In a recent New York Times article, sex educator Emily Morse recommends couple schedule regular “sexual state of the union” discussions — frank, open dialogues about how their sex life is going and what they might do to make it more fulfilling. It’s nearly universally agreed that communication is vital to satisfying sexy times, but Morse breaks down how to communicate about sex within a relationship. Her just-published book, Smart Sex: How to Boost Your Sex IQ and Own Your Pleasure, drills down deeply, going as far as providing scripts for uncomfortable conversations.
While I agree in principle, some of Morse’s specific instructions strike me as…odd. Her advice will no doubt be helpful to some couples (or throuples, or groups; we don’t judge), and her half a million Instagram followers suggest that her work resonates with a lot of people. But still, if my wife followed Emily Morse’s advice and pulled out a script for our next “sexual state of the union,” it would make me question what I was doing in my marriage in the first place.
What is a “sexual state of the union”?
On her Sex With Emily website (and in her book), Morse describes the ideal sexual state of the union as a monthly conversation to, “discuss new things you’d like to try, explore each other’s desires and fantasies, and find out ways you can be better lovers to one another.” So basically, it’s a non-judgmental conversation about sex. So far, so good.
How to have a successful conversation about sex
I’m not going to continue to describe conversations about sex within a romantic relationship as a “sexual state of the union.” It’s a catchy phrase, but the metaphor is terrible. The State of the Union is a formal address delivered by the president to congress. It is a one-way speech where a person talks at a group of people, not a dialogue between equals. (Sloppy buzzword-ing completely kills my desire.)
Bad metaphors aside, and in the interest of getting granular, Morse recommends the following tips for a successful sex-talk:
Keep it short
Keeping the conversation limited to around 10 minutes takes a lot of pressure off everyone. You don’t want to carve out half a day to talk about your sex life — we’re all busy after all. According to Morse, “You’re planting the seeds for the sex life to come,” not doing it all in one shot.
Separate the conversation from your actual sex life
Scheduling your sexual check-in for the bedroom on a Friday after date night is probably not the best idea. These kinds of conversations are meant to normalize talking about sex, so Morse recommends an uncharged setting free from expectations — so instead of doing it in the S&M room in the basement, take a quiet stroll together.
Society has done a number on all of us when it comes to sexuality, so openly talking about the subject, even with a longtime partner, can be uncomfortable. “If it feels unsexy because you’re both nervous, that’s OK,” Morse told the New York Times. “This isn’t, like, a foreplay exercise.”
Do not wait until there’s a problem in your sex life
A regularly scheduled sex talk isn’t meant to serve as a way to solve a specific problem in your bedroom. It’s not designed to air grievances or criticisms, or to serve as sex therapy. It’s meant to be a way to normalize the process of talking about sex. Once both partners get more comfortable communicating, better sex, hopefully, will follow.
Hold the conversation regularly
Morse’s goal is to make sex, “something that you talk about in your relationships with the same level of comfort, normalcy, and intention as planning a vacation or where to go on a fun night out.” To get there, Morse says, couples should have a conversation about sex once a month.
It’s here that Morse and I start to diverge (though by all means, if her rigid recommendations make sense to you, give them a try).
“I’ll pencil you in to talk about sex on ninth at 1:45.”
I’m not sure whether Morse’s ideal of a once-a-month sex talk is too frequent or not frequent enough, but that’s not my issue. It’s the scheduling. That, and her penchant for weirdly corporate verbiage, which makes the whole affair sound like the opposite of a good time.
I totally understand some people might be so divorced from their human desires and so alienated from their partner that they need the comfort of an Outlook meeting (with a reminder, an agenda, and even a script) in order to talk about getting down, but I don’t think most people want to have conversations about their sex life that take on the air of a quarterly financial meeting. At least, I hope not.
The corporatization of sexuality goes deeper in Morse’s philosophy than just the scheduling. Here’s how she describes a hypothetical sexual conversation:
“In the moment, you can tell your partner: ‘Look, I know that this is new for us, but I want us to have a growth mind-set around our sexual connection.’”
As Lifehacker deputy editor and sexual bon vivant Joel Cunningham put it in our Slack, “if Ineed a slide deck to talk to my partner, it’s time to open up the relationship.”
While I agree that many people don’t communicate effectively about sex even though it would help their relationship, ultimately, sexuality is deeply personal, and can’t be universalized into a series of easy bullet points. Some couples talk about sex so much it seems boring. Some couples never discuss it, but have such a fulfilling enough sex life that there isn’t anything to be said. Ultimately, every couple’s style and needs are unique, and in some ways a secret held between them (unless they decide to give someone else an inside look). As well-intentioned as sex advice usually is, it’s never going to apply to everyone.
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