Sex advice is one of the tried and true tropes of men’s- and women’s-interest magazines: 69 Tips for Better Oral Sex, The One Move That Will Blow His/Her/Their Mind, Here’s a Sex Thing You Don’t Even Know About are, given the twin drives of sexuality and curiosity, the most evergreen of content. But Nicole Prause, principal investigator at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, doesn’t buy it. “There’s no such thing as someone who is ‘good at sex,” Prause tells Science of Us. “It completely depends on your partner. For example, if you’re someone who loves to be pooped on, I’m never going to be a good partner for you. That’s just not in my repertoire.”
The constant demand for sex advice evidences the very human desire to feel sexually confident and capable. “No one wants to be dumb at sex,” Prause says — what an embarrassing area of life to know nothing about. That’s probably also why people don’t communicate about what they like or want to know about: They don’t want to look stupid. “But the expertise isn’t embedded in the information,” she says. “It’s embedded in the individual.” Put another way: Don’t study texts on sex; study your partner.
Beyond the basic anatomy of knowing what goes where, Pause says that if you’re going to get “better at sex,” the best thing you can do is listen to your partner. Indeed, what the research suggests is that what really drives sexual satisfaction is rapport. The best predictor of orgasm in young women, according to a 2012 study in the American Sociological Review, is the number of sexual experiences — in hookups or in relationship — with a partner. Drawing from online surveys completed by over 6,000 young women at 21 U.S. universities and 85 in-depth interviews at Indiana University and Stanford University, the authors found that rates of orgasm and enjoyment increased “dramatically” between the first hookup and subsequent encounters, which suggests, according to lead author and University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth A. Armstrong, that “partner-specific learning plays a role even in the absence of long-term commitment.” In the interviews, the authors report that participants “talked at length about the awkwardness of first sex and the importance of getting to know each other’s bodies.”
Sexual relations, like any other relationship, come down to communication. During the experience, Prause says, be very clear. Don’t rely on making noises or gesture, things that don’t have agreed-upon meanings like language does. You might think your partner knows what a wink or a hand wave means, but they might not. “If you like something they’re doing, say ‘I like that,’” Prause says. “Use your words. If you can be more specific about what you like about it, do.” And go with positive guidance in the moment — in the same way you give gold star stickers to kids to reinforce good behavior — and talk about what you didn’t like in an affectionate tone after the fact. Also, while it’s so, so important that you talk about what you like, it’s important to have a reasonable rate of disclosure. “Don’t drop the big bomb first time,” Prause says. “If you really like being choked with a rope, that’s kind of dangerous. Maybe don’t start with that, but talk about it eventually. Start with something more common as a way of building trust.”
If all that sounds intimidating, Prause says to maybe try the most recommended exercise in sex therapy, a graduated exposure therapy called Sensate Focus, developed by the formative human sexuality researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. Described as “a hierarchy of invariant, structured touching and discovery suggestions” by one 2014 paper, the idea is to touch your partner for your own pleasure — rather than pleasuring them — and be mindful of the sensations as you do so. According to New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness, the process takes four stages played out over four to six weeks. It starts with kissing or touching anywhere on the body, save for breasts or the genitals (“Put your nose to their knee,” Prause suggests) and it continues for four to six weeks, where you take turns being the “toucher” and “receiver.” The goal is to build intimacy. Which is really, as the research indicates, the way you get better at sex. And relationships.