Instagram Live “Communication and Sex” Q&A with Sex Therapist Casey Tanner

Queer sex therapist Casey Tanner took over LELO’s Instagram live to offer some amazing feedback on all sorts of topics—communication, boundary setting, PTSD, fetishes and more. Check out what she had to say about your questions!

how to ask for sex

How do our bodies’ physical responses to sex encourage and/or limit our verbal communication?

Our bodies are constantly communicating during sex. Whether it’s becoming lubricated, getting an erection, making sounds or breathing deeply, there are many ways our body responds. Body language can give us great information about how our partner is doing, what they’re enjoying, and whether or not they’re enthusiastically consenting to sex.  

It’s also important to note that a sexual partner’s words are always more important than what their body communicates. While a wet vulva or hard penis may be one indicator that a partner is ready for sex, neither is enough to assume that the person is consenting. In other words, sometimes our bodies become turned on even when our minds are not ready for sex. This concept is called “arousal non-concordance”.

What if you express exactly what you want – but they still won’t do it?

It can be quite vulnerable to request for a need or desire to be met during sex, and even more vulnerable when you don’t receive the response you’re looking for. Sometimes, however, a partner is just not ready or interested in the activity you’ve requested. I’d recommend getting curious with your partner around why they haven’t been responsive to your request. For example, are they nervous to initiate the new experience? Are they uninterested altogether?  Did they just forget? Approaching the conversation with compassion and giving them the benefit of the doubt may help you get some of the answers you’re looking for without becoming overly defensive.

Try introducing the conversation with a question like, “Hey, do you remember the conversation where I asked if we could try this thing together? Would you be open to sharing what your thoughts were on that, and if it’s something you’re actually interested in?” If you get an answer, and the answer is that your partner isn’t actually wanting to complete the request, accept the “no” and respect that boundary. There may be some grieving you need to do around the loss of the ability to explore with that partner.

How do you propose using toys with a partner who isn’t totally comfortable with them?

There are many reasons folks feel discomfort around using toys. Many of us are socialized to believe that introducing toys somehow means that we aren’t doing a “good enough” job, or that we are failing ourselves or our partners in some way. Others worry that incorporating toys will create a disconnect between partners. In reality, adding toys to sex can be an amazing addition to your sexual repertoire that actually increases enjoyment and connection – alone or with partners. 

Depending on why your partner is uncomfortable, it may be helpful to share a bit about how toys have been impactful to you. Ask your partner if they would be open to hearing about some of the ways they’ve improved your sex life in the past, or ways in which you believe they would enhance your relationship in the future. Let your partner know that you aren’t looking to replace them and that your request is not about a performance issue, but rather a desire to go deeper together.

Perhaps, though, your partner has thought it through and just isn’t ready or interested. Maybe they’ve had negative experiences with toys in the past, or don’t enjoy the sensation of toys. Whenever we think our partners “should” try something that they don’t want to, I always recommend treading very lightly, because we never want to push somebody to do something they’re not ready for.

How do you initiate a conversation about likes and dislikes before sex happens for the first time?

This is such an important question, because most of us find ourselves halfway through sex (or even post-sex) realizing we haven’t had a conversation about what our partner likes during sex. Without knowing a new partner’s body, triggers, preferences, etc. we can accidentally hurt them because of lack of information. Furthermore, we miss out on the opportunity to express our own wants, desires and boundaries.

I recommend incorporating a casual, yet assertive, question if you notice things are escalating with a potential partner. As you notice tension building, or if you begin kissing, try saying something such as, “Hey, I really like where this is headed. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but before this goes further can we talk a bit about our sexual likes and dislikes?” I love this question because it validates that you’re enjoying what’s happening and are not trying to shift the mood, but genuinely are interested in the other person’s preferences. To help ease some tension, you can also model giving the type of information you’d like to receive. For example, sharing about a boundary you have gives the other person an opportunity to share theirs.

How do you reject someone politely without hurting their feelings?

I really appreciate the desire to be intentional about how to turn someone down; some forms of rejection are more thoughtful than others. Owning one’s feelings and experience of what happened often gives the other person the answers they’re looking for. Often, we attempt to beat around the bush or find an out (i.e. it’s not you, it’s me), when actually all the person is looking for is a bit of honesty. If you’re not feeling attraction, just let that person know that you’re not feeling the connection you were hoping to feel. If you realized there was an incompatibility, consider letting them know that there is a mismatch for you on something that you value.  

It’s vital to remember, though, that we can be the nicest person on earth and still hurt someone’s feelings when rejecting them because – let’s face it – rejection sucks. If you’re clear and kind, then any hurt feelings they have are theirs to own, and we can only hope they have supportive people in their life who can take care of them afterwards.

How do you communicate that your PTSD is triggered during sex and still keep the mood?

For survivors of violence, especially sexual violence, triggers may happen in the middle of sex.  For many, maintaining the mood is difficult because they may need a break from sex or some time to process and do self-care. Others may feel more able to move through triggers and maintain sexual connection. If your trauma-related reactions are overwhelming, don’t hesitate to break the mood if that’s what’s needed to take care of yourself. In those moments, you need compassion and patience, rather than a push to remain sexy.

For those who feel less overwhelmed and desire to continue sex through a momentary trigger, there are certainly options. Rather than stopping sex altogether, consider shifting positions, pacing, or intensity to help yourself separate from whatever felt triggering. If you were engaging in something explicitly sexual such as penetration or oral sex, try shifting to something more sensual such as kissing or massage. Sometimes, shifting the experience is exactly what you need to shift your mentality.

Depending on how able and comfortable you are talking about triggers as they occur, you might consider communicating with your partner that something difficult is going on for you. Letting your partner into that difficulty can be connecting, and will help them understand why you’re asking to pause, slow down, or shift experiences. It positions you and your partner as an erotic team that’s going to work through the challenge together.

My boyfriend and I talk about sex openly, but it’s hard for me to talk all at all while actually having sex. Any tips?

Difficulty speaking up during sex is a common concern, and can occur for any number of reasons. Some folks feel too nervous that they might say something “wrong” or “unsexy”.  Others are just so deeply into the sex they’re having that they can’t stop to think and speak.  Others aren’t sure what to say, or when to say it. If you can identify with any of these struggles, know that this is okay (and normal!). Many people prefer not to talk during sex, and that preference is valid. As long as you feel okay saying “no” or using a safe word, it’s safe not to speak during sex; there are so many other ways your body can express itself.

If you’d like to work through this challenge, I recommend taking some of the pressure off to say the “right” thing or to sound sexy. Some of the most connective experience couples have during sex are when they just laugh together, or when they overcome an awkward moment. If you’re not sure what to say, try introducing a couple of basic phrases, such as “I really like that” or “that feels good”. Then, practice providing in-the-moment feedback to your partner about what feels best for you by giving a bit of direction. Let them know, “a little to the left”, “slower”, or “more” to guide them into giving you the best possible experience. 

If you continue to feel nervous, it may be worth bringing this up with your partner outside of sex. Let them know that talking during sex is something you’re working on, and let them know that it’s making you a bit anxious. Allow them the space to validate you, and to reinforce that you don’t have to be perfect.

I had a first-time partner experience erection difficulties – how do I let him know it’s okay?

This is a common concern for partners of folks with difficulties getting erections, and experiencing this with a first-time partner has some added difficulties. For example, it can be hard to know if this experience is an exception for them, or if this is something they’ve struggled with in the past. You may not know each other well enough to know what kind of support they desire, if any. Some people who experience difficulty getting or maintaining an erection appreciate the validation that they’re not being judged, while others prefer not to be coddled or to talk about it.

Unfortunately, men are socialized to believe that their self-worth and ego are tied to sexual performance. This is something people with penises sometimes have to work through on their own, or with the help of a therapist. Unless this first-time partner invites you into his process, I recommend letting him cope with the feelings that come up on his own terms. Later, if you continue to have sex and get to know each other, there may be more opportunity to be a support. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is to not treat them differently because of what happened, and to allow them to have whatever feelings they have around their erection difficulty without assuming you play a role in it.

Is it okay to make more noise than necessary during sex because your partner enjoys it?

Yes – with a caveat. Research actually says that playing up our noises can actually increase our own pleasure as well as our partners. There’s nothing wrong with leaning in, and expressing yourself with a full range of sounds – even those that aren’t “necessary” – if you and your partner enjoy that.

My caveat is this: women are taught that we have to perform for men sexually, which can sometimes lead to acting in ways that do not feel good or authentic. If you’re feeling pressured to make noises, and feel uncomfortable doing so, it’s worth asking yourself if this is something you really want to do. Are you doing it because turning your partner on turns you on? If so, wonderful. But if it’s more about stroking your partners ego when you’re not really enjoying yourself, think twice next time.

When someone asks what you’re into, how deep do you have to go with personal fetishes?  Is “general” okay?

We all have different comfort levels in terms of what we share on a first date or sexual encounter, so in many ways this comes down to personal preference. However, know that there does not need to be pressure to share everything right away. In fact, sharing too much too soon can give you a vulnerability hangover, leaving you feeling regretful about giving so much information without knowing the person or feeling safe with them. There are some conversations that are essential to have up front, however, such as a share about an STI or boundary-setting.  

On day one, when you don’t know someone well generally, you don’t need to know their sexual history (beyond necessary health information), nor do you owe them yours. You don’t have to give details about your gender identity, a list of fetishes, past sexual experiences, or even about your future fantasies if you’re not ready to do so.

Written by: Donna Turner

Donna Turner
Donna is a Volonté contributor and freelancer who lives in San Francisco with her understanding husband and not-so-understanding teenage sons. Her work frequently appears in the Journal of Sexology and Women’s Health Mag. She hosts intimacy seminars and is currently writing a book on love languages.

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