Sex advice with Suzi Godson: How assertive and honest should I be in the bedroom?

My last two boyfriends have reacted very differently when I give them instructions as to what I like. I am naturally quite assertive, but I get the impression from my current boyfriend that I might be a bit too prescriptive with my instructions. I just know what I enjoy.

Unless you are handing your partner an advance checklist and barking step-by-step instructions through a megaphone, you do not need to apologise for being explicit about what you enjoy. You sound like a naturally assertive woman, so why would you, or your boyfriend, expect your sexual behaviour to be any different? The way we interact sexually is an extension of who we are as people so, for example, extroverts tend to be more sexually adventurous and have more partners, whereas people who are very conservative will limit the number of people they have sex with and what they do with them.

To be “assertive” simply means that you are confident and have a strong personality. Sexual assertiveness means that you take an active role in sex, and also feel comfortable expressing your preferences. Some people — even those who seem confident — are far too shy to do this.

In 2002, the Guttmacher Institute published the results of a study conducted by Vaughn Rickert, Rupal Sanghvi, and Constance M Wiemann. They had collected data from 904 sexually active people to look at sexual assertiveness. The study revealed the extent to which some women lack the confidence to talk to their partner about sex. For example, 16% felt that they could never say to a partner: “I won’t have sex without contraception.” A further 18% could only sometimes voice that opinion.

These findings are depressing because they are a complete counterpoint to the results of David Farley Hurlbert’s 1991 study, The Role of Assertiveness in Female Sexuality: A Comparative Study Between Sexually Assertive and Sexually Non-assertive Women. Hurlbert compared the results of two groups of women aged 18 to 31, who had been asked to keep a diary of their sexual activity over a 28-day period. The study found that the women in the sexually assertive group reported “higher frequencies of sexual activity and orgasm, rated themselves as having greater subjective sexual desire, and reported greater marital and sexual satisfaction”. Looking at orgasm as a single measure, Hurlbert found that the sexually assertive group experienced significantly more orgasms (37.2%) than the non-assertive group (28.2%).

These results suggest that for some women there is a relationship between lack of assertiveness and difficulty achieving orgasm. “Agreeableness” is an unhelpful trait in the bedroom because agreeable people have a tendency to focus on their partner’s pleasure rather than on their own, and therefore have fewer orgasms and less satisfying sexual relationships. This is not a problem that you have, and that is a good thing.

Sexual relationships should be a mutually pleasurable experience and it is beholden upon all of us to tell our partners what we like and what we don’t like. But the important thing is that you should only need to say it once. Unnecessary repetition might indeed begin to sound prescriptive, but smart sexual partners shouldn’t need to be told anything twice. If you keep having to repeat yourself, your boyfriend either isn’t paying attention, or doesn’t particularly care. If this resonates, and yet if he continues to imply that you are too much for him, you should consider that he may not be enough for you.

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