Even if you're an empowered woman, you might still be worried about this conversation. And that's totally OK.

By Gigi Engle
February 03, 2020

Talking about your sexual history isn't always a walk in the park. Frankly, it can be scary AF.

Maybe your so-called "number" is a bit "high," maybe you've had a few threesomes, been with someone of the same sex, or are into BDSM. Or, maybe you're worried about a lack of sexual experience, a past STI diagnosis, pregnancy scares, or an abortion you had a few years ago. Your sexual history is ultra-personal and often comes layered in emotions. Regardless of your experience, it's a touchy subject. When you get down to the bones of it, you want to feel empowered, own your sexuality, and be a grown-ass woman who isn't ashamed of any of her decisions...but you also want the person you're with to respect and understand you. You know that the right person won't judge you or be cruel, but it doesn't make the fact that they might any less scary.

The thing is, you'll probably need to have this conversation eventually—and it doesn't have to turn out badly. Here's how to talk to your partner about your sexual past in a way that is positive and beneficial for both of you (and your relationship). Hopefully, you'll come out the other end closer as a result.

Why Is It So Hard to Talk About Sex?

Let's talk a little bit about why it's so scary to talk about sex in the first place; because knowing the "why" can help with the "how." (Just like with fitness goals!)

"Sexual history is hard to talk about because most people were taught by their families, culture, and religion not to talk about it," says Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist.

If you can choose to reject those lessons of shame and impropriety, you'll start to feel empowered and be able to step into yourself as a sexually liberated person. Of course, doing that isn't a cakewalk; it takes a ton of internal growth and self-love. If you don't feel like you're there, the first thing to do is find a good therapist or a certified sex coach who can help guide you on this journey. Know that it'll take commitment and work; with so much societal shame around sex, you'll probably need a little outside assistance to help you get to where you want to go.

"When you start to understand that your sexual health is as important as your physical and mental health, you'll hopefully feel empowered to speak up about what you want and need," says Richmond. (See: How to Talk to Your Partner About Wanting More Sex)

From there, you'll likely need to learn an entirely new set of communication skills in order to discuss sex because most people have never been accurately taught how to have these highly intimate conversations. "It's very common to feel nervous about a subject that you aren't used to expressing—especially verbally and to someone you're starting to develop feelings for," says Kristine D'Angelo, a certified sex coach and clinical sexologist.

That's why, even if you've embraced yourself as the sexual, fabulous goddess you are, talking about sex can still be scary. Being nervous about sex and being sexually empowered are not independent of one another; they can coexist inside the extremely complex human psyche, and that's perfectly OK.

How to Have Conversations of Such a Sensitive Nature

Before you delve into talking about your sexual past, ask yourself what you're trying to get out of this conversation: Is this something you need to disclose in order to attain emotional intimacy or in order to be yourself in this new relationship? "If you know why you're starting the conversation, it's easier to pick the right time to bring it up," says D'Angelo.

Option 1: The whole conversation doesn't need to happen right away, explains Moushumi Ghose, M.F.T., licensed sex therapist. "Drop a seed and see how the response goes," she says. "Continue dropping seeds on a consistent basis to make sure you are keeping the conversation going—this allows room for [them] to ask questions." Once someone begins asking questions, you can ease them into your sexual past without unleashing a tidal wave of information out of nowhere. For example, you could mention that a few years ago you and an ex-partner had a threesome; if they ask questions about the encounter, you might share more details and how you felt about that experience.

Option 2: Another way to approach the topic is by having a dedicated, sit-down conversation. Depending on what you want to share and your comfort level, you can decide if that feels right to you. If so, you'll want to be in a safe space where the two of you can be vulnerable with each other (ex: at home, rather than in a crowded area where other people can listen in) and you may also want to give your partner a heads up so they can mentally prepare as well. "Let your partner know that you'd like to set some time aside to talk about your sexual histories," suggests D'Angelo. "Share why you feel this would be an important conversation to have and let them prepare by giving them some things to think about before your scheduled time to talk."

Relationship styles are different and the way you choose to have these conversations is subjective to your specific relationship. Regardless, get clear on what you'd feel OK revealing and go into the conversation with your head held high. (Related: This One Conversation Radically Changed My Sex Life for the Better)

"Also, make sure you're also bringing your curiosity to your partner's sexual history as well," says D'Angelo. "Yes, you want them to understand you better but being curious about their sexual history will give them space to open up to you, too. That's when deep intimacy starts to develop."

At What Point In the Relationship Should You Bring It Up?

There's widespread concern for not wanting to reveal "too much, too soon" in a relationship, and sexual history is just one of the things that fall under that umbrella.

However, before you ever have sex, it's crucial that you discuss your sexual boundaries, STI testing, and safer-sex practices. Getting comfortable with this conversation first will set you up for having deeper, more in-depth conversations about your sexual past later. Plus, anyone who won't disclose their STI information, use condoms, or gets cagey about your boundaries isn't someone you want to have sex with—those should be non-negotiable and establish a level of mutual respect.

Talk about your sexual past when the conversation comes up naturally in the progression of the relationship—because it almost always comes up. At that point, you can "drop a seed" and ease into the topic, or you can decide to sit down and talk at a later time.

At the end of the day, being OK with your sexual history yourself is the most important thing of all, says Richmond. "Sure, there may be several experiences that you would love a do-over for, but making those mistakes is part of the human experience, and at the end of the day, quite irreplaceable in developing your sense of self."

If you feel deeply shameful about anything in your past, consider talking to a therapist who can help you work through it; you may benefit from staying out of a sexual relationship until you've done some internal healing.

How to Talk It In a Way That Strengthens Your Bond

Of course, there's the fear that sharing your sexual history might make you or your partner feel bad about a comparatively wild or not-so-wild past. This is a valid concern, and dismissing it doesn't make it go away.

It's common to feel inadequate, no matter what your experience level is—that's the whole thing, everyone feels inadequate to their partner's past lovers, even if only a tiny bit. "Why? Because every partner is different and has different tastes," says Ghose. It's easy to fall into the comparison trap and pit yourself up against "The Ex They Had a Threesome With" or "The Ex They Dated for 10 Years," because humans are prone to self-sabotage. An ex can become this larger-than-life "sex god," and it's easy to fear you won't live up to this (fictional) person. (Related: Is Being Friends with Your Ex Ever a Good Idea?)

The important thing is to remember that feelings of inadequacy go both ways. Open, honest communication can help. "Let your partner know you've healed or what you've learned about yourself over the years, and that they shouldn't feel overwhelmed or inadequate," says Richmond. "If you're solid in your sexual self, but [are] always up to learn and experience more, then hopefully they'll be up for that journey with you instead of getting in their head about what they think they can or can't offer."

Don't make the conversation a "big reveal," but rather about both of you and your different histories. D'Angelo suggests asking:

  • What have your past sexual experiences taught you about your sexuality?
  • Why is sex important to you?
  • What sexual challenges have you faced in your past?
  • How have your past sexual experiences shaped who you are today?

"By sharing these questions with them you'll be giving them an opportunity to know what exactly you're hoping to explore during this conversation," she says. (You can also explore these questions by starting a sex journal to help reflect on your thoughts and feelings.)

If It Starts to Go South...

If you're worried about your partner's reaction or your own emotions, know that's it's helpful to preface that the conversation with an emphasis on empathy and being ~in it together~. When you come at it from a place of sharing, it can make the whole situation a bit more palatable and encourage you to grow closer verses come at the situation from opposing sides.

If something does go poorly or one person becomes judgmental or hurtful, the best thing to do is to say, “This is hurting me. What you’re saying is causing me distress. Can we put a pin in this?” Take a day to process, reflect, and consider what they said to you. Remember that these topics aren't easy to talk about and these conversations can be emotionally overwhelming; there's no need for either of you to feel guilty if you can't just breeze past sensitive information. If you need to pause and pick it back up again, remember (and remind your partner) to be gentle with each other.

Note: You Don't Have to Share Everything

This may sound a bit odd, but it's not your responsibility to reveal everything about your past. Your STI status is one thing, as it pertains to your partner's sexual safety, but that time you had an orgy isn't necessarily something you need to reveal.

"There's a difference between privacy and secrecy. Everyone is entitled to privacy, and if there are aspects of your sexual past that you want to keep private, that's fine," says Richmond. (Related: 5 Things You May Not Want to Tell Your Partner)

This isn't about keeping secrets or holding onto shame. It's about choosing to share the information you want to share. It's your life and if you don't want your partner to know about the sex club you went to in your early twenties, that's your business. Maybe you'll decide to share more details later down the road. Maybe you won't. Either way is fine.

Gigi Engle is a certified sexologist, educator, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.

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