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Directionally Challenged

No one on the street has ever told me I give good directions, but between the sheets this sentiment has come up time and again.

Long before smart phones and GPS at our fingertips, I learned to read maps. Every year my parents would order a customized map from the American Automobile Association for our summer road trip. The map arrived in the mail, configured into a spiral bound flip up notebook. I would keep track of our progress and gamely guide my dad to the designated turn offs.

As a young adult I biked and backpacked with men who also loved maps. I learned to read topographic lines, add up mileage and estimate the energy expenditure of my route and pack accordingly. I road tripped across the country twice with a book of maps called a Gazetteer, made up of pages so detailed they included hiking trails, primitive campsites and small streams. I would study those maps each night with the intensity of a student cramming for an exam.

What all that familiarity with maps and navigation did was result in giving me a good sense of direction and an ability to give directions. By the time I moved away from Seattle, I had bicycled to every job I ever held and could have directed a stranger to any address in town. Who knew this skill would come in handy when it came to sex.

No one on the street has ever told me I give good directions, but between the sheets this sentiment has come up time and again. The number of men who have told me they have not been given much in the way of direction when it comes to pleasing a woman’s body makes me sad for The Sisterhood. Yet I’ve found that men don’t say much about how they want to be pleased in bed. It seems like sex is one of those things we fall into believing will just work itself out, it will be good or it won’t be, based upon some elusive chemistry. But we might have a better journey, might avoid getting deplorably lost, if we are willing to tell the driver where to make a turn.

I suppose one needs to possess a certain level of self awareness and confidence to speak up when a partner is busy between your legs, but the benefits of doing so are legion. It’s true, a new lover may introduce you to a side road on your body you didn’t know was there, but chances are you know where your most stunning landmarks are. Why wouldn’t you want to share that vista with your person? I am happy to speak up about which side of my clitoris is more sensitive (yes, this is a thing) and what I’d love my partner to do with his other hand at the same time. No man has felt belittled by my suggestions, in fact they have often been ecstatic to have guidance. Giving directions means essentially handing your lover the tools to make both your lives better.

Image by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

As a woman who sleeps with men, I’m especially keen to learn more about his pleasure points. These vary so widely it’s almost absurd to consider myself a good lover unless I’m willing to understand that each man’s body is different, even if their parts look almost identical. Nipples are a good example. Like women, some men go wild with nipple stimulation and some get nothing from it. I also love it when a man can show me how he likes to be stroked; the pace, the pause, the grip and the right level of friction, whatever adds up to his best experience. I wish more men had told me how they like to receive pleasure rather than drift away after an evening of awkward sex, perhaps because they didn’t think to give me direction. Or maybe because my earlier way of polite conversation felt like interrogation.

Bantering about what feels good when you’re naked is easier if there’s been a lot of banter going on about sex in general. Yet it rarely happens. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships revealed that a majority of couples would rather ignore an unsatisfactory sex life than talk about it. Sex talk can be hugely anxiety provoking. We rarely want to hear there’s room for improvement in the way we are doing things; washing the dishes, driving, fucking. The art of sex talk is a diplomatic venture. I was once really bad at it, essentially accusing my partner of neglect rather than non-defensively, maybe even playfully, expressing what I wanted. And my lack of sexual statesmanship often led to an argument, which made sex even more loaded with shame and avoidance. Here’s an excellent guide on how to go about it much better than I used to.

I’ve also discovered as I age that arousal and pleasure is less about the sexual technique being employed than it is about feeling an emotional connection to a partner. This has become a chicken and egg situation. A burgeoning romance is built upon satisfying sex, but we’re often afraid of moving too quickly emotionally and will avoid the kinds of gestures that might make us tumble into love. Eye gazing, long embracing, deep kissing. These things get me hot, but they also make me vulnerable to going to emotional places I might not be ready for. Does this mean sex will stall out? Will sex feel performative if I’m not willing to bond?

I’ve forced myself to talk about it all. Where I’m at with my ability to commit to an exclusive relationship or whether I just need a little levity for the moment. I err on the side of over-talking though I know I should practice saying less on occasion. Yet my sex life at 57 is better than it was at 27, so I’m guessing there’s a correlation between communication and orgasms.

Talking about what we like specifically is just a subset of talking about sex in general. As relationship intelligence guru Esthel Perel has said, “Foreplay begins after the last orgasm.” When a man says to me over breakfast that he really liked it when I did (blank) last night, I am both pleased and motivated to do more (blank) the next time. I want to fill in all the (blanks) he can find for me! And if I ever run out of things I want to try with my lover, give him direction and ask for his, I have either lost my faculties or I’m on my deathbed. Figure out your (blank). Then provide a highlighted map to get there.

Love, Karin

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