As a self-proclaimed badass, I used to shy away from being vulnerable with partners. I thought being too real was a sign of weakness that would somehow crush the image I tried to cultivate with potential partners.
Back in my summer camp days, I had a massive crush on one of the older counselors, who was the Canadian Jewish summer camp version of an ultra-player. One night, my crush put the moves on, and we made out for a while. When things escalated, I told him I had a boyfriend at home, so I couldn’t do anything under the pants. In reality, I had no pantsless sexual experiences, but I hid my insecurity about my lack of experience with a fake boyfriend.
As I grew older and became a sex educator, I noticed a similar pattern beginning to emerge. I would let folks assume that because I am a sex educator, I have tons of sexual experience (false), and I’m an expert in all acts of sex (also false). This felt easier than being vulnerable and admitting that, despite being a sex educator, I also need to work on knowing what I want and communicating that to partners.
Although there is something inherently vulnerable about having sex, we choose whether to have more unguarded, connected encounters or more impersonal sex. Although neither type of sex is wrong, more vulnerable sex often leads to more communication and, therefore, more pleasure. Although we often associate vulnerable sex with committed, long-term relationships, it is also possible to be vulnerable and real in a one-night stand or casual hookup situation.
So, how can you have more honest, vulnerable, and connected sex in any dating context?
Figure out how you feel.
Are you anxious because you take a long time to orgasm, and you don’t want your partner to get tired or bored? Are you scared to offend your partner because you want to go home after sex to get better sleep? Are you unsure about having penetrative intercourse because you think you will start to catch feelings? Step one is identifying how you are feeling. What’s getting a lot of play in your head that you haven’t expressed to your partner? Start there.
Express those emotions.
It’s a great relief to get your feelings off your chest, regardless of the response. For example, if you express to your partner that you’re worried about having intercourse because you may catch feelings, you can decide together how best to proceed. If your partner wants things to remain casual, perhaps stick to oral sex. If you are both open to letting in some feelings, you can move towards having intercourse, accepting that it may change the dynamic.
When you hold back and aren’t fully present or honest with a partner, it impacts the type of encounters you can have. One of my friends has herpes and expressed that she can’t stop thinking about their possible reaction until she tells a new partner her status. As soon as she describes her positive diagnosis, she feels immediate relief, regardless of her partner’s response.
Most partners accept her diagnosis, but even for those who may no longer want to get sexual, being vulnerable and expressing her situation allows for better connection and more honest communication. She recalls one time that both she and a new partner revealed their herpes diagnosis at the same time. They both giggled, as being vulnerable together was a tangible relief that led to a deeper connection.
Take it slow.
Keep in mind that you can always employ tact and reveal emotional things on your own timeline (or not at all). Ideally, you can start by sharing minor personal thoughts, and your partner, in response, will begin to share some personal tidbits about themselves. If you notice that you are the only one being vulnerable, perhaps ask your partner some personal questions.
In short, you may not want to share your early childhood traumas and deepest insecurities with some schmuck at the bar with whom you’ve made out once. Not everyone will understand your vulnerabilities, and frankly, not everyone deserves to know the thoughts and experiences that make you the beautiful creature you are. A general vetting process can help ensure that being vulnerable is a good idea.
Connect to your body.
Vulnerability is not only expressed by sharing personal information, but also through your body. For some, having sex without the covers and with the lights on can be vulnerable, letting your partner really see you and any perceived flaws.
We all remember the scene in Pretty Woman when Vivian finally lets Edward kiss her; it’s a sign that they’re forging a deep emotional connection. Giving someone the pleasure of looking you in the eyes while you are in the throes of pleasure can also be deeply vulnerable. For others, playing around with power can feel very vulnerable.
Devote time to exploring and enjoying your body and your partners’ bodies. Perhaps try to be more open to sharing different parts of yourself with a worthy partner, and see how that feels.
Accept that vulnerability can be a risk.
Although being honest with your true feelings may lead to more profound, more connected encounters, this is not always the case. For example, had I told my camp counselor I was inexperienced, he could have spread rumors around the camp, or in response, he could have revealed that he’s not the player he appears to be. You never really know how someone is going to react until you share with them.
I know it’s difficult, but if someone responds negatively to your vulnerability, try not to take it personally. It often says much more about them than about you. It’s better to know what kind of person you are dating early in the game. Be thankful they revealed this now, and not six months down the line. Being vulnerable early on is a great way to assess a potential partner, and if they are not up to being open and honest as well, then it’s probably not a good match!
Vulnerability can be the key to great sex. A deeper connection is possible by bringing down any barriers and opening yourself up to new experiences. If you need reassurance from your partner, ask for it! If you are confused by something or want to connect differently, express that. And if you want to cultivate more intimacy or explore how to be more vulnerable during sex, you have the power to make it happen.