully annoyed with you, and you'd also be running around the field by yourself a whole lot. Same goes here. Not only do we have to talk about and during sex for other reasons -- like consent -- we're also often going to have to ask each other about parts of positioning, like if something feels good, if someone's comfortable or not, and what someone wants to do and doesn't.

If positioning isn't that big of a deal, and is something everyone can figure out on their own, then why are articles about positioning so prevalent? A lot of people have the idea that positions are the easy answer to their sexual lives being satisfying, and people who publish magazines, books and websites know this. It's low-hanging fruit. As well, it's easy to write a list of positions: it's only physical, and doesn't ask that a writer has to talk or even know about all of the more nuanced and complex parts of sex and sexuality.  Writers can do "Ten Best Sex Positions of All Time!" articles in their sleep.

Experimenting with positioning is a buzzkill: Here's the big sex secret magazines won't tell you: when we actually want to be and like being together and close, and when we, together, feel comfortable earnestly exploring our sexuality together, experimenting is often the part of sex that's the most fun of all.

It's a part, after all, that's really playful and creative and also sometimes silly. It's the part where things are more unexpected: where we can be surprised. A part where we communicate and connect more, not less.  It's one of the ways that sex is something that's truly about us as unique individuals with unique sexualities who are finding out more about them and each other through sex together.  When people talk about sex as something that can build intimacy, this is the kind of thing that really facilitates that: just putting Tab A in Slot B (or rubbing Tab A against Tab A, whatever) can feel good, for sure, but all by itself, it often doesn't really bring us emotionally closer.

That doesn't mean experimenting and exploring freely like this is always fun. Sometimes it's not. Like when we really don't feel that comfortable with each other, or feel scared about sex, instead of excited and okay.  Or when we don't feel free to experiment and to say what we want or like, or feel like sex is about proving something to someone else, or ourselves, rather than simply having and exploring an experience. Or when we or a partner are so freaked or nervous or scared that they or we want to be as passive as possible, having sex like...well, like we're not really there.  But with these situations and many others that make experimenting not fun, we'd say when it's not fun, it's not usually about experimenting being a bummer in and of itself.  Rather, it's usually about experimenting feeling awful or nervewracking because something just isn't right in a given sexual situation or relationship.

There's no one goal with positions, nor any givens about what they will or won't facilitate sexually for everyone. There are no rules about picking one position and sticking with it, nor any given position everyone has to try, do or like. Altering positions, whether through slight changes or complete reinvention, can happen as many times as you need or want it to. People might change or choose positions for all sorts of reasons: to increase pleasure, to add some variety and interest, to get more comfortable, to ratchet up the intensity, or to enjoy showing off the flexibility their new yoga practice has given them. People might like or dislike positions for any number of reasons, too, and not just because of how a position feels physically. Some people like or dislike certain positions because they make them feel, emotionally, in a certain role or relationship to each other, because socially, they're more or less comfortable for them, or because they do or don't highlight certain parts of their bodies.

Sexual positioning is both innate and learned. If we take time to understand and explore our own bodies, we can have a strong sense of what will bring those bodies pleasure. If we take time to explore our partners bodies, and let them explore ours, we build a body of knowledge (no pun intended, we swear) that helps us figure out how they fit together. So, we can come to sex with a partner already having some idea of what might or might not work for us, based on things we've learned with other partners or through our own masturbation, but then there are also going to be things about positioning we'll only learn as we experiment more.

Sometimes people ask about positions the same way they'll ask, "How do I give a blow job?" The answer to the former is going to be the same as the answer to the latter, for the most part, which is that the how is something we can only learn with whoever our partner is, based on what, uniquely, it turns out they like and feels good to them, and what we find we like and feels good for us with them.  Often enough, those questions are asked out of anxiety, and feeling like an advance script will make any kind of sex with someone else feel a lot less scary, and be less awkward.

It's absolutely okay to check out some things in advance, and we can get some basic information and ideas about positioning and other parts of sex from sites like this, books or magazines. There's not a thing wrong with that.  But what we've got to know is that not only can that just get us so far -- porn, websites, books or magazines can't tell us what our own lovers will or won't like, nor what we will or won't like -- if we lean too much on outside instruction or scripts, we risk missing out on some of the best parts of being sexual, alone or with others. We risk missing out on how much better any kind of sex usually is when we write our own scripts.

Again, experimenting, exploring, making new discoveries based on our own ideas: that really is usually a fun part.  It's why, if you look at sexuality advice for long-term couples or much older people, you'll see a whole lot of advice and coaching about how people can get back to that experimenting that pretty much has to happen when sex or relationships are shiny and new.  Too, if we lean too much on scripts or outside instruction, while it can seem like it might reduce some of our worries or anxieties, it can increase them in other ways: it can be easy to feel like we have to get those scripts exactly right, like we're screwed if we forget some part of that instruction, and that any deviation puts us at risk of being "wrong" or making an ass of ourselves. (The latter? Unavoidable. Being intimate with others, exploring sexuality, pretty much requires goofs sometimes. And that's okay, if for no other reason than that it keeps sex from resembling a funeral service.)

Putting too much emphasis on instruction from elsewhere can also lead us to forget that the sex expert in the room when we're the ones engaging in sex is always us and our partners: no one can possibly know more about what feels best for us, what works for us and doesn't, than we can. Just like with other parts of your sexual life, whatever it may be, working out positioning is something that you get to -- not just have to, but get the awesome freedom to -- construct, for yourself, that's truly about yourself and anyone else you make part of your physical sexual life.

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