Illustration by Cynthia

One Friday night years ago, I was sitting in a stall in the ladies’ room at the ad agency I worked at, and I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between two girls who were glamming themselves up in front of the mirror before heading out. One asked how the other’s relationship was going. She responded, “Well, you know, early on it was all really exciting, and I was really keen, and he had the upper hand. Now we’ve kind of settled into it, and it’s all good, and I’ve got the upper hand.” There was a pause, and then she said wistfully, “I wish we could both have the upper hand at the same time.”

The French have a saying: “In every relationship, there is one who kisses, and one who turns the cheek.” If you look at the relationships around you, at every age and at every stage, you might think that’s true. But power dynamics in relationships are funny things. You might think you know which partner kisses and which one turns the cheek—and you could be completely wrong. They might both be kissing.

And you might not even be sure of this in your own relationship. Sometimes you might feel like you’re the dependent one, and therefore most vulnerable, because you see your partner as secure and in control, and maybe as the one who could more easily walk away. Other times, that secure person might be you, and your partner could be feeling more needy. Guess what? It doesn’t always matter. In fact, one of the fun things about relationships is that power is often a matter of balance—it can shift all the time, tilting back and forth between you. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back, relax, and let someone else call the shots. Sometimes it’s preferable to be the one deciding what to do and making it happen. The important thing is that both of you are happy.

And that’s particularly important when it comes to sex. Because sex is amazing and terrifying and wonderful and unnerving and strange and fabulous and powerful, it’s very easy to feel powerless—to follow your partner’s lead, abandon what you really want, and lose sight of your own fulfillment, whether out of laziness or insecurity. But here are four ways to prevent that from happening:

1. Know you’re desired—and enjoy it.

Knowing that you’re sexually desired by someone whom you desire equally is one of the most fantastic feelings in the world. There’s a power that you get from realizing that another person wants you, badly, and also knowing that you can decide what you want to offer them and what you want to withhold. And you can take your time about it.

I happen to date younger men, and so you might think that as the older, more confident half of the equation, I would be the first to initiate something physical. Nope. Never. That’s because I enjoy the whole process of knowing someone else is dying to make their move but not sure how best to, and then observing how they do it. The gradual inching closer on the couch, the often charming/gallant/adorable verbal approach—it’s all enormous fun.

Now, of course, that’s just me. The point is, there is tremendous titillation in being lusted after and being given the opportunity to fulfill someone else’s desire, should you want and choose to do so. Revel in it.

2. Make them feel as good as you do.

I find that feeling the power of my own desirability makes me feel confident enough to celebrate my partner’s, but letting someone else know that you desire them, and how much you desire them, can be scary. It can feel like surrendering too much, because now you’re giving them power over YOU. But when you leave your own insecurities behind and focus on making your partner feel really, really great, it makes for an even better experience for both of you. You know how awesome it is when you find someone the perfect gift, or do something really nice for them, or pay them a compliment they’re thrilled to receive? You feel personally rewarded, happy to see them satisfied. The same goes for sex. Obviously, this can be a more complex exchange, which brings me to…

3. Draw your own lines.

We all have our boundaries, especially when it comes to sex. There are things that we have no curiosity about and absolutely no desire to try, no matter what other people say or suggest or want. These boundaries aren’t necessarily fixed. They can move over time. As you get older, or as you become more at ease with sex and your own sexuality, or as you discover things about yourself and what you enjoy, or when you meet someone you trust and who really turns you on, you might suddenly find your interests change—or not!

The bottom line is, anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or makes you feel bad about yourself or unpleasantly pains you is a line. Draw it. Out loud. Firmly. A partner who doesn’t respect that is a partner you DON’T want to be with. Great sex is about communication. Whether your intimacy is brand new or years old, it can be hard to speak up for different reasons—you want to please your partner, or you don’t want to hurt their feelings by telling them that they haven’t been pleasing you. But in life, generally, you have to speak up to get what you want. Your teacher won’t always give you the grade you thought you deserved, your parents won’t always give you the privileges you think you’ve earned. As my grandmother always said, “Them as doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” And I’m sure she’d be thrilled to see me applying this advice here.

Say what you like, say what you don’t like, say what you want to do, say what you don’t want to do, say what you love about your partner, say how great they make you feel. Say anything, but say it. Discuss. Negotiate. Yes, it can feel awkward and embarrassing the first time you start talking about what you want in bed, but if you’re with the right kind of person, they’ll welcome it, and you’ll find that the more you talk, the easier it gets, and the better the sex gets. I promise.

4. Reciprocity is a beautiful thing.

Great sex is inherently both selfish and selfless. Looking out for yourself is rewarding for your partner, because you’re making sure YOU have the good time that THEY have the pleasure of knowing they’ve given you. Back in the 18th century, the poet William Blake wrote:

“What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.”

Blake was obviously being heteronormative, but you can substitute the genders and the same point stands: great sex is about reciprocity, with both of you making sure that you’re having a good time. In the bigger picture, nothing about sex should ever feel one-sided or uneven. Just as in the relationship as a whole, you might surrender control on occasion, but then be sure to take it back. And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with keeping score! Make sure there’s an equal number of orgasms being racked up on both sides. I play out your fantasy, you play out mine. Because that girl in the restroom was right. There’s nothing better than having the upper hand at the same time. ♦