To my 20-year-old self
Sex is much more complicated than movies (Hollywood or otherwise) make it out to be—and it’s not like your high school health class included a lesson on living your best sex life. Everything you know about enjoying sex has probably come down to a lot of trial and error.
While learning as you go is part of the fun, there’s no point in wasting your time believing you should ever fake an orgasm, or that you should feel embarrassed by your shape, or that you need to keep quiet about how you really want your partner to touch you down there. That’s why we asked four sex and relationship experts what else they wished they’d known about sex when they were younger. Here, they make the sexual learning curve a little less steep for you.
It’s okay to laugh
Sex may have seemed super serious when you were a novice, but do yourself a favor and loosen up a bit, advises sex therapist and educator Rena McDaniel. “Part of feeling comfortable in your own skin is owning your imperfections and the fact that bodies sometimes do weird things or make weird noises during sex.” (It’s also normal to have anxious thoughts in bed.) And if anything during your romp does slip into the realm of embarrassing, try to focus on the humor over the humiliation. “Being able to laugh when someone falls off the bed, gets a cramp, or accidentally makes a weird noise can make a potentially awkward moment into a connecting one.”
Lube has gotten a bad rap over the years for being a crutch during sex. But according to McDaniel that’s so not the case: “I had no idea when I was younger that lube wasn’t just for people experiencing issues with wetness, but really enhances sexual activity in general.”
Emily Morse, sex and relationship expert and host of the podcast Sex with Emily, completely agrees: “It’s not a failure of your womanhood to get a little help from your lubricant ally.” Morse recommends getting into the habit of experimenting with different kinds (read up on five varieties) to figure out what works best for you. (Just keep in mind; it’s crucial to stick to silicon lubes when using condoms!) But if you’re not sure where to get started, she recommends trying her favorite, SKYN Maximum Performance.
Don’t skip the rubbers
We get it; condoms are notorious pleasure-busters, and not exactly the coolest contraceptive on the block. “In my 20s, condoms were more of a nuisance than a savior,” says sex educator and pelvic health physical therapist Uchenna Ossai. “I remember many times when my male partners would say things like ‘It doesn’t feel as good.’” But all feels aside, condoms really are crucial, and luckily there are plenty of great options (like these nine types) that provide protection without feeling restrictive.
Also be sure to carry your own, says Morse, “After all, can you really trust a guy to keep your sexual safety in mind when many of them aren’t even clear on the location of the clitoris?” And if he gives a hard ‘no’ when you break out the rubber? “Plenty of other princes out there will pleasantly surprised that you brought your own glass slipper,” says Morse. “And will be happy to show you their appreciation all night long.”
Sex shouldn’t hurt
While trying new things can definitely be positive, it should never come at the expense of your comfort. Yet many women who experience unwanted pain during during intercourse are under the impression it’s just a reality of sex. But Ossai explains this couldn’t be more false. “Sex simply should not hurt, so if you are experiencing pain with sex; don’t ignore it!” she says. “See a doctor or a pelvic health physical therapist who has experience treating sexual pain.”
In the meantime, Ossai suggests playing around with “outercourse” (oral or external stimulation), masturbation, or even sex products like vibrating rings and finger massagers (her personal fave is Lifestyles Amuse: His and Hers pleasure massagers.)
Fake orgasms benefit no one
“I know it’s tempting to fake an orgasm from time to time, whether we know it’s not going to happen or just want to give our partner a little ego boost,” says Morse. The problem is, “Now that he thinks he’s the master of your orgasmic universe, he’ll keep doing these same moves over and over again believing they’ll yield positive results.”
So you’re innocent little act could actually send you down a long path of orgasm-free sex. Do yourself a favor: “Skip the theatrics, and offer some constructive criticism instead,” says Morse—like one of these tips for better orgasms. “It takes more effort to fake writhe and moan than it does to point him in the direction of yourclitoris.”
Don’t focus on the finish line
While setting yourself up for orgasm disappointment is certainly something to avoid, realize that having tunnel vision for that climax can put a damper on your sex lifeas well. Consider the overused “it’s about the journey not the destination” advice, because it’s actually spot-on in this case—there’s a whole world of enjoyment to be had between the sheets, from start to finish. “Sex is more than just penetration and reaching an orgasm,” says Ossai. “If you invest your focus on the pleasure vs. the end-goal; you will completely reinvent your sex life for years to come.”
Allow yourself to be pleasured
“There’s an epidemic affecting young women everywhere: they still believe that sexual pleasure is a one way street, leading only towards their partners’ satisfaction,” says Morse. If this sounds familiar, it’s time for a reality check: “Sex is a two-way street; both parties should have the opportunity to get where they need to go.”
The catch is, you have to be open to taking charge of your own pleasure. Don’t be afraid to put yourself first sometimes, or ask for exactly what you want, when you want it. And most importantly, remember that you 100% deserve to feel satisfied and enjoy every single second of sex, says Morse. “Your body is wired for it, after all.”
Go at it solo
If you’re not 100% sure what to ask for in bed, or feel a little uncomfortable in your own skin, masturbation can fix all of that (read up on all the reasons masturbation should be part of your self-care routine). “Take your time, set the mood, and really get to know what your body likes,” says McDaniel. “Use a little bit of lube, to enhance your senses and play with different pressure, tempos, and ways of touching yourself.”
Expand your horizons
It can be really easy to limit your sexy time to the standard penetrative and oral sex. But guess what: there’s a whole world of erogenous zones outside of the obvious parts down there. “I wish I had a broader view of sex in my early 20s and experimented with different types of erotic and sensual play outside of the genitals,” says Ossai. “Because when you grow your erotic sensibilities and have the courage to indulge your curiosities, it makes for a hell of a sex life!”
Don’t stress about your body
“I wish I could have told my younger self not to worry so much about how my body looked, because it held me back from being present in my body during sex,” says Sarah Tomchesson, sex educator and head of business operations at The Pleasure Chest.
You can know the best sex tricks in the book, but if you don’t feel comfortable in your skin, sex is always going to be lukewarm,” says Ossai. Granted, there’s no magic trick to improving your body confidence. “It requires patience, consistent effort, and kindness.” Ossai suggests taking control by avoiding people and media that leave you feeling sub-par. Instead, figure out what helps you feel beautiful, confident, powerful, and sexy. “As your body confidence improves, so will your sex life,” Ossai says.
And if you need a little extra inspiration, check out some of these great body positive moments.
It can be easy to get lost in your own thoughts during sex—whether you’re stressing about what your bod looks like or that work project you need to finish tomorrow. “A tip I share with anyone who gets stuck in the head during sex is to focus on awakening the whole body before sex,” says Tomchesson, who struggled with this in her 20s.
She suggests trying out “sensation play techniques,” which involve taking away one or two senses, like sight or sound, to heighten other senses, like touch. “For instance, you can use a blindfold on your partner and then give them a massage with a warm massage oil or use a feather over their body and the sensation becomes heightened,” she says. “This helps to bring you into your body, into the moment and out of your head.”
Realize there is much to learn
“In my 20s, I could have benefited from someone telling me ‘the more you know, the more you realize how little you know (in bed),’” says Tomchesson. “I thought I should be an expert at sex, and as a result, I found it hard to access information and education about sex because I was embarrassed.”
But it’s important to remember sex is like any other skill; it takes time and practice to hone your craft. “In the case of everyone’s sexual journey, that means to find the orgasms and erotic experiences that are satisfying for you.” And don’t be afraid to seek help to do so. Look into online resources like OMG Yes, workshops led by experts at sex shops like the Pleasure Chest, or sex tips from Health.com.The bottom line: Your sexual education is always a work in progress, especially since your body and desires are constantly changing and evolving, so don’t be afraid to seek help, branch out, and step out of your comfort zone from time to time.
This article originally appeared on Health.com