The timeless advice for couples about the importance of communicating when it comes to sex might be as old as the act itself.
"It's in pretty much every article; it says to talk about sex, but it ends there," says Vanessa Marin, 39, a licensed marriage and family therapist specialising in sex therapy and coauthor of Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life, which comes out Tuesday.
Marin and her husband, Xander, 37, set out to write the definitive "how to" book on talking about sex with a consenting partner - with the goal of "creating the sex life of your wildest dreams" - and decided to get vulnerable themselves.
On their Instagram account, which has more than 314,000 followers, the California-based couple share a lot, including dreams of cheating and tips for breaking a dry spell. (Hint: Don't say a word about how long it's been since you last had sex.)
"I had a feeling being able to take the lead and be vulnerable first would help our audience," said Vanessa, who was initially hesitant about laying bare her relationship's intimate details on social media. "And I realised our sex life kept improving and improving."
Their followers started telling the Marins that what they shared was making communication easier with their own partners, bringing them closer in bed and beyond.
Sex Talks similarly gets away from vague and generic advice about communication and sex to dive headfirst into how to discuss the topic, tackling these five conversations to have with your partner: acknowledgment, connection, desire, pleasure and exploration.
"The topic of communication and sex is a huge one, so it was important for us to boil it down to something that feels manageable in these five conversations," Vanessa said.
The Marins offer their tips and strategies below.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Terry Ward: Couples often wonder if they're having enough sex and how much is enough? Is there a magic number?
Vanessa Marin: We do talk about frequency in the book - it's one of the most common questions we get. Sex feels really complicated for most of us, and it's very tempting to want to boil it down to something quantifiable. People will say, "Just tell me a number. If I'm doing it twice a week, then is everything OK?"
There's no magic number that's going to work for every couple. I've worked with couples who've had sex a few times a year and felt satisfied and connected, and others who had it multiple times a day and felt disconnected and unsatisfied.
Xander Marin: Focusing on a number makes you not focus on the more grey aspect of things, and that's the quality of the sex you're having. Because then you would have to talk about that, and it can be scary. When you focus on the quality of the sex you're having instead of the frequency, you're more likely to fall into a frequency that feels good to both people.
Ward: Can scheduling sex be a good option, or is it a mood killer?
Vanessa: A lot of us have this idea that sex is supposed to be spontaneous and happen out of nowhere. If you really go back and look at the early stages of a relationship, there's a lot of planning involved. You're scheduling dates, you're scheduling specific times to see each other, you're spending a lot of time and energy getting yourself excited and ready for that date.
It's not that it was this magical, spontaneous, effortless time. It's that we were excited about the effort we were putting into it then. I think scheduling sex is all about finding ways to bring back that excitement.
Of course, if you schedule sex the same way you schedule a dentist appointment, nobody is going to get excited about it. If you just clock it onto your calendar, and there's this sense of dread, "Oh, God. It's Wednesday at 7... I have to do this," then of course it won't feel fun and exciting.
Sometimes it's as easy as a word swap - maybe calling it date night, the way it was at the beginning of a relationship. That can feel a lot more interesting and exciting. A lot of people in long-term relationships say their relationship feels dull, it doesn't feel exciting.
We're always encouraging couples to bring back that anticipation and put effort into having fun times together. If you put that kind of energy into scheduling sex, it can be so much more enjoyable.
Ward: What are the two different types of sex drives you describe? If a couple is unmatched in that regard, is there a solution?
Vanessa: Pretty much in every relationship, couples have different sex drives. Most of us feel like our sex drive is supposed to be spontaneous and pop up out of nowhere. There are a lot of people who are labelling themselves - or being labelled by their partners - as having low or no desire, when the reality is just they're a responsive sex drive type instead of a spontaneous one. These are the two different types of sex drives, and you need to approach things in a different way for each.
It boils down to where you feel desire first. Spontaneous types get turned on mentally, whereas responsive types need to feel desire in their bodies, first before their head catches up. A classic responsive sex drive-type reaction is when you get to the end of sex you think, "Wow, that was really fun, why don't I want that more?" We talk about these two types of sex drives a lot.
Xander: If you know what each partner's type is, then you know the best way to initiate sex. If you are a spontaneous sex drive type and you know your partner is responsive, and you've talked about that, then you would know it's probably best not to initiate sex with a verbal, "Hey, wanna do it?" Because you know that your partner needs something to respond to. So, it might be better to start with something physical, like a makeout session or a massage, rather than trying to initiate everything all at once.
The hard thing is when you have a relationship with different sex drive types, but you've never talked about it. The general societal assumption is that sex should be spontaneous. If you're assuming it's supposed to be spontaneous but in fact one or both of you are not the spontaneous sex drive type, that's where the problems start to come up.
Ward: How do you feel men have been misunderstood when it comes to sex drive and desire?
Xander: I think there's this idea that gets perpetuated that men always want sex wherever and whenever. I think it's a harmful idea when a partner of a man has that thought. For men, we grow up believing this must be true; we joke about men always wanting it. When we feel ourselves not wanting it, we end up thinking something must be wrong with us; then it can lead to performance anxiety or a lack of confidence and everything spirals.
Vanessa: There's this idea that male sexuality is so straightforward and simple, and females are complicated, and it hurts both genders.
Ward: You're a cishet couple. How have you made the book inclusive?
Vanessa: Of course, our sexual orientation filters how we see the world. But inclusivity was important to us in writing the book. We fill the book with couples of all different orientations to help everyone feel welcome and included. If you have sex or sex is important to you, there's something to be gained by this book. Maybe you talked about it earlier with your partner, and it went horribly wrong. We will convince you in the end that talking about sex is the best thing you can do for your sex life. Everyone is deserving of hot sex and great love.