Did you know that September is Sex Positivity month? I know, it feels like they’re just making a month for everything at this point. But to be fair, I think sex positivity is something that should be normalized each and every month. There is such a taboo around sex. Especially for Black women because we often receive mixed messages around it. On one hand, we are hypersexualized and objectified, but on the other hand, we are stigmatized or judged if we are too comfortable in our sexuality. Whether due to religious beliefs, society, patriarchy, wanting to keep our intimate life private, or any other reason, we don’t typically discuss our sex lives with others, and surprisingly not our partners either. But why? Sex is natural. It’s a part of life. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Not to mention, it can have huge benefits for our mental health.
Mental health benefits of sex
For one, sex can help to reduce stress and anxiety. When having sex, the hormonal release of oxytocin helps to lower the stress hormone, cortisol. In addition to oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are released during sex as well and these hormones are associated with elevated moods. Sex can also improve your sleep because the hormones and neurotransmitters that are released not only reduce stress but blood pressure as well while promoting relaxation. With all of the chemical reactions happening during sex, it also can increase intimacy and connection with your partner. Even if you don’t have a partner at the moment, you can still benefit from the positive effects sex has on mental health through masturbation. Plus masturbation can add a sense of empowerment as you learn your body and what brings you pleasure. But what do you do if you already know what your sexual needs are and how to provide them, but your partner doesn’t? How do you navigate that?
That’s where communication comes in. As I said before, sex can be seen as a taboo or touchy topic, that we don’t discuss as freely. But when you feel your partner is not meeting your needs, then it is definitely time for a discussion. You may be wondering why. You may feel as though that’s embarrassing, or you don’t want to hurt their feelings. “The sex isn’t that bad, so I can deal with it.” But a hallmark of a good relationship is honesty and open communication. So wouldn’t you want to be honest with your partner about what is and isn’t working for you sexually? But I also recognize that asking for what you need is not always easy for everyone, especially when it comes to your sex life.
The mental health factors that impact asking for what you need
For one, to ask for what you need means you would have to actually know what your needs are in the first place. To do so requires internal insight and self-awareness. It would mean becoming attuned with your sexuality and not feeling shame or guilt for wanting certain things out of your sexual relationships. If you are struggling with creating intentional time for yourself and reflection, then it can be a challenge to be aware of what your needs are. If you have been feeling depressed, that can be another barrier to asking for your needs. Some of the common symptoms of depression include lack of motivation, irritability, and loss of pleasure in the things you once enjoyed. So it may be difficult to be aware of what you desire when what used to bring you joy no longer does. Even if you are aware of your needs, communicating them to someone else can be anxiety-provoking. Anxiety is often fueled by the negative thoughts we have about ourselves or how situations will turn out. If you’ve been telling yourself some negative narratives such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I ask for too much,” or even “I am undeserving of pleasure/love/happiness” then it can get in the way of expressing your needs because you may not even believe that your needs are valid or deserving of being heard. Anxiety can also play a role in your self-confidence, leading to worries about how people will respond to you asserting yourself. However, that is why asking for what you need sexually is so important. Expressing your sexual needs to your partner can be an empowering moment for you. It can be an example that when you voice what you want, you can receive it. Doing so also provides an environment of open communication with your partner and allows you both to continuously learn from each other. The more open you two become, the better the intimacy will be as well. So now that you see the benefits of asking your partner for what you need, how do you go about actually having the conversation?
How to communicate with your partner about your sexual needs
As I stated before, sex can be a sensitive topic for most people. Therefore it is best to start the conversation as gently as possible. It would be helpful, to begin with, what you currently are enjoying about you and your partner’s sex life. That way they do not feel attacked or hit with a barrage of complaints that lead them to become defensive. When it comes to expressing what you’re needing that you are not getting, a sentence such as “I would like to incorporate more ______ into our intimacy” could be a great way to start off. Or “I really enjoy when you _____ and would like that to happen more often.” Be clear about what you are needing or would like to try while being sure not to put your partner down in the process. Another way to approach this would be to ask your partner how they feel about your sex life currently, and if they are getting their needs met. That way you have the ability to hear their needs and respond in a way that models for them the safe space you are aiming to create and what you’re hoping to gain out of the conversation.
Besides explicit conversation, you can also communicate your needs in other ways. If there is something in particular that you would like your partner to do, you could show them or guide them while in the moment. You could also express your needs through sharing fantasies or watching something together and pointing out what you would enjoy. Another great way to explore your needs with your partner is through sensate focus exercises. Sensate focus is a technique that is great for helping couples increase their intimacy and pleasure by taking sex off the table and focusing on the senses in the present moment. There are five phases: 1. Non-genital touching, 2. Genital and breast touching, 3. Adding lotion/lubricant, 4. Mutual touching, and 5. Sensual intercourse. By removing the end goal of having sex, allows partners to let go of their ideas of what should happen, and just examine what sensory stimulation they are enjoying and sharing that with their partner. Once you begin having conversations around sexual needs and satisfaction, it can become less awkward and hopefully a part of you and your partner’s routine. In the same way, I recommend couples to have check-ins about their relationship, it’s important to do so with the intimate aspects of the relationship as well.