Please note: This piece includes some passing references to my personal sexuality. Family members and others who don't want to read that stuff may not want to read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
It took me way too many years to learn that this is not always a nice thing to say. That, in fact, it's usually not a nice thing to say. It took me way too many years to learn that, although "I don't know, what do you want to do?" may seem like a good way to be polite and accommodating and easy-going, much of the time it's actually a gigantic buzz-kill. It's a great way to wind up not doing anything fun at all. Especially if everyone involved is playing the same game, in endless rounds of, "After you, my dear Alphonse."
And that's just as true with sex as it is with general social intercourse.
I was inspired to write this, as I often am, by a recent Savage Love sex advice column. In this column (second letter from the top), the querant was asking what she and her boyfriend could do about a sex life that she described as "meh." And she said:
We often ask each other, "What else can I do for you?" I've shared a couple ideas, which we've explored to my minimal comfort, but he always says "Nothing" when asked if there's anything he wants to do or try. We have discovered that neither of us particularly cares if we, ourselves, reach orgasm, but we both care very deeply that the other is satisfied. In this light: While I don't care much if the sex is mediocre for me, I do want it to be better for him.
(That's an emoticon a friend of mine invented for "facepalm." Spread the word.)
I actually do have sympathy. I have so totally done this, way more times than I care to admit. I've held back on asking for what I want in bed, not just out of fear of being seen as freaky and sick (or as boring and trite), but out of fear of being seen as selfish. Even when my partner was asking me, "Is there anything in particular you'd like to do?" -- in other words, even when they were making clear, in explicit, unambiguous, actual words, that they wanted to know my sexual desires so they could potentially have the pleasure of satisfying them -- I've still dodged, equivocated, said some version of, "Oh, I don't know -- what do you want to do?"
So I have sympathy. But at the same time, this letter makes me want to smash my forehead repeatedly into the nearest flat surface. And then smack the querant on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. (Along with her boyfriend.)
Because this dynamic is a perfect recipe for mediocre sex.
Part of the problem, of course, is the "After you, my dear Alphonse"/ "You first, my dear Gaston" dynamic. If nobody's willing to say what turns them on, if everybody's going to be all nice and polite and insist that the other person's pleasure is more important than their own, then nobody's ever going to get what they want.
But a bigger problem, I think, is this: Refusing to ask for what you want is actually not very sexually generous.
When it comes to sex, of course it's important to be good, giving, and game. But if we want to be giving, one of the most important things we can give is our sexual pleasure. Being part of someone else's sexual pleasure is one of the most intensely pleasurable erotic experiences we can have. Being present with someone who's lost in sexual sensation; someone whose entire face and body is transformed by erotic joy; someone who's so excited that they're incoherent? And not only being present with it, but being part of making it happen? That's one of the most richly satisfying sexual experiences we can have.
And if you're not willing to tell your partner what exactly it is that does that for you, you're denying them this experience.
Here's the thing. When people say, "I don't know what I want -- what do you want?", I almost never believe them. Sex is one of the most powerful driving forces we have. We are, as I've written before, the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution by sexual reproduction, descended from countless generations of animals who really, really like to boff. Sex is a deeply and profoundly hard-wired urge, one that demands our attention on a regular basis. It is a rare person indeed who has genuinely never thought very much about what kinds of sex they do and don't like.
So when people say, "I don't know what I want," I almost never believe them. I think they know exactly what they want. I think they just don't want to ask for it. (In some cases, they don't even want to think about it.) I think they're scared, or embarrassed, or shy.
Which I get. I really do. Our culture teaches us that sex is wicked and trivial, and that whatever we want sexually is ridiculous at best and disgusting at worst, and that the mere fact of wanting it makes us self-centered and greedy. (Women especially get this message hammered into us from a very early age.) And even if we didn't live in a culture like that, sex can still be very personal, and revealing our sexual desires can make us very vulnerable. It's hard sometimes to ask for what we want. It's even harder to do it in a way that expects those desires to be taken seriously.
But we have to suck it up. We have to get over ourselves. It's not fair to refuse to make ourselves vulnerable about our own sexual desires... and then expect our partners to do exactly what we aren't willing to do. Which is exactly what we do when we say, "Oh, I don't know -- what do you want to do?" That's not selfless. It's cowardly.
If you're concerned that expressing your desires will make you seem inconsiderate and selfish, there are ways around that. Offering multiple options is one way to go; making it clear that you're open-minded is another. "I like getting spanked, and giving head, and getting my nipples pinched, but I'm flexible and I like to try different things -- what do you like?" is a very different animal than, "Oh, I don't know -- what do you like?" And when our partners ask for what they want (assuming they get over their own fear/ embarrassment/ shyness enough to do that), we can treat their desires with respect. We're not obligated to say "Yes," but we can listen, and consider, and be game to try stuff even if it's not what floats our personal boat, and not treat people like they're disgusting or ridiculous simply for wanting what they want. It is entirely possible to ask for what we want, and still be sensitive to what our partners want.
In fact, it's not only possible. It's necessary. As Savage said in his reply to this letter, "selfless sex partners make lousy lays." If we really want to be good, giving, and game in bed, one of the things we have to be willing to give is our own sexual pleasure. We have to be willing to give up our fear, our shyness, our embarrassment, about the things we want. We have to be willing to be vulnerable, to risk rejection, so we can give a glimpse into who we are sexually. We have to be willing to give a little bit of ourselves.
In other words: If we really want to be giving in bed, one of the biggest things we have to be willing to give is an honest answer to the question, "What do you want to do?