By Lisabet Sarai

We were together in my living room, kissing – pretty hot  and heavy. After a while, I thought it was okay to move to the next stage, so I began caressing her breasts. “No – don’t…” she moaned into my mouth. So of course, I removed my hands. I was disappointed, but I figured I’d read her wrong.

She broke the kiss, sat back on the couch and gave me a look I really couldn’t interpret. “Why’d you stop?”

Now I was confused. “Well – you told me to. My mom brought me up with the rule that ‘no means no’.”

“I had to say no,” she replied. “I didn’t want you to think I was a slut. But I really wanted you to keep going.”


A male friend of mine recently told me the story above. We both shook our heads at the how easily authentic sexual communication can be derailed by societal norms, mismatched expectations, and personal secrets that aren’t shared. Of course, when you’re with a lover, much of the communication is non-verbal, but when the signals are mixed, how do you know what to believe?

This conversation started me thinking about safewords. A safeword may be the only unambiguous and absolute form of sexual communication in existence. That’s its sole purpose – to convey the message “Stop” (and that’s why the actual word chosen doesn’t matter). Once a safeword has been established, the dominant is free to ignore protests and refusals by the sub – to assume that in fact the sub doesn’t “really” mean no, regardless of what she’s saying at any particular moment. 

In both the real world and in erotic fiction, though, submissives are reluctant to invoke that escape clause. Part of the resistance is a sense that by using the safeword, the bottom will somehow disappoint the top. In fact, a responsible top needs to trust the sub will safeword if necessary – that’s part of the contract involved in the power exchange. A sub may recognize this intellectually, but feelings are a different matter. Using the safeword makes a bottom feel ashamed and inadequate, as if she doesn’t have enough stamina or endurance to take whatever the top can dish out. Subs crave perfection – safewording makes it all too obvious that their devotion is flawed.

(Note: this may of course not be true of all submissives. I’m speaking at least partly from personal experience here. Also, although I use the female pronoun for submissives, that’s purely for linguistic convenience.)

I wonder, though, whether there’s another dynamic involved. Specifically, I wonder if ambiguity or uncertainty, the awareness that there are things left unspoken by both you and your partner(s), actually contributes to eroticism. Certainly, knowing exactly what your lover is thinking and what he or she is about to do strips a scene of some of its tension. When a lover asks me, “What do you want?” I’m reluctant to reply, not due to embarrassment (mostly) but because I want to be surprised. I don’t want to script my own sexual encounters. I’d rather be spontaneous, and have my lover do the same.

Then there’s the question of taboos and transgression. You want to violate the rules, to push the limits, to go further than you’ve gone before. At the same time, you’re scared and uncomfortable. You’re really not sure what you want, in fact. How can one simultaneously crave and fear being flogged? And yet some of us do, and that hovering on the cusp between desire and denial adds intensity to the experience.

I’ve been couching this theoretical proposition mostly in terms of BDSM, but it could well apply to non-kinky relationships as well. The sense of mystery enhances the thrill, especially when you’re with someone you don’t know very well – in a situation where sexual communication is likely to be the most fraught with uncertainty. If you knew everything running through your partner’s mind, your lust might well turn to disinterest or even disgust. Better to leave some things to the imagination – even if you risk misunderstandings.

In writing erotic scenes, I’ve learned to let each participant keep some secrets. I believe this adds depth and authenticity. At the height of passion, we rarely speak of our past  lovers – but they’re often present in our minds. Worried about rejection, we don’t share our deepest fears or our most fervent desires, even with long-established partners. And although I’ve always believed that open sexual communication is prima facie a Good Thing, perhaps that conclusion should be tempered by circumstance.

On the other hand, two erotic scenarios that most strongly push my personal buttons involve complete openness. The first is the notion of telepathic connection during sex. This is a familiar trope in romantic erotica, particularly in the paranormal vein, but that doesn’t necessarily rob it of its effectiveness.  There have been a few times in my life where I truly believed I was reading my lover’s mind, and vice versa. Despite the qualms I voiced a few paragraphs earlier, those were powerful, even life changing, erotic experiences. I’ve used the device in some of my own stories and it never fails to excite and move me.

The second scenario involves a D/s relationship in which the submissive is “forced” to confess her kinky desires. The master or mistress requires full disclosure – no matter how filthy the content of her fantasies. To refuse to speak would constitute disobedience. And so, despite shame and embarrassment, the sub admits her kinks. She is rewarded by the dominant’s acceptance and approval, in contrast to the condemnation that would be the consequence in the vanilla world.

I find this type of interaction incredibly arousing – both in fiction and reality. The Dom and sub are partners in exploring the depths of depravity. By revealing her secret needs, no matter how warped, the sub demonstrates her level of trust. Like using a safeword, this kind of revelation takes courage. A serious and skilled top will reward the bottom for being open – perhaps by bringing some of those fantasies to life.

Still,  there may be thoughts the sub doesn’t dare voice, even to the most accepting and amenable of Doms. Those (possibly very extreme) fantasies remain unspoken – but will the dominant somehow manage to intuit and act on them? (Perhaps using the mind-reading capabilities for which masters are known?) Don’t we all hold some things back, even from those with whom we are most intimate?

Sorry to ramble. I’m curious to know what those of you who haven’t given up on this post yet think. Is total openness desirable in the erotic realm? Or do the secrets
we keep add to the complexity and
richness of sexual experience?