In my daily work with clients as a gay men’s specialist therapist for 29 years in 2021, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, as well as an LGBT-affirmative, gay men’s specialist coach, author, speaker, and consultant, one of the most frequent questions I get is how to help gay male couples improve their sex lives.
It’s a fair question for me as a sex therapist, although that’s not all I do; I work helping gay male individuals and couples on many of life’s challenges. But it seems to be very common for gay men to “want something more” in their sex lives, whether single or partnered/married. It’s one of the more frequent life challenges that clients bring to me.
Recently, I was working with several couples in the same week on their goal of improving their sex life, and I realized that the guidance I was giving each of them really boils down to three main areas of focus. These are: 1) Communication; 2) Negotiation; and 3) Experimentation in very concrete, behavioral, real-world terms.
Let’s look at each of these more closely:
I have a joke in session that I use a lot: “The older I get, the stronger my opinions get.” This is because time after time, with client after client, I see the same patterns of what goes wrong that flips people out, and what generally helps them get back on track. Communication is one of these: with it, and you can do a lot toward effecting positive change and the rewards that brings. Without it, you’re stuck in dysfunctional communication patterns and circles that keep the person or couple frustrated, month after month (or even year after year). Perhaps the number one task in couples therapy, and more specifically sex therapy, is communication.
This communication about getting your own sexual needs met starts with communicating those needs to yourself. Giving yourself time to reflect, and posing even some difficult questions to yourself, is key. What do you really want? Is the way you’re expressing yourself sexually the way you want to be expressing yourself sexually? If not, why not? What do you want to see happen for yourself sexually that isn’t currently happening? What do you want to Start, Stop, or Change to make it better? Would this involve what you’re doing yourself (regarding masturbation, use of porn, use of erotica, etc.)? Your partner? Someone else? A group of others?
These are all important considerations, because if we didn’t validate our own sexual feelings, we could just “attempt” to “fake it” and “be” straight and enjoy all kinds of heterosexual privilege in society! But it doesn’t work that way. We have to be true to ourselves about our own sexual orientation, and self-validate that as a gay men, and then we take it further by self-validating what we like, or don’t like, within the options of gay male sexual expression.
After you self-reflect and you’re clear on what you’re thinking/feeling internally, it’s time to share those thoughts and feelings, usually with your partner (or, in the case of polyamory, in your polycule). As difficult as it might sound, you have to press through the social anxiety that might be associated with sitting your partner(s) down and telling him/them what’s going on with you (my article on “don’t ignore the hard stuff” is here). Having to bring up what is essentially a complaint about your sex life might not be something easy, or something they want to hear, but you have to be careful not to abandon yourself or invalidate your feelings because of your fear of your partner’s reaction. He has a right to ask questions to clarify understanding you, he has a right to state his own thoughts/feelings, he has a right to negotiate whatever changes you’re proposing. But you do have the right to bring up the topics that are important to you – because, just that: they are important to you. They don’t have to be important to anyone else to “legitimize” them; what you feel is enough to warrant conversation and to ask for your partner’s meaningful response (not to be ignored, denigrated, or dismissed).
Just like you would want from him, you want to use compassion, even empathy, to speak to your partner, but also honesty. By you stating how or why your sex needs aren’t being met, you’re giving permission for your partner to do the same. While that conversation is not essentially “fun,” it can be productive, frank, honest, compassionate, and effective.
In couples therapy and sex therapy, I tend to encourage clients to “form their expressions in the form of a request” that you are making of your partner. What are you asking him to Stop, Start, or Change about your sex life? Are you asking him to experiment with a different sexual act? Position? Approach? Are you asking for his “permission” to have him do something to you, do something to him, or somehow involve others in either of those?
What are your hopes and fears about the change(s) you’re asking for? Processing, through conversation, your hopes (advantages) versus your fears (possible negative outcomes) of any behavioral changes, can help you both to feel confident, empowered, and pragmatic. The experiments with change might or might not yield good results, but you never know until you try.
Susan Jeffers, PhD wrote a good self-help book called, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I love that title, because so often we need to remind ourselves that we can’t wait until it “feels comfortable” to do something. On opening night of a play, that curtain is going up, whether an actor feels he needs another week of rehearsal or not. The show must go on. It’s the same with sucking it up and braving the tough conversations with your partner (as in life partner, spouse, or even a hookup or casual sex partner). You don’t wait until you have no “butterflies in your stomach” before you speak up. Speak up, and while you might wish it were more comfortable, it’s more important that you just get to it and talk about it. That’s part of validating your own needs, and not “self-abandoning” by declaring your needs must always “wait for another time.” Baloney. Speak up, even if you’re not one hundred percent comfortable, if you know it’s a discussion that pertains to your needs.
The second part to this process, which is about moving toward getting your sexual needs met, is negotiation. In a good relationship (especially with gay men, because there are the dynamics of two grown men, and no patriarchal male dominance over women, which happens way too often (like, at all) in straight relationships), whatever happens happens because two equal parties are negotiating what’s going to happen from a place of equal footing; no one is the boss of anybody else because they have more money, or are older, or have more social influence, or have class privilege, race privilege, or appearance privilege. Relationships are the great equalizer that way. Only in dysfunctional relationships is one partner’s view “the boss” or dominant over the other.
When you consider the changes you’ve been wanting to try, negotiate with your partner. Speak up. Make suggestions. Phrase it with something like, “How about if we ____________” and then fill in the blank with the sexual activity you want to try. Give your partner something to say yes to. It’s easier to just agree with a suggestion than it is to mount an argument back, so your taking the initiative and asserting what you’d like to see happen is likely to work just because people are lazy and it’s easier to just comply.
Of course, if your partner doesn’t want to try something sexual that you want to try, because it’s possibly triggering for them from past abuse, or because it’s out of their value system (such as certain kink play), then you have to respect their wishes. But the fact remains this is something you want to experience, and then you negotiate how you might be able experience it, and still let your partner be relieved of not having to (this is where open relationships, or Consensual Non-Monogamy, can really be helpful). I’ve worked with a number of client couples where one partner was “into” BDSM play and the other wasn’t, and so the BDSM play was “outsourced” to another party/parties, while the rest of the relationship (including the rest of their sex life) remained intact.
A negotiation can include a pre-determined “trial period,” so it’s seen as an experiment and less of the burden of a permanent change that can feel too “high stakes” and scary. A negotiation can be a rather formal “experiment,” such as setting a time and place for trying your first three-way (such as an upcoming vacation, or friend visit).
A negotiation can be an exchange of expression of your respective hopes and fears, and a discussion of the rationale for doing something or against doing it.
What’s important in negotiation is that each partner has a chance to express their feelings, ask questions, give background/history/rationale, and perhaps make suggestions on modifying the proposal. “Where you go from there” depends a lot on the “experiment approach,” such as limiting the experience, people involved, or time frame, and then having a discussion afterward about how everything felt in the experiment. (This is something that organizations might do, in what was called “Continuous Quality Improvement” when I was in non-profit organization management.)
As a therapist, I think the experimentation phase is quite possibly the hardest of these three. The reason I say that is that while both partners in a relationship (or more) might have a lot of discussion about making changes in their sex life, you really (trust me on this) do not know how you’re each going to feel about those changes until you do the above-mentioned experimentation as a result of communication and negotiation.
Unfortunately, “projective prediction” of how each of you is going to feel is notoriously unreliable. When I work with couples/polycules on this, you can easily have these “oh, wait, that doesn’t feel like I thought it would” moments, for better or for worse. I’ve seen a lot of swapping of feelings: the person who wanted to open the relationship doesn’t want to after doing it, and the partner who was reluctant at first is now totally into it. It sucks that our predictive capacities aren’t better, but it’s a reality. That’s why going into times of change should be seen as “experimentation,” with the idea that you can discuss, review, evaluate, and re-negotiate after you’ve conducted some “experiments” in real-life, in vivo terms.
After you’ve experimented with something new (such as having kink play, Consensual Non-Monogamy or your first three-way), pick a time to really sit down and review it afterward (like a while afterward, not necessarily the next day). What worked for each you? What didn’t work for each of you? What were your surprised by? What happened just as you predicted? Did the change or experiment satisfy the need you were going for? To what degree? What would have needed to happen for it be better? Which variable, such as time, place, or people involved? What about the timing, duration, or intensity? Based on this experience, are you more likely, or less likely, to do it again? How do you reconcile if you, and your partner’s, experiences about this experience differ? What are some options the two (or more) of you can devise for bridging that gap?
It’s OK to feel embarrassed, silly, or surprised that you feel differently from what you might have expected or predicted that you would feel. There’s no shame in learning those, because that’s how people grow. Discussion and evaluation after any experiment is an important part of the scientific method. And something that didn’t work for one of you now, might work differently under different circumstances, with different people involved, or at a different time in your life or relationship. Maybe there’s an aspect to all this that needs some attention in individual or couples therapy first.
Trying It Out
Having a better sex life – being more fulfilled physically, emotionally, even socially – starts with your cultivating the ability to reflect, identify, and express your own feelings about your own relationship with your body, and how you want your body (and mind, spirit, etc.) to relate to others, with one partner, or more. It also starts with asserting certain inherent rights, such as you’re “allowed” to enjoy yourself in relation to others who are also consenting adults, and to have sexual experiences that allow for the “Six Principles of Sexual Health” (those are described specifically for gay men, here.)
Unfortunately, getting your needs met is not something that can be done just by thinking about it, or keeping it private. It must be shared, with your partner and perhaps others. It needs to be brought from the merely theoretical, or hypothetical, or fantasy, to the three-dimensional real world to be fairly evaluated.
However, if prior experiences (such as negative or traumatic ones), or entrenched feelings about yourself, or overwhelming anxieties or fears stop you, then it’s time to get help with those. You deserve to enjoy this lifetime, and getting your sexual needs met throughout your life span is one part of that.
For more specific help, consider therapy or coaching services. You’re not alone in having multiple, or even conflicting feelings, and the help that my associates and I provide at GayTherapyLA can help you feel less isolated, and to talk about these things in private with people who just “get it” as your fellow gay men, but also as trained professionals in a very specific area of gay men’s lives. Text/call 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, for more information on a range of supportive services that can help.
Ken Howard, LCSW, CST is the most experienced gay men’s specialist therapist in the United States today. He is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, psychiatric social worker, and Adjunct Associate Professor with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. He is the author of two books, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, and Positive Outlook: Collected Essays for Successfully Living with HIV Today. He is married (19 years) and lives in West Hollywood, California.