What do we think about when we think about “good” sex? A whole industry is devoted to training your sexual ability. Books and classes to hone your technique, “top tips” lists of ever more exotic positions and toys, exercises to get your body bedroom-ready and a range of diets and supplements each promising sexual perfection.

The reality is that when it comes to sex, quality is a very personal matter. What one person enjoys may be completely different from another, and even the most “experienced” lover won’t be able to instantly tick everyone’s boxes. Without getting to know what works for your partner, sex will always risk of not hitting the mark.

So where does that leave us? Far from the branded quick solutions, actually learning to communicate well about sex is an approach that takes some time and effort.

However, the benefits are likely to be significant and long-lasting, as research has linked communication with greater satisfaction and self-esteem. To quote sex educator and advice columnist Dan Savage, sometimes you’ve got to “use your words.”

Why Is It So Hard for Us to Talk About Sex?

For many of us, having sex is one thing, but talking about it quite another.

A study carried out by a major dating service found that only 47% of women and 42% of men actually speak to their partners about sex. Although the sex-positivity movement has gathered momentum in recent decades, talking openly about sex often wasn’t part of life growing up. Sex may have felt like a “secret” or “dirty” topic, rarely referred to by parents or teachers.

Even if sex was covered at school, there might have been more time devoted to risks and harm associated with sex than pleasure and enjoyment. In the absence of broader sex-ed, many people also take lessons from porn, where seemingly great sex happens effortlessly with minimal negotiation or feedback. How to have a healthy relationship and communicate about sex is rarely on the curriculum.

If you had a more conservative upbringing, you might find you’ve attached a lot of shame to sex that has found its way into adulthood.

Women, in particular, may have received the message that talking openly about their sexual needs is “slutty,” with men being taught that sex is about animal instinct rather than conversation. These attitudes can create a culture of silence around actually discussing our sexual needs with others.

So How Could Communication Improve Our Sex Lives?

As with many skills, the ease at which you talk about sex is something that can take practice and repetition before it feels easier. Each time you speak openly and successfully about your sexual needs, this takes steps to desensitize the topic.  It might feel awkward at first, but this is likely to be outweighed by the future benefits.

Here are three key ways you might not have considered that communication could really improve your sex life:

1. Learn to Pleasure One Another

There are probably as many different tastes in sex as there are flavors of ice cream, perhaps even more. But somehow we think we should instinctively “know” what someone wants sexually, with minimal clues.

We all have our own instruction manual for how we work sexually, though many of us struggle to share this vital information. So if you’re tastes are say… more strawberry than vanilla, how do you expect your partner to know without you telling them?

Take a lesson from people who practice BDSM, who often engage in extensive planning and negotiating of limits before engaging in a kinky “scene.”

Often this discussion can become a part of the foreplay itself. Explaining to someone else what works for you sexually might not feel very spontaneous, but it’s more effective than waiting for your partner to learn to mind-read. This also avoids complete misunderstandings, where a partner may be unaware that a position or technique really isn’t working for you.

2. Learn Each Other’s Boundaries

Good sex is sex that everyone involved with wants to have. It may sound obvious, but when you haven’t had an in-depth conversation, you might not know where someone’s limits lie.

Are there parts of their body they prefer not to be touched? Are there sex acts they don’t do? Is rougher play a strict no?

Without these types of conversation, it can be easy to overstep the boundaries. This could at the least lead to unsatisfying sex, and at most cause unintended harm and distress.

Proactively asking and getting explicit consent lets your partner know you care about how the sex is for them too. Beyond simply getting a “no,” actively seek to get an enthusiastic “yes” before going further.

3. Stopping a Problem from Growing

Good communication can be key when responding to a sexual difficulty, such as erectile dysfunction, pain during sex or difficulties reaching orgasm. Often these issues can start as a one-off incident, e.g., difficulty getting an erection, that then isn’t spoken about.

This can lead to both partners feeling frustrated and wondering what they did “wrong.”

When a sexual issue doesn’t get discussed, both partners may start to develop negative thoughts about sex, perhaps expecting the issue to happen again or blaming themselves. If these worries about aren’t brought into the open, there is a risk of a pattern of behavior developing, where both partners come to anticipate sexual problems before they happen.

If you’re worrying that you’re not going to be able to perform, then it’s very difficult to truly relax and enjoy sex in the moment. In this environment, sexual difficulties are actually more likely to occur, and this can serve to reinforce insecurities.

Taking a chance to talk after a sexual difficulty can take some of the tension out of an awkward encounter and stop it from growing on the mind.

It is possible to overcome performance anxiety and keep it from interfering with your sex life going forward. Sharing your concerns with a supportive partner, seeking and giving reassurance and agreeing on a way of dealing with any future difficulties can be a step towards alleviating worries.

Where to Start?

If for you sex is a topic that’s difficult to say out loud, becoming more comfortable may feel daunting. Good communication is an on-going task. You may find sharing some details with your partner by text, or email feels a safe starting point, and might even be a way of building anticipation.

Taking a bit of time to let your partner know the things they do that you really enjoy can be empowering for them and start to open up a conversation where you may be able to give some more detailed feedback.

If you’ve taken steps on your own and talking about sex still feels really blocked, sometimes working with a therapist, either on your own or with a partner can also facilitate the process.

If you were looking for a quick-fix approach to improving your sex life, this, unfortunately, isn’t it. However, small steps towards better communication can enhance both the emotional and sexual connection between partners. The end result is sex that is more enjoyable and satisfying for everyone involved.

Dr. Alexandra Richards

Dr. Alexandra Richards is a clinical psychologist with a specialist interest in sexual health, medically unexplained symptoms, and neuropsychology. She serves as a professional consultant for the Between Us Clinic, which provides sex-therapy online programs for men and couples experiencing premature ejaculation.