Why is it so difficult for couples to openly and honestly address sexual issues with each other? Incredibly, many couples have never had a serious conversation on this subject. Even well educated and otherwise mature adults who can discuss religion, finances and even politics find it difficult to openly and frankly discuss their intimate lives. Sex is the number one subject about which couples have trouble communicating. This handicap regarding intimate relations needs to be understood and addressed if couples are to eliminate the heartache and frustration that exists, and ultimately find the marital joy and fulfillment that awaits.
Dr. James Dobson, disturbed by the lack of sexual communication in marriage, gave the following counsel:
Though it seems impossible, an inhibited husband and wife can make love several times a week for a period of years without ever verbalizing their feelings or frustrations on this important aspect of their lives. When this happens, the effect is like taking a hot coke bottle and shaking it until the contents are ready to explode. Remember this psychological law: any anxiety-producing thought or condition which cannot be expressed is almost certain to generate inner pressure and stress. The more unspeakable the subject, the greater the pressurization. And . . . anxious silence leads to the destruction of sexual desire. [i]
Why We Don’t Talk about Sex
So, why don’t we talk about sex? What has made sex such a taboo subject? Many factors have contributed to our reticence to discuss sex openly and confidently. As we recognize and understand these factors we can begin to break down the unhealthy barriers to communication and put the godliness back into sex. This will allow husband and wife to begin to create an intimate relationship that now may exist only in their dreams.
Below are some of the reasons for the hesitancy to discuss sexual aspects of marriage, plus some ideas on what to do about it:
We are embarrassed. Many people find sex too embarrassing to discuss. Some are even mortified by the thought of talking about it. Sex is the surest subject to elicit embarrassment from otherwise mature and intelligent adults. This embarrassment can stem from negative teachings or conditioning regarding sex. Embarrassment should not be the automatic emotion associated with the subject of sex. Remember Adam and Eve were commanded to become “one flesh” and were “not ashamed.” [ii]
We are negatively conditioned. Parents, church, society and personal experiences often contribute to the development of negative feelings and associations regarding sex. Society inundates us with highly sexual, anything-goes messages and images. Sexual aberrations, misuse and distortions are rampant in society. Parents and church leaders often counter with fear and warnings. They teach the ugly and pernicious evils and consequences of premarital sex, but fail to balance the warnings with the fact that sex in marriage has godly purposes and is a gift from God.
As children grow and begin to learn about their bodies, parents often over-react to the child’s innocent exploration by shaming them. They send a message that certain behaviors or body parts are bad, dirty or immoral, PERIOD! – forgetting that there is a proper time and place for certain behaviors and body parts to be celebrated!
Because of the negative beliefs and attitudes of parents, many individuals were raised in homes where sex was considered a duty, a chore or for procreation only. Such parental attitudes perpetuate inhibitions that make it difficult for their grown children to relax and enjoy the sexual experience in their marriages. Many people simply dislike sex, so why in the world would they want to talk it?
(For more information see Chapter 1 of And They Were Not Ashamed.)
We lack divine understanding. Satan has pretty much claimed the subject of sexuality as his territory because so few are willing to counter with light and truth. Unfortunately we feed into Satan’s strategy when we only counter his attacks with negativity, shame and fear. We must add the light back into the subject of sex. We have forgotten that it was God that created sex, not Satan! Sex as an expression of love and as a means of mutual enjoyment and pleasure, to strengthen a marriage, is a foreign concept to many. We must restore sex to its proper position as ordained of God and understand that it is a glorious gift to husbands and wives. (For more information see Chapter 2 of And They Were Not Ashamed.)
We lack intimate education. Raise your hand if more than half of your sexual knowledge came from your parents. Most likely very few hands are being raised. If your parents didn’t teach you, then who did? Most sexual knowledge comes from sources with questionable understanding of the divine plan and purposes for intimate relations in marriage. Even if your parents did teach you about sex, their negative beliefs and attitudes were likely passed on to you.
Very few parents took the time to adequately educate themselves about the intricacies of intimacy. Without this education they did not develop a “testimony,” if you will, of the sanctity of sexual relations in marriage. These significant voids assure that any teaching our parents may have done was likely incorrect, negatively slanted or presented in an embarrassing manner.
How many books on the subject of marital intimacy have you read? How many have you read with your spouse? With sex as one of the primary causes of divorce and unhappiness in marriage, couples cannot afford to avoid studying this topic. Couples must develop a confident assurance of the intricacies and importance of sexual relations in marriage.
We have no example to follow. If children are not taught about sex by their parents, or if they believe their parents would never discuss sex with each other, they will not learn that sex is an appropriate topic for discussion. Sadly, silence on sexual matters is often perpetuated through the generations. This cycle helps “that wicked one” take away light and truth on this important subject by an unfortunate “tradition of the fathers” (see D&C 93:39). An example of positive, respectful discussion of sexual matters is needed to break this cycle. Let it start with you and your spouse!
We think it’s too sacred. Sex is sacred, but the sacredness of sexual relations in marriage can lead some to believe that sex should not be discussed at all. We often hear a similar argument that the temple is too sacred to discuss. While the temple endowment is also sacred we must be sure to adequately teach and prepare others for the temple experience. Sex is no less sacred. But when sex is seen as so sacred that we can’t talk about it, the result is many brides and grooms who are woefully unprepared for their first intimate interactions in marriage. Another result is couples who fail to find enjoyment from their intimate relationship even after months or years of marriage. When “sacred” becomes “secret,” or “unspeakable,” sacredness has been misconstrued.
We think it’s too personal. When a couple is wandering in the wilderness of sexual frustration, ignorance and misinformation, the fear that sex is too personal to discuss with anyone else contributes to the darkness in which they find themselves.
Of course, sexual specifics that might be embarrassing to your spouse should not be shared, but general knowledge and sharing of ideas and suggestions can be discussed-and need to be discussed-for the sake of those who may be wandering in the marital desert.
We feel ashamed or fearful. How our parents and others taught us about sex and whether we were shamed by sexual questions or innocent exploration will affect our feelings about sex. If we have not learned to accept our god-given sexual nature, or if we feel ashamed of it, we may try to hide it from ourselves and/or from others, which can cause an unhealthy attachment to or distance from our sexuality.
If there is unresolved sexual sin, abuse, or other negative sexual experiences in our past, this can also create great reluctance to discuss this delicate topic. Ecclesiastical or professional help may be needed.
We don’t know what’s okay and what isn’t. Most questions regarding sex center on what’s okay and what isn’t. Since there is no clear-cut set of rules or a church manual to prescribe sexual behavior in marriage it can cause a degree of “sexual insecurity.” Most of us want to do what’s right and avoid that which isn’t. With the Holy Spirit to guide us we can learn the answers to any sexual question. “Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by…calling upon the Lord” (D&C 136:32). We can go to the Source of all light and truth with any question or issue that we may have, and learn the “right” answer from a loving Father in Heaven who knows us personally and knows all our circumstances. This approach to sexual learning may be wisdom in God. It allows us to grow spiritually by going directly to the Lord for His counsel.
The key to obtaining sexual knowledge from God is two-fold: (1) We must first remove all unnecessary inhibitions and any negative conditioning and fear we may have acquired regarding sex, or our inhibitions may fool us into believing something is wrong that may not be. (2) We must become adept at receiving the counsel of the Lord-especially on this subject. It requires spiritual preparation and practice to receive the heavenly skill and spiritual self-confidence necessary to go to God with delicate sexual questions and to be able to know when we are receiving His light and truth. Unfortunately many have not sufficiently developed this ability to learn the mind and will of God. Because the subject of sex has become so distorted and is such a taboo, few trust themselves to know right from wrong on this difficult subject.
(For more information see Chapter 7 of And They Were Not Ashamed.)
We think talking about it indicates a problem. Some husbands and wives mistakenly believe that if you have to talk about sex then there must be a problem. This is simply not true, and indicates a lack of understanding of the human sexual response. While sexual fulfillment may be a natural occurrence and quite simple for most men, female sexual fulfillment is not so simple. Intimate education is needed to understand the intricacies of intimacy and how the three dimensions of intimacy-emotional, spiritual and physical-each interconnect to play an important part in female (and, thus, male) sexual fulfillment.
We believe that spouses should read minds. While sexual feelings may be automatic, sexual fulfillment-particularly for the wife-is not. A husband or wife will not automatically know what he or she needs to feel fulfilled. Because every person is different no one formula works for everyone. What turns one on may turn another off! It’s crazy to think that our spouse is just supposed to know what feels good to us. As romantic and idyllic as it may seem to imagine that your spouse will automatically know what you want and need and will fulfill your every wish, it’s a lot more likely to happen if you’ll simply ask! Mind reading does not magically occur when the marriage certificate is signed.
Tim LaHaye shared the following discussion that he had with a disgruntled husband who wished his wife would read his mind regarding his sexual needs:
An engineer married to a schoolteacher for ten years reported, “After all this time my wife still doesn’t know what turns me on.” When I asked, “Have you ever told her?” he replied, “No, I find it embarrassing to talk about sex. Besides, I think she should know.” He was surprised when I responded, “How should she? You’re different. You feel and react differently than a woman, and you possess an entirely different reproductive apparatus. Who did you think was going to tell her?” [iii]
One couple who had been married over 30 years learned the importance of asking for what you want, or asking your spouse what he or she wants sexually. Lynn shared the following:
The other night we were in the beginning process of making love when I stopped and said, “Wait, I’m supposed to ask what you really like.” My husband was embarrassed about the question but he went ahead and told me. My response was, “You’re kidding me?! That’s easy for me to do. I never knew. I’d much rather do that than other things I thought you liked. All these years. . . . It’s so sad we didn’t know.”
We don’t know what turns us on. If sex or sexual parts of the body are incorrectly believed to be bad or evil, many young brides, especially, may have no idea how their body works or what arouses them. (Most men are aware of what turns them on because it happens so quickly.) Because women’s arousal is less noticeable and they have no real reason to touch or observe their sexual organs, their body is mostly a mystery to them. In addition to talking about sex, learning about sex and the body is also part of the taboo. Without open communication between husband and wife, sexual relations often consist of simply going through the motions. If a wife is unsure about what turns her on, she must be brave enough to let her spouse know what she liked or didn’t like about their lovemaking. This will provide a way for her to identify what arouses her and ensure that their intimate interactions improve over time.
We don’t want to be considered selfish. There is a stigma implicit to selfishness. If we ask for what we want and need, we feel selfish. Instead of asking, we just hope our spouse will figure it out someday, so we won’t have to feel that we are selfishly seeking our own sexual satisfaction. Women may have a particularly difficult time asking for what they want and need sexually. However, they must learn to ask, rather than wait around hoping their spouse will figure it out. While the biggest challenge for men is to “control” their desires (or be less “self-focused”) the biggest challenge for women is to focus more on their desires and sensations to let them free to burn brightly. A healthy focus on the “self” is needed in lovemaking for a woman to achieve sexual fulfillment, which is part of a man’s ultimate sexual fulfillment.
We don’t want to hurt our spouse’s feelings. Let’s say you do know what you would like sexually, but you’re afraid to tell or correct your spouse. Guiding, teaching and sharing sexual information and desires can be done without offending. One of the easiest ways is to verbally express your pleasure during lovemaking with comments such as, “I love it when you….” If you keep your sexual needs and desires a secret you will potentially do much more damage to your marriage (and family, if your marriage dissolves) than if you are open and honest in a gentle way.
Much good can come from a willingness to openly discuss sexual matters and feelings. Jenny called me the day after a blowout between herself and her husband. He couldn’t take it anymore. He was unsatisfied sexually and very unhappy. She knew things had to change, but she didn’t know what to do. I gave her a few chapters of my book And They Were Not Ashamed, and then I prayed for them.
Weeks later I asked her how they were doing.
With a big smile on her face, she said things were much better. I asked what had helped. She said, “After our phone call I knelt down and told Heavenly Father I really wanted to fix this. I wanted my husband to feel loved, and I wanted to feel sexual desire again. I read everything you gave me, then we talked about it that night. I shared everything I was feeling about sex. Just opening up that floodgate so we could talk about sex has made all the difference.”
Heartache can be avoided through open and honest sharing. Elder Brown stated, “If they who contemplate this most glorifying and intimate of all human relationships would seek to qualify for its responsibilities, . . . if they would frankly discuss the delicate and sanctifying aspects of harmonious sex life which are involved in marriage; . . . much sorrow, heartbreak, and tragedy could be avoided.” [iv]
For Mandy and Brad the turning point in their marriage came when Mandy told her husband she hated sex, and always had. After six years of having a “good attitude” about sex, Mandy had no desire to fake it any longer. Over the years she had acted like she enjoyed it, but she had been lying-to herself and to her husband. Tears flowed as she told her husband the truth. Mandy told him how she felt like an object-a pleasure provider for him. Sex was a service she supplied. To her it was a chore and a wifely duty. What a blow this was to her surprised husband! But her willingness to be open and honest stopped the downward spiral and freed them to begin to seek solutions that ultimately brought them greater joy and fulfillment.
How to Talk about Sex
How to actually communicate about such a delicate and potentially volatile subject is of great concern to couples. Couples can keep their communication from being reactionary and heated by first mirroring back to the other what they said (with the intent to understand their perspective) before replying with their own. This allows both husband and wife the opportunity to be fully heard and understood in a safe and effective way. Schedule time to talk when neither of you is tired, in a bad mood or angry. Be sure there are no distractions and plenty of privacy. Creating a safe and comfortable environment is very important.
One of the best ways to talk about sex is to read and discuss helpful books together, allowing the conversation to flow casually. My biased opinion is that the best book on the subject is And They Were Not Ashamed-Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. There are other good books on the subject, which I list in the recommended reading list in my book, but none were sufficiently comprehensive, in-depth and as frank as I felt was needed.
What to Talk about
In addition to subjects encountered while reading And They Were Not Ashamed and other helpful books, here are some suggestions for topics of discussion:
Discuss what and how you were taught about sex.
Share preconceived expectations and fantasies.
Negotiate differences in sexual interests and preferences.
Share your vulnerabilities, fears, memories and inhibitions.
Discuss how you can improve your sexual encounters.
Discuss what kinds of touch and caresses turn you on-what feels good?
Discuss what turns you off-what doesn’t feel good? What makes you uncomfortable or isn’t pleasurable?
The topic of sex needs to be addressed more frequently and forthrightly if we are to take sex out of Satan’s territory and restore it to God’s light. As couples begin to remove the barriers to communicating about sex, the taboo can be broken. Couples can begin to create the kind of intimate relationship that will fulfill their deepest longings and secure a solid foundation for their marriage.
Breaking the taboo regarding sex can also prepare the way for future generations to learn about intimacy in marriage within the context of light and truth. They will be in the blessed position to develop a healthier understanding and attitude regarding the intricacies of intimacy and the sanctity of sexual relations in marriage. They can then enter the covenant of marriage on a firm foundation with greater hope for finding joy and fulfillment within the intimate relationship of marriage.
(This article was adapted from Chapter 6 “Sexual Stewardship-Finding Sexual Fulfillment in Marriage” of the book And They Were Not Ashamed-Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment.)
Laura M. Brotherson is a marriage and family life educator with a bachelor’s degree in Family Science-emphasis in marriage and family therapy-from Brigham Young University. She has recently written and published a book on marital intimacy entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed-Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. For more information visit http://www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your feedback. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
[i] Dobson, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, 125.
[ii] See Genesis 2:24-25.
[iii] LaHaye and LaHaye, Act of Marriage, 130-31.
[iv] Brown, You and Your Marriage, 21-22.