Why Do We Suck at Talking About Sex?

In my work as a sex coach, about 80% of the issues people bring to me boil down to one problem:

We don’t know how to talk about sex.

Whether we’re unsure of how to ask for what we want, don’t have the words to describe our desires, or even feel weird about having sexual needs in the first place—we can be pretty awkward when it comes to sexual communication.

This lack of comfort with sexual conversation poses an even deeper problem when it comes to self-reflection: many of us are unable to even speak with ourselves kindly and honestly about sex.

How can we communicate our sexual needs to others if we don’t even have the words to describe those needs to ourselves?

To address that issue, I’ll share a free gift I created for clients and anyone else interested in getting more comfortable talking about sex. But first, we need to take a step back and examine the source of our discomfort.

The Roots of Sexual Awkwardness

Photo by Flora Westbrook

Where did our hesitation around sexual conversations come from?

In the U.S., the seeds of sexual discomfort for most are sown early and thoroughly. We all receive messages about sex which can be positive, neutral, or negative from many sources. These include:

  • caretakers
  • other adults
  • peers
  • media
  • school
  • religion

Caretakers & Other Adults

Caretakers (parents, grandparents, and/or others tasked with raising us as children) are often the first people to model how we respond to sexual conversation. As children, we are naturally curious about our bodies, others’ bodies, pleasurable sensations (including genital stimulation), and eventually where babies come from.

When caretakers and other adults get flustered by things like children masturbating, exposing body parts around/with others, or asking sex-related questions, children quickly learn that these things are uncomfortable activities or topics that should be avoided (or leveraged for negative attention).

Peers & Media

When sex-averse boundaries were enforced by the adults around us, many of us turned to siblings, friends, and/or media like the internet or social platforms to ask sex-related questions.

But siblings, friends, and media aren’t always reliable sources. Much of the time, our peers simply parroted the same reactions and responses as the adults around them—or made guesses about sex. One study of over 1,000 emails sent to an emergency contraception website even found that 27% included misconceptions about sexual and reproductive health.

School

Formalized education institutions such as schools would seem like an ideal environment for teaching us how to talk about sex. After all, they’re full of professional educators with close relationships to their students. Yet, this sadly isn’t an idea America has leveraged.

Enough teachers, administrators, parents, and even legislators are so uncomfortable with the idea of allowing children to talk about sex that only 1 in 5 middle schools (and less than half of high schools) in the U.S. offer the most basic sex ed recommended by the CDC. This forces sexual communication skills even further into the shadows.

Religion

Photo by Brett Sayles

Some religions have limited definitions of sex and insist that sex only happen within strict boundaries. The struggle to talk about sex for people who grow up within these religions can be particularly difficult. Restraining natural human curiousity about sex using spirituality is often tortuous (and sometimes even abusive) to anyone whose desires don’t fit the exact definitions and boundaries prescribed. It certainly makes it difficult to ask questions about sex or feel safe voicing desires.

Even for non-religious Americans, the country’s Christian foundations ensure that the hush-hush approach to sex is reinforced everywhere we go. What’s more, it enforces an idea of what constitutes “acceptable” sex. This usually means penis-in-vagina sex between two people in a long-term relationship or marriage, typically with the goal of having children. Sex in any other context is generally stigmatized in the U.S.

Other Sources

There are other ways we learn to be hesitant around sexual topics, of course. These include personal experiences with sex and interactions with others, as well as observations of things like gender roles and the way people talk about those who dare to step outside sexual norms.

Unfortunately, many people also experience trauma that profoundly affects their relationship with sex. Without safe spaces and time to process these experiences, it can be especially difficult for these people to become comfortable talking about sex.

By growing up in a sex-negative culture, I’d argue that the vast majority of Americans struggle to feel comfortable talking about sex at some point in their lives. We’ve learned through countless lessons, big and small and spread over time, that doing so is bad or inappropriate. This idea persists as we grow older.

Into Adulthood

Photo by RODNAE Productions

Why do we have such a hard time shedding these lessons as adults? Why can’t we let go of these experiences as easily as, say, letting go of hairstyles, clothes, or hobbies that no longer feel right for us?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just look at our sex-negative ideas and say, “Yeah, I’m done with these”?

Unfortunately, sex-negative messaging for most of us is reinforced into adulthood. We’re encouraged to “grow up and grow out of” certain youthful habits, but we’re not encouraged to let go of our hesitation around sex.

In fact, we’re encouraged to grip tightly to our now well-developed sexual filter. As children, we’re told not to talk about sex. As adults, we’re told talking about sex is childish. How ironic!

Sex is not considered a part of polite conversation. Those who talk about it openly are thought of as crass or rebellious. Sex rarely gets airtime on media like TV, movies, podcasts, radio, etc. unless it’s in a salacious or comedic context—despite the fact that sex is as normal a part of being human as sleeping.

These ideas are holding us back, but we can let them go.

Getting Comfortable Talking About Sex

Photo by nappy

We don’t all have to start talking about sex at cocktail parties in order to get comfortable talking about it with ourselves and our partners. (Though I personally think that would be fun!)

Rather, now that we have an idea of the source of our discomfort we can start to examine it. It’s time to put our hesitation around sexual conversation under the microscope so that we can pick it apart and start to take down our walls.

Once we question our hesitation and see the ways it fails to stand up to scrutiny, we can move forward toward more comfort with sexual topics.

This was one of the goals of my latest project, a 30-page activity book designed to help people who struggle with sexual communication.

Talking About Sex is a sex-positive activity book for relationships and life. In it, 14 activities guide users through discovering the sources of their hesitation around sex talk and beginning to break down those barriers.

For a limited time, the Talking About Sex is available for FREE at sexcoachshannon.com/free-gift. The PDF file can be downloaded and used immediately.

$14.99 value — FREE for a limited time

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Talking About Sex includes information about sex positivity and negativity, consent, and illustrations of new concepts such as the Sexual Communication Cycle and Pillars of Relationship Satisfaction.

What’s more, I even included all 5 of the Yes, No, Maybe Lists my email subscribers have been receiving over the past few months.

All of that is valued at $14.99—but available now for free at sexcoachshannon.com/free-gift.

The Future of Sexual Communication

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

When we face our limiting beliefs around sex, we empower ourselves to ask for the sex we want and deserve.

It doesn’t matter how much the sex we want deviates from the strict definitions we’ve carried with us and had reinforced throughout our lives. As long as its consensual and carried out with safety in mind, there’s no reason why we can’t be free to explore our sexual selves as freely as we explore creative pursuits, relationships, and adventure.

I like to think that there exists a future free of sexual shame. One where people are comfortable exploring sexuality both on their own and with others whose boundaries they understand and respect. I think that world would be a safer, better place for it—one where people can get a little bit closer to being their whole selves.

If you want to be a part of that world, you can help create it.

$14.99 value — FREE for a limited time

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Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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