This article is published in partnership with Scarleteen.com.
Heather Corinna replies:
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That’s one of the best questions I’ve received in a long time. I wish more people would ask it!
But. Umm. I can’t actually answer it.
I can’t answer exactly what you’re asking because human sexuality is one of the most diverse things there is, and that diversity includes how different everyone is in what they like and don’t like and in what they experience or consider “good” and what they experience or consider as “bad.” What one person means when they say someone is “good in bed” can be way different from what another person means. One person’s awesome can be another person’s awful. There is no universal “good in bed” for people of any gender or orientation, or for people, period. Some people certainly seem to think there is, or present that as real, but this really, truly is not universal.
But let me tell you why I’m glad you’re asking: because nobody knows, but very few people question that phrase or ask what it means. Instead, people will just tend to stress out about it, and decide the answer is whatever any given source who pretends that this stuff is universal says it is, often trying a million different ways to be “good” even if they really aren’t interested in those things, don’t enjoy them, or their partners aren’t interested in those things and don’t enjoy them. Sometimes people are so focused on trying to be a person someone will call “good in bed” they wind up sabotaging what otherwise would have been good sexual experiences.
It’s hard to really enjoy ourselves and each other sexually if and when we’re hung up on the idea of proving ourselves in any way, being some kind of sexual expert or getting a gold star. While I think being a good partner for people is certainly laudable and important, I think framing ourselves or anyone else as “good in bed” or trying to achieve that as any sort of status we affix and carry around is a mistake. A phrase or idea like “good in bed” is so loaded, so external and so arbitrary that it’s more likely to be a barrier to you or partners feeling your best about sexual experiences and yourselves as sexual people, rather than a help. The proverbial rubbish bin for poor or iffy terms or framing often used with sex is always overflowing, but my advice is that you cram this one in there.
Here’s the good news: even though I don’t know the answer when it comes to the framework you gave me and I suggest you ditch it, what I do know, and can fill you in on, are some basic things — let’s go for top-ten list — that tend to play a part in people mutually enjoying sex and sexuality together; that typically loom large in people feeling good about sex during and after. The even better news is that these things don’t require asking anyone to be a contortionist, they don’t usually cost any money, you won’t need to memorize anything, they don’t involve doing anything that doesn’t feel right to you or pretending to be someone, something or somewhere you’re not.
These things are fairly universal to people having healthy, happy sexual experiences and relationships they’ll tend to report are awesome, not just good. (Who wants good when you can have awesome?) And that’s as true for your partners as it is for you: this list isn’t just about what you can try to do yourself, it’s also about what you can look for and ask for in your partners. These things aren’t about one gender or orientation or just about things only one partner is doing: they’re about everyone.
1. Clear, open and honest communication: A whole lot of people, especially younger people, have this wacky idea that people don’t talk to each other during sex or about sex when they’re not having it. While that’s often how sex is presented in television, the movies and a lot of mainstream media, that’s not how it actually goes for people who are having mutually and frequently excellent sex.
Nobody can be expected to be psychic, and body language only gets us so far. Same goes for monosyllables, moans or groans which can be confusing: one person’s pleasure-sounds can sound like another person’s sounds of pain or discomfort. And what we like, or think someone else will, may not be what they do, or may not be all they like. In order to really find out as fully as we can what people like and dislike, what does and doesn’t feel good for each other, and by all means, to make sure everyone is giving and getting real consent, we’ve got to communicate clearly, openly and honestly, with real back and forth.
I’m talking about doing that during sex, just by asking someone what they like and want and need, and as you’re doing things together, if things are feeling good or not. I’m talking about them responding with honesty and direction, like by being real when something doesn’t feel so hot (but also when it feels great!), and by telling you think like to slow something down or speed it up, to move your hand or mouth or body a little this way or a little more over there, to add extra lubricant, all kinds of cues and directions. And then I’m talking about all of that also happening on your end, with them asking you and you responding. I’m talking about talking about sex when you’re not in bed, too. Those conversations should certainly include talking about reducing risks of infections and/or pregnancy and injury, but also about your sexual histories, things you’re curious about, things you know you usually don’t like and usually do, limits and boundaries: the more the better, building with both of your comfort levels and as trust is built.
It’s hopefully obvious I’m also talking about doing consent well, which, especially when a partner is new or we’re doing something new, needs to involve talking, not just eye contact or body language. A big part of good sexual communication is about consent. There isn’t anything that’s not sexy about someone you’re into asking you plainly if you want to do something sexual that you want to do: hearing it said out loud, hearing a partner voice their desire to be sexual in that way with you is yummy. Obviously, it’s different if someone doesn’t want to do something, but if someone doesn’t want to do something, it’s important you know that so you don’t do that thing (and in case you didn’t know, just because your partner is a guy does not mean everything is okay with him: consent matters for all genders, in all directions). Even if and when someone doesn’t want to do a given thing with you, hearing you ask and feeling you give them real room to take a pass is likely to make them feel a lot more comfortable and relaxed with you than they would otherwise, which makes great sex together more likely.
2. Be present and responsive: If our attention really isn’t on the sex we’re having, not only are we likely to enjoy sex a lot less, but so are our partners. Part of what makes sex so awesome is feeling connected, not disconnected. A partner who is spacing out, doing their taxes in their head, or is trying to remember the eighty-seven steps to mindblowing oral sex they read in Cosmo instead of really being present in the moment isn’t likely to be enjoying themselves much and neither is their partner.
That also means taking a pass or doing something else when you’re not all there. Sometimes we think we were into a thing, but it turns out that we were actually too tired, that we have something else going on we can’t let go of, or that what we thought was going to be exciting just wasn’t all-that. If and when situations like that happen, pretending isn’t the way to go. Again, that’s no good for you, but on the partner end, it can feel a whole lot like one imagines having sex with a zombie feels (save that you’re hopefully not also going to try and eat their brains). A partner just going through the motions is usually not what folks really want sexually.
3. Be creative and curious: Every now and then, I hear from someone who earnestly, really, truly, does not know there are other kinds of sex to have besides vaginal intercourse, and who has been having a sex life that truly involves nothing but intercourse, and maybe some kissing and the occasional boob-grab. It probably doesn’t surprise you that when I hear from these folks, it’s not because they’re writing to tell me how awesome their sex lives are. Usually they are writing to tell me that they, their partners, or both of them are really unhappy and really aren’t enjoying sex.
I’ve bent my brain backwards trying to figure out how, exactly, someone winds up in that position. The best I can figure is that for whatever reasons, these folks simply are not that curious about their bodies and their partner’s bodies or are not following their curiosity, and are not creative or are not being creative. When we’re both of those things, we’re going to try lots of things, even if we think no one else has ever tried them before. We’re going to try them because we want to and we can, and because a big part of sex is about experimentation: that’s one of the most fun parts of it, after all.
So, when you’re curious, follow your curiosity, and don’t get hung up on what the “right” thing is to do sexually beyond what you and your partner feel right about or what may or may not make you look or seem like a sex goddess. Just try and go with the flow. Be creative: don’t get stuck on just what you’ve seen in movies or read about in magazines. Try and channel your own intuition and imagination, because that’s what makes the sex you have, and the sex people have with you, unique and memorable, not cookie-cutter. Even if your curiosity and creativity have you wanting to try something you think seems silly, so long as you check in with partners about it first, chances are, even if it does wind up being silly, a partner might want to try it, and will appreciate you being willing to think of and try new things. Plus? Silly is fun. But we’ll get to that in a little bit.
4. Be confident and vulnerable: Confidence is a biggie people will tend to report as something they find very sexy and excellent in a lover, whatever their gender. Someone who clearly likes and loves themselves, who finds themselves sexy — and not just because a partner or someone else does — and enjoys their own body, who is willing to try new things even if they might make an ass of themselves, and who also holds their own lines tends to be a great and exciting partner to be with.
That said, confidence is different than cockiness or being closed-off. Sex can be a deep way to connect to other people, and we’re all certainly very exposed, even in casual scenarios. Now, if we or someone else wants, one can certainly put up certain walls to be less vulnerable, but when anyone is doing that? Those aren’t usually our most amazing sexual experience. We’re unlikely to remember a sexual performance long after it’s over; we’re much more likely to remember a time when someone seriously was open with us, and really let us in, and we’re also more likely to experience something as fantastic when people’s hearts are open.
5. Be and respect yourself and afford partners that same acceptance and respect: Really, truly, just be yourself. That includes doing the best you can to be honest with yourself about what you want and don’t want, regardless of what the other person does, and being true to whatever those things are, only doing what you want to, and making sure that you’re not just doing things to impress, satisfy or placate someone else.
A lot of the time, the word “respect” when used around young people sex is used as code to mean don’t let anyone mess with you, don’t do certain sexual things, or even don’t have sex at all. When I’m talking about respect, though, I’m using the word as defined, which is to regard yourself and others (and everyone’s sexuality) with honor and esteem. When I say acceptance, I mean accepting people for who they are, not looking to change them or to try and get them to conform their sexuality to yours. I also mean that you’re doing the same for and about yourself, so again, that you’re being authentic. We need to all be on the same page with what we do and will need to find common ground with the things we and a partner both like, but if and when someone has fantasies or desires and we don’t want to engage with those, just letting them know that we accept them as okay, despite not personally having an interest in exploring them, can be major for many people.
6. Don’t be fake. It’s one thing to be theatrical and to have fun playing. Maybe you’re role-playing and acting out being someone you’re really not, but you’re acknowledging you’re role-playing, not trying to fool a partner into earnestly thinking you’re their doctor, boss or zookeeper. Sometimes, too, we might key things up a little — a little, I said — to increase everyone’s excitement a bit more, including our own. I’m not talking about things like that.
Those are very different things than putting on a sexual performance which is false and meant to hide your real experience, like faking orgasm, pretending to enjoy yourself when you’re not, or saying you really want to do something because you think that’ll get a good reaction when the truth is, that thing feels or seems boring or creepy to you. Sex with you should be sex with you. Sometimes people feel like who they are sexually just can’t be all that sexy, but the truth is that sexy is as sexy does, and someone really claiming their own sexy is usually going to seem a whole lot sexier than someone trying to put on someone else’s sexuality.
We gotta whole lotta fake going on in our world: it’s very easy to come by. People being real is far more rare and valuable.
7. Take care of yourself as much as you take care of someone else. Some folks have the idea that what it means to be good in bed is to only go with what a partner wants, to only focus on their body and their pleasure, taking their own wants, needs and real responses out of the picture. But most of the time, when you’re with people who really want to be with you, as a person, not an object, as who you are, not who they wish you were, they really want to be with you and have things be mutual and reciprocal. In healthy, happy sexual exchanges, we care for ourselves and we care for each other: no one is parenting a partner or placating a partner at their expense. Sex is an awful place for martyrs.
If someone is ready to be sexual with you, and you’re very sure they are — I’d hope if you were not, you’d pass on sex — they are ready to take care of themselves and don’t need you to do it for them. Emotionally healthy people are not going to get excited by you being a doormat for them or just whatevering to whatever it is they want. Assertiveness is not only really important to healthy sexual exchanges, you’ll find that when you ask around, most folks will also agree that it’s far sexier than the alternative.
8. Take positive risks. So often when we use the word risk when we’re talking about sex, we’re only talking about the bad or unwanted stuff. But there’s risk in everything, and in order for good things to happen, we need to take risks, too.
I’m not talking about risking pregnancies you don’t want or don’t feel ready for, risking STIs needlessly or risking injury or being treated badly. I’m talking about things like trying something new you’re curious about, and feel good about doing, but are just a little worried you won’t do “right.” Or opening up emotionally a bit more in an experience you’re pretty sure it’s safe to, steeping a bit outside your comfort zone. Or sharing a fantasy with a partner, even though you’re a little embarrassed or showing them how you masturbate. Positive risks are risks we take which don’t ask that we risk anything major, and where we take a risk because it seems very likely that doing so is going to result in experiencing something positive we might not have otherwise.
9. Don’t be ashamed. Obviously, that can be a lot less easy than it sounds. Many people have shame around sex and it can take a lot of time and effort to unpack it and toss it. And if and when people feel very deeply ashamed with sex, it can be a good idea for those folks to step back away from sex and get some help sorting it out first.
But shame will crop up now and then for all of us, and it’s a headspace that not only often influences our decision-making poorly, it can also really limit our sexual experiences. If you feel emotionally and physically safe with a partner, know that that means you can try things out and be authentic in your sexual responses without big worries that they’ll feel or apply any shame you are yourself. And often enough, just giving shame the finger by refusing to go to a shame-place in our heads does a whole lot to send it packing.
10. And, last but so not least, have a sense of humor: Think about how you and others are usually feeling and behaving when you’re enjoying yourselves in your lives. You’re laughing and smiling, right? You feel joy, right? Most of us don’t file times when we’re dour, stoic or highly emotionally restrained under “Best Day Ever.”
In a whole lot of ways, sex is one of the ways we play. I don’t mean being cavalier about people’s feelings or not taking the things seriously with sex that we all need to. I mean play, like we did as kids where we could go for hours in doing something that was fun, where we could get totally lost in the world of whatever that play was, where we could let off steam, and be goofy and happy and relaxed while we made and enjoyed our own world-in-the-moment.
For sure, sex can be serious, and it is in many ways. But sex is primarily about physical and emotional pleasure and enjoyment. That’s why it can potentially be one great way to relieve stress, not just because we get off from it (when we do). I mean, let’s be real: in a lot of ways, when you really think about, sex is truly kind of ridiculous, it’s just a good kind of ridiculous. It IS a place to laugh, to smile, to be silly, to make an ass out of ourselves, to not take ourselves so darn seriously.
Don’t forget: getting “good” with sex in these ways isn’t likely to be something anyone is an ace at right at the gate. Just like with anything else in life, doing sex well — and I’m not just talking about the physics, which is the least complicated part — time and practice and growth, and we’re all going to have parts of this that we’re better at that others, or where some of these things feel easier than others. It can help to know that sex is a place where intention really matters. If our intention is to do all of the things in the list above, even if we bungle some of them sometimes or aren’t quite there yet in some places, but are working on it, it’s all usually going to be okay.
It’s also going to be okay if and when someone you sleep with doesn’t think you’re good in bed. The world won’t end, I promise.
Here’s the last thing I want to leave you with: sometimes wanting to be or be seen as “good in bed” is about trying to get validation in a not-so-great-way or about trying to get someone else to give us esteem through sex or their opinion of us sexually. If you ever find that having sex is all about, or mostly about, you feeling “good in bed,” in those ways, that can be a cue to check in with yourself about the reasons you’re being sexual with other people and about if you really feel confident enough in yourself at the time to be sexual with others. Ideally, we want to be walking into sex with as much esteem and confidence as we feel we need right from the start: not going in feeling we don’t have those things and hoping to find them there.
But if this is about you focusing on all the kinds of things I talked about above, chances are very good that you and your partners are going to pursue, experience and leave sexual experiences and relationships both feeling very good about yourselves and having felt good together. In bed.
Here are some extra links which might be of use to you:
- Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner
- 10 of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Sexual Self (at Any Age)
- Reciprocity, Reloaded
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist