According to intimacy coordinator Rebecca Johannsen, PhD—a member of Intimacy Professionals Association who's worked on a number of productions—awkwardness during simulated sex often stems from not knowing what to expect. “A lot of sexual unease comes from anticipation of the unknown. The more I can help bring the unknown into the known, the more comfortable I find that an intimate scene becomes for the performers,” she says. And the same often goes for real-deal sexual relationships that have nothing to do with acting: If there’s any uncertainty about what to expect with sex (say, if you’re having sex with a new person, or just trying out a new position or toy), talking it out before you dive in can help reduce anxiety-based awkwardness.
“A lot of sexual unease comes from anticipation of the unknown. The more I can help bring the unknown into the known, the more comfortable I find that an intimate scene becomes.” —Rebecca Johannsen, PhD
But even in the most certain of sexual circumstances—in which consent has been fully established on all sides, of course—weirdness or uneasiness can still rear its head. Below, Dr. Johannsen shares advice for how to handle awkwardness during sex, based on her experience guiding actors through the faux (but often, literally awkward) version of sex.
4 ways to alleviate awkwardness during partnered sex, according to an intimacy coordinator:
1. Use humor.
In the same way that cracking a joke can instantly dissolve tension in a room, acknowledging that sex doesn’t have to be so serious all the time can lighten up the mood in bed. “Being physically out of sync with each other is one of the ways that seemingly awkward things can happen,” says Dr. Johannsen. “But if you’re able to make light of it or laugh at the awkwardness, that can help you embrace the fact that sex is allowed to be funny and enjoy it more easily.”
2. Offer up some praise.
If your partner isn’t the most confident in their sexual abilities or is uncertain of how you might perceive their performance or body during sex, giving an honest compliment can go a long way toward reducing awkwardness.
“A lot of younger performers that I work with get nervous that they’re not doing it the right way,” says Dr. Johannsen. “But there’s no wrong way to do it. In terms of a performance, you might have to adjust to what looks good on camera, but in life, sex is just about what feels authentic to you.” To that end, normalizing your partner’s expression of sex through honest praise can help reassure and relax them, making the experience less awkward for you, too.
3. Pause for a check-in.
Yes, even during sex, a break for conversation can be an effective strategy for resetting and restarting from a more comfortable place. “I’m a huge fan of slowing down and talking it out,” say Dr. Johannsen. “When you feel like you can clearly understand where a person is coming from and you can be open and honest with them in your communication, that’ll lead to a deeper physical connection, too.”
While you might not be interested in getting the full life history of a sexual partner mid-sex—that is, depending on how well you know this person—you might consider asking about how they’re doing generally and how they feel emotionally (to parse out any potential preoccupying distractors) or, more to the point, what really turns them on and how they want to be touched in that moment.
4. Read body-language cues—and ask questions.
In some cases, the (unfortunate) stigma surrounding sexual discomfort or awkwardness can prevent someone from saying what they really mean or feel. If this is potentially true for your sexual partner, tuning in to their non-verbal cues can offer up some helpful insight—because even if they’re verbally confirming that everything is A-okay on their end, that won’t resolve the awkwardness if they're managing some level of underlying discomfort.
“You might suspect a hidden issue if they’re saying that they’re fine, but they won’t make eye contact with you, or their body language feels closed-off in any way,” says Dr. Johannsen. If that’s the case, don’t rush to a conclusion about what that might mean, but instead, lead with an observation and a question, she says.
“Rather than saying, ‘Wow, you must not be into me because you’re not making eye contact,’ which passes a judgment, you might say, ‘I noticed that you’re not making eye contact. I was wondering, why do you think that is?'” she says. This allows your partner to fill in the blanks and clears the floor for an honest and non-defensive discussion during which you can get on the same sexual and relational wavelength.
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