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How to Initiate Sex

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Updated January 28, 2014

One of the biggest lies we're told about sex is that it "just happens". This is how sex is commonly depicted in film and TV; no one has to ask for it or initiate it, or if someone starts something, immediately the other person is into it.

We are indoctrinated into this concept of sex as natural not only through what we're told, but through what we aren't taught in sex education. Even the most comprehensive of school based sex education rarely talks about how to initiate sex.

But pleasurable sex doesn't "just happen". Particularly for people who are in long term relationships, the question of who initiates sex (and who doesn't) can become a mine field of accusations, guilt, and bitterness. As with all things sexual, there is no right way to do this, but if you're in a relationship and are struggling with how to initiate sex, here are some tips that may help.

Sex Isn't Pretty, Embrace It
One of the reasons that initiating sex can feel awkward or embarrassing is that sex can feel awkward and embarrassing. Getting even partially naked, letting your guard down, exposing yourself and your desire to someone else is a risk. It's very difficult to feel pleasure and remain fully guarded. So you have to give up the perfect fantasy at least a little bit. There's no easy way to do this, and practice helps, but try to consciously let go of your beliefs that everything should go "smooth" and your desire for perfection. You'll probably have more fun if you do.

Practice Doesn't Make Perfect, But It Helps
This is one of those annoying bits of advice people give, but unfortunately it's true. One way to get comfortable putting yourself out there, taking a risk of being rejected (what if you initiate and they aren't in the mood?) is to do it a lot. It might help to think of initiating sex not as a single effort but an overall process or journey. Nothing ever works out every time you try it, and whether it's learning to read or learning to ride a unicycle, most of us need to try something a few times before we get the hang of it. Initiating sex is the same thing.

Find Your Own Way
If all the "traditional" signs of sexual intent (e.g. sexy clothes, sex toys, porn, candles, music, incense, etc…) feel cheesy to you maybe that's because they aren't really your thing. You need to find your way to initiate sex. Maybe your way is about embracing the awkward, or making a joke, or not talking at all. The models that are presented to us as the way we "should" initiate sex are hopelessly narrow and based on assumptions about gender, orientation, race, ethnicity, and more. So women are expected to be more passive and not initiate sex. Only stereotypes about, for example, Latina women suggest that they are more sexual and more aggressive. You are probably aware of other stereotypes and essentially racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic beliefs that make it hard for you to act in a way that feels comfortable and genuine. Resisting these assumptions is hard work, but you can do it.

Control and Power
For some people what is difficult about initiating sex is that it involves taking control of a sexual situation, asserting yourself, and taking up space in a way that is challenging for some of us. Here too, assumptions about gender, sexuality, and power loom large. For example, it's a gendered assumption that a woman will be in control of parenting. But it's also assumed that a woman will not be in control of initiating or orchestrating a couples sex life. But why are some women expected to be in control in one situation and not another? Part of the answer is that these assumptions are based on a false gender binary, an incorrect presumption of heterosexuality, and a belief that there are sexual rules we all follow.

If you think that part of the problem for you is about power or control, you might want to start by thinking about an area of your life where you are comfortable being in control. How do you manage that power? What do you like about it? For example, maybe you are in a position of control and authority at work, where you have to manage other people. What is it that makes you comfortable with control in that situation? Are there ways of talking that you can adapt and bring into your sex life? I'm not suggesting that you need to explicitly deal with power in order to initiate sex, but if you're shy about taking up space in that way it might help to remember that you can do it, that you already do it in other parts of your life.

Just Get It Out
There's something to be said for being completely direct. For a moment, forget everything you've ever been told about how sex works and don't think about what your partner's reaction could be. Just imagine a time when you wanted to initiate sex and answer this question: what do you want to say to your partner? If the world worked exactly how you wanted it to, what would you do to initiate sex? Then one time, try to just say it. And see what happens.

Be direct. If you feel like having sex, what would it be like just to say "hey, I want to have sex, do you?". If talking doesn't work for you, maybe write a note. Draw a picture. Part of the problem for some people is that the idea of initiating sex becomes so loaded and the pressure builds, and it feels important and serious and these are not always great aphrodisiacs (and even if they are, they can make taking risks feel even scarier). Remember that in many cases having someone say "I want to have sex with you" is a huge compliment. Even if they don't feel like it, the thought is a nice one, and while it may not end up as you imagined it, getting a no may not be as bad as you think either.

Take this Lover's Quiz
Another obvious tip that many of us miss is to ask. If you're worried about the right way to initiate sex to get the desired outcome, find out what your partner likes. Here's a simple two question quiz that you can write out and then you and your partner each answer it. Then exchange your answers.

When I want to have sex with you I wish I could just _____________.

When you want to have sex with me, all you need to do is __________. Except for sometimes when you need to _________________.

Talk About It Without Apologizing
If you're in a dynamic where your partner is always initiating sex and you aren't, and you are feeling bad about it, just talking about the situation may not help. But if you can find a way to talk about initiating sex without apologizing, and without feeling either sexual guilt or sexual shame, it might help. In particular if you're able to share what you find so hard about initiating sex, why you feel stuck, and what, if anything, you think your partner might be able to do to help you shift out of the situation you're in. That doesn't mean blaming your partner or making it their responsibility, but anything you can do to get out of a bad and stuck dynamic is a good thing.

Don't Expect Miracles, Sometimes the Thought Does Matter
We live in a quick fix world where we're told that we can change things overnight. But we're told that by people who want to sell us something, and what they are selling is false hope. Few things change right away and sexual dynamics can be stubborn to shift if they include a range of other relationship issues in with the sex stuff. So try and be gentle and generous with yourself while you are making change. Also, consider that the thought, while it may not be enough, may still matter. So even if you don't want to have sex, if you are thinking about it you might want to try and share that with your partner. Sometimes it can feel like we should only talk about sex when we're ready to have it. That keeps sex artificially compartmentalized. If you like food you talk about eating when you aren't hungry, right? You probably talk about exercising or shopping before you do that too. The idea that sex should only come up when we're about to have it, or when we are complaining about it, is one of those things that adds to the pressure. So if you find yourself thinking about having sex but maybe too busy or tired or distracted to have it. It might not hurt to at least share that with your partner.

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