If you’ve had difficulty communicating your needs in bed, you’re not alone. Many people have a hard time giving feedback because they feel awkward voicing their needs, or they fear that their partner might feel embarrassed, criticized, or get defensive. Many people may also be hesitant to give a partner feedback because they aren’t prioritizing their own pleasure enough.
“Many of us, unfortunately, go into sexual experiences from a place of believing that our desires, our pleasure, even our boundaries are less than, secondary,” Lucie Fielding, therapist, sex educator, and author of Trans Sex, tells O.school. “And when that happens, we may not feel ourselves entitled to experiencing pleasure or having desires,” they add.
Not articulating what you want can mean not having the sex you really want, which is why learning how to provide constructive feedback to a partner is so important. Here are six strategies for how to tell your partner what you want and need without criticizing them.
1. Find the words that feel right for you
Not all of us know how to articulate what we want. Perhaps you don’t have the language to tell your partner you would like something different. Or maybe saying words like pussy, clit, penis, vulva, cock, or anus feel very uncomfortable for you.
“Most of us never learned that sex is something that’s okay to talk about, let alone important to talk about,” Sarah Casper, founder of Comprehensive Consent, tells O.school. “Many people grow up in households where sex is not talked about or words for genitals are whispered, or never said at all. Because of this, and things like ‘purity culture’ and a lack of sex education, broaching the topic can feel uncomfortable, shameful, or even wrong.”
If there are specific words that feel difficult for you to say, try some workarounds until you have the courage to be more direct. For example, if you don’t know exactly how to ask someone to touch your clit in a specific way, try simply focusing on speed or pressure. You can also guide a partner’s hand, and simply say, “Right there is nice.”
2. Be vocal in the moment
Even if you do have the words to articulate what you want, it can be difficult to know when to communicate them.
Dr. Joli Hamilton, CSE, AASECT certified sex educator suggests being vocal in the moment. It’s especially important to deliver feedback in real-time if something “is causing discomfort (physical or emotional). “Don’t suffer through discomfort in an effort to please a partner,” Hamilton tells O.school.
In order not to make your partner feel embarrassed or criticized, Gabrielle S. Evans, MPH, CHES, sexuality educator and researcher, suggests trying statements that begin with positive feedback followed by a request:
- “I love/like it when you do __, but __makes me feel (or doesn’t make me feel) __”
- “I love/like it when you do __”
- “Can we try __?”
3. Use the ‘appreciation sandwich’
It can be hard to voice a need or desire if you fear you’ll hurt your partner’s feelings in the process. To avoid making your partner feel bad that they are doing something that isn’t working for you, Fielding tells O.school to cushion the request with two things that are working.
“A strategy I often use for check-ins and feedback during sex or play is what sex and relationship educator LiYana Silver calls the ‘appreciation sandwich.’” Fielding says the appreciate sandwich is described in Allison Moon’s books Girl Sex 101 and Getting It and that it has three parts (like a sandwich):
- State what is working
- Request an upgrade
- Communicate appreciation
An example of the appreciate sandwich could be:
- “I love the way you’re using your tongue on my __.”
- “Do you think you could do it a little higher and add in some sucking?”
- (After they have made the adjustment) “Ahh, yes, that’s it!”
4. Debrief — and start with what you enjoyed
Casper and Evans say to debrief after sex and to start with what you enjoyed. You can do this by sharing “what your favorite part was, what was surprising in a good way, what you want more of next time.”
Next, focus on your partner. “Ask if there was anything they didn’t enjoy so much,” says Casper. “Remind your partner that this isn’t you asking for criticism, it’s asking for feedback because you (like all people) can’t mind read.”
Chances are your partner will then ask if there was anything you didn’t enjoy, but if they don't, Casper says to “let your partner know that you’d like to share some things they might not know and ask your partner if this is a good time for them to hear about this.”
5. Try yes, no, maybe lists
Evans says you can also give your partner feedback by “Complet[ing] worksheets and discuss[ing] your boundaries/likes/dislikes.” A yes, no, maybe list is a great way to share your likes and dislikes and hear your partners’ as well. It can help you discover interests you may have never realized you had and also set boundaries more explicitly and clearly.
A yes, no, maybe list or other worksheets can also be a great way to give and receive feedback without it feeling so personal and when you aren’t in the heat of a sexual situation.
6. Mention this article
Casper says a great way to start a conversation about things you want to change in the bedroom is by bringing up this article. You can “Tell your partner you were reading an article that suggested doing a post-sex debrief” and “ask them how they would feel about this,” says Casper. If they aren’t enthusiastic at first, Casper says to “validate any worry or hesitation” and to give them time and space to reflect or talk with a friend if they need to.
How to give feedback if you don’t know what you do want
“Some people don’t give feedback because they don’t know what they want instead,” Dr. Joli Hamilton, CSE, AASECT certified sex educator tells O.school. Here are four things you can try if you’re not sure what you do want.
- Ask to try something else, even if you don’t know what that thing is yet. While it can sometimes feel like you need to offer an alternative if you want to ask to do something else, it’s ok to say you don’t like something without providing a new suggestion. You can tell your partner you’re not into it or want to stop by saying things like, “Could we try something else? This isn’t working for me,” or “Can we take a break?”
- Figure out what you want to do with your partner. Let your partner know that you aren’t sure what you want or need. You can do this by saying something like, “Can we try something different? I’m not sure what I want to do, but could we figure it out together?” and then troubleshoot as a pair to find something you both like. You might ask, “What feels good for you?” or “Can you touch my ___, and we can see how it feels?”
- Think back to what you did like. If you want to offer your partner an alternative, you can try to think back to a moment during the encounter when you were enjoying yourself — even if it was a while back — and ask to do that thing again. It’s okay if what you want to do is completely different from what you are doing now.
- Try masturbating to get to know what you like. If you’re figuring out how you like to be touched, masturbating is a great way to get to know what feels good for you. While masturbating, notice what pressure you like, the speed you enjoy, or what kind of motion feels good. Getting to know what your body likes while you're on your own can give you an idea of what you might like to do with a partner.
You can also try mutual masturbation if you’re with a partner and you don’t know what you want. This can help you see how your partner likes to be touched and also allow them to see how you enjoy touching yourself. This can be especially useful if it feels difficult to find words to describe what you want.
The bottom line
There are many messages we receive throughout our lives that tell us we shouldn’t talk about sex, that our desires are “bad,” or our partners’ pleasure if more important than our own. Remember that you always deserve to feel good and it’s okay to ask for what you want. To avoid making a partner feel bad or criticized, try to lead with positive feedback and then make a request. If it’s too difficult to ask for something in the moment, you can always debrief after and create space for ongoing feedback in your relationship.