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Sometimes I find myself having a difficult time asserting myself with my sexual partner so I end up letting them make all of the decisions. This makes me feel like I don’t really have self-respect. What should I do?

Communicating about sex in a healthy and open way is super important for practicing safer sex, establishing consent, and having healthy and fulfilling sex. It’s great that you’re thinking about how to work through this!

First, though: If you’re having sex that you don’t want to have, or sex leaves you feeling unsafe or unhealthy, seriously think about taking a break from partnered sex. There’s no reason to have sex that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself—especially if it’s not consensual (which we talk more about below), or you’re not practicing safer sex. This isn’t about whether you respect yourself. This is about taking care of yourself so you feel safe, comfortable and healthy in your own body.

It sounds like you’re worried that not asserting yourself during sex says something about who you are.

Lots of people have a hard time communicating about sex. Asking for what you want and setting boundaries are often difficult in non-sexual situations, too (like asking for an extension on a school project, or saying no to a date). Add a taboo subject like sex to the mix, and communication gets even tougher.

Since we don’t talk openly about sex, our understanding of what sex should be like often comes from TV and movies. These paint an unrealistic, romanticized version of sex—where people don’t talk, laugh, make funny noises, or fumble taking off their pants. In real life, people do all these things and more! If you’ve seen porn, you may have picked up different unrealistic assumptions about sex. Learn why porn isn’t like real sex.

There’s no reason to feel bad or guilty about finding it difficult to talk during or about sex, or think it means that you don’t respect yourself. With practice, chances are you’ll feel comfortable talking about sex and asking for what you want.

If you feel safe and comfortable with your partner, here are some tips for beginning to talk about what you want: 

  • What keeps you from asserting yourself now? Do you feel embarrassed talking about sex? Is there a specific fear or thought you have when you try to speak up? Do you think your partner will think you’re too demanding, or want to break up? What can you and/or your partner do to make it easier? Write your thoughts down.
  • Think about what you want from sex and your partner. Is there a fantasy you want to explore, a way you want to be touched or a specific act or position you want to try? Do you want to feel more connected to your partner? Is there something you want to stop doing?
  • Talk to your partner. Choose a time when you have some privacy but aren’t in the middle of sex. Explain what you’re feeling and why. Just knowing that your partner is on the same page as you may give you the confidence to speak up in the moment. This also means you can approach the challenge together as a couple, rather than alone.
  • Can’t bring yourself to start the conversation in person? Try texting.
  • Brainstorm some ways that your partner can make you feel more comfortable. Maybe you can ask your partner to check in with you more during sex: “What are you in the mood for now?” “Do you want to…?” It may be easier to respond to questions at first than to speak up on your own.
  • Remember that your partner has their own desires and boundaries. Just like your partner needs to respect your boundaries, you need to respect theirs.

Like we mentioned, communication is essential for safer sex and consent. If you still don’t feel comfortable communicating this way with your partner, think about taking a break from sex.

It’s also possible that your dilemma has less to do with you, and more to do with your partner.

  • Do you feel safe and comfortable with your partner?
  • If you’ve asserted yourself in the past, were they responsive and understanding?
  • Are you confident that your partner would listen, show respect, and respond non-judgmentally if you asserted yourself now?
  • Does your partner ask before touching you, initiating sex, or trying something new?
  • Do you feel safe saying no to sex?
  • Does your partner make decisions that affect your health and safety—like whether to use condoms/other barrier methods—without your input?
  • Do they clearly care about what you want in bed, and whether you’re enjoying yourself and experiencing pleasure?
  • Do they pay attention to you during sex by checking in, and responding to non-verbal communication like your body language and facial expressions?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, it’s a sign that your partner doesn’t understand or respect the importance of consent. It’s understandable that you would hesitate about asserting yourself with them. Seriously think about whether you want to keep having sex with them. Remember—you deserve a partner (whether romantic or “just” sexual) who treats you with respect and kindness.

Consent is necessary for sex of all kinds, all the time. Without consent, sex may be sexual assault. Keep in mind that silence is not consent—it’s on both partners to ask and check in with each other. Learn more about consent.

If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC and have more questions about sexual health, relationships or your body, make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential health care.