My sex life is meh, help!

"The sex I am having now is not satisfying...I feel comfortable asking him for what I want in the bedroom, but oftentimes I feel like he doesn't commit to what I ask for fully."

A BIG ANGEL:

I have been dating a guy—let’s call him Joe—for about 6 months and we have been sleeping together for 9-ish months. My last relationship before Joe was phenomenal sexually. The kind of sex I didn't even know I could have. Obviously that relationship didn't work, but I unfortunately cannot forget how good the chemistry was. This brings me to my current predicament - the sex I am having now is not satisfying.

I have tried not to compare Joe to my ex in regards to our bedroom compatibility (because I feel like the kind of sexual chemistry I was having was rare), but it has been extremely difficult not to. At first I thought things might just be awkward because sex with a new person can feel a little like ice-skating for the first time, but things haven't improved throughout the time we've been sleeping together.

I have been patient because Joe is great in so many other ways and I really like him, but this problem is starting to take a toll on me. I feel comfortable asking him for what I want in the bedroom, but oftentimes I feel like he doesn't commit to what I ask for fully. It seems halfhearted and sometimes even if he does those things, I still feel dissatisfied with the experience. Joe is extremely sensitive and I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I am not getting what I need and I am afraid that this will be the end of our relationship if things don't change.

How can I approach this conversation in a way that doesn't make him feel inadequate? What can I say or do to bring this situation to light without making it seem like an ultimatum? How can we work on improving our sex life? Any advice you have would be extremely appreciated!! 

ASK A QUESTION!

SOPHIA:

Hi hi hi!!! I’m so glad you asked about this! This is, unsurprisingly, a very common issue because very few people’s sexual needs, desires, timelines, and expectations magically match up with the person they just so happen to be dating.

You’re completely correct that what you experienced with your last partner is rare, especially if you two felt that chemistry immediately and it didn’t require a bunch of conversations and explanations. That doesn’t mean that the sex you have with Joe can’t or won’t get better. It is, however, unlikely to be like your last partner, both because bangin’ hot 10 out of 10 sex isn’t all that common and because they’re two different people!

Firstly, sexual incompatibility is one of, if not the most common issue that sex therapists see from couples. Not only do couples experience this, they survive it, they address it, they change. It’s certainly possible that you and Joe have a long-term, fabulous relationship even with less than perfect sex. It’s also possible that you guys make slow and steady progress towards hotter and hotter sex. The question right now is, where is your line?

For example, let’s agree that it’s unlikely that Joe is going to get to 10/10 sex very soon. It could absolutely happen, but it doesn’t seem like the most likely outcome. But let’s say that with communication & effort from both of you, you guys get to 8/10 sex on average. That’s pretty good, and probably (although I can’t decide for you!) worth staying with someone for. But lets say you two work on this issue—I’ll get to how to do that in a minute—and your guys’ sex stays at about 5 or 6/10. That is… not great. And especially if you two are monogamous and this is the only person that you’re having sex with, that turn into a massive, festering resentment.

You don’t have to have a magical, concrete answer for this this moment. And also, will all people sex ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s hot hot hot and the next day it’s lackluster as hell. That’s life! But you do need to have an idea of how important sexual compatibly is to you so that once you do address this and work on it, you can assess if you’ve gotten to a place that you can make work or not. You are, of course, allowed to change your mind, but start thinking about it. Think about the role you’d like sex to ideally (although realistically—you can’t just be like “I want to have threesomes with Lakeith Stanfield every month) play in your your relationship.

Next, before you actually do the talking, sit down and think about— and I STRONGLY STRONGLY suggest write about—what you feel is missing during sex with Joe. Frankly, “chemistry” is a cop out, a fake name we’ve given to a host of feelings most of which are either (on the positive side) excitement or spontaneity OR (more negatively) anxiety or insecurity. Often, what someone describes as chemistry is really feeling like they need to please a person, or that a person they’re into is withholding or unpredictable, which makes it very satisfying the few times that you do please them. That is absolutely not always the case, but it may be helpful to examine the dynamic you had with the last person you were with and see how it may have played into the feeling of “chemistry.”

I do not mean at all to suggest that long-term love need be dissatisfying, but often good romantic love has to negotiate feelings of familiarity and security (not sexy) and desire and novelty (sexy)*. It’s a hard balance to strike.

Ok! So, figure out what you miss with Joe. What did your last partner bring to the table that you liked? What do you wish Joe did more? What have you always wanted to try? What is getting boring for you? Think about it and write it down (FOR YOURSELF ONLY). And then, once you really feel like you know what you want and what you’re missing, it’s time to go talk to Joe (The Talk Pt 1).

Here is how I would frame The Talk Pt 1 with Joe so that it doesn’t seem like you’re saying, “Hey, having sex with you suuuuuucccks!”: “Joe, I feel like I’m putting in a lot of effort to make our sex life hot, and to communicate what I want, but sometimes I feel like you’re not committing to that, or reciprocating. I want to know if it’s because you’re not into it, you’re uncomfortable with what I want, or if it’s just new. I’m asking because you’re the only person I’m having sex with (or, if you’re non-exclusive, you’re my primary sexual relationship) and I need our sex life to be really strong. I need us to be way more comfortable talking about this stuff and I need both of us to be open and honest about what we want and what turns us on. Something that really turns me on is enthusiasm. I want someone who is into having sex with me, and sometimes it feels like you’re not there. I think you love me and care about me, but I want to turn you on and I want you to turn me on, too. I want us to have a fun, hot sex life. Otherwise, this will start to feel more like a friendship to me. What can we do to address this together? I have some ideas, but I want to hear what you think.”

Of course, you have to give him some space and time to form an answer— he’s not going to be like, “Jolly good talk, it’s just the simple fact that I get nervous about being assertive in bed. I’ll get right on that with a therapist and maybe we can try X instead in the mean time.” He’s going to have to do some soul searching. There’s a reason this talk is called The Talk Pt 1— there will have to be many more talks down the line!!! As there would be with any sexual partner.

But also, if you frame it like a “we” problem that you’re both going to tackle together rather than a failing of his that you’re trying to decide what to do about, that will help a lot for both of you. This is a “we” problem. I would bet he has some issues with how your guys’ sex life is going, too, even if his issues are very different than yours.

I know talking about sex can be about as much fun as the DMV. Sometimes it feels easier to just… not do it. But, like the DMV, you’re there because you need to be. It’s a chore, so treat it like a chore in that you have to do it, you don’t have a way out.

One thing that might (might!!!) help if you want to try to kickstart The Talk Pt 2 is using an app that matches your sexual interests and shows you where you both have overlap. You just fill out a questionnaire about what you’re into and if the other person is also into that, you’ll know. This, of course, requires both of you to be open and honest, and ideally you talk about the results together afterward. But it might be a nice place to start.

Now, after you have this big talk and express how you’re feeling and how you want to be feeling, the type of sex you want to be having, etc. give yourself and Joe a bit of time to adjust. It’s not like the very next sex you have is going to be banging hot. Also, don’t be afraid to ask him to go to couples therapy or sex therapy with you. It’s INCREDIBLY NORMAL!!!! And if you both really want to stay in this relationship, it might help a lot. I would not be surprised if there are some things blocking him from having a totally healthy relationship with sex. It might be body insecurity, performance anxiety, a bad past, concerns over how to ask for and express what he wants. I don’t know! TALK ABOUT IT! Ask him to think about it and be analytical and open.

You also might look for ways to get hot and heavy that aren’t full-on penetrative sex. Maybe he loves going down on you; maybe mutual masturbation becomes a fun thing you two love doing; maybe you just dry hump and make out and that fulfills your desire for intimacy and sexiness. Get creative!

With all that said… you are absolutely allowed to break up over this. You’re allowed to break up over anything that you want!!!! Sexual incompatibility is huge, and if you’ve already communicated to him what you want and it’s not getting you anywhere, you’re more than justified to walk. That’s ok. Again, this is likely the only (or the primary) sexual relationship in your life and it should be good. You can’t stay with someone for years and years hoping and expecting the sex to get better if you’ve tried to communicate already and it hasn’t. I, of course, encourage you to try a few avenues of dialogue before calling it quits, but you absolutely do not have to do anything at all. You may just know that it’s not going to work with you two. That’s ok! That is fair and valid. You can tell him your reasoning (KINDLY!!!) or you can keep it to yourself (ALSO KINDLY!!!).

If he does not want to participate enthusiastically or at the very least diligently in addressing your guys’ ho-hum sex life, you should walk for sure. He should care about this, he should be willing to talk about this, he should be wiling to get uncomfortable!!! He needs to put in the same kind of effort you’re putting in to make your sex life good for both of you. That is the bare minimum. I cannot guarantee that it will fix everything, but that’s the baseline.

One last note that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere else so it kind of feels random, but here we go: There is a massive difference between intense or extreme sex and hot sex. Sometimes the hottest sex isn’t the roughest or the most experimental or wild. Sometimes, switching up positions or locations doesn’t create excitement. Sometimes, there is something else that you’re trying to communicate and the easiest shorthand for it is, “Let’s try shower sex,” or “Would you spank me?” Yes, you might be into those things, but what you’re really asking for is for someone to want to do those things to you. That feeling of having someone want to have sex with you and wanting them to express that might be achievable in less creative types of sex. You could have missionary sex and still get that feeling of being desired. He might not be good at dirty talk, but maybe there’s something else he is good at, that would make you feel the same way. Find those things together. You’re on a little sexy adventure!

There’s a lot of hope here, but that route is going to take a lot of work. The good news is there is no wrong answer as long as you’re kind (and I can tell you are). You’ve got this. You’re doing amazing, sweetie! 💕

*Esther Perel, one of the most brilliant people alive writes about this in her book (and in her TEDTalk, and on her podcast, etc). The book is called Mating In Captivity and I strongly recommend it. Tbh, I suggest you consume everything she’s ever made. She’s a master at long-term relationships


Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.