Initiating sex and intimacy is a delicate act of communication, desire, and respect. As a Sex Educator and Sexual Health Clinician questions around initiating sex come up a lot. We must balance making sure not to pressure or push our partner, while also being clear and expressive with our own desire and letting others know that they are desirable to us.
Before jumping into initiating sex, important steps in learning about communicative and consensual sex, starting at any age, are to express clearly what you want, and be aware and accepting that NO is a perfectly ok answer.
When we try to initiate sex, the person we are asking something of may feel either they must do it or they will disappoint you, or an innate sense of pressure that makes it harder to want to say yes. If you spend time with yourself and you really come to terms with being told No, when you ask something of someone else, especially something as vulnerable as initiating sex, that person can feel more free to be honest and open in return, and may actually feel more available to say yes because there is no subtext of pressure, disappointment or expectation.
Especially in longer term relationships, people can start to feel boxed in by behaviors and patterns. That frustrating feeling of, “well I know what you’re about to say or do” is generally not a very sexy feeling. For these dynamics, I often counsel two different methods that might seem in total opposition to each other, but also can be complimentary.
#1 Establish Tools to Communicate Desire
The first- establish with you partner some basic ways to communicate a desire for sex or sexy stuff that is a bit playful but also clear. Perhaps there is a gesture, like a shoulder shrug, a certain look, a movement that lets your person know that you are interested, without having to ask directly. They can then respond in a subtle, but agreed and understood way as to whether or not it’s a good time. This means setting up some parameters that are known between the participants and can be used habitually. I recommend being a bit silly with it, perhaps you pick out a hat you like, or you open an umbrella, or you leave a note somewhere, or an object you both recognize (this could be something obvious like a sex toy or lubricant, or something completely arbitrary like a shell, a candle, a rope or bow tie). Change it up but let your partner in on what you are trying to communicate for the next time. I believe that in many ways in our lives, words and the intellect get in the way. When you can find ways to verbally create agreements that set up communication via body language and play, you can get the cerebral aspect out of the room and rely on your bodies.
#2 Utilize Surprise & Spontaneity
The second- un-habituate and use the elements of surprise and spontaneity. This can be verbal like dirty talk, sexting, or photos, and it can also involve just subtly removing a layer of clothing, dancing, setting up a romantic environment, putting on your Let’s Get It On playlist. That is, using gestures and initiations that are invitational without being pushy or direct. It’s challenging when lovers have different rhythms and different libidos, and moments of perceived rejection can influence people far into the future, creating cycles of fear, shame and uncertainty. When you are the person that is not in the mood, or simply the answer is No for you for whatever reasons, letting your person know clearly, but with a compliment or invitation can prevent them from worrying about future rejection or feeling ashamed for trying.
“I think you’re so hot, and I’d like to try this in the future.”
“I want to see you in that hat and nothing else when I can feel more present with you.”
“Why don’t you wear that bow tie for the rest of the day and we’ll check back in before bed?”
Libido can be a difficult thing to navigate when it is not consistently available to a person. Sometimes just engaging in the suggestion of something can feel like enough participation without having to push any physical or emotional intimacy limits. Give each other things to play with independent of one another. You can carry them around during the work day, or to place next to their computer. These are reminders, small acts of play, and small romantic gestures that can go much farther than we often expect. A note hidden in a pocket can shift someone’s entire day.
The Go-To Initiator
Often one person in a relationship initiates more than another, which can definitely work for some people, but also can be taxing for both parties after a while if the imbalance remains noticeable. If one person is having trouble initiating, starting small with one of these gestures or agreements that does not lead to actually having sex can be a good way to start. For couples that are feeling an imbalance or discord with initiating sex, another thing that can be helpful is to take various sexual acts off the table, like penetration. If you narrow down what is an option, then initiating can often feel less intimidating and like the stakes are lower. Spend a week only kissing and touching over the clothes, even if you’ve been married for 10 years can be super hot. Or perhaps focus on just one person receiving pleasure for a certain amount of time and then switching. For some, initiation can feel difficult because they aren’t feeing prepared for all sexual acts, and once the invitation is made it can feel hard to reel in what is going to happen.
“Let’s dance naked together tonight and that’s all, even if we are both aroused.”
“Let’s feed each other fruit in our sexiest outfits without touching.”
“Let me blindfold you and only touch you with feathery objects for 15 minutes.”
In the end, with sex it always, always comes down to the needs and desires of the individuals involved, and each individual is changing all the time. This means we have to see consensual agreements as a dynamic practice, we have to continuously check in with one another about what is fun, exciting, and acceptable. This also means it’s important to spend time with yourself before approaching your partner, lover, or intimate situation and really connect with what a YES feels like, and what a NO feels like for you. Allow yourself to sit with the okayness of when someone else is saying Yes to you, or No to you, even if you aren’t feeling the same way.
With consent, mutual respect and trust you can get really creative.