After my six-year relationship ended, I realized that I had spent it mostly unaware of my sexual desires. We were in our mid-twenties when we got together, and I didn’t have the language to say, “Let’s try this!” Or, “I might like that. Can we experiment?” Our sex life had been somewhat predictable, and largely based on his desires. He was the more vocal and confident one, able to articulate his wants in and out of the bedroom. He took up more space in the relationship than I did. Sexually, I adapted to his style.
Then we broke up.
Suddenly, at 31, I didn’t have anyone to defer to. I realized that I had never felt ownership over my sexual identity. I’d never given much thought to my own desires. I started dating, and having sex with determination.
I set out on a personal project to figure out who I was, sexually, and what kind of intimate dynamic I wanted. The process helped me connect with myself in a new way. Our sexual identities are a part of who we are, and just as a bad marriage can stifle your personality or creativity or joyfulness, an unexplored sexual life can limit who you are and who you can become, too.
Finding out what I liked sexually wasn’t easy. Getting naked in front of a new person after being with the same partner for so many years felt like a huge deal. I felt like there was some other way to have sex that I should have been practicing all along. My insecurities about my sexual experience and these "shoulds" made me self-conscious, hyper-aware, to a fault. I noted whenever I tried a new position, how my body looked, what facial expressions I made.
All this self-focus didn’t lead to a joyful sexual awakening. It just made me more self-conscious and awkward.
I would have to reframe my definition of what “good” sex looked like, and felt like, I decided. I would have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, accept and even welcome the weirdness and nuance that comes with being intimate with someone new.
Accepting uncertainty allowed me to connect more honestly with others, and to experience more enjoyable, playful, uninhibited sex. Monogamy, for all its values, can leave you inhibited, or limited—even if you’ve been sexually active for decades, or have more accumulated years of experience than the single folks you’re now meeting. If you marry young (or even not-so-young), the bedroom dynamic of the relationship's early months may last throughout its entire course, leaving you no real chance to to explore.
I discovered there are as many types of sexual styles as there are conversational styles. There’s banter-like sex—smart and quippy, each person riffing off the other, an exchange that has rhythm, though perhaps lacks substance. There's slow, patient, knowing sex. Some conversations are memorable for their immediate connection, while others reveal how little you have in common. Some are awkward at first, until you get into the flow.
One big misconception I found was about orgasms. My boyfriend had dutifully delivered on that front. But achieving orgasm does not equal great sex, I learned. Being "goal-oriented" in intercourse can diminish intensity and connection. A great conversation, to continue the metaphor, doesn’t usually have an end goal, or doesn't stick to it, if it does. Some of the greatest sexual encounters I had, post break-up, wound up not leading to my own physical climax. For me, a feeling of intimacy turned out to be a key element in memorable, fantastic sex, the climax itself an almost technical achievement based on many factors aligning.
My discoveries weren’t especially unique, but it has become increasingly important to me that I am aware of and can articulate them.
Verbalizing what feels good and what doesn’t during intercourse has become essential for me.
I like sex with eye contact. I like to have my hair pulled and my limbs manipulated. I like assertive partners—I am definitely a sub. I like slobbery, messy, “imperfect” sex, and the laughter that goes along with that. This may sound strange, but I started getting a good whiff of a man early on, on the first date if possible—the crook of his arm, his neck, or, better yet, his armpit. Pheromones deserve way more credit than we often realize. I didn’t know I liked giving blowjobs until I met someone whose sweat I was ridiculously attracted to.
Guiding a partner verbally or physically became much easier as I grew more familiar with myself. Knowing what turns you on when you’re by yourself can fuel your romantic encounters, especially if you can articulate them. When I was in my long-term relationship, and when I was younger, masturbation had felt like chore, or something embarrassing. But to communicate what you like requires being able to identify your preferences. Knowing my body and how to find my g-spot myself was a very important step toward feeling confident in my sexuality and knowing how to communicate what I wanted. Bringing yourself to orgasm is a powerful, significant symbol of agency.
Exploring my own fantasies also improved my sex life.
When I first started dating again, a man asked me to tell him a fantasy. I wasn’t able to answer truthfully because I didn’t have any at hand. I have since allowed myself to be curious enough to answer that question, and to be curious about a partner’s fantasies in return. It’s empowering to be able to share fantasies, from the mundane to the fanciful, and to not feel that anything is too weird. Sharing fantasies can lead to discovering other desires and pleasures you might not have arrived at on your own.
Getting to know myself and my body has led seamlessly into loving myself more.
I know I’m sexy and bring a specific something to the bedroom—that intangible quality of me. I don’t have to pose or look a certain way or moan in a specific pitch. It’s so cheesy, I know, but affirmations are a great way to remember this. Expressing self-love—out loud—helped me become more comfortable with sex, and confident enjoying it. It's easy to try, and one great thing about living alone is that no one else is there to judge. Try telling yourself you’re beautiful, that you bring a specific you-ness to the bedroom, that you have great hair and exactly the right kind of boobs for your body, and that you deserve and will find a sex partner who agrees fully.
It’s true, so try saying it: you deserve pleasure.
Carmiel Banasky is the author of The Suicide of Claire Bishop (Dzanc, 2015). Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Glimmer Train, Guernica, and on NPR, among others places. She teaches creative writing and edits in Los Angeles.