On Asking Before You Touch, and What to Share with Old Friends

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe, 

I’m in a pretty new relationship and my girlfriend and I have only had sex a few times, but I can’t help but feel insecure about myself. I keep thinking that she’s faking enjoying herself. I don’t want to ask her outright because we haven’t really spoken about sex and I’m worried she’ll be offended. Even if I did ask, I think she’d just lie to end the conversation. Now during sex I’m so preoccupied worrying about whether she’s enjoying herself or not that I’m enjoying sex less. How can I be sure she’s enjoying herself and get past worrying about this?

Dear Reader,

You think the problem here is that your girlfriend is faking orgasms. It’s not. The problem is that you’re having sex with a person when neither of you is comfortable talking about sex.

If I could ban both of you from having sex until you’d work on your communication skills, I would. But sadly, the UN has not yet replied to my petition to become Her Royal Highness Great Tsar Dictator Of Sexual Relations.

It’s really such a pain, because I’d had business cards printed up and everything. But in the absence of any effective way to halt all activities in your nether regions, I guess I’d better give you some advice.

You need to get comfortable talking about sex, both during and separate from the act itself. I know this can be hard, particularly if you’re both uncomfortable, but you need to step up and start the conversation.

For one thing, if you’re not comfortable communicating about sex, how do you know that both of you are in the mood when you do have it?

Communication isn’t just verbal, it’s about paying attention to body language, how your partner is reacting physically, how their emotions and desires are expressed non-verbally. AND it’s about explicitly saying “Yes I like this, I want to do this.”

Remember, you’re with a woman. Socially, we’re programmed not to be forceful, not to be blunt, not to refuse men, not to talk about sexuality. So relying on us explicitly saying, “No, I don’t like that, get off me” is not enough.

You HAVE to pay attention to the situation, body language, facial expressions, if our reaction is enthusiastic and reciprocal, merely letting something be done to us, or obviously feeling uncomfortable and even violated.

You may think that this is too much, that this has nothing to do with your problem, but it does. Communicating about sex is the only way you’ll ever know if the sex you’re having is consensual and enjoyable, and so learning how to communicate is vital.

So start speaking up. During foreplay, as you’re kissing or fooling around, ask questions. “Does that feel good? Do you like it when I do this? Can I touch you here?”

And I know, you think that those questions are awkward and no one really asks them. Wrong.

I’m 29. On a second date I had within the last year, I was smooching a guy in his car, and his hand moved from my face down to my collarbone. In a sexy whispery voice, he asked me “Can I touch you?” and waited until I said yes before moving down to Boobtown.

It was one of the slickest, sexiest things I think I’ve ever experienced, because he took something that we pretend is so complicated and just made it part of foreplay. Consent was explicitly part of our foreplay. And always should be.

So start asking. Also, start telling. When she does something you enjoy, tell her. If she’s not doing it enough, ask for more.

Often when two people are uncomfortable talking about sex, the main ingredient to starting these conversations is reciprocation. If you’re both sharing your desires, then neither of you is standing out on a ledge alone.

So take it in turns. Turn it into a game: tell me something you like, and I’ll tell you something I like.

Don’t forget to share your concerns, too. It can be hard to bring up something that isn’t working in a conversation about sex, because we’re always worried about hurting our partner’s feelings.

So tell her that you get nervous that she’s not enjoying herself. Tell her one thing that doesn’t turn you on – not critically, but by offering an alternative. “That doesn’t really work for me – but I LOVE when you do XYZ.”

Doing this will open up the conversation and allow her to tell you if something you’re doing is making her uncomfortable or just not turning her on.

If you are genuinely worried that she’s not enjoying sex, then I’d also recommend having a session that’s all about her pleasure. Tell her that for one night, you want to explore with her what makes her feel good, and have that be the sole focus.

Start with foreplay – does she like being kissed on the neck or ears, or bitten softly? When you’re touching her breasts, does she like you to be gentle or firm, are her nipples sensitive, does she want you to like them.

Move down her body finding out what she likes. This will not only let you learn together about pleasure, but it will make you communicate, and also show her that you really do care about what feels good for her.

These aren’t once-off conversations, by the way. Consent and enjoyment are constant dialogues you will have throughout every single one of your relationships. The sooner you learn to communicate, the better.

Good luck.

***

Dear Roe,

I’m 21 and I need some advice about my friends. We’ve known each other since primary school and are in the same college, though doing different courses. Since starting college, I had a few flings and now have a boyfriend, while my friends haven’t. One of them has had sex with one person, the other hasn’t. They do talk and joke about sex a lot generally, but whenever I say anything regarding something like that, they act like I’m disgusting and shut down the conversation. It’s like I don’t get to have sexual thoughts. All my other friends are perfectly fine with me commenting on those kinds of things, but my best, oldest friends aren’t. Should I stop talking about sex with them? How do I deal with this situation? Thanks.

Dear Reader,

So there’s a few things going on here, and they can all be summed up under the general heading of: people grow up, and sometimes friendships have to change to reflect that.

Now, before I get into the dynamics that seem to be at play in this friendship, I will say that some people just have different comfort levels when it comes to talking about sex, and that’s okay.

By the sounds of it, your friends aren’t very experienced when it comes to sex, and so I’m guessing there’s a big difference between the general, impersonal jokes and comments they’re making about sex and the personal anecdotes you’re sharing.

And look – I’m with you, I love talking about sex with my friends. But if they’re inexperienced, less comfortable and less knowledgeable about sex, your detail-filled stories may make them uneasy, or even insecure.

Now, their discomfort is one thing – their reaction is another. Assuming that you’re not telling the Human Centipede of sexual stories, sex isn’t disgusting, and neither are you.

Their hypocritical reactions of shaming you for speaking about sex are not okay. If they were genuinely uncomfortable with speaking about sex – which as women in their twenties is their issue, not yours – they could speak to you about their boundaries respectfully.

The fact that they actually seem to enjoy talking about sex around you, and then reacting so dramatically, indicates that they might be trying to make a statement – consciously or unconsciously.

Often, people who are inexperienced at sex will make a lot of jokes about it to hide their insecurities or to address their concerns in a socially acceptable manner. Testing the waters like this is totally normal, and part of the learning process.

What your personal anecdotes may be doing is altering this dynamic – suddenly you do actually know things, and have experience. It makes talking to you about sex useful for your friends, but they could also be jealous, hence the nasty comments and dramatic reactions.

This dynamic is probably heightened because you’ve known each other so long – in friendships formed decades ago, individuals in the group are often assigned roles. One’s the Funny One, one’s the Reliable One, one’s the Baby, etc.

And even when we outgrow those roles, it can be very difficult for the friend-group to acknowledge that, and get the roles to shift and evolve. Because change can be threatening, and everyone wants the friendship to sustain, and the original roles are part of that success.

But the roles have to change, because people do. You are one of the first ones in your friend-group to become sexually experienced, and that’s altered the dynamic, and your friends are resisting. Which is natural, and also needs to stop.

Because friendship is about change. It’s about growing up together and embracing that, about encouraging each other and supporting each other – not selfishly wanting each other to remain stagnant.

And if you don’t address this, you may lose your friends along with your role – not because of your sexual experience, but because of their fear of what that sexual experience means for them.

You have to confront this head-on. Pick a moment when you’re all getting on, and say something like, “So I’ve noticed recently that when we’re all talking about sex, sometimes you act really disgusted if I contribute anything to the conversation, your reaction can be quite nasty and slut-shaming. You’re my friends, and I want us to be able to talk about our lives, but you’re hurting my feelings and making me feel like I can no longer trust you to be respectful if I talk about sex or my relationship.” And see how they react.

Hopefully, they’ll realise that their insecurities aren’t worth losing you, and they’ll cop on. Maybe one or both of them will meet someone they like soon and become less insecure and judgmental.

But maybe they won’t. Which means you have a decision to make. I don’t necessarily think that they’re inability to talk about sex is a friendship deal-breaker, but it could be a friendship priority shift.

Maybe they become your oldest, dearest friends who you have fun with and share memories with – but who aren’t as big a part of your life as they used to be. Maybe they’re great for study dates and shopping trips and pop-culture talks but not for more intimate discussions.

You’re young. You’re in college. You’re in a physical and emotional place that allows and encourages self-exploration, and discovering who you are now, not who you have been.

Make other friends who are undertaking the same journey, who let you be you. Create friendships that embrace growth and maturity. And hope that soon your old friends will do the same, for their sake.


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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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