How I Finally Learned To Ask For Exactly What I Want… In Bed

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
Women won the right to vote in 1920, the right to choose in 1973, and the right to be on the front lines of combat in 2013. But despite certain political gains, our merits as human beings are still hotly debated in public. Are we funny? Can we be president? Do we deserve equal pay? We are scrutinized so intensely that even the way we smile has become a national conversation. Should we smile less? More? What is the perfect amount of smiling?
The point is that even though we were Putin’s pubic hair away from having a female president, in many ways, women are still second-class citizens. The only way to change our social status is to storm the boys' clubs à la Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters. We need to lean in, spread out, and make noise until we get a place at the table.
So, what does any of this have to do with sex? A lot, in my not-so-humble opinion.
Since women statistically have a harder time speaking up for what they want in the workplace, it’s logical to assume that this behavior would carry into the bedroom. It’s like that Zen adage, “The way a person does one thing, is the way a person does everything.” If you’re too intimidated to ask your boss for a raise or promotion, you’re probably too intimidated to ask your lover for more foreplay or oral sex. But toppling the patriarchy includes getting your rocks off. Or at least getting your rocks wet. I’m not actually sure what part of the female body “rocks” are, but you get it.
My friend Rachel, a writer in L.A., has a poignant theory about why many women are so scared to voice their sexual needs. “It’s because we’ve been socialized to be givers and nurturers. We’re supposed to be wives and mothers and daughters. There’s this fear that if we ask for anything ourselves we’re being greedy or too much.”
I can totally relate and find it much easier to give than to receive. It feels natural and easy to make my partner happy, but for some reason I get anxious when it’s the other way around. If a guy is spending time focusing on my body, I can get in my head: “Is he bored? Has he been down there too long? Should I cue up Harry Potter on audiobook?” The subcontext to my worrying is that I don’t deserve his attention or care.
I thought about this when I attended a three-day-long sexual communication workshop called “The Desire Course” taught by an organization called One Taste. According to the website, the course is designed to help “expand your receptive capacity to have more of what you want.” I love getting what I want, so I signed the hell up.
When I got to the class, there were roughly 50 people in attendance (a mix of men and women, mostly middle-aged). The vibe was AA meets summer camp, just a lot of sitting in a circle playing trust games and over-sharing. The point of the weekend was to teach us how to be more open and assertive in our desires both in and out of the bedroom.
Of all the exercises we did, the one that stuck with me the most involved partnering up. Each person had to order a cup of tea from the other. The teacher demonstrated by ordering from another One Taste staff member: “I’d like a chai tea with just enough almond milk so it’s a light, nutty brown, exactly one teaspoon of honey, and I want the temperature to be warm — but not so hot that it burns my tongue. I want you to blow on the tea it until it’s ready for me to drink.”
The purpose was to practice asking for what we want and being specific in our demands. If you weren’t 100% satisfied with your drink, you were encouraged to send your partner back. As a loudmouth L.A. Jew, I have a black belt in complicated food ordering, so I was pumped to flex my skills. My partner was this cute, sensitive redhead in her 30s named Isabelle, and I was going to make her W-E-R-K.
I asked Isabelle for a sparkling water with ice, even though there was no ice or sparkling water on the beverage table (muahaha). Isabelle went on a wild goose chase all over the building, returning 10 minutes later panting and huffing. Somehow she managed to scrounge up my order.
I looked at the drink. Not good enough.
“Could I also get a straw?” I asked, in full “Give a Mouse a Cookie” mode. She flew back into action, searching nooks and crannies until finally she came back with a straw.
I took a sip.
“Delicious.” I didn’t pat her on the head, but that was the vibe.
Isabelle grinned wide, thrilled to please me. Then we switched positions and I got her a tea. Following my lead, Isabelle was super picky about her order, sending me back three times. I loved it. It was great to see this mousy woman being bold, confident, and decisive.
After we were done, we joined the rest of the class to talk about the exercise as a group.
“How many people found it difficult to order what they wanted?” the teacher Rachelle asked.
Every single person in the room raised their hands except me.
“How many people enjoyed giving their partner exactly what they asked for?”
All of us raised our hands.
It was a stunning revelation: It feels great to give someone what they want, therefore you shouldn’t feel bad asking for what you need. Your partner loves giving it to you. Eureka! While I’ve always known this wisdom cerebrally, it was first time I felt it in my bones. Another useful takeaway from the exercise was that the more specific you are with your requests, the more likely your partner will be able to satisfy you. For example, if you ask your lover to “dominate” you in bed, that’s really vague. That could mean anything, from a light slap on the ass to getting your genitals hooked up to electrodes. Be specific.
One charming woman in her 40s shared her experience from the tea game. “When it was my turn to give an order, I wanted to cry,” she explained. “I felt like I didn’t want to bother him.” She paused and thought for a moment. “I think this exercise just explained my last relationship.”
For many people, myself included, it’s much easier to give love and attention than to receive it. But you have to learn to do both to be in a functional relationship. Everyone harbors fears of rejection and abandonment and there’s a worry that if we ask for what we want in our sex/relationship/partnership we might get dumped. But if someone leaves you for expressing your desires, they’re not a real partner, anyway.
I found the tea-ordering exercise interesting because I’m very good at vocalizing my needs in certain contexts (work, restaurants, returning clothes at Nordstrom), but I can be a Shy Shonda in my romantic life. I’m Belle from Beauty in the Beast in the streets, and The Little Mermaid when-she-lost-her-voice in the sheets. Although women have been completely socialized to nurture and care take, we need nurturing, too. Unfortunately, unshackling yourself from centuries of ingrained sexism isn’t something you can unlearn in a weekend. But practice makes better. The workshop taught me that I have to communicate directly and honestly about what I want.
A few weeks after the class, I had chance to practice my new skills. I went on a really fun date with a hot guy named Ben* who I met on Bumble. I go on a lot of online dates, but it’s a miracle if I’m actually attracted to someone. So the fact that Ben was smart and fun, and I could totally picture boning him, was exciting. When I got home from our hang, he texted me a cute YouTube video link. Then I didn’t hear from him for three days. In my world, if a guy likes you, they are eager to see you again. I was so confused. I thought he was into it. He was all googly-eyed and smiley when we hung out. What happened?
By day four, I decided to buck up and text him. He told me he was sick in bed for the last couple days. I wasn’t sure if it was true, but I hoped it was. Then I asked point-blank if he wanted to go to the movies. He said, “yes” and we left it that he would get in touch when he was feeling better. Four days went by, and I heard nothing. That motherfucker better have polio, I thought. Even if he was sick, he would have gotten in touch.
I was hurt and disappointed, so in an act of dissent, I unmatched him on Bumble. Burrrn. Literally, seconds after I unmatched him, he texted me. Of course.
Ben said he had already had plans for the weekend, but asked if I wanted to hang out on Monday night. I was offended. Why didn’t he make plans with me for the weekend? Why was I relegated to a Monday. Yuck, I hated the whole thing. I totally wanted to diss him, but my sister/love advisor told me to give him one more chance. So I agreed to go out with him on Monday.
A couple days passed and something just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t excited about this guy anymore, he just made me feel like a total afterthought. So I canceled our plan and here’s what happened next:
I felt really proud of myself for this text exchange. I stood up for what I believed in, maintained my standards, and expressed my needs. I think that workshop really empowered me to be direct and honest with this guy. And I’m excited to practice this same level of communication into the bedroom.
Recently, I had a intimate night with a longtime friend/sometime lover. He's a person I trust very much, and I decided to be really honest and share my desires and vulnerabilities with him. Because I was super honest about what I wanted and how I wanted it, we were able to have a very connected and beautiful experience together. People can only love you if you let them.
If you’re dating, having sex or even just making out with someone and there’s something that you want, take a risk and ask for it. What’s the worst that could happen? Your partner leaves you penniless and alone with six hungry children to feed. But that probably won’t happen!
Be the change you want to see in the world: Make sure you get a 20-minute full-body rubdown before sex. You’re worth it. Namaste.
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