Between the Pages: 'Sex Talks' Will Transform Your Love Life
For some people it's simply difficult to discuss sex with their partner, as they repeatedly struggle to approach the somewhat sensitive subject. "Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life," the new book from sex therapist Vanessa Marin and her husband, Xander, covers proven methods for talking about sex and creating deeper intimacy.
The book details five essential conversations every couple needs to have, covering the following topics: acknowledgment, connection, desire, pleasure and exploration. In this exclusive interview with Giddy, Vanessa and Xander discuss sexual perfectionism, initiating sex and more.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background and interest in sexuality, and how it lead you to write this book.
Vanessa Marin: My original inspiration for getting into this field was my parent's very awkward attempt at giving me the 'Sex Talk.' Like most people, it was a very awkward and uncomfortable experience. We were trapped in my parent's minivan. My parents glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, "If you have any questions about it, you know, you can ask us."
It was very clear in the moment that even though they were saying I could ask them questions, what they were really saying was, "Please, for the love of God, don't ask us anything. We don't want to talk about it."
That moment really stuck with me.
I had no idea at the time that sex therapy was a career. I remember thinking: "Why is this so embarrassing to talk about?" I do have a lot of questions. I am really curious. I want to be able to discuss these things with my parents and understand more. I just kept coming back to that moment. As I got older, I realized I could make a career out of this. I wanted to help people get comfortable talking about sex.
I studied human sexuality as an undergrad at Brown University [a research university in Providence, Rhode Island] and went back and forth about the best ways to do this. There isn't a defined career path for a sex therapist. So I was thinking maybe I'd be a doctor, maybe I'd be a therapist, I eventually settled on being a psychotherapist, because I really wanted to have that foundation in communication and in psychotherapy. I went back to grad school, got licensed as a psychotherapist and then set up a practice to work with people one-on-one.
Then I started creating online guides and courses. My private practice filled up really quickly, and I was sharing the same information over and over again. So, I was thinking, "How do I work with more people? How do I make a bigger impact on the world?"
By then, I knew people were so desperately in need of these resources.
Xander, you're the 'regular dude.' Your wife is the expert. Talk about your approach to the book and the perspective you wanted to contribute.
Xander Marin: I never thought I would have anything to do with this career. Vanessa was building this online business while I was working in tech. I saw how much her business was growing and the impact she was making on people. I was feeling kind of burned out in what I was doing, so I quit my job. I started helping her out, just building the business on the back end, and I became the COO of her business.
Vanessa kept slowly encouraging me to get more involved with her on social media and in our online courses, and I was really resistant. I was like, "Who wants to hear from me? I'm just a regular person with no experience. I haven't done all the training you have." Slowly but surely, she started convincing me: "Hey, it's actually your perspective as a regular guy, as a husband, as a man, that's really interesting."
People enjoy hearing from experts, but people don't only want to hear from experts. They want to hear from real-life people. In this case, a real-life couple in terms of how we actually deal with this stuff in our own relationship, the struggles that we face and the successes that we've had.
The perspective that I really tried to bring to the book is advice as a person who's muddled my way through this myself. I wasn't socialized very well when it came to sex. Basically, nobody is. And yet, after all these years, here I am in a really amazing marriage with a really amazing sex life.
And so, it came down to what are some of the lessons that I can give from my untrained experience in terms of how we've made this work for us?
What is sexual perfectionism?
Vanessa Marin: Most of us are familiar with the idea of perfectionism. However, a lot of us don't realize it can come into the bedroom as well.
So, just like in your day-to-day life, you might feel obsessed with making sure everything is exactly the way you want it to be. That dynamic can come up during sex, too. For a lot of us, this manifests as wanting our sex life to look exactly like what movies depict, because in those it looks effortless and spontaneous and so perfect. We don't want to have to put any effort into our sex lives.
We certainly don't want to talk about it because we never see that happening in the movies. And it can even come up in very individual moments. Maybe you don't want to get into a certain sex position because you're worried your belly rolls are going to hang over or you don't want to try a new technique on your partner because you're worried you're not going to get it right in the moment.
It's a really stifling pressure we put on ourselves for everything to look perfect and be effortless. However, it actually leads to sex that doesn't feel very enjoyable or exciting. There's just so much anxiety and pressure. And we have a hard time connecting with ourselves or with our partners.
Say, for example, a man is tired of always being the one to initiate sex. They'd like their partner to initiate sometimes. How can he communicate that to his partner?
Xander Marin: The first thing to do is validate that. Yeah, it doesn't feel great when only one person in a relationship is initiating. Obviously, we've been conditioned to think men or the more masculine person in a relationship are supposed to initiate more often, so we can easily fall into that dynamic.
The reality is everybody in a relationship wants to feel wanted. And one of the best ways for us to feel wanted is to see our partner wanting to have sex with us and initiating sex as often as we do. It's a way we feel really good about ourselves and feel validated. I want to validate that that's totally normal.
And it's also totally normal to wish your partner would initiate. Tell your partner you would love for them to initiate sex with you.
I think very often we are hesitant to initiate sex because we're scared of our partner saying no. A great thing you can do is think of a time in the past when your partner did initiate sex with you and you both really enjoyed it. So, you could just say, "Hey, I was thinking about that time when you initiated sex with me. That was so much fun. That was so hot. It would be so good if we did that again."
This can be a really great way to give some positive reinforcement and encourage your partner to initiate sex with you in a way where you're basically telling them, "If you do it like this, I will definitely be saying 'Yeah!'"
Say a woman really likes oral sex, but her partner does not. If there is a sexual act one partner loves and the other does not, should it be avoided?
Vanessa: First, let's normalize that this happens all the time. You're two different people. So your interests and your desires are going to be different. We understand this outside of the bedroom. We don't get upset if we love Italian food, but our partner isn't a huge fan. We're different people. And sometimes it can feel like a bummer if I'm really in the mood for a lasagna, but ultimately it's OK.
We need to normalize like, "It's OK. Don't get anxious if you and your partner don't have the exact same desires inside the bedroom."
What it comes down to is the partner who's not interested in it really exploring for themselves.
They should be asking "What is my resistance to this particular activity?" We always tell people, "It's your body. You get to decide what you do and do not do with it."
And you should respect your own boundaries.
When it comes to sex, we've all been socialized to feel negative about sex. For a lot of us, we feel resistance to certain activities not because we don't actually like it or it doesn't feel safe, or it feels like a boundary violation in some way, but because we feel we're not supposed to like it.
Receiving oral sex is a perfect example. A lot of women feel so uncomfortable receiving it because we've grown up our entire lives being told that our genitals are gross and icky, and smelly. Why would anybody want to have their face up in there?
For most women, it's not that they don't feel comfortable or safe or interested in receiving oral sex, but they feel as if they're not supposed to or are assuming their partner won't like it. Try communicating with your partner, you may be pleasantly surprised.