For a good part of my twenties, I would wear a body-slimming tank during sex. My partner was critical of my stomach, so covering up both appeased him and helped me worry less.
Just kidding about that last part.
The garment may have smoothed my midsection, but I was still always in my head. My mind raced between topics like what I looked like on top and whether he was thinking about being with someone “prettier.” One thing that wasn’t top of mind? The sex I was currently having. In retrospect it makes sense that being with a guy who seemed to want me to have a different body didn’t help me appreciate my own or listen to to it during sex. In other words, it was bad sex, in more ways than one.
I actually started to enjoy sex in my early thirties, after I’d ditched him and that damn tank top. Of course, this is progress. But still, I lost nearly a decade of would-be—nay, should-be—pleasurable and additive-to-life sexual experiences.
To help make sure I stay on top for all intents and purposes, I spoke with sexperts about how to let go of common bedroom-related insecurities for better lovemaking.
Forget about how you look during sex
Sure, different positions make you more visible and require different levels of exertion, but in general, sex is a pretty ridiculous-looking edition of real-life human Tetris. You and your partner(s) are on the same team, trying to figure out what fits best where, and sometimes the wildest-looking configuration might be the most pleasurable. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to not worry about how you look and let yourself to be in the moment.
One way to start? Reimagine your own, personal definition of what’s beautiful—regardless of the messages you’re getting on the topic from society, social media, or anyone in your life, say licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, Janet Brito, PhD. “By rejecting these societal messages that tell you that you are flawed, and that your self-worth is determined by your physical beauty, women can work toward fully embracing who they are, and start to enjoy sex,” she says.
“It really all does start with loving yourself first. And if that feels impossible, I like to say, ‘love your body the way your lover loves it,’” —counselor Jessica Warner
An example: I worry about how I look when I’m on top, but Dr. Brito says, a position can only be unflattering if you decide it is. And if you’re in your head about how you look from the top or behind or the side, a mindfulness practice can help you focus on your five senses. This allows you to be present and aware of precisely what’s going on, as well as learn which positions bring you the most pleasure. When you start to treat your body with love instead of fear, you begin to cultivate inner confidence, which boosts your understanding of just how beautiful you are, she says. That’s great news in its own right, and a stellar fringe benefit is feeling open to pleasure-filled experiences in the bedroom.
While the most important work is on yourself and your personal mind-set, sex-positive counselor and relationship coach Jessica Warner, LPC, suggests asking your partner what they love about your body. “As cliche as it sounds, it really all does start with loving yourself first. And if that feels impossible, I like to say, ‘love your body the way your lover loves it,’” she says. “They see the folds, the holes, the faces, the jiggles, the dimples, everything…and guess what? They still love having sex with their partners.”
Everybody has a scent down there
The sounds (hello, queefs!) and smells of sex may also make you want to stay covered up forever. But guess what? It’s all totally normal. “Our smells are not inherently bad, and there is nothing wrong with the musky, earthy scents our body creates from the genital area,” Warner says. “Accepting that sex is nothing like anything you’ve seen depicted in a movie, a book, or most porn will set you free from the expectations of silent, rose-scented sex.”
Beyond embracing your genital smells and sounds as a body-acceptance-cultivating step, concentrating on these—again, totally normal—things will only distract you from being able to be present to the fullest degree, Dr. Brito says. Plus, “your smell can also be quite arousing for sexual partners, too,” she adds.
A caveat: If you notice an unfamiliar smell, burning, or discharge, consult with your doctor—otherwise, ain’t no shame in your natural-fragrance game.
Lights on or off shouldn’t matter
“Lights on, lights off. Tomato, tomahto,” Warner says, clarifying that the “off” option should never be chosen out of a need to hide. “If you’re thinking about how you look, you’re definitely not thinking about how you feel, and that takes away from the both of you.”
Dr. Brito agrees that the issue of lights isn’t really about the lights themselves, and so long as the choice doesn’t stem from a deeper issue that would compromise the quality of sex in another way, bright or pitch black are both totally okay.
The secret to better sex? Let it go.
Sex is all about being in your body, which means embracing all of your body. “We all have flaws, and learning to accept yourself fully is the first step toward better sex,” says Dr. Brito. (However, if your issues with sex go beyond self-esteem, like, perhaps you’re working through a previous trauma, she suggests seeking professional help.)
“We all have flaws, and learning to accept yourself fully is the first step toward better sex.” —sex therapist and psychologist Janet Brito, PhD.
Focusing on what’s wrong (or even what’s not perfect) during sex is tapping into “misdirected energy” that could be way better used elsewhere, says Warner. “That [energy] could be going into the ends of your fingertips, your vulva, your mouth, your mindfulness of the moment. Having a more relaxed or loving attitude toward yourself absolutely contributes to better sex.”
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