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Sexual Initiation Styles: What You Need to Know to Initiate Sex with Your Partner

one person sits behind the other with their left arm over the other's chest

When you think about your partner (or a potential sexual partner) initiating sex, what’s your initial reaction? Excitement? Irritation? Anxiety? Pressure? Maybe disappointment because you’re just not really in the mood… again. Perhaps shame because you want to want it, but desire is lacking. Now think about a scenario where you’re the one initiating sex. When the roles are reversed, many might feel fear of rejection, the pressure to perform, uncertainty, or resentment from feeling that they’re always the one who has to make the move. 

Of all the emotional pain points surrounding sexuality, personal sexual initiation styles—and misunderstandings surround them—is one of the most common. Whether you realize it or not. As therapists who work with clients on all things related to sex, we see how sexual initiation styles are often at the root of issues like low libido or desire, sexless relationships, resentment, feeling rejected, performance issues, sexual insecurities, or a poor relationship with sex. 

While it can be overwhelming to know that sexual initiation styles may be the crux of many sex-related issues, the great news is that a better understanding of this topic leads to solutions across the board. We’ll dig into all of that here.

Why is it so hard to initiate sex with your partner?

This question comes up time and time again. Really, it could be a separate topic all on its own so let’s get to the core issues at play. You may notice yourself thinking something like, “My partner never initiates sex with me. Are they even attracted to me?” or, “I’m really into them and I want to be the one to start a sexual encounter but I just don’t know how,” or even, “I’m in the mood but every time I try to let them know, they just shut me down. What’s the point?” 

What’s going on here? The reality is that there are so many (perfectly valid) reasons why someone might feel unsure about bringing things into a physically intimate space. Before unpacking that though, let’s be sure to state one of the most important facts about sexual relationships: Sex is never owed or obligatory. That should go without saying and is true for all parties and regardless of relationship type (i.e. monogamous, long-term, open, casual, married, etc.). Sex is not a requirement and it’s always important to get consent every time. 

Now, there are so many reasons why someone (including yourself) might feel hesitant to be the one to start a spicy moment. Some of the most common ones include: a fear of rejection, low levels of sexual confidence, inexperience, decreased desire, increased stress, feeling uncertain as to how to initiate sex, feeling undesired by a partner, performance anxiety, having a poor relationship with sex, unaddressed trauma, feeling as though they’re always the one to start it, body image issues, or unaddressed negative belief systems around sex. 

Some people might also experience internalized “shoulds” which are often linked to factors like gender, religion, or sex-negative beliefs. For example, someone might not assume the role of being the one to initiate sex because they (consciously or not) believe they “should” play a more passive role in the relationship. 

When sex is lacking in a relationship

Couples of all sexual orientations and in all types of relationship structures face challenges regarding mismatched levels of desire, dry spells, or dissatisfaction in regards to the frequency of sex in the relationship. Let’s first validate how common this is and also reinforce the fact that there’s no “right” or “wrong” amount of sex that any given couple “should” be having. The problem is when one or both parties are unhappy. 

Why is it that sex is sometimes lacking in a relationship? As with anything related to sexuality, there’s no one answer. Oftentimes it can be one or a combination of the following:

  • unresolved relationship problems or dissatisfaction

  • boredom

  • perfectionism or performance anxiety

  • differing levels of desire

  • physical issues like pain

  • you’re not on the same page in terms of the type of sex

  • initiation and foreplay you each want

  • the sex you’re having is goal-oriented (like trying to conceive) and stressful

  • one person is getting more out of it than the other

  • your timelines in terms of time of day or length of foreplay aren’t synched

  • you’re waiting for the perfect moment to magically present itself

Because of the way sex is often portrayed, many might have an unrealistic expectation that sex is supposed to always be passionate, spontaneous, overpowering, seamless, and in sync. The reality is so much different. In actuality, sex can take a lot more communication, planning, trial-and-error, or awkwardness than you may have thought. 

If your sex life is feeling lackluster, clashing sexual initiation styles might be a contributing factor. For example, you might think it’s obvious when you’re in the mood and sending cues to your partner (you think making out means it’s on, they think it’s time to cuddle and connect) but they’re missing the memo entirely. Or, your partner is initiating in a way that completely turns you off (direct sexual language = hot for them, crass for you). It’s also fairly common for people to never have considered any of this and to not only be unclear as to the type of sex their partner likes, but which signs will turn them on for it to happen in the first place!

Bottom line: the reason you’re not getting it on might not be because you don’t want it, it’s because one of you is getting the ick before you can get to it. 

Why you need to have the talk

Why do you need to talk about sex with a current or potential sexual partner? And when does that conversation need to happen? If you’ve related to anything in this post so far, then it’s probably a smart idea to have a chat. And if sex is on the table, then it’s never too early!

Some people may avoid having an open and honest conversation about sex because it can make them feel vulnerable or even slightly uncomfortable. You may not yet be in the practice of checking in in regards to the kind of sex you want to be having, how to initiate sex with your partner (and how not to!), how to turn each other on, boundaries you may have, or whether or not the relationship will be exclusive. Or, you have an idea of where you stand on these things but have trouble articulating it in the moment. For that reason, it’s understandable if these types of conversations feel a little daunting. 

That said, avoiding this type of dialogue will do you and your partner a disservice. Not to mention, if you’re not both getting clear on important things like desires, non-negotiables, preferences, or triggers, you’re passively engaging in a sexual relationship which can potentially lead to consent and boundary violations.

Plus, your partner isn’t a mind reader. One of the most common problems we see in couples is when partners don’t communicate with each other because they think something is obvious. For example, you might think it’s obvious that you’re not in the mood after a long, stressful day. When your partner misreads a subtle sign of affection as initiation, you feel annoyed. Or, you think two glasses of wine and flirty touch mean it’s on. When your partner doesn’t get it, you feel rejected.

That’s why a conversation can clear up basic misunderstandings like these. Does light touch usually signify that you want to be physically intimate or does it mean you want to connect in a different way? Do you feel like your cues are always getting missed? Are they unintentionally turning you off by being too assertive? Too passive? Using the wrong phrasing?

You need to have these sorts of talks so that you can get on the same page. If not, you’re leaving your sex life up to chance… and it’s highly likely you’ll be disappointed.  

Sexual initiation styles: What works best for you?

So what are the different styles of sexual initiation and how do we begin to demystify all of this? Most people have more than one sexual initiation style that feels right. Which do you prefer? Which is a turn-off? Get familiar not only on which styles work for you, but also for your partner(s). 

Keep in mind that these styles are not fixed or definite. Many may overlap and most people relate to one, several, or even all of the below. 

  • Verbal: This is about communicating sexual desire through words. Someone who reflects this initiation style might use language to tell you exactly what they want, how they want it, let you know what turns them on about you, send sexual messages, or play with dirty talk. When it comes to language, they’re not shy. 

  • Touch and physical sensations: With some people, their touch, kiss, or caress will say more than words. Physical signs are their way of instigating sex. If you or a partner relate to this sexual initiation style, things like kissing, making out, a massage, physical affection, or light grazing on the neck will be enough to turn you on.  

  • Dominant and spontaneous: Dominant, forceful (and always consensual), in-control, and confident, this style is assertive and very direct. Some who prefer a more dominant sexual initiation style are those who want to surrender control, get out of their head, or experiment with dominant-submissive roles. You might be looking for a partner to push you against a wall or bed, touch you more roughly, spank, or pull your hair. 

  • Tangible cues: This initiation style is about showing thoughtfulness and connection. Consider this like the “acts of service” of sexual initiation styles (if you’re someone who knows each of the love languages). This is about pursuing sex with someone through acts like cooking a nice dinner, drawing a bath, having a deep conversation, planning a fun date, or creating an environment that’s relaxing and sexy. 

  • Explicitly seductive: This initiation style is about actions that say it loud and clear. If this is a partner’s style, they may greet you in a set of sexy lingerie, invite you into a steaming hot shower, send a nude photo, or surprise you with a new sex toy. Again, many of the initiation styles overlap but this one is generally fairly direct, if not bold.  

  • Subtle but sensual: This style is less straightforward than some styles listed here which is why a partner may have to communicate upfront if this is their way of expressing sexual desire. This is a less-is-more approach that may rely on understated signs: a light graze, a subtle innuendo, lingering eye contact, maybe pouring a certain beverage, or relying on established rituals that often lead to sex. 

Knowing your sexual initiation style red and green flags can really make or break your sex life. Understanding the way you and your partner(s) express sexual desire is a key, yet underrated, element for healthy physical relationships. Not properly understanding which initiation styles work for both you and your partner is to do your relationship—and sexual self—a major disservice. If you are still trying to figure it out, check out this questionnaire to explore your potential style!

Having a full understanding of the different initiation styles can be groundbreaking in terms of healing so many sex-related emotional pain points (including performance anxiety, general dissatisfaction, fear of rejection, low sexual confidence, or sexless relationships). Not all sexual initiation styles are created equal which is why communication is essential. Is your version of sensual making your partner want to roll their eyes? Are they putting an end to it by coming across way too strong? Are either of you being too timid? These are important things to know. Of course, at Healing Exchange, we help you navigate all things relationships and sex so that your sex life doesn’t feel awkward or left up to chance.

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