As far as we know, no one is a mind-reader when it comes to someone's sexual desires (or anything else for that matter). Most the time, we're shooting in the dark, using an amalgamation of past experiences, media intake, and stuff we've heard about through the grapevine to please our partners in the bedroom.
While good intentions are present, the words to answer the question "what are you into?" are sometimes not there as readily. Even if you technically know the answer, it can feel awkward putting it into words, especially given that these kinds of conversations aren't adequately modeled for us in the media, sex ed, or porn. Especially not porn.
While we can't tell you the exact words you should use (because it's about what you like), we can equip you with some tactics to feel a bit more confident in your response.
Always be exploring what you're into on your own, whether you're single or in a relationship.
You probably wouldn't expect an exam to go well if you hadn't done at least a little bit of studying first. Exploring your sexual desires on your own isn't just about touching yourself or using a toy to see what helps you reach orgasm - it's about understanding what turns you on, generally. What helps you feel sensual? Erotic? Desired? Maybe its dancing to a certain kind of music, putting on some lingerie, or watching a hot movie.
There are also questions you can reflect on, when you're not necessarily in the time or place to actually get down to business:
- What are some of your best memories of sex or sexual feelings? When you think back to the different things you've tried while masturbating, or experiences with past partners - what stands out? Why do you think it does? What do these experiences have in common with each other? Maybe there's a theme like feeling (consensually) controlled or overpowered. Or a sense of thrill or risk. Maybe you liked how connected and in sync you felt with your partner.
- Where does your brain wander when you masturbate? What do you imagine? What search terms are you using if you watch porn? What do you listen to?
- Consider some of the most common sexual fantasies - do any of them sound appealing? Do absolutely none of them sound appealing? Could you rank them in order of what you find to be most enticing?
- Interpret your desires creatively by writing your own erotica about a celebrity crush. You don't have to publish it (unless you want to, obviously!) and it doesn't have to be long. It can be one specific moment under a telescope or a whole storyline. Just write freely about what you would want to happen, with no expectations of yourself or the final product.
If you're in a relationship, remember that masturbation is not a form of cheating on your partner, and it will not take away from your ability or desire to enjoy sex with each other.
Converse early and often.
By having the "what are you into" conversation early on, you're establishing the norm that it's ok to talk about sex and desire with each, which builds trust, which makes sex better. Additionally, the earlier you talk about it, the less chance there is that anyone will feel like they're being retroactively critiqued about the sex you've had together thus far, as though they've been falling short.
If you do find yourself wanting to initiate this conversation in a long-existing partnership, make the conversation more about emphasizing the things they do that you really love and introduce fantasies or desires and new ideas you can explore together.
Talking about sexual desires is never a one-and-done conversation. It can change from one sexual encounter to the next. It can change depending on who your partner is and what you're attracted to about them. It can change with time, with life changes, something you see in a movie, or a dream you have. So talk often.
Embrace the awkwardness.
Honestly, sex is funny, gross, and kind of weird. You probably won't feel cool talking about it. Don't be afraid to admit that talking about what turns you on is difficult for you, if it is. Just saying "I always feel a bit awkward talking about this, but..." will take a giant load of pressure off of you and there's a good chance your partner will be able to relate, or at least empathize.
One way to ease awkwardness is to write out what you're into like it's a letter, on your own. Read it out loud in the mirror (it sounds weird, but it works) and once you feel confident in the phrasing, it'll be as easy as vocalizing it when the time comes. Bonus: this tactic also works if you're planning on asking for a pay raise at work or literally any other tricky conversation in life.
Come from a place of collaboration & feeling.
Emphasize the things you'd like to try together: "I've had this idea...", "maybe we could try...", "it could be fun to...". This can relieve some pressure, still making it about your interests but through a "we" lens, also giving them a better understanding of their own role in making it happen.
If you've already been physical with each other, you can bring up things they've done before that you really like. Talk about the physical features you like most on them and how you want more interaction with those parts. Talk about which parts of your body are sensitive and let them figure out what they want to do there.
Since the thing that probably makes most people a bit squirmy about talking about sex are the nitty-gritty details, you can keep your response general. Express how you like to feel, instead of specific actions. "I like to be tossed around a bit" is likely easier to say out loud than describing any detailed manifestations of being tossed around. It also leaves just enough up to interpretation by your partner, who will feel like an equal participants instead of a robot carrying out the steps of a how-to manual.
Incorporate your answer into sex itself.
While it's beneficial to talk about sex in a "neutral" setting (when you're not actively having sex and can be more expressive and reflective), it is helpful to give verbal cues while you're in it to express what is feeling good in real time.
This can be as simple as "a little more pressure", "to the right", or "keep doing that!". Think small adjustments or affirmations. Moaning counts.
All in-person conversations involve body language and in the case of sex, it's basically all body language. Holding them tighter, gripping their hair, or guiding their hands signal that you like where things are heading and it'll go without saying to your partner that they should probably keep going.
Don't forget to ask the question back.
We often ask people questions that we want to be asked, ourselves. Be sure you're not so focused on giving a "perfect" answer (there is none, by the way) that you forget to ask your partner what they like.
Curiosity with respect of boundaries is one of the best traits you can have in forming and maintaining relationships, sexual and otherwise. Being genuinely curious will also steer you clear of making subconscious assumptions about what feels good to someone. It's all too easy to fall into a trap perpetuated by stereotypes and expectations about what sex is and what it looks like for people based only on which genitals they have.
You don't have to know the answer right away.
Like with most other questions in life, as long as you're willing to learn and discover moving forward, "I'm not sure" is an acceptable answer. You don't want to potentially lead your partner astray by telling them what you think you should say instead of what you really want. There's nothing wrong with simply saying "I'd like to think on that a bit more before I give an answer" or "I'm still exploring that, but I'd like to explore it with you".
Most importantly, take the pressure off of yourself to answer in a way you think is expected of you or is "acceptable". Self-discovery, which includes sexuality, is an infinite process. It might just be that you enjoy sex for exactly what it is, in whatever form it falls into naturally. Enjoyable sex for you might be sex where you get to feel out of control and not be in charge of making decisions. You might have a stripped-down (literally) desire to just be present and connected with your partner.
Remember that consent matters, every step of the way.
Regardless of if you've had sex with this person 200 times, or its your first time having sex ever, whether you're about to have sex or are midway through it, mutual (and enthusiastic) consent is a non-negotiable.
If you partner is asking for something that you aren't sure if you want to do, explain to them that it's something you'd like to think about first, and then unpack your feelings about it independently. Where do your boundaries lie? What could a version of what they're asking for that's still within your realm of comfort look like? How could you set clear boundaries together to make it comfortable for you?
Ultimately, you never, under any circumstances, have to engage in any sort of sexual activity you're not comfortable with. You might ultimately have very different interests, likes, and dislikes, but respecting the boundaries of both parties takes precedent. Coercion from or to a partner is still considered sexual assault. Be clear with each other on what is expected and make sure you have a pre-established way to stop things should they take a step too far, whether it's a safe word or a signal.
Strive for partnership, balance, and respect. By checking in with open, candid conversations about sex regularly, your bond in and out of the bedroom will only strengthen.