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I was chatting with an old friend of mine last week about sex and somehow – maybe it was the heat, maybe the gin – the conversation turned to dirty talk. The topic of conversation, I mean. She told me that she'd asked her last boyfriend to talk to her in bed. "He did it," she said, chuckling to herself. "But he was so bad at it, I had to ask him to stop."

That, I told her, is one reason I've rarely opened my mouth in the bedroom – at least, not for the purpose of speaking. But having the chance to talk openly about this other form of coitus interruptus did reignite my curiosity.

After running an informal survey of friends and acquaintances, I've gathered some evidence that suggests guys in general may be slacking on the dirt delivery. One woman in her early 40s told me that, for a long time, she'd just assumed guys didn't like to do it since no one she dated had until a few years ago. She says the kinky dialogue that ensued made her feel more sexually confident than ever.

Another woman blamed men's quietude on current fluctuations in gender roles. "Men are becoming more bashful as women are becoming more confident," she wrote. "It's quite sad, really."

David de Jong, a former University of Toronto psychology student who now researches sexuality at the University of Rochester in New York, recently ran a study on sexual preferences and found that about 50 per cent of women rated dirty talk as "either strongly or extremely enjoyable." So if you are currently a mute dude when it comes to mating and are wondering if she'd like your two cents from the gutter, the answer is: She probably does.

Luckily for us guys, former Globe and Mail columnist Claudia Dey has a book coming out in October called How to Be a Bush Pilot: A Field Guide to Getting Luckier, which, includes an entire chapter devoted to dirty talk.

"Pleasure begins in the brain and I think that's where talking dirty is so persuasive," Ms. Dey told me over the phone. "It operates within the realm of fantasy, and fantasy is the match to the fire."

She gave me some bullet-point pointers: "Know your audience; begin descriptively; move into dirty promises; then find an alter ego. Are you the Henry Miller type? Are you the poet? Are you Clint Eastwood, or are you the metalhead? Maybe you are the sportscaster."

For bashful types – and she says she talked to quite a few guys who had this issue – she recommends starting out with someone else's words. "One approach is reading erotic literature," she said. "You can go from Shakespearean sonnets to Leonard Cohen poems to John Updike's Couples to The Tropic of Cancer."

"There's nothing after Tropic of Cancer?" I asked, becoming ambitious.

"I would say The Dirt, the Motley Crue autobiography," Ms. Dey advised. "There's a lot of … well, you can imagine … the life of rock stars – the turbulence and the indulgence."

Part of talking dirty can involve theatrically using the language of degradation. For the generations of men raised by feminists, this can feel problematic, but Stacey May Fowles, publisher of Shameless, a Toronto-based feminist magazine for young women, says this shouldn't be the case if it's what a woman wants to hear. She admits, though, that this is a point of debate even among feminists.

"Usually this conversation comes up when people are talking about pornography and the idea that women being tied up or spoken to in a humiliating fashion should not be arousing," Ms. Fowles said. "And yet, there are women that are turned on by that. So, having that rigid framework eliminates all those women from feminist ideology, which is elitist and exclusionary and wrong in my opinion."

But of course before you take the leap and imply, for example, that your partner likes to, as Sting put it, put on the red light, Ms. Fowles insists a conversation beforehand is crucial. If you are both as clear as possible about what's a turn on and what's over the line, that'll lessen the risk of offence. Interestingly, she also pointed out that it's sometimes the woman who wants to be playfully humiliated who takes the risk in asking.

Early on when she was experimenting with her sexuality, Ms. Fowles says, she requested that a former boyfriend call her a dirty name. His response, she tells me, was, "I won't call you that because I don't want to think of you that way." Fair enough – a man is allowed to have his boundaries – but what struck me most was this guy's confusion of fantasy and reality. And if your sex partner can't tell the difference between the two, you may have bigger problems on your hands.

The dirty talk in fantasy role play, it seems to me, isn't meant to change the way you see the other person in some permanent way, but is just a language to ask someone to touch you in a specific manner. In fact, role play talk could possibly be an easier form of communication for shy guys as it's akin to attending a masquerade ball, where you're allowed to express yourself while ironically feeling unexposed.

"In describing the ambiguity inherent in acting," Mr. de Jong wrote in an e-mail, "the great dramaturge [Richard] Schechner pointed out, when acting, a playful nip is not only not a bite, but it is also not not a bite."

But of course, the key word in role play is play. "We take it so seriously, but dirty talk is really our adult version of play – while naked," Ms. Dey said as we wrapped up our conversation.

And what if you try to play and your girlfriend tells you you're bad it? Well then, maybe you have the wrong playmate. Or you could ask her if she needs to be punished for that.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.

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