Every mind and body has a different relationship to sex and intimacy. As a result, how people approach issues related to sex and intimacy varies depending on those relationships. Whether you’re healing from past trauma, in the process of unlearning unhealthy ideas about sex and intimacy or figuring out your true desires and wants, it’s important to be honest with yourself and any potential partners about your truth when it comes to giving and receiving pleasure. Luckily, for those of us who struggle with issues related to sex and intimacy, Harvard grad and founder of Tango Candice Smith came up with a way to make conversations about sex and intimacy a bit easier.
Pleasure-Positive Sex and Intimacy
“Sex and pleasure might seem to go hand-in-hand, but pleasure-positivity is an intentional approach and mindset to sex and intimacy that has to be learned. Most of us learn pleasure-negativity before we learn pleasure-positivity. Sex ed, if we get it at all, is based in fear and shame, with no mention of or celebration of sexual pleasure. Look at media censorship to get a sense of how our society views sex: violence shows up nearly everywhere (except G-rated films), while sex of any kind, even celebrations of love, are automatically Restricted (especially any scenes with female sexual pleasure). In contrast, pleasure-positivity celebrates the physical and intellectual sensations of pleasure without shame,” Smith tells Blood and Milk.
By acknowledging societal factors that impact our ideas about sex and pleasure, we can begin to develop healthier relationships towards both. Especially since so many of our ideas about sex and pleasure are steeped in fear- and shame-based rhetoric.
“Pleasure-positive sexual encounters don’t focus on a goal like penetration or orgasm. Penetration can happen, and orgasm can happen, but the focus shifts to the physical experience and sensations of pleasure and both partners share the responsibility to speak up and advocate for their own pleasure,” Smith continues, highlighting the importance of thinking about pleasure in less limiting terms.
But why the emphasis on pleasure? Smith explains that “advocating for your own pleasure is not a selfish act—it enhances the pleasure of both parties as you work together to achieve mutual satisfaction. It allows you to be fully present in the moment and enjoy each physical sensation. It allows you to experience moments of transcendent, deep, intimate connection—some of the most beautiful life experiences we can have as human beings.” Further, when we engage in sexual and intimate experiences with other people, understanding our own relationship to pleasure helps us communicate those needs. It also helps us understand the needs of our partners.
The Importance of Communication
Smith explains that “communication is fundamental to a great sex life. Research from the Gottman Marriage Institute found that communication about sex is even more important than actually having sex when it comes to impact on overall sexual satisfaction.” In the age of so-called Hookup Culture and ghosting, it’s important to remember the importance of being honest and open when communicating with people we are intimate with. Not just for their sake, but for your sake as well. Honesty with yourself leads to honesty with others, so learning how to best communicate with others is key.
“Sexual connection requires effort, nurturing, and open communication like anything else in life. Communication allows you to learn, grow, and adapt together. Beyond damaging myths and beliefs about who and how we should be as sexual beings, ego, fear, shame, and trauma are other reasons that we don’t communicate about sex,” Smith continues after explaining how myths about sex and pleasure negatively impact relationships.
“Great lovers are made, not born. And “great lover” doesn’t mean universally, either—it’s all relative. Everyone’s needs are different. The fact is, we all have the responsibility to teach our partners how to be great lovers to us. Our job is to show our partners what pleases us—because nobody is a mind reader. If we stay silent, if we let our partners lead entirely, if we fake pleasure—we are teaching them something wrong,” Smith says.
A Tango Kit, image courtesy of Tango
The Development of “Sexperiential Learning”
As a classroom educator during her time with Teach for America, Smith used a tactic called “experiential learning” to help her students learn through engaging with hands-on projects. She also witnessed the power of gameplay to get students, even the shyest and reserved, to open up and engage with other students. Years later, those experiences would serve as the inspiration for Tango. “Is it possible to create fun and engaging games to help boost intimate communication and get partners to advocate for their own pleasure?” she wondered. The answer was yes.
“I began compiling the research behind healthy intimate communication, sexual arousal, and relationship psychology, and I used my background in curriculum planning and sex education and interest in Game Design to distill the research into themed, guided sexual experiences in a box. That’s how Tango was born!” Smith explains, before going on to add that “sexperiential learning is a hands-on method of intentional intimate communication that guides you through the arc of a sexual experience: from foreplay, to play, to after-play (or aftercare). Hands-on learning doesn’t even feel like you’re learning, not in a traditional sense anyway because you’re playing and having fun. You are also learning and practicing healthy intimate habits—speaking openly about what feels good, consciously affirming each other, making space to experiment and try new things, giving each other permission to be silly and sexy, getting out of your head and into the moment, and checking in with each other afterward to make sure everyone feels happy, safe, and well-loved. Then, you are prompted to reflect on the experience together and plan for future playtime!”
How Life Inspires Work
Smith explains that nearly all of her relationships influenced her work. “I had no sex education growing up beyond the usual pleasure-negative, shame-based messages. So, when I started dating, I didn’t know how to talk about sex or pleasure. Sex was something that “happened” to me; I let my partners dictate, and didn’t feel in control of the experience. I thought that was how it was supposed to be,” she continues.
After she became obsessed with finding the answer to her own sex issues, she started Tango. Her passion project.
The Tango kits come in a variety of themes that cater to participant’s unique needs and desires but share the same goal: help partners develop deeper and more intimate connections through gameplay and honest communication. Each kit includes different objects and cards that teach players the art of intimacy and communication in ways that allow participants to explore each other in ways that are safe and healthy for everyone involved.
“As a trauma survivor myself,” Smith explains, “I intentionally designed Tango Kits as pleasure-positive, approachable experiences. I wanted to make space intentionally for couples to communicate about needs, limits, consent, and boundaries while having fun!” Since consent can still be an issue for survivors in healthy relationships, Smith explains that some people can silence their own discomfort in favor of their partner’s pleasure. To address this, each of the Kit’s themes “encourages open communication at every stage of intimate play—whether through temperature checks, cleaning up after, with safe words or stoplight codes, or switching power roles during a game. We wanted to demonstrate to our users that there are more ways than a simple yes or no to show and test consent!”
A Win-Win For Everyone
Smith’s Tango Kits are a fun way to get to know your partner(s) and communicate your needs and desires. As a fellow survivor, I found that the themed nature of the kits allows for participants to approach sex and intimacy at their own pace and the fact that you’re essentially playing a game takes away mountains of pressure. Smith thought outside of the box to offer people a new way to explore sex and intimacy in a safe and healthy way with the help of tools that fit in a box. It takes two to tango—consider taking that first step!