In high school, my boyfriend and I would kiss for what seemed like hours on the futon in my parents’ basement, ignoring Adult Swim in the background. One day, my jaw muscles were starting to ache, and I wanted to move on. The week before, I had accidentally grazed my own erect nipple while reading Hamlet, and was interested in reproducing that feeling with the hand of a living male.

But instead of whispering “touch my boobs” or picking up his paw and applying it to my chest, two strategies that now seem as natural as a lox bagel, I strategically centered my breast in his field of vision. When that didn’t work, I just tried to kind of lob my left boob like a grenade in the general vicinity of his hand.

Even as I grew older and the steps of sexual intimacy became more like a standard weeknight stir-fry than a soufflé, the absence of language in bed persisted. It took years, and some experimentation, to convey to one enthusiastic partner that my body would simply not accept penetration without an oral prelude. In my mid-20s, with a man I felt lukewarm about, I stopped right in the middle of sex and sat upright in his darkened bedroom in silence, not sure what I wanted and unable to explain myself. 

After the revelation that Aziz Ansari had not been a particularly perceptive or sensitive sexual partner, and that his date had not abandoned ship once that became clear, I started thinking again about sexual silence. Yes, a woman might fear for her safety if she interrupts a sexual encounter, especially with someone she doesn’t know well. Yes, we’ve all been socialized to accommodate men’s desires before addressing our own (how many of us have whispered “that was so good” after a romp where we definitely didn’t come?). Of course those things are true. But if such socialization means women can’t speak loudly when we feel our sexual boundaries are being crossed, it also probably means we’re not providing turn-by-turn directions to our own pleasure. Or pointing out its lack.

How ever did we learn that sex was quiet time?

Perhaps because our sexual ideals start to form long before we know the mechanics of sex, it’s almost impossible for me to pinpoint the moments when I first started envisioning physical intimacy. But even when I could only conceive of blurry closeness, around age 10 or 11, those imagined encounters were without words. If you got the chance at that closeness, my fantasies dictated, you were done talking.

This notion is borne out in one beloved romantic comedy after another. While the fact of sex is usually a narrative climax, the act of sex doesn’t do much in the way of building character or advancing the plot. The fact that Harry and Sally finally “do it” complicates their relationship and the storyline, but their actual fucking does none of that. Or maybe it would have, but we only see its prologue and its aftermath. (Sally’s legendary ability to fake an orgasm in a deli, though, is suggestive.)

Even in films where the act of sex has the potential to show us something important about its participants, we’re often denied the insight. In Casablanca, the lead up to intimacy between Elsa and Rick is charged with the fact that they barely know each other, and yet are aware of darkness in one another’s pasts. “Who are you really, and what were you before?” Rick asks. When Elsa admits that the man she was with before is dead, Rick says, “I’m sorry, I forgot we said no questions.” Elsa is the one to suggest that sexual intimacy is a replacement for talk, at least for those whose pasts are painful: “Well, only one answer can take care of all our questions,” she says before they kiss, and the scene cuts out. Good narrative technique, but probably rotten sex.

As Lindy West has aptly pointed out, generally the more a woman talks in a film, the less she gets laid. If there are exceptions to that rule — like most of Meg Ryan’s adorably tousled ‘80s and ‘90s characters — getting laid shuts them up. For the little girls watching at home, it would stand to reason that the more a woman talks while getting laid, the less likely the whole equation is to work at all. Only one answer can take care of all our questions, after all. Thanks a lot, Elsa.

The myth of silent sex doesn’t affect only women. Even men, like my husband, admit that they came of age thinking that muteness in bed was the norm: that once you were naked, some organic signal between bodies would supplant the need for oral communication. To break that silence could seem tantamount to admitting that your bodies weren’t in tune with each other; that you didn’t belong together. 

But as it turns out, talk, for everyone, is the only way to communicate very non-obvious information, like on which side the clitoris is more sensitive, or whether nipples are fun or a non-starter, or whether we’re comfortable with butts. Or even whether we’re scared, or it hurts, or we don’t want to do this anymore and we aren’t sure why. Imagine if we treated sex like a tour through a beautiful new city: You could explore by yourself, but to really get to know the best parts, you need a knowledgeable guide. 

When I finally broke my own bedroom silence, it wasn’t spontaneously.  I was seeing someone new after a long time alone. When our first attempt at sex was frustrating, I spent days preparing how I would ask him to touch me, where I would place his hand, testing whether that was really what my body would respond to. In college and after, I had spent years hoping for a seamless encounter where my partner and I were of one mind, moving intuitively toward each other’s pleasure. But perhaps there was no such encounter. Even if my partner and I were new to each other, I had to spend time alone with myself first. When the new guy and I met again, I was surprised at his willingness, even eagerness, to be directed. And then I realized: No one actually wants to guess their partner’s desires.

Yes, men should get better at asking, at reading women’s nonverbal signals, at stopping before they go too far. But the path to real consent, it seems, lies not only with a close reading of the body, but also with both partners asking, early and often: What do you want? And then telling each other, like a Frommer’s, like a fucking GPS: this, this, this. 

Leah Falk

Leah Falk’s poems and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, FIELD, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She runs programming at the Writers House at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Philadelphia.