We all know communication is essential for healthy relationships and great sex – but how do we begin to level up our erotic communication skills? How do we break through the fear and shame to start talking openly about what we want in bed?
Sex coach and author Stella Harris joins us to explore the tricky terrain of erotic communication. Stella guides us in activating more authentic communication – before, during and after sex.
Find out more about Stella’s classes and coaching at StellaHarris.net
Check out Stella’s book: Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink and Relationships
More Speaking of Sex Podcast Episodes On Erotic Communication:
Transcript for Podcast Episode: Expanding Erotic Communication with Stella Harris
Podcast transcripts are generated with love by humans, and thus may not be 100% accurate. Time stamps are included so you can cross reference or jump to any point in the podcast episode above. Thanks to our supporters on Patreon for helping to make podcast transcripts possible!
Chris Rose: 00:00 Hi, welcome to Speaking of Sex with the Pleasure Mechanics. This is Chris from pleasuremechanics.com and on today’s episode, we are joined by the fabulous Stella Harris to talk all about erotic communication and how to get more of what you want in and out of bed.
Chris Rose: 00:21 Before we get started, I want to remind you to come on over to pleasuremechanics.com, where you will find our complete podcast archive and while you were there, go to pleasuremechanics.com/free and sign up for the erotic essentials our free online course. So you can get started implementing some of our favorite strategies and techniques tonight. That’s pleasuremechanics.com/free. All right, so let’s dive into our conversation with Stella Harris.
Chris Rose: 00:56 After last week’s conversation about Desires Unfulfilled, I wanted to bring it back around and share some strategies for getting more of what you need and want out of your sex life, and ultimately a lot of that comes back to communication and getting specific about what you want, so you are more likely to receive it. So I called up Stella Harris. She is a fabulous sex coach and author, and her book Tongue Tied is one of the best books I have found about erotic communication.
Chris Rose: 01:32 This is an area where we all have a lot of work to do, and freeing up our voice and learning how to communicate with compassion and love and specificity so we can all get more of what we want out of our sex lives. All right, here is my conversation with Stella Harris. Stella Harris, welcome to speaking of sex.
Stella Harris: 01:57 Thank you for having me.
Chris Rose: 01:59 Can you just introduce yourself in the work that you do?
Stella Harris: 02:02 Absolutely. So I’m Stella Harris, a sex educator and intimacy coach based out of Portland, Oregon. I teach classes for venues and universities, I do coaching with couples and individuals and I write for a variety of venues including a sex column for one of my local papers. And I just had a book come out from Cleis Press called Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships.
Chris Rose: 02:29 And your book is so amazing, we will definitely link to it in the show notes page. It is one of my favorite books about erotic communication because it is so thorough, it covers so much beyond the, just kind of open your mouth and say what you want and it acknowledges how hard that can be for people and troubleshoots so much erotic communication. So this week we really wanted to talk about how to get your desires met in and out of bed. And I could think of no one better to join me for this conversation than you, so thank you so much for jumping on the line with us.
Stella Harris: 03:06 I really appreciate that. Thanks.
Chris Rose: 03:08 Ah, I love this book. So let’s dive in. So from what I understand of your history, you got kinky at a pretty early age and you’ve been kind of in the sex community for a long time. So why is your first book about erotic communication? Why this subject and not all the others that you could have covered?
Stella Harris: 03:29 So it turns out this is maybe what I’m the biggest nerd about. When I did get involved in the kink and queer and poly scenes from when I was 17. And then later in college I was busy and sort of not involved with that as much and I realized what I missed the most was the way those people communicated, the way everything was so upfront, so well negotiated and I liked that as much if not more than you know, all the kinky sex things.
Stella Harris: 04:04 And then when I got into this line of work, after a long break got into this line of work full time, I really at first did think that the bulk of what I would deal with was teaching anatomy and teaching touch techniques and sort of the logistics of sex. And what was just happening again and again as the individuals and couples that end up in my office. There was just so much more, it was about the feelings pieces, it was about the communications pieces, you know, it’s about communication even when it’s not about communication. People come in with a sex difficulty and we ended up having to talk about the talking.
Stella Harris: 04:46 And every class that I teach, even classes that are very much focused on anatomy and technique I end up with a really big chunk about how do you talk about those things, because anatomy is different for everybody. When I’m teaching, just a couple of days ago, I did my class mapping the vulva and there is not one kind of vulva. I can show people and be like, “Great, now you’re going to know how everybody works. I can show you a handful of pictures of how it works for some people, but then what I really have to show you is how to talk about it, how to ask somebody what they like.” Here, you can try this touch technique and then modify it with these questions. And so that just kept being at the core of everything I was trying to do.
Chris Rose: 05:37 Yeah, and communication has almost become a cliché in the sex field because it is so important. And yet, most of us do not know how to communicate even about nonsexual things, let alone the charge subject of sexuality. Like these relational skills are so important in our lives and very few people have ever focused on building these skills and received coaching about building these skills and they’re total game changer. It’s something that as you introduce even little pieces of, can really propel you towards a more joyful life, getting your needs met and being able to love one another better. So I love your book so much.
Stella Harris: 06:25 Thank you.
Chris Rose: 06:27 Let’s dive in. What do you think are some of the biggest things that get in the way of people’s desires being met?
Stella Harris: 06:34 Well, I think fear is a huge one, fear of vulnerability, fear of rejection. Even though I do this for a living, I still feel those things, I can write about it and it doesn’t mean that every moment in my personal life those things feel easy to do. So I absolutely get that, so I think the fear is a huge piece with anything to do with sex, especially, we’re expected to know how to do it already.
Stella Harris: 07:04 And so there’s this double edge sword of, it’s frowned upon to be too experienced, that’s also frowned upon to be inexperienced. So basically anything you open up your mouth to say in the bedroom can feel fraud.
Chris Rose: 07:21 Let’s linger there for a moment because I feel like this erotic ego is one of the things that really blocks us from exploring new things and even with a trusted partner and that partner can be a casual partner or a lifelong relationship. We can have that trust, we can have good communication, but if our partner asks us to do something we don’t feel confident in doing, it can cause a total shutdown. How do you see that kind of erotic ego showing up and what are some of the ways we can care for that ego but push past it maybe?
Stella Harris: 07:58 Well, one of the things that I like to do is expand someone’s idea of what sex is. When I have people in my office who are terrified that they’re not going to have sort of a physical skillset, we always end up talking about all of the other young age who see important things, the connection pieces, the empathy, the care, sometimes the love, whatever those things are. And showing people how far those pieces go, and if those are really in place, some of the rest of it can flow from that a bit.
Stella Harris: 08:35 As can sort of the asking and telling what somebody wants, trying to make sure that people have other things that their confidence is based in and those don’t even need to be sexual or relational. If somebody is amazing at a sport or really good at their job, just making sure they have a really solid base of ways that they feel validated. What are your friends turn to you for? What do people ask you for advice on? Because it can start to feel like how good we are in bed is sort of this core element of our worth. And while I certainly think our relational skills are very important, sort of how “good” in bed you are does not define your value as a person.
Chris Rose: 09:28 And yet, sometimes it feels like our entire relationship is threatened if we can’t do that varsity level thing we’ve been asked to do.
Stella Harris: 09:38 Yeah.
Chris Rose: 09:39 And there’s so much of that reciprocal communication and these moments of vulnerability, what are some of the things the person asking for something new? So part of this conversation, we’re coming out of a few weeks of exploring desires. And last week we talked all about desires unfulfilled and kind of reckoning with these things that might never be met in our lifetimes.
Chris Rose: 10:04 And then as couples establish like mutual interest in something, but they’re both totally new added. So let’s take, let’s say rope bondage. Rope bondage is not something anyone has ever expected to know. So how can a couple kind of baby step into that with mutual vulnerability? So one partner doesn’t feel like they have to be the big bad top and know it.
Stella Harris: 10:28 Right. Well, I think that’s actually one of the things that can help is if, A) it’s something neither person knows already and B) it’s not something you are supposed to know how to do already. I often use rope bond there as an example because most of us didn’t learn that in high school. And so it feels more okay not to know that already. So hopefully that levels the playing fields such that both people can be vulnerable and can learn it together.
Stella Harris: 10:58 And it really helps if the thing that you’re learning can also be a little silly so that you can giggle about it when something goes wrong. And again, having it be something that is a little bit outside of a usual sexual skillset, it can feel less, less fraud, less intimidating, lower stakes. And even if it’s not a king skill, even if you go and learn, you know, a board game together, anything like that but skill building together can be a really great experience for bringing folks together. And learning those collaboration skills do end up carrying back over into the bedroom into different kinds of sex.
Stella Harris: 11:41 So teaching folks a new skill together is something I absolutely love, I get to do a lot of that and you can really see the way people work together when they are practicing something new like that. And it’s also really helpful. You know, you were saying, someone has to be the big bad top. I always tell people, even if you’re ultimately probably only going to bottom to a certain activity, you should still at least learn the basics because that helps you look out for safety. Know something isn’t going quite right, something is going to harm your body. So even if people don’t expect to switch, I always encourage them to learn both roles, to learn things from every perspective.
Chris Rose: 12:24 And when you’re teaching couple something like rope bondage, what do you notice between different couples? Like are there patterns of communication that couples use that feel really mutually empowering and healthy versus patterns you see that feel kind of destructive?
Stella Harris: 12:44 Yeah. You can see when people are coming in, having had sort of a long run of frustration with each other. You can see whether people, it takes our partners learning curve sort of in stride and are being supportive or when something goes a little wrong they’re laughing about it, or if someone already seems sort of exasperated and fed up before we’ve even started. So sometimes there are other things to unpack first. Sometimes people have come to me to learn some sort of a kink skill and as soon as they sit down, they’re on opposite ends of the couch, they’re not really looking at each other. And that’s sort of my cue that like, “Oh, we probably have something else to talk about first,” because just learning new kink or bedroom skills is not necessarily a bonded, for everything that’s going on in your relationship. I do think one carries into the other.
Stella Harris: 13:48 I really like seeing when people are able to help each other and give and take that feedback well. So with rope an example, I sometimes see the person who’s being tied up even if they can’t move their hands, sort of gesturing with their face and saying like, “Oh, you need to twist this loop here.” And the other person, smiling and thanking them for the help. So that’s what I really like to see and what I know people are sort of on the right track if both people can offer guidance, make requests, ask questions. And no one’s ever sort of side or rolling their eyes about it.
Chris Rose: 14:26 And I think in these moments of being asked for something new, of feeling that vulnerability, the biggest fear that comes up for people is feeling foolish but also then being rejected. Like, if I don’t do this well, I don’t do this perfectly I might lose this relationship. But how do we negotiate? How do we navigate moments where something isn’t going well? We need to pivot or recalibrate with our partner, but we don’t want to make it so personal. What are your go-to strategies then?
Stella Harris: 15:05 Yeah. Well part of why stopping an activity or saying no, I think feel so scary is because as you said, people don’t want to miss the opportunity to do something with that person. So having a backup plan of some sort of ready to go is really valuable. So if you’re playing with rope bondage and it just feels impossibly itchy on your skin and you’re just not liking it, if you can say, “Hey, this isn’t really working for me, how about we do this other thing instead?” And pivot to another activity immediately, then that can feel like it flows a little bit easier, that can make you feel like you’re showing your partner, you still like them and like doing things with them. It’s the activity that’s not working for you, so that can be a really big one.
Chris Rose: 15:56 In the book you talk about the yes and, that comes from Improv and then you add no but.
Stella Harris: 16:02 Yes.
Chris Rose: 16:02 They’re four really powerful words. Can you expand on yes and, no but?
Stella Harris: 16:08 Absolutely. So, I have a background in theater and if anybody is trying to work on their public speaking skills, I highly recommend you go take an Improv class. I hated every minute of it, but now I’m not afraid of making a fool of myself in front of people, which is a very valuable life skill. And one of the theater exercises is called yes and. There’s this idea that in Improv theater, you never want to say no because that brings us scene to a screeching halt.
Stella Harris: 16:43 So you always agreed to what the other performer has suggested and then you add something to build the scene. So that is absolutely a game that you can play with a partner where you ask for everything and you’re each building on things. But of course in sex, unlike in the theater, you absolutely can and should say no to things. But you can use that same principle of not bringing things to a halt, like I said before, having a backup plan.
Stella Harris: 17:12 So if somebody says, “Hey, can I kiss your neck?” And you can say, “No, but would you stroke my hair?” So whatever it is, you just immediately are pivoting to the next activity. So there’s always something to do, you don’t just come to that screeching halt where you both sort of feel awkward and don’t know what to do next. Of course no, is always a complete sentence, you don’t have to offer another activity. But in the instance where you actually do want things to keep going with this person, that can be a really great way to just keep things moving kind of smoothly.
Chris Rose: 17:51 And what do you do when you’re communicating in bed and one of you just kind of starts spinning out emotionally? Like a lot of times these things can trigger past experiences or past times you’ve been shamed, and we can kind of get out of the moment and into our own personal insecurities or personal trauma histories. Like how do you know when to keep going and when you need to kind of really step back and check in with each other?
Stella Harris: 18:22 Yeah, so part of that takes first a lot of self-awareness and then second, a lot of empathy and awareness of your partner. So if you are someone who knows you have emotional and physical triggers or this is something that could happen for you. It’s really great if you know for yourself some of the early warning signs of that happening, where do you feel it in your body when things are getting away from you a little bit, when anxiety is creeping in.
Stella Harris: 18:51 So if you can catch that a little bit early, that’s really fantastic. It’s also really helpful to communicate to your partner in advance what you would like them to do in a variety of eventuality. So what happens if you start crying, and some kink scenes, maybe that’s good and you keep going. And maybe it means you really need things to stop and you need them to check in.
Stella Harris: 19:17 Are you the kind of person who likes to be held and comforted or are you going to want space or to be left alone? So as much as possible, if you can negotiate that in advanced and let your partner know what you’re going to need, that’s always great.
Stella Harris: 19:31 Some people in those moments go a little bit nonverbal and so that’s also really important that your partner knows what you’re going to need in advanced if you’re not going to be able to tell them in the moment. And if none of this was a negotiated in advanced, anytime a partner seems anxious, not present, they’re not making eye contact, they’re not speaking anything like that, I would say, especially if this is not something you have negotiated for in advanced, that’s when you want to take a pause, check-in, let them calm down, see what they’re going to need.
Chris Rose: 20:08 And then debrief after things have simmered down.
Stella Harris: 20:13 Yeah, I actually suggest that regardless of how things went, having a conversation well after, don’t cut into your aftercare or your afterglow but a day or two later, what are the things that you liked the most? What are the things that you would like to change? That’s how we learn things, it’s from looking at how it went and adjusting it next time.
Chris Rose: 20:37 So it’s clear erotic communication happens in and out of the bedroom before, during and after sex. How do you approach the idea of communicating beforehand? Like how does this become part of the seduction, the flirtation and make it feel less clinical? A lot of people are like, “Well, if I ask for what I want, it doesn’t make it as exciting.” How do you counter that kind of cultural refusal to communicate and ask for what we want? How do we make it thrilling to talk about it?
Stella Harris: 21:14 Yeah, I mean there’s a few pieces there. People do act like if they’ve had to ask for something that receiving it as somehow less sincere or less genuine. So I do think there’s an element of needing to trust our partners that they’re doing things because they want to and because they enjoy them. For the first one to suggest a restaurant or a movie and our partner agrees enthusiastically, we probably don’t spend all of dinner guessing whether or not they really want to be there but we do second guessed that if it’s a sex thing.
Stella Harris: 21:50 So communication, people are worried that it will feel out of the blue or clinical, like you said or awkward. And I think that that’s mostly true if it starts out of nowhere, if it starts out of the blue, if you haven’t set that precedent. So if you’re starting off with somebody new, set that precedent for communication really early. Everything from negotiating what you’re going to do on a date to whether or not you’re kissing at the end, going home at the end, sort of set that precedent that everything is going to be talked about and checked in about. And then when you are in bed and you’re trying to direct how you like your genitals to be touched, that’s not going to be the first time you’ve opened up and given guidance or made a suggestion or a request. So it can help slow with that a lot easier.
Stella Harris: 22:42 It doesn’t have to sound like you were saying, sort of clinical, unless that’s your kink. It can be worked into sort of more dirty talk or sultry talk. Dirty talk doesn’t have to be putting on a particular kind of role, it can just be asking in a low tone of voice, “May I take your shirt off?” Anything like that. If the other person is excited about you doing that, hearing it is usually a turn on because then there’s anticipation, there’s the excitement to know this person that they like wants to do this thing with them.
Stella Harris: 23:28 So you can really work your requests, work your ongoing consent, all of that into something kind of sexy.
Chris Rose: 23:38 Well, for some people who can bring themselves to say it out loud, things like sending texts or writing letters or writing customer erotica can work. Do you think it’s ultimately important really to be able to use your voice and have this communication be verbal communication?
Stella Harris: 23:57 I think that verbal communication is a really great idea. I think verbal face-to-face is the most, it’s the safest way to get consent and ongoing consent in the least likely to be misinterpreted. And also, you’re right, it is really hard for a lot of people. I think doing a lot of the preliminaries by text is just fine. In kink we sometimes say don’t negotiate naked. The closer you are to an activity, the harder it can be to talk about thoroughly. So I think text is a great way to say, “Hey, would you be interested in trying such and such?” Sending links to pictures or stories, text is also a really great way to talk through things like your safer sex talk. So if you’re not right in front of the person, it can be easier to ask and answer questions that might feel a little sensitive or embarrassing.
Stella Harris: 24:58 And if you have some time and distance from when you can do the things, you’re less likely to fudge on any of your personal boundaries because you still want to play. And erotica is really great, sometimes people don’t even know exactly what they want. So if you pick up a book of erotic on a topic, you can just read through for yourself as though it’s a narrative yes no, maybe list and see, well what does turn me on? What sounds sexy to me? And if you find something then share that story with your partner so that you don’t have to use all the words for it yourself, but you can share it with them, you can put the little sticky pointers on a couple of parts you really like, or you can say, “What I like here is you know, the position that they used, or the particular romantic dynamic between the people.”
Stella Harris: 25:55 Something like that, so you can use a lot of these external tools to get on the same page and then hopefully also tweak the details verbally in person when it comes time.
Chris Rose: 26:09 At one point you mentioned the body and I’m curious how you think about the relationship between our body sensations, our internal wisdom and communication. Like, how do we let these things inform one another and pay attention to our bodies enough to know what we even want to say? What are some of the strategies you use to tap into the body’s wisdom?
Stella Harris: 26:38 So this is so tricky because our culture does not value checking in with our bodies about anything, it’s not a skill that we learn. I think some of this is changing a little bit, but at least, back in my day we were telling kids they had to hug people they didn’t like, they had to finish all the food on their plate. We were basically doing anything and everything we could to make it so that people didn’t know how to listen to what their body needed.
Stella Harris: 27:06 And now we’re supposed to turn around and trust our gut. So most of us have a lot of unpacking and reworking to do around all of that. So what it does take is a lot of checking in. There are a few ways you can do it. If you’re someone who goes to the gym or does any sort of sports or workouts, you might be used to sort of the difference between doing one more pull up because your personal trainer is standing there telling you to, and it kind of sucks but you can do it anyway versus maybe twisting your body in a particular way and feeling that little zing of pain, that’s your body saying like there’s going to be harm caused if you can continue.
Stella Harris: 27:55 So that is sort of a physical way of knowing the difference between discomfort, that it’s okay to push through and discomfort that you really need to listen to as a warning. And many of us have those same warnings for the more emotional stuff too. And what it takes really is just trying to check again with your body when those moments are happening and seeing what comes up for you. I really like journaling about these things you can track moods in an app. So for me, something that I’ve learned is that if somebody proposes something to me that I’m excited about, but it’s also like nervous and scary, but the kind of scary that I find exciting and I want to do. Usually my stomach is sort of not about it a little bit.
Stella Harris: 28:44 I have the butterflies in my stomach feeling and if somebody is asking for something and maybe a more unwelcome boundary, pushy kind of way, it’s a little higher for me then I feel it sort of in my chest and sort of a tight chest or heart palpitations you kind of way. So basically, flutters, six to eight inches apart in my body I now know is sort of my body warning me what my response is to something. But it took, you know, a couple of decades of making sometimes not the best decisions to learn what my body was saying and when I was ignoring it and doing something anyway.
Chris Rose: 29:27 And how do you find that process during arousal? Is it more clear to you or less clear what your body is wanting?
Stella Harris: 29:36 That really depends on the person. Arousal changes so much about what’s going on in our brains. Arousal diminishes our pain response, it diminishes our disgust response, which I find so fascinating. So sometimes in the moment things will feel good or sound good that in another non-sexy moment, don’t sound good at all. And so that’s another one where you need to decide when is it okay to go with what your body wants in the moment and are there some hard and fast boundaries or limits that you want to hold for yourself even if your body changes its mind in the moment.
Stella Harris: 30:20 Part of that listening in, if you’ve ever done maybe yoga or meditation, they teach the idea of this body scan. So either starting from the tip of your head or the tip of your toes and just sort of checking in with yourself all the way from top to bottom, seeing if there’s something going on there that you should listen to. And sometimes you can think something out, “Well, what would it feel like if my partner touched me here? What would some gentle touch feel like? What would some rough cuts feel like?”
Stella Harris: 30:53 And sort of thinking it through a couple of steps. The same way you might look at an item on a menu at a restaurant and like, “Oh I don’t know, does the hamburger or the solid sound good?” And think about what it would feel like to eat those things. You can do that with sex stuff as well. Of course, a lot of this necessitates slowing down a little bit. If your whole encounter is going to be a 10 minute quickie, which I am all for now and then, you’re probably not going to have a ton of time to slow down and check in with your body. So making sure that you do have play times that are more expansive and less goal-oriented, so that you have a moment to check in however you check-in.
Stella Harris: 31:36 Do you close your eyes for a minute? Whatever that’s going to be, and making sure your partner helps you create space to do those check-ins and ideally maybe they even want to do them for themselves as well.
Chris Rose: 31:50 I love it. We’ve been talking a lot about interoception, this skill of feeling the internal landscape and really thinking it’s the new sexual superpower we all need to develop. Can we talk a little bit about boundaries? Because I think often we talk about boundaries as what we’re saying no to, but often those boundaries make big yeses possible as well. How do you think about the relationship between desire and boundaries?
Stella Harris: 32:19 Absolutely. Well, if you don’t have any boundaries or you think you don’t or you’re not communicating any, that can actually really limit what you can do. So for most folks who are not intentionally just taking what they want from other people, most folks don’t want to cross somebody’s boundaries. And so if they don’t know where those boundaries are, they’re probably pulling way back from what could be happening. So for example, if you know how hard you like to be spanked and you can sort of communicate to somebody, you check in on a pain scale and you’re like, “Okay, I don’t want anything to go over in eight.”
Stella Harris: 33:03 Well then maybe the person is playing up to sevens. But if you haven’t communicated anything about how hard you like to play or your pain tolerance, maybe they’re doing threes and fours just to play it safe. And that sort of idea carries across to anything sexy, if someone isn’t sure how much is going to be okay, they’re probably taking it very easy and not at all exploring up to those edges.
Stella Harris: 33:32 So it can be really helpful to know, well how far can you go? I mean it’s an emotional guide rail. If you’re ever hiking to some sort of a lookout peak and they have that rail that’s going to keep you from falling off the cliff. If that railing isn’t there, I don’t know if you’re anything like me, you’re probably waiting 20-feet away from the edge because you don’t want to go tipping over and maybe the view isn’t as nice from there. But if the guard rail was saying, “Okay, it’s safe to walk up to this line,” then you can walk right up to it and look over and get that amazing view. So knowing where you have to stop can actually help you do more.
Chris Rose: 34:17 This conversation is really making clear like why I got along so well with your book, because I’m also a pretty risk adverse adventurer. And in the kink scene I really noticed that I’m like a rule follower, but I also really like to push boundaries and I think we’re kindred spirits there. One of the things in your book you really were really generous with is the importance of reliable pleasures.
Chris Rose: 34:46 And I think you talk about in terms of pizza. How do we think about finding and naming our reliable pleasures and having those and honoring them, but then also challenging ourselves to keep expanding our repertoires and discovering new pleasures? What’s that kind of dynamic balance for you?
Stella Harris: 35:09 What’s really nice to have something that is your go-to, so as we’ve talked about, it can feel safe or to try something new if you know that you still have something else you can do to still have intimacy or pleasure if the first thing doesn’t work out. And you discover those over time, either from what your masturbation routine looks like or from the kind of sex you and your partner have already been having. Sort of think back on, when have things float the most easily, when have I felt the most pleasure? And sort of use those to guide you to what’s your go-to activities are.
Stella Harris: 35:53 And having that, again, as sort of a safety net, can make it feel easier to get out of that comfort zone. So for some folks, if experimenting does feel scary, it can be easier just to add a little something to what they already are usually doing. So if your pizza of sex is missionary position sex, well, what would happen if you were going to have missionary position sex but with a blindfold on, or in different outfits that you would normally wear, or maybe with wrists tied to the bed, or maybe with a little sensation life first. So starting from your comfort zone and just enhancing it a little bit at first. And that also makes it really easy if whatever the enhancement is, it turns out not to be pleasurable to just remove that element and continue and absolutely adding new things entirely is so important.
Stella Harris: 37:01 Plenty of people have talked about and shown research about how much we require novelty, and it can help to make sure you have something like that on the schedule if it’s not something that comes naturally to you, planning for it in advance. So for some people that kind of thing is a lot easier when they’re out of their normal space. So I hear from clients all the time that they’re rekindling their best sacks or experimenting with new things when they’re on vacation. So being in a different city, being in a hotel room that can really help people push beyond their norms a little bit. So changing up your space entirely like that can be a huge help.
Stella Harris: 37:46 Having time for it on the calendar, I know people can be a little ambivalent about scheduling but we’re all very busy and sometimes that is what makes things happen. You can keep a little running list of things that you might like to try, and then when it comes time to set a date night, you sort of have some go-to ideas. So you don’t always need to think of things right in the moment, that works for regular date night ideas as well, because I dunno, what do you want to do? That struggle is real and it can get people in sort of a permanent loop of not having an idea of what to try next.
Chris Rose: 38:22 And as we try these things, as we expand our erotic repertoires, I think it’s really important to be very specific, both in what we’re asking for and in recalibrating things that might not quite work. So your example about rope bondage and you might say, no thank you to rope bondage, not because you didn’t like bondage, but because you didn’t like the itchiness of the rope.
Chris Rose: 38:48 And we don’t want to like throw the baby out with the bath water as we’re exploring new things and they don’t quite work. So what are some of the strategies have kind of evaluating both your desires and then your experiences and pulling apart? Like how do we know that it was the rope versus the bondage?
Stella Harris: 39:10 Yeah, well, there’s a couple of things there. So one is I’m always telling people to define their terms. So if one person says, “Here, you went to bondage,” and the other person’s mind immediately flashes to something like an intense suspension or a vacbed or something else that they think is really extreme and that’s what they think bondages, they might say no. But if you can ask, “Well tell me what you mean by bondage?” And then they find out, it’s like, “Well I’d like to tie your hands together with a scarf.” Then like, “Oh well maybe that’s fine.”
Stella Harris: 39:43 So making sure you both mean the same thing by the words because people often do not. And another thing that is certainly a conversation you want to have delicately because we never want it to look like we are pushing against someone’s no, but asking somebody why not and then you can get a lot of valuable information. So you really want to make sure somebody opts into this conversation first, and understands the intention of the conversation. So anything from going through a yes, no, maybe list and then having a conversation about the no’s, to having a conversation about the no, if you just propose something in the bedroom or if someone’s says, “Hey, I don’t want to do that again.”
Stella Harris: 40:27 So finding out the why’s, something that comes up a lot with my clients, maybe one person and a couple is interested in trying anal play and the other person is dead against it, and if you can get to the why conversation, you’ll hear about that one drunken college experience they had with no lube and no warmup and they hated it. And now that’s what they think anal sex is. So then you can find like, “Oh well you certainly don’t have to try again, but here are some things that might make that better.”
Stella Harris: 41:01 And so like you were saying what the rope, if you try some bondage and then you’re having your debrief a couple days later and what did you think of that? Would you like to try a bondage again? And if they’re like, “Yeah, I wasn’t into the bondage.” And then you ask the why, like what about it didn’t work for you? Did you not like the physical sensation? Did you not like feeling vulnerable and dig into that a little bit? Because then if you hear like, “Oh I love feeling vulnerable, it just hurt my wrists,” we’ll venue have options to address what the actual issue is.
Stella Harris: 41:36 And I like using those feelings questions both after the fact to decide what worked and didn’t work and ahead of time to find out what you would even like to do. Because if you can identify that, “Oh I would like to feel vulnerable,” and there are going to be dozens if not hundreds of ways to get to vulnerability and bonded, it’s just going to be a one thing on that list. But there’s going to be so many other you can explore to get to that feeling.
Chris Rose: 42:06 So shifting the question from kind of what do you want to do into how do you want to feel or what do you want to experience. Beautiful, beautiful. And what does that stake here? What do you see shift or change for your clients, for your coaching clients as communication starts opening up? Like how important is this in our overall erotic wellbeing?
Stella Harris: 42:32 I mean I think it is central, I think it’s kind of the most important thing when this hasn’t been working for folks for a while, I think it takes its toll on the whole relationship. I think we’d get to a place where we think maybe sex isn’t that important and the other life building things are what matters. And also humans and most animals can acclimate to a lot of different conditions. And you get used to what your day to day is to the point that you can actually not realize that you’re not happy or not satisfied until you get a glimpse of what’s possible. And then you realize sort of how far you’ve moved away from your pleasure or your happiness.
Stella Harris: 43:19 So seeing some of this start to snap back into place, I mean that’s at the core of why I keep doing this work. Seeing people have that like eye-opening, like, “Oh, this can work, I can feel this thing. We can do that together,” is absolutely amazing and sometimes it is sort of showing a different physical technique, a way to touch or a position to have their bodies in but more often it is the talking piece. It is finding sort of the sticking point or the frustration point with one couple that I got to work with. One partner hadn’t had an orgasm from the other person touching them and this was one of the few occasions where I got to be in the room while they were playing with each other and I’m standing off to the side and I’m sort of offering advice and it was very much like a personal coaching moment because they reached the point where they would normally get frustrated and stop.
Stella Harris: 44:27 And yes, I did suggest, here’s a little ways you could alter what you’re doing. Here are the tools you can use to say, you know, left or right, harder or softer. But the biggest thing was because I was providing accountability and saying like, “Hey, what happens if you keep going?” They ended up having an orgasm for the first time with their partner touching them. And I would love to say it’s because I’m some sort of sex coach superhero, but the biggest piece of it was just not giving up. And that was what I was really providing in that moment was that they didn’t give up.
Stella Harris: 45:08 And so that is a huge piece and sometimes I think we do give up because we’re really concerned about how long something takes were concerned whether or not a partner is really enjoying themselves. And so some of those communication pieces both expressing and trusting that our partners enjoying themselves, that they want to be there, that they want to try the things that can really be where some shifts take place.
Chris Rose: 45:39 And that’s so important for people to hear that asking for you one isn’t selfish, it’s an act of love for yourself and for your partner to externalize these things and give your partner more of a sense of how to please you. Most people want to please their lovers. People are far less selfish than we think of overs.
Stella Harris: 46:04 Well usually really relieved when we know what somebody else wants. We all have to make so many decisions in our day to day life that again, even something as simple as someone saying like, “Hey, I’m going to like pick up this kind of takeout for dinner. Is that okay?” Like just anytime someone else can take the initiative and make a decision ideally with a check in as well, that’s usually a relief where we want to know what people like and we don’t want to have to do all the coming up with ideas. That’s actually a really big one that comes up in my office is people feel burned out by coming up with the ideas of what things should we try.
Stella Harris: 46:42 And that is something I often see in partnerships is that one person is responsible for more of the suggestions than the other, and that can wear people out or take its toll. So yeah, I see that being a problem way more than I see too many requests or suggestions being a problem.
Chris Rose: 47:05 And I know just from being friends on social media that you are dating, is that right?
Stella Harris: 47:11 I am.
Chris Rose: 47:12 So as you explore with new people, as you date, I’m assuming that a lot of the time you are kind of the communication lead that you bring so many skills to your new relationships and flirtations. What are some of the things you do early on to kind of vet someone or feel like if there, are they up for being in that communication game with you? Are there questions you ask or topics you bring up or strategies you use to find people who can meet you more fully?
Stella Harris: 47:48 Yeah, there are few things, I mean you can get a really strong sense for somebody about how they’re presenting themselves, how they’re operating in early conversations. I’m such a word nerd, so I really do like getting to know people by writing. I really pay attention to how people respond to know, it doesn’t always come up super early, but if possible, have a negotiation about something, how do they feel about schlepping across town to meet you at your favorite restaurant? How are they taking requests? Are they taking no for an answer? Again, about stuff that’s really low stakes. Because if even that ends up being contentious, that doesn’t vote well. I always ask people about their previous relationships because how people talk about former partners or if it’s an open relationship, how they’re talking about their other partners now.
Stella Harris: 48:45 You can learn an awful lot about somebody that way, if someone’s willing to tell you why our relationship ended, that’s going to give you a lot of clues. Are people still friends with their exes? I usually have safer sex talks fairly early on, not necessarily because I want to have sex right away, but because I want to know what is somebody stance around safety because that’s going to be a real way I find out if they’re my kind of person or not. And how they have that conversation is just as important as what the answers are.
Stella Harris: 49:22 So if I ask somebody about STI testing and they’re offended or I’ve clearly never had this conversation before, like that, that gives me a lot of clues that, “Okay, they’re not used to having this conversation. So that’s probably not going to work for me.” There she is!
Chris Rose: 49:47 There’s your puppy.
Stella Harris: 49:50 And I also do a lot of the asking early, the things that I suggest I really do, I actually just had a really cute date last night and towards the end we were sitting on the couch and I just said like, “How would you feel about a little bit of kissing?” And I know that most people might think of that sounds ridiculous, but it got me sort of smiles and giggles and a really hot make out. And so yeah, it works. And if the person hated hearing that question, well maybe they weren’t going to like the kissing either.
Stella Harris: 50:28 So again, I would still rather no with my words then sort of lunging it and going for it.
Chris Rose: 50:36 I love that. You talked earlier that you were not maybe a sex coach superhero, but I want to say that you are. And as a sex coach superhero, like what is your mission? What are your hopes and goals for sex culture as we move forward from this point in time?
Stella Harris: 51:03 I would like to completely eliminate shame to do with sex, sexuality, gender, bodies. I don’t know if we’re going to get there in my lifetime, but that is what I would like to see. I would like to normalize people talking about their desires. I would like to normalize all of the different imaginable kinds of sex that people can have, including not wanting to have any at all.
Stella Harris: 51:38 I want people to understand that pleasure is important and to feel empowered to seek that out in their lives as a thing that is just as valid as anything else in our lives. Just as valid as professional growth or anything else that our culture does, sort of say, yes, this thing is good, this thing is not good. Sexual health and wellbeing is just as important as every other kind of health and wellbeing. I’m also really hoping that we can bring other professions along, I do some work with therapists and therapists and training a little bit with doctors and I would like to do more. Because I can’t talk to everybody about everything, I really need other professionals to be giving people good, safe, healthy, complete information about their bodies and about sex.
Chris Rose: 52:36 Stella Harris, thank you so much for all the work you do and thank you for joining us.
Stella Harris: 52:40 Thank you so much for having me.
Chris Rose: 52:42 So we have a couple quick questions from our patrons. Are you willing to stick around and answer a couple questions?
Stella Harris: 52:48 Absolutely.
Chris Rose: 52:49 Awesome. All right. I hope you enjoyed that conversation. And if you are ready for more from Stella, go to patreon.com/pleasuremechanics. She was gracious enough to stick around after the interview and answer a few questions submitted by our patrons over at patreon.com/pleasuremechanics. Join us with a monthly supporting pledge of a dollar a month or $5 a month and join our inner circle, show your love and support for this show and unlock ad free episodes, bonus episodes, bonus resources, direct communication with us, and much more over at patreon.com/pleasuremechanics. And I will be posting that bonus episode where Stella tackles some very sticky situations for our dear patrons. That’s patreon.com/pleasuremechanics. All right, I am Chris from pleasuremechanics.com wishing you a lifetime of pleasure. Cheers.
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