"Ask for what you want" is advice that's easy to give but often strangely difficult to practice. What gets in the way of identifying our desires and sharing them with others? Growing up gay, we probably learned early on to view our deepest desires as shameful, socially unacceptable, or at the very least subject to other people's negative judgments. No wonder we're a little gun-shy when it comes to letting others know what we want, especially in the realm of love and erotic play.


As a gay sex therapist, I spend a lot of my working hours listening to people talk about the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives. I meet a lot of smart, soulful, intelligent men frustrated at their inability to find love and connection. One of the themes that comes up again and again has to do with asking for what you want.

  • Edwin enjoys bottoming in anal sex, yet he needs his partner to go slow, to tune into his body signals, and to use a certain amount of lubrication. All reasonable requests, but he can’t bring himself to mention these things so tends to avoid anal sex altogether or to assume the role of penetrator to please his partner.
  • On Mitchell’s second date with a guy he really liked, they had good sex, and Mitchell would have liked to stay the night. When his partner didn’t extend the invitation, Mitchell dressed, left in a huff, and never saw him again.
  • Bill is deeply committed to recovering from his addiction to crystal meth, and now he is reluctant to socialize at all because he fears that if he meets someone in a bar and goes home with him, there might be drugs around and he won’t be able to resist using.

For a reasonably intelligent adult with functional communication skills, it would seem to be an easy enough task to say things like, “I would love to get fucked – can we take our time and use plenty of lube?” Or “I would love to spend the night with you – how would you feel about that?” Or “I would love to spend more time with you, and it’s important for me not to be around drugs – can we make an agreement about that?” But the actual process of formulating those sentences can be remarkably daunting, nearly impossible. Which tells me that the struggle to ask for what you want is a deeply embedded human phenomenon that deserves attention and respect.

Many gay men live with the nagging feeling that they missed that day in school when everybody else learned to identify their desires, to inhabit them, and to express them to others. Mostly, as gay kids, we were shamed for our erotic desires. We absorbed the message that our hunger for touch and affection, wanting to see and hold other guys’ bodies (or, let’s be honest, their penises) were bad or wrong and we should keep them hidden away. Sometimes we learned that lesson overtly by being punished, harassed, or bullied for showing our desires. But sometimes we picked them up indirectly from the absence of positive expressions of same-sex desire. Either way, we developed a hyperawareness as a defense mechanism. Any hint of desire can feel like a threat to survival: am I going to be okay, or am I going to be rejected, or beat up?

If we’re lucky, we grow up to find pockets of safety and trust and connection, but that fear of disapproval lingers as an archeological layer. And other fears sneak in on top of that. Shame about sexual desire gets easily wired into shame about any form of non-conformity. Many adult gay men live with a huge amount of anxiety about being ridiculed for their desires, being considered a freak or a geek. We live in a culture where we’re inundated with reality-TV shows about being people being ruthlessly evaluated, declared to be the weakest link or the biggest loser, having their outfits or their talents or their behavior scrutinized and dished to filth. I notice men in their twenties and thirties especially susceptible to this fear of stating a preference or standing out from the crowd, lest they be judged harshly.

When it comes to sex and intimacy, I’m seeing on top of shame and fear of judgment a crippling kind of perfectionism, a fear of Doing It Wrong. Some of that I trace to the ubiquity of online porn, which conveys a distorted picture of sex and body types. Porn can be extremely exciting and entertaining. But it tends to depict a limited repertoire of activities performed by a select tribe of super-buff muscly tattooed guys. In porn all the guys are great-looking, they all seem to have huge cocks, they all seem to pop enormous erections at will, they all seem to be able to fuck and get fucked easily, they all seem to be able to ejaculate effortlessly and spectacularly. And if you look at a lot of porn, you get lulled into thinking that’s what sex looks like, or is supposed to look like. Never mind that it’s an edited medium, so that all the limp dicks and fumbling with condoms are left out. Never mind that porn highlights action-oriented scenes of fucking, spitting, pissing, and punching while leaving out some of the most delicious parts of sex (kissing, cuddling, getting to know each other) because it’s not especially photogenic. Never mind that most tops in porn films inject their penises with Caverject to ensure erections (they could be mowing the lawn and still be rock-hard). We still end up thinking that’s what sex and desire are supposed to look like, and if I can’t manage that, or if I don’t enjoy that formulaic sort of coupling, there’s something wrong with me, and I’d better not even try.

Part of maturing and reaching adulthood is learning to trust your own impulses and your own emotions and your own body. It really helps when you find friends and colleagues and community that support coming out as a positive embrace of who you are. Given that you spend anywhere from a few years to several decades hiding your desires for love and erotic connection, no wonder it takes some time to adjust to letting your partners know what you like and asking for what you want. Here are some things that I have learned that counteract early messages of shame and fear. 

  1. The late great gay poet Allen Ginsberg once wrote, “Like thought is natural to the mind, desire is natural to the heart.” If you’re alive, you have desires – it goes with the territory of being human.
  2. Your desires belong to you. No one can take them away.
  3. A desire is a statement, complete in itself, not a demand.
  4. Not all desires are meant to be fulfilled. Whether they’re acted on or not, desires contain their own validity and seeds of self-knowledge.
  5. The Belgian sex therapist Esther Perel says it succinctly: “Desire requires you to be selfish in the best sense – to hold onto yourself in the presence of another.”
  6. “Desire is a horse that wants to take you on a journey to spirit.” I liked that sentence so much when I heard West African teacher Malidoma Some say it that I painted it on the wall of my treatment room and adopted it as a mantra. The sense of it is that whatever it is that stirs at the heart of your desire body connects you not only with pleasure and other people but with the great mystery of life.
  7. A desire can be stated in the form of a fantasy. Again, it can be fun to act out certain fantasies, but it’s also true that some experiences play better in fantasy than in reality. And it can be a lot of fun simply to say fantasies aloud.
  8. The difference between a desire and a request is that the latter is, at heart, a question – it’s a little riskier because it invites a yes or no response. It’s good practice to learn to make requests, to be prepared to hear either yes or no, and to acquire the ability to negotiate – which means, if you can, finding a way to turn a no into a yes.

Don’t take my word for any of this, though. These ideas only have meaning if you can verify them in your own experience. Here’s an experiment you can conduct to make contact with your desire body and practice giving your gift of desire. Take a piece of paper and make a list of desires. Number one – start with something simple: what I want for dinner. (A salad? A cheeseburger? Herons’ eggs whipped with champagne into an amber foam?) Number two – widen the lens considerably: what I want for the world. (An end to hostilities in Syria ? No more fracking? Marriage equality in all 50 states?) Number three – what is my heart’s desire. (A boyfriend? An iPad?) Number four – what erotic pleasure I would like to experience today. (A favorite activity? Something new that I’m curious about?) Number five – some desire that doesn’t fit into these categories. When you’re done making this list, notice what you feel in your body – pay attention to any small sensation and breathe into it. Now pick one of those desires. Stand up and walk around the room saying it aloud 10 or 12 times – softly, loudly, earnestly, in a funny voice, in a foreign accent. Again, tune into your body and notice how it feels internally to speak these desires aloud.

As Alan Downs writes in his book The Velvet Rage, this is how we achieve authenticity, by getting practice at validating our own experience. Rather than waiting for someone else to deliver the stamp of approval for our thoughts, opinions, dreams, and desires, we can give ourselves permission to have them. And here’s the thing: when you muster the courage and wisdom to share your desires with someone else, it changes what’s possible in the room. Once you can accept your desires as self-knowledge, you have a gift to share with others by letting them know something about you.

And it truly is a gift. Think about it. Surely you’ve had the experience of hanging out with one or more friends trying to pick a movie or a restaurant. “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know, where do YOU want to go?” Everyone’s being so nice, so polite, so afraid of saying the wrong thing, so agreeable, so non-committal – it’s maddening. Isn’t it almost always a relief when someone steps up to the plate and says, “Let’s go HERE”? The same goes for being in bed with someone – trying to read someone’s mind to figure out how they’re feeling or what’s sexually pleasurable can be exhausting and nerve-wracking. You’re not doing your partner or yourself any favors by going along with something that doesn’t feel good or concealing a desire that you have. If your partner says, “You know what I would like right now….?” aren’t you immediately energized and curious to hear? Malcolm Boyd said it best: “If there is a key to your mystery…let people have it.

Published online by Edge Magazine, May 19, 2013 (see online version here)