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How to Overcome the Language Barrier in Bed

Posted By Suzannah Weiss  

“Communicate, communicate, communicate.” We’ve all heard sex experts stress the importance of speaking up in bed with a new partner, and for great reasons: Conversations are often necessary to determine whether everyone is enthusiastically consenting, which safer sex precautions need to be taken, and what each person’s likes and dislikes are, to name a few.

Except, how exactly are you supposed to get in sync sexually when you and the hot human you’re sleeping with don’t speak the same language? Last year, a cute guy on Bumble offered to join me in my neighborhood for a walk—and possibly more. He was a student who’d come to the U.S. from Belarus. His English wasn’t great, and neither was my Russian. But we managed to carry on a conversation—until we got back to my apartment. When I asked him to cuddle, he replied, “What does that mean?” and I realized I didn’t feel comfortable hooking up with someone if we couldn’t communicate. Not much ended up happening that night, but maybe it could have if I’d known how to navigate language barriers in the bedroom.

Discussing intimate details with someone new (or someone you’re close with, for that matter) can be awkward and uncomfortable without a language barrier, so having one can make expressing your wants and needs all the more challenging—and lead to the bad kind of sexual tension.

But what I wish I’d known before my failed snuggle attempt is that there are plenty of ways to effectively communicate your sexual desires and boundaries with someone who speaks a different language. Whether you’re traveling or getting busy in your home city, these expert tips can help you figure out how to overcome a language barrier in (or out of) bed, so no one’s enjoyment is lost in translation.

1. Enlist technical support.

One simple solution is to have your phone with you and either use a built-in app like Apple Translate or Google Translate, or download a third-party translation app like Say Hi (you speak into it and, yep, it translates your words into a specified language). You can also ask a home assistant device like Google Home or Amazon Echo to do the translation for you, Marla Renee Stewart, MA, sex expert for sex-toy shop Lovers and women’s studies instructor at Clayton State University, tells SELF. (“Alexa, translate French: Take off your shirt!”)

If you or your partner is deaf or hard of hearing, you can use the notes app on your phone or even a pen and paper to communicate, Bee Gehman, MEd, Deaf AASECT-certified sexuality educator and founder of Deaf sexual wellness center Jooux, tells SELF. “And if you can try sexting before having a sexual connection in person, you can learn more about what that person’s like, what they like, and what they don’t like beforehand, which can make the in-person experience more pleasurable,” she says.

2. Find creative ways to get and give enthusiastic consent.

Enthusiastic consent is the idea of everyone involved actively giving a clear yes to sex instead of relying on a lack of a no as a green light—and it can be harder to navigate when there’s a language barrier.

Depending on the specifics of your situation, you may have enough of a shared vocabulary—even if it’s mainly yes and no—to have the kind of mind-blowing, universally-consented-to experience you’ll look back on fondly for years to come. But if you don’t have enough language in common to make sure the sex you’re having is pleasurable and safe for everyone involved, you might need to get creative.

“If two people who don’t speak the same language want to get intimate, it’s important to rely heavily on non-verbal communication,” Justin Lehmiller, PhD, social psychologist at The Kinsey Institute and Astroglide’s resident sex researcher, tells SELF. “For example, when you can’t say ‘let’s use a condom,’ you might instead pull one out or place it in your partner’s hand.”

The thing to keep in mind here is that non-verbal communication such as body language can be different in different cultures. You might assume that head nodding and shaking are universal gestures for yes and no, Stewart says, but this doesn’t apply everywhere—in Bulgaria, for example, a nod means no.

That’s why, if it’s realistic based on your specific scenario, Stewart says it can be useful to establish your own personal “yes” and “no” signals or words (perhaps with the aid of the aforementioned translation technology) before you go to bed together. Gehman’s advice: Think about what words or signs you can both use to convey important concepts like “more,” “stop,” “okay,” or “does that feel good?” You might use gestures like pressing or stroking the other person’s arm, for example. Or you might not: This ideal-world advice may not make sense for you in the moment, but the point is to figure out what does work for communicating your enjoyment (or lack thereof)—whether that be sounds, movements, or even eye contact.

It’s also important to monitor your partner’s non-verbal communications, such as their facial expressions, body motions, and vocalizations, to make sure they’re enjoying themselves too. Dr. Lehmiller suggests paying attention to signals like if your partner is actively pulling you closer or drawing back. If they don’t seem fully into it in any way, you should immediately put everything on hold and check in, Gehman says.

And when it comes to hard boundaries—parts you definitely don’t want touched or activities you absolutely aren’t down for, for example—body language and non-verbal communication can of course be helpful too. That’s especially true if you don’t want to explicitly discuss your boundaries for any reason but still want to get the message across. But if you do want to talk about these boundaries, using a translation app or a written method may be your best move. They’re not necessarily the sexiest ways to express your needs—and again, might not make sense for your specific situation—but they’re probably the clearest, and a safe bet to ensure you feel totally comfortable.

3. Lay any necessary groundwork before sex begins.

It might get even trickier to use your words—or your translation app—once you’re naked together, so Stewart suggests trying to have your first conversation about your desires and expectations before you actually have sex. We know, that’s probably not gonna happen if you’re about to have a one-night (or two-night) stand with a sexy stranger while you’re traveling. Or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable having an intimate chat with someone you barely know over breakfast pastries. But if your relationship is slowly moving and/or you feel confident expressing your wants and needs outside the bedroom, a more casual conversation can be a good way to ensure things go more smoothly once the clothes come off. This isn’t about some outdated notion that it’s not okay to have sex with someone you haven’t known for “long enough” or if you don’t have a connection beyond the physical. It’s about getting on the same baseline page in a way that can make the whole experience better for both of you.

“If you talk about it ahead of time in a relaxed situation, using [translation technology] if necessary, you’re likely to get more information about where you both want the sexual situation to go,” Stewart says. “That way, when you finally get into bed, you’ll have a better understanding of what the other person wants and will be better able to accommodate them.”

If you’re imagining this conversation being stilted and awkward, know that there are ways to make it fun instead. During your chat, you can teach each other phrases that will be important to know once things get heated (as outlined above), which could turn into foreplay. “It can be a fun erotic game to discover, learn, and teach words and phrases that will assist you in a more fulfilling intimate connection,” Beth Wallace, Spain-based sexual wellness counselor, tells SELF. You could, for instance, point to (or even undress) different parts of your body or act out different things you’d like to do as you teach each other the words for them.

Similarly, on your own, Wallace recommends thinking through what you are and aren’t okay with in advance so that when the time comes to communicate it, you won’t have the added task (and pressure) of deciding what you really want. For example, maybe you’re a hard no for intercourse the first time you hook up, but you’re open to oral sex.

4. Rely on visual learning.

If you’re struggling to discuss in detail what you’d like to do sexually, consider using visuals, Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, social psychologist and certified sexuality counselor, tells SELF: “Visual components can often surpass language barriers, so finding something to watch with each other and agreeing to try something similar could be a fun way to communicate what you desire.” You might watch porn together, look at illustrated sex position articles, or share other erotic imagery, for example.

Dr. Nasserzadeh suggests bringing up the idea by saying (or translating) something like, “I was watching this scene that showed some pretty interesting positions that I thought would be fun to try. Want to watch together?” A playful comment like this can serve as an ice-breaker that might help make everyone involved feel a little more comfortable getting naked, she says.

You can also show your partner what you like by touching yourself in front of them, Angel Russell, certified sex educator, tells SELF: “Demonstrate what you like so they can see and then copy what you’re doing.” Or, to let them know what kind of stimulation you want, you can gently guide their hand where you want it to go, Dr. Lehmiller adds.

5. Feel free to take your time if you need or want to.

Things may naturally move quickly when you’re hot for someone new, but at the very least, get clear on each other’s consent and boundaries before things escalate sexually. “It’s much harder, sometimes impossible, to come back from a misunderstanding or a boundary-crossing incident than it is to negotiate it in advance,” Wallace says.

Once everyone’s needs and wants are clear, you may feel totally at ease going full speed ahead. In that case, go for it! But if you’re not yet completely comfortable with a new partner, Wallace recommends trying to pace yourselves once you’re in bed together too: Spend a while cuddling or kissing first, then move to touching genitals—you get the picture. “If we move slowly, then we’re far less likely to misunderstand, misconstrue, or cross someone else’s or our own boundaries,” Wallace says.

Misunderstandings and mishaps are bound to happen with a language barrier in the mix (no matter how many conversations you have or apps you download) and, hopefully, they’ll give you a good laugh. But being conscious about communicating the important stuff can help ensure everyone’s boundaries and preferences are understood and respected—which should make the experience even hotter.