We know sex can be a touchy subject, but it’s important to feel like you can talk about it openly — especially when it comes to your health, comfort, and safety. From talking to your partner before, during, and after, to more effectively communicating with your doctor, we’ve compiled some practical tools and tips to facilitate your conversation.

Consent with a partner

Consent is when someone freely and explicitly agrees to engage in a sexual activity. The best way to ensure that you and your partner are consenting to sex is to ask for consent. You can both use questions like, “Do you want to have sex?” or, “Are you comfortable with this?” to get started.

Consenting to one sexual activity does not imply consent of another, so make sure to check in with your partner and keep the communication open along the way. You are also free to change your mind at any time. If you feel that things are moving too fast or are uncomfortable, or you simply no longer want to engage in sexual activity, let your partner know via verbal communication immediately. It’s never okay for anyone to pressure or force you into something you don’t want to do.

Communication with a partner

One of the most important aspects of a healthy sex life is being able to communicate with your partner or partners. Open communication can help you describe what you do and don’t like, and it’s a crucial aspect of explicitly giving consent and setting boundaries around what you are and aren’t comfortable with. Neither you nor your partner are mind readers, so the only way to make sure that you’re both on the same page is to talk about it before the clothes come off.

It can be scary to talk about sex with someone new for the first time, and the fear of “ruining the mood” is totally understandable! Doing so requires you to be vulnerable, talk about your own body and theirs, and reveal parts of yourself that don’t always make their way into everyday conversation. Pursuing open conversations becomes easier the more you do it, and talking about sex with a new partner upfront is the best way to eliminate any ambiguity or confusion. The important thing to keep in mind is that your partner is likely feeling the exact same way you are and will be glad you initiated the conversation.

Of course, some tactics are more successful than others. When preparing to talk to your partner about what you like in the bedroom, try to put yourself in their shoes for how you might like to receive feedback on this topic, and frame it in a way that doesn’t insinuate they’re clueless or already doing something wrong. Use positive phrases like, “I really like it when you…” or, “I get super turned on when you…”.

Equally important is being able to discuss what you’re not comfortable with. Be as direct and descriptive as possible to minimize the chance of being misunderstood. Whenever possible, try to have these conversations before you have sex. You can initiate this dialogue in a similar way: talk about what you like and what turns you on, and then clearly state what you’re not into. For example: “I really love when you go down on me/we engage in oral sex, but I’m not ready to go all the way/for penetrative sex.” Of course, if you’re ever having sex and something happens that you’re not okay with, or is even just moving in an uncomfortable direction, speak up immediately.

Sometimes you’re just not going to be in the mood, and that’s important to articulate too. Sex is an intimate act, and it requires two people to be open and available to each other. If you’re not both in the same headspace, tell your partner that you’re not feeling it before things get to a physical level. You can say something like, “Tonight, I just want to watch a movie and cuddle” or, “I’m not in the mood to have sex today, but let’s finally try [insert activity] that we’ve been meaning to do.” Be clear and firm in your statements so that your partner knows exactly where you stand.

Communication is a two-way street that involves speaking and listening respectfully. A good partner who cares about you and your emotional well-being will do their best to respond to you with kindness, consideration, and respect. It’s never okay for your partner to pressure you into anything you don’t want to do. It’s your right, and only yours, to give or deny consent, regardless of what your partner wants.

Talking to your doctor

First, let’s start with choosing the right doctor for your needs. There are a variety of different providers you can see for issues pertaining to your sexual and reproductive health. A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in general women’s health, an obstetrician is a doctor who specializes in all matters related to having a child, including pre-conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care, and a reproductive endocrinologist is someone whose focus is fertility for both men and women. An OBGYN is someone who specializes in all aspects of women’s health — essentially an obstetrician and a gynecologist in one — including puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Any of these healthcare providers can administer pap smears, consult on birth control, and treat STIs.

Even though your general practitioner doesn’t primarily focus on women’s reproductive health, they can still be a resource and refer you to a gynecologist, obstetrician, OBGYN, or reproductive endocrinologist as needed.

You can also see a nurse practitioner or other licensed healthcare professional at a reproductive healthcare clinic, whose focus is women’s health or reproductive health. Most clinics offer the same services you’d find at your OBGYN’s office, excluding childbirth. Some also have staff counselors who can talk to you about sexual assault, abortion, and LGBTQIAA-specific topics.

In addition to the treatment of physical symptoms, there are specific mental health providers that specialize in the psychology of sex, sexual disorders, and mental illness related to sex, libido, and sexuality.

While making an appointment or swinging by a free, low-cost, or sliding-scale clinic is a great step toward taking charge of your sexual health, knowing what you want to discuss, what tests you would like run, and what is/isn’t covered by your insurance are critical to ensuring you’re making the most of your visit.

Make sure to come prepared with a list of questions you want your healthcare provider to address and a list of any medications or dietary supplements you’re currently taking. Be ready to articulate any unusual symptoms you may be experiencing. Call the office before your appointment to see what types of STI tests your provider is able to administer, and then follow up with your insurance company to make sure they’re covered, as well as how often specific tests are covered.

Remember, healthcare practitioners are there to help, not to judge. Be honest with your doctor and answer all of their questions about your sexual activity truthfully, and if you don’t fully understand something they tell you, ask for clarification.

And whether it’s your first time having sex or your hundredth, LOLA’s Sexual Wellness Kit has products and resources to help you lead a healthy, satisfying sex life: an assortment of gynecologist-approved condoms, lubricant, and cleansing wipes along with LOLA’s honest, real-life guide to sexual wellness.

Ready to talk about sex? Here’s some more reading to keep the conversation going:

Talking to your son about consent

The way you talk about sex could improve your orgasm

How to have a conversation about sex with your parents

Liz Mead is a writer and content strategist living in Brooklyn. She's passionate about technology and sustainability. For more of her work visit www.mizlead.com.