How to learn more about what you really want in bed
Advice from a psychotherapist on the importance of sexual exploration
As anyone who recalls the growing pains of youth will know, we're not born with full sexual self-knowledge. Learning about our sexuality is often less a grand voyage of discovery than a haphazard amalgam of awkward encounters, hearsay, pornography and speculation. With luck, this "exploratory" phase eventually furnishes us with a basic sense of sexual competence, and for many, it's a relief to stop there.
But Janna Comrie, a psychotherapist who has spent years helping people work through their sex issues, thinks this is a mistake. Whether you're young or old, single or attached, sexually dissatisfied or simply curious, staying open to new experiences can keep you in touch with your desires — and help you discover new ones.
Comrie explains why sexual exploration can be so difficult and offers some tips on how we can learn more about our own sexuality.
Sex is like food: you're not weird for trying something new
According to Comrie, older adults often avoid sexual exploration for many of the same reasons young adults do: they feel embarrassed, are afraid they won't enjoy things and are worried about seeming weird. (What if I don't like doing this? What if I like it too much? What will my partner and others think?)
Comrie says it's also those who have experimented the least who tend to fear it most. She recommends taking a less morally charged attitude towards sexual experimentation: "Exploring with sex is like exploring with food. How are you going to know if you like something if you don't taste it?"
You probably won't like everything you try, but that's no reason to avoid anything new. If you try broccoli once, and don't like it, you can simply stop eating it. And even if you've tried it before, it may be worth giving it another go: you may find your taste's evolved or that you've just never had broccoli done right.
Start small by doing your research
When trying new things, Comrie's advice is to start small. Among her clients, the most common error that people make is doing too much, too quickly. "I can't tell you how many couples who want to 'spice it up' head straight for the swingers' club," she says.
"They've done no reading about what the club is about, don't know the rules and regulations, and show up expecting to have sex with another couple. Then, when it doesn't quite go that way, they get really upset and they don't understand what they did wrong."
Spontaneity can be good, but Comrie recommends doing enough preliminary research so that you have some idea what you're getting into. Here are some of Comrie's recommended starting points for sexual exploration:
Go online: Beyond every imaginable form of porn, which itself can be a rich source of ideas, the web hosts a range of educational content and online communities to discuss sex. For example there are social networks devoted to kink that offer helpful information on a wide variety of practices.
Visit a sex shop: Many think of sex shops as seedy outlets for porn DVDs and stag-and-doe novelties. This isn't (always) true. Many consider education to be an integral part of their mission, and some even offer classes and other information. Remember that the people who work there are to help you in a judgment-free way. It may feel intimidating to walk into a retail environment and start talking about sex with a stranger, but that's why they're there.
See a sex therapist: Sex therapists have a vast knowledge of how to improve people's their sex lives. While most see therapy as a last resort, Comrie says that your relationship doesn't have to be on the rocks to benefit from pro advice. If the only result is that it helps you and your partner talk more openly about sex, it'll be valuable experience.
Talk to your friends: Comrie wishes people would talk more about sex with their friends, and this is true for both men and women. Despite the popular notion that men love to talk about their exploits, she says they often actively avoid the subject, saying they don't want to imagine their friends "doing it." It's worth trying to get over these qualms, because talking sex can help you pick up tips and tricks, benefit from others' experiences and share your own.
Talk to your partner(s): This should go without saying but, weirdly enough, it's sometimes hardest to talk about sex with our sexual partners. If this is an issue, Comrie has some advice. You'll find it's worth doing. Your partner probably has a few sexy thoughts kicking around that you don't know about, and talking about your desires is the first step toward making them a reality.
Read erotica: More than other forms of media, erotic literature emphasizes setting, character and narrative, helping you get into the minds of the characters and understand what turns them on about whatever they're doing. "I've had a lot of women who explore kink by reading erotica, because it creates an environment and it builds a headspace," says Comrie. "It gets them to a place where they're like, 'I didn't think that was hot before, but I definitely think it's hot now.'"
Get mental to get physical
What Comrie says about erotica also applies to sex in general. Sex is physical, but it's also psychological and emotional, and learning about different sexual frames of mind can be as game-changing as any new technique or toy.
So, whether you're talking to your friends about sex, watching porn with your partner or reading erotic fiction, don't just note what people are doing — pay attention to why it excites them. (For people who are into BDSM, for example, it's often not only about the sensations but also the submissive or dominant mindsets involved.) Remember that sexual exploration is as much about educating ourselves about desire as it is about learning technique.