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Kim Carney / MSNBC
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/11/2006 7:08:35 AM ET 2006-05-11T11:08:35

There you are, in all your naked glory, standing before another person with whom you have decided to be intimate, and you cannot work up the courage to say, “You know what I would really like? I’d like _______ (state favorite sex act here).

This person presumably knows that you slurp pasta, can clearly see you have not been going to the gym as often as you brag about going, and assuming some genetic malady isn’t interfering with depth perception, can accurately gauge the size of your equipment. 

Now you get shy?

According to the new Elle/MSNBC.com Sex and Love Survey, a lot of you do. Only four in 10 respondents said they have asked their lovers for something in bed in the past month. Now either 60 percent of you have so completely informed your partners just how you like it, and those lovers do it exactly right, or a lot of you just aren’t saying anything.

Donald S. Strassberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who specializes in relationship and sexual therapy, bets on the latter.

“Much of sex therapy really turns out to be sex education and communication training,” he says. “Many people come in and the plumbing works fine, but they’re people who either have not figured out what they really want, or have yet to communicate it to each other … I have worked with couples married for decades, produced kids and grandkids, talked to each other about almost everything one could imagine, but never talked about sex.”

He tells the story of a colleague who was training a group of married couples in the skill of negotiation. They were to ask their spouses for something they wanted. Most asked for more time together, or help with the dishes, until the oldest man in the room, a 60-year-old, hesitated. Then, in a low voice, he said, "What I’d really like is oral sex."

“OK," the therapist said. "What would you trade for that?" The guy said, "anything." The therapist turned to the man’s wife and asked for her reaction. She said, "I have three reactions. First, I think it is a fine idea. Second, you don’t have to trade anything, and third, why has it taken you 40 years to ask?"

Keeping your lover in the loop
Unfortunately, Strassberg says, that is just the sort of hesitancy and fear he sees all the time. And yet, communication is the bedrock of sexual satisfaction.

This is especially true as we become accustomed to each other, or as we age and accumulate medical problems like prostate disease, diabetes or arthritis. Over time and circumstance, sexual needs and desires can change. You have to keep your lover up to date.

So why don’t we? Strassberg believes it’s because our culture hasn’t given us permission. “It has its basis in fear,” he says. We’re afraid of offending our lovers, afraid of being judged by our lovers, afraid of admitting to any “weaknesses.”

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“We do not grow up learning to be comfortable about it,” Strassberg says.

Many people worry that a request can sound like an implied criticism, as if “Could you swirl your tongue slowly counterclockwise” will be heard as “Why can’t you do it right?” Or “Do you think you could wear glasses and a plaid skirt marked with chalk dust and act like my seventh-grade algebra teacher?” will be heard as “You are so boring, I need you to be somebody else to get excited.”

“Some women say there’s something wrong if he wants to try something different,” says Lou Paget, the Beverly Hills love-making guru and author, most recently of "The Great Lover Playbook."

“But bless her partner for saying so," she says. "Most men want to ask for the fantasy thing, but the reason they don’t is they do not want to risk getting killed off.”

Sometimes we fear being selfish. This is especially true for men, who, Strassberg suggests, can be goal-oriented when it comes to sex. Many men (yes, this is really true) feel sex is unsuccessful if they haven’t made their lover orgasm. That builds anxiety. So some men fantasize about being let off the performance hook, but hesitate to ask.

“That is why some men who report good sex at home might still go to a prostitute,” Strassberg says. “You do not have to worry about pleasing anybody else.”

Love notes can create a tingle
Nobody in a loving relationship really needs to resort to hookers, though. It’s easy. “Start outside the bedroom,” Paget suggests. Two lines in a note left in a briefcase, a lunchbox or on a desk saying something like, “You are so hot. I love you very much,” can create a little tingle that lasts all day. It doesn’t have to mean sex later, it just creates a little sexy — and secure — feeling.

When speaking, start with one sentence, something as simple as letting him or her know how much he or she turns you on. “It does not have to be a description of body parts,” Paget says. “That’s what gives most people the heebie-jeebies. Guys, don’t tell her how fine an area of anatomy is!”

Also communicate by touching. “Most women are not aware of how powerful it is to just go in and hug a man,” Paget says. “I mean with that breast-squishing hug. It says to him, ‘She finds me appealing.’”

Eventually you may need to be very specific about sex. Paget suggests first asking yourself what it is you really want before you ask your lover. Vague answers like “more” or “better” aren’t too helpful. Don’t expect your lover to read between the lines. If you want oral, ask for it. If you want it harder, softer, faster, slower, ask.

If you want to try something brand new, “say, ‘Can I ask a big favor?’” Paget says. “‘May I have a special treat?’ That way you’re asking permission, making a request rather than a demand. Requests are heard, but demands are not.”

Strassberg and Paget both say good relationships mean better sex and better sex spills out into the relationship in one happy feedback loop. But both are dependent upon reciprocation.

“If people are open to doing something strictly for their partner, they know in the long run there will be payback,” Strassberg says. “Couples who have figured out how to do that for each other are very fortunate.”

Of course, as Strassberg says, asking does have a risk. You have to be willing to hear “no.”

But take that risk. “Millions of couples are capable of creating for themselves a much more satisfying sexual relationship if they are able to communicate with their partner about what works for them,” he says.

This is especially important for women. “In women, what works can be so different from woman to woman and even the same woman at different times," Strassberg says. "Ladies, don’t leave us poor schmucks trying to figure this out.”

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.

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