The Importance of Communication—and How to Do It

Communication is important in all areas of life—with teachers/professors, friends, family, and co-workers, and with sexual partners. Communication can also be hard! Everyone communicates differently, and we interpret things differently. You might interpret someone to mean something way different than what they intended. It happens all the time!

When it comes to sexual health and sexual behaviors, it’s important to communicate with your  partner(s) and to make sure they understand what you’re saying (and for you to understand them). Communication about sex should be ongoing throughout a relationship, not just at the beginning. Your wants and needs may change, and you should continually share that information with a partner.

Communicating with Your Partner

Regarding sexual health, here are some things you should communicate with a partner:

Consent. Consent should be ongoing—you and your partner must get and give consent with every instance of sexual activity. Consent should be fully informed, so make sure it’s clear exactly what you’ll be doing. Read more about consent and it’s role in preventing sexual sexual violence.

 

Your values. You spent time determining what your values are, so now share that with your partner! What is important to you when it comes to your sexual health? Make sure your partner knows.

 

Your green/yellow/red activities. While this does not take the place of consent for every instance of sexual activity, it’s important that your partner knows what you are and aren’t willing to do. Otherwise, that could be super awkward!

 

Where and how you want to be touched, and what you like. If the goal is to enjoy yourself, make sure your partner knows what you like and don’t like. You don’t always have to use words—you can show your partner where and how to touch you. Using non-verbals is still communication.

 

Contraception. If there is a chance that you or your partner could get pregnant, make sure you talk about contraception. What type will be used? How effective is it? Who will pay for it (you? your partner? both?)? Will more than one form of contraception be used (for example, hormonal contraception and condoms)?

 

Sexually transmitted infections. Asking your partner how you plan to reduce your risk for STIs is an important part of sexual health. Questions to consider: Will we use condoms or other barrier methods to reduce the risk for STIs? Have you ever been tested for STIs? Have you ever had an STI? If so, which one? Do you currently have an STI?

How to Communicate?

When it comes to communicating about sex and sexual health, here are some dos and don’ts:

Do’s

Pick a quiet, private location. Timing is everything! The library or cafeteria at school is probably not the best place. Find a place that has few distractions and where you won’t be interrupted. And make sure you have plenty of time—starting the conversation 10 minutes before biology class means you might not get to say everything you want to say and could leave your partner with unanswered questions.

Have the conversation early on, especially before engaging in sexual activity. But it’s never too late! If you’ve been dating for a while or already engaged in sexual activity, you can still talk about sex and sexual health.

Use proper terminology. How many words for male and female genitals can you think of? Probably a lot! But your partner might not know what they mean. Using proper termsLink to anatomy pagecan make sure you’re both on the same page.

Use “I” statements. Those are sentences that start with “I”. See below for some examples.

Have open body language. Don’t cross your arms; instead, lean in and use verbal and non-verbal cues to show you’re listening. Keep scrolling for more tips on body language. 

Don’ts

Don’t assume your partner understands. Everyone communicates differently and interprets things differently. To make things less awkward in the future, check for understanding by asking “Does that make sense?” “Can you explain that back to me?”

Mixing alcohol and communication is not a good idea. You might not say what you mean, your partner might not understand what you mean, and you run the risk of neither of you remembering it the next day. What’s the point of talking if you’re not going to remember? Even if you’re nervous or uncomfortable, don’t use alcohol or drugs to make things easier. Talk first, drink later.

Don’t worry if it’s uncomfortable. It might be. But you’re doing something super helpful for your health and well-being. It might feel weird right now, but you’ll thank yourself when it’s done—and so will your partner!

You don’t have to talk about everything at once. That would be really overwhelming—for you and your partner. Think about what’s most important to you and start there. Bring up other topics in future conversations.

Other Helpful Communication Tips

“I” Statements

An “I” statement starts with “I” and conveys how you are feeling and why. This is a helpful tool when communicating with anyone, as it allows you to clearly say what you think in a less confrontational way. Starting statements with “you” could cause the other person to feel judged or criticized. There is a helpful formula to follow when using “I” statements, although you don’t always have to follow this exactly:

Using

I feel… (state your emotion)
when… (describe the situation)
because… (state the impact on you/your life)
and I want… (say what action you want next).

Here is an example:
“I feel upset when you rely on me to supply the condom/barrier method during sexual activity because it puts a lot of pressure on me to always remember. I’d really like it if we could share the responsibility of bringing the safer sex items. What do you think about that?”

It may take some practice to get in the habit of using “I” statements. Here are some examples of “you” versus “I” statements to help you practice.

You statement

I statement

You’re always dancing with other people and it’s rude. I sometimes see you dancing with other people and it hurts my feelings because I wish you would dance with me more.
You never touch me the way I want you to. I would really like to be touched this way because it feels so good. Let me show you.
You said you would do… and you didn’t. I feel frustrated because I thought you were going to… but you have not yet. Let’s talk about what happened.
You need to get tested for STIs or we aren’t having sex. I would really like it if we could both get tested for STIs because it shows that we care about each other and our well-being. What do you think about going to get tested together?

Try it! How would you rework this “you” statement?

“You need to stop texting with Sam. You don’t care about my feelings at all.”

Body Language

The words you say are important, and your body language is equally important. Body language includes your tone of voice, facial expressions, and what you’re doing with your body while you’re communicating. Having open body language shows that you’re inviting the other person in and are open to communicating; closed body language conveys that you are not interested in what the other person has to say—you’d rather be anywhere else but here! Here are some things to remember:

  • Crossing your arms could convey closed body language—that you don’t want to hear what the other person is saying.
  • Watch your facial expressions. If you’re frowning or look angry, that could send the wrong message to your partner.
  • Make eye contact. Looking the other person in the eye shows you respect them.
  • Use verbal and non-verbal cues to keep things moving. Saying things like “I see” or “Uh huh” or using non-verbals like nodding your head encourages communication.

It may seem silly, but practice what you want to say in the mirror and watch your body language. Are there things that could be considered open or closed communication?

Active Listening

When you talk about sexual health and sexual behaviors with your partner, the conversation should be a two-way street—you should share your thoughts and feelings and also ask your partner to share their thoughts and feelings. As your partner shares, you can practice active listening. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Paraphrase what the other person is saying. For example, “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying is…” Repeating what the person said in your own words helps with your understanding and also shows your partner you were paying attention.
  • Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions; ask questions to make sure you understand.
  • Express empathy. This shows that you care about your partner and also encourages them to keep sharing. An example would be “It seems like that would be really upsetting” or “That sounds like it was really difficult for you.”
  • Have open body language and other non-verbals. If possible, lean into your partner, nod your head, and use cues to keep your partner going (“hmmm” and “ahhh” are some examples).

If you don’t have all these skills the first time you talk to your partner, that’s okay! These take time to practice. If you can focus on incorporating one or two aspects of good communication into your discussions with your partner, that is a good first step! Then add more as you feel more comfortable and confident.

I ask for consent every time!

Emily, Bowling Green State University

Be clear in what you want. For example, if you are looking for a romantic partner and not a “one night stand” make that clear so that both people understand the expectation.

Cary, Bowling Green State University