The Down & Dirty Guide to Improving Your Sex Life
Illustration by Lea Carey
No matter how magical our sexual chemistry is during the honeymoon phase of any courtship or relationship, life has a way of just being life again.
That means falling into the same sexual routines, positions, and—gulp—dry spells. That means your partner may be stressed at work and it’s affecting their sex drive. That means they may be in the mood and for some reason, you’re just not, and you can’t get there. Our sexual desires, preferences, and libidos are constantly changing, and when you’re in a committed relationship and engaging in sex with the same person over time, whether you’re married, engaged, in a relationship and cohabiting, or defining your relationship on your own terms, that means having to navigate different wants, needs, schedules, and approaches.
We spoke to the experts on how to keep the lines of communication open, honest, respectful and how to “spice things up” beyond the same old advice we’re always given about role play and dirty talk (anyone good at doing that at the drop of a dime and on command? We’d like to see a script, please!), and when to consider bringing in a badass expert, therapist, counselor or other supporter of healthy sexual and intimate relationships to get you on a track you’re excited to head down again.
Sarah Forbes, author of "Sex in the Museum" and former curator at the Museum of Sex, says that so much of this space can feel loaded with unspoken emotions, and often an unrealistic expectation that someone’s long term partner will have, or continue to have the exact same sex drive as they do.
“That said, I do believe sex is very important for many people is sustaining a long term relationship and needs to be prioritized. Sometimes, taking a step back is critical. Why does one partner not feel in the mood? What is going on with them? With your relationship? It's a lot to ask your partner to just drop all the stressors that might be impacting their sex drive” she says.
“Once you understand the external factors at play, chipping away at those are likely more potent in "spicing up" a relationship than any sexy lingerie. Really feeling like someone cares, is trying, and is in the trenches with you, is a huge aphrodisiac for people, particularly parents with young children.”
But let’s back up a little.
Rachel Klechevsky, LMSW, says that when we think about sex, it’s easy to think about it as as “an exchange of services.”
It is first and foremost necessary, she says, that there is no sense of entitlement or expectation for sex to occur.
“In an intimate relationship, there should be ongoing dialogue to understand each partners' libidinous mood,” she says, offering the following scenario:
Partner A: Hey, so what's your mood like for sex?"
Partner B: "I really can't tonight"
"I'm not really there right now, but let's try later."
"Totally down for some stuff, but not everything!"
"If you start something, I can get into it!"
“With this dialogue, you are approaching with curiosity, not expectation. It also gives room for the partner that's being approached to feel safe offering up whatever options while listening to their body,” she says.
If sexual activity has been on the decline and it is beginning to get frustrating, try to understand that frustration, says Klechevsky. Ask yourself these questions:
Are you frustrated with your partner?
Are you simply sexually frustrated?
Are you dealing with something difficult?
Are you feeling sad?
Are you feeling distant from your partner?
Another idea to bridge the subject in a passive way is to find something like a coaster and allow one partner to either flip it up for yes, down for no, on any given night. This can help people who have trouble finding the right words communicate if they’re receptive to sex.
“There are other techniques, like creating a rainbow wheel and arrow and each color represents another mood. That's part of the ongoing dialogue that partners can have with each other,” says Klechevsky.
Jennifer Matesa, author of Sex in Recovery and professor at The University of Pittsburgh, says it takes a great deal of sensitivity to understand when one’s partner is up for it or not.
“I can tell when my partner is not up for it. I can almost see the thoughts whirling in his cranium.”
“When that happens, I still check it out with him. Our phrase is for anything—for when we wake up, for after we’ve seen a movie, for after we’ve both just had orgasms—is, ‘How’s it going?’ Matesa says.
“One day I was getting it on and he was not responding, and I said, ‘How’s it going?’ and he said, ‘I need to take a break,’ and I lay beside him for 15 minutes while he meditated, and then it turned out he was up for it. That said, I did not check my phone or watch Seinfeld reruns for those 15 minutes. I lay beside him and listened to his breathing, and my breathing, and enjoyed the warmth and scent of his skin. I was ready to accept whatever outcome. I was present.”
She continued to reference Emily Nagoski, author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life,” who says that spontaneous desire in women is a myth. "Desire is arousal in context,” she writes.
“That means that we can think we’re not in the mood, and when we keep an open mind, we may very well get in the mood when the context is right. I think it takes a lot of self-awareness and practice to understand one’s own sexual response, enough to say, “I’m not in the mood,” and really be accurate,” Matesa says.
By defining the frustration, she says, you can approach your partner kindly about it.
“Express concern for the relationship and possibly your partner. Are they withdrawn? Are they struggling? Using empathy, you can build intimacy instead of pushing your partners away from frustration.”
So let's say you asked your partner about sex, and they tell you that sex is off the table.
You can try to alleviate your libido with masturbation, says Klechevsky, but if you find yourself frustrated at the need to masturbate, then there is a possibility that you're either feeling entitled to sex or maybe not recognizing where your partner is.
“There is a possibility that your partner is using sex as a bargaining tool to control you, but that would be abuse. For any other circumstance, frustration is your responsibility to explore. In general, I don't recommend masturbating out of frustration, because it creates a negative loop with an activity that can be freeing and healing,” she says.
It is also important to note that masturbation is not the same as sex.
“Let's imagine that you want sex and your partner doesn't, but then they go masturbate. Masturbation plays a role that is different than sex does. It is a space that belongs to the individual, to play out fantasies, to be in touch with themselves in a way that doesn't always welcome other people.”
If you're having regular sex and it is beginning to get boring and you're approaching (or facing) a lull in sexual activity, Klechevsky recommends something called Sensate Focus (SF). SF is a technique that focuses on intimacy, rather than sex. Part of the rules in SF is that sex is NOT the result and should not be engaged in while beginning the "program." Usually done between two partners, each partner takes a turn caressing and exploring the other partner's body for 20 minutes.
Receptive partners are only supposed to receive the touch, without trying to reciprocate, says Klechevsky. They are also tasked with communicating their likes, dislikes and suggestions ("put more pressure there" "can you focus here, I like that" "oh I really don't like being touched there") The first stage is without touching genitals at all, the second stage is touching genitals without trying to reach any orgasmic result (this is for intimacy, not orgasms!)
“Sometimes people use SF as an activity to separate from "every day" to sensual/sexual space. This is when sex is on or off the table depending on what you and your partners discuss,” she says.
Other ways to enhance the sexual experience, Klechevsky suggests, is to explore “literotica” and engaging the one's erotic imagination.
“Visual pornography does not involve imagination. Literotica engages your imagination and allows you to take the place of the characters. It also provides "dirty talk" language should you choose to engage,” she says. “While engaging your sexual imagination, you can open yourself up more to new experiences. You can empathize with the characters and feel if this is something you would like to try. There are also novels with a nice bit of erotic literature in it. Have a book club with your partner and help that kick off your sexual dialogue.”
Edging, Klechevsky says, is a fun activity that works well for people who orgasm easily - bring your partner close to orgasm and right before stop all activity for a bit then start again. OMGYes has a series of options on how to touch a person's vulva and play with their orgasms,” she says.
“Additionally try changing the sexual space, either location or ambiance, discussing fantasies that you want to try and fantasies that you don't want to try, taking classes at Babeland or other local sex shops on bondage, spanking, shibori, etc., switching up roles (If one of you is usually the more active and the other passive, switch. switching up styles (if you tend to have rough sex, try sweet sex), and touching parts of the body that you usually ignore.”
Matesa, says never mind talking dirty—talk at all.
“Tell your partner what you’re going to do to them just before you do it. That is, if your partner likes talking (some people don’t—it distracts them),” she says. “If you usually take all your clothes off and jump into bed, try making out in the kitchen with your clothes on, and the lights on. Imagine someone can see you making out,” says Klechevsky.
And, as any expert will tell you, sexual chemistry and desire also begins way before the lights are dimmed and the candles are lit. Are you guys connecting on an emotional level? Are you still bringing work stress home with you, mentally?
Psychologist Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais suggests asking your partner what you can do for them to make their day better, or what you can do to help relax or sooth them. “If this is repeated for days on end, very often, at the two-week mark, partners see the offering as unconditionally loving them without a single string attache,” she says. “This lack of agenda paradoxically sparks and ignites positivity and passion.”
Outside of the bedroom, she suggests doing more things together like volunteering or having new adventures to deepen your emotional connection.
So when is it time to speak to a sex therapist?
This answer really varies not just for every couple, but for every individual within that couple.
Sometimes, only one person needs to, or benefits from, seeing the therapist, though often, you will be asked to join for one session.
Some couples just feel like they could use a reboot, others want to learn to explore their sexuality both individually and separately, and often, there is an emotional component—many, many of them in fact—that contributes to what your physical relationship status is at any time.
To be sure, seeing a sex therapist doesn’t mean anything is “wrong” and should be a positive, empowering, and wonderful experience—you love one another and are committed to making things better and strengthening your relationship. We all deserve happy relationships and better sex.
Now, there are situations in which you can definitely go ahead and bank on the fact that seeing a licensed professional is a good idea. Gage it the way you would anything else—why see a medical doctor, a therapist, a psychiatrist, why take a meditation class, or hire a personal trainer? You want to improve and get healthy. Dr. Bais lays some reasons out.
“Certain indicators surrounding a lull include: if you can't remember the last time, are bored more often than not, if there is passive or active resistance, underlying anger, weaponizing sex by withholding, issues with trust and intimacy, trying new things even infrequently, sleeping in different rooms, or sensitivity to being touched generally.”
However, no matter how you choose to go forward, know that ups and downs, dry spells, and finding ways to change things up are par for the course in any meaningful relationship. If you’re determined to stick together, chances are you’ll be riding those orgasmic waves up and down for years to come.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, content strategist and author of the memoir After 9/11. She has written for over 50 publications including The New York Times, Salon, Newsweek, Women;'s Health, Buzzfeed, Glamour, Forbes, Tee