In a recent fit of anxiety over whether I was doing enough to keep my finger on the pulse of contemporary sex, I signed up for Cosmopolitan’s weekly newsletter called The Thirst. It’s essentially a fluff piece platform to promote an array of sex toys and paraphernalia, but I keep opening it because I’m amused by its focus on sex positions which suggest it’s possible there is an infinite number of ways to pleasure each other with a finite number of appendages and digits.
It’s not that I want to try all these techniques (at my age I’m more concerned with avoiding a ligament strain than in mastering the downward dog wheelbarrow for ‘ultimate penetration’) but this newsletter reminds me that sex can be fun, hilarious even.
Yet not long after perusing Five Spring Positions that will Get Your Sex Life Blooming, a friend sent me The Guardian’s recent sexual buzz kill, Why we need to take bad sex more seriously by Katherine Angel, author of the new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. The Thirst suddenly felt like eating rainbow ice cream while the polar ice caps were melting. After reading the piece three times I felt like sex had become much less about making love than making sausages, a combination of all the best and worst of us; the spice and the muscle, the fat and the offal.
To put the piece into an undeserved nutshell, Angel wants us to acknowledge the power structures that permeate, and often dictate, our sexuality, to recognize the unequal burden we’ve placed upon women to police desire, coercion and consent. That it’s not as easy as telling women to excuse themselves from bad sex and that men, biologically speaking, have little incentive to make sex a pleasurable experience for women. She writes, “It is crucial to maintain the distinction between consent and enthusiasm so that we can describe what is going on in these dynamics of unequal power.”
The contrarians of female victimization don’t deny misogyny and sexual violence, but do have a stake in the debate over ‘bad sex’. During the early conversation around consent, in her 1993 New York Times piece, Date Rape’s Other Victim, Katie Roiphe sums up the argument, “If we assume that women are not all helpless and naïve then they should be held accountable for their choice…” I don’t disagree with this. I couldn’t personally get mad at Aziz Ansari when he allegedly pressured, though did not force, a woman to have sex when she didn’t seem capable of making her discomfort clear or walking out his door. I am probably wired more like Katie Roiphe than Katherine Angel. But I should not expect all my sisters to own a pair of shit kickers like I do. And until they do, those of us who wield them should not dare to use them on those who don’t yet possess their own.
What I’ve learned from ‘bad sex’ has ultimately brought me to what we all want: very good sex. My experience of ‘good’ sex revolves around a personal narrative I’ve constructed from decades of bolstering my self esteem and confidence. I’ve also never been sexually abused. The sad thing for so many, and why men should be more invested in being conscientious lovers, is a bad experience can be a set up for our future narrative of sex. Bad sex early on may affect our ability to ever have good sex. The Negativity Bias is our hardwired psychological propensity to be affected by negative stimuli more easily than the positive. It’s why we dwell on bad experiences, why a rebuke is felt more deeply than a compliment and why a painful event can have such lingering effects. I thank my lucky stars that my sexual life began with a high school boyfriend who was as kind as they come and our two years together resulted in a solidly constructed template for good sex. But a lot of us start with sex as a story of bumbling regret, or worse, violation. Then we spend a lifetime unraveling this. Or suffering its consequences.
The painstaking layers of consent seem of utmost importance when jumping into bed with near strangers. We are attempting to draw up a contract to regulate conduct for what will essentially be one evening of frisbee. But then, the outcome of that game could reverberate for years. I hate to sound prudish, but maybe we should just spend more time getting to know someone before taking them to bed if sex feels too fraught. And more prudish yet, maybe we should stop drinking so much. If we removed alcohol from sex, might we possibly see the vast majority of bad and belligerent sex disappear? There are a gazillion research studies on the effects of alcohol on impulse control. Is expecting to solve the issue of bad sex where alcohol is involved like asking us to ride a bicycle upside down? But we can’t remove alcohol from sex entirely and the vast majority of drunk men don’t rape.
When I was not yet twenty I brought a man home with the explicit intent to have sex. I inserted my contraception and took him to bed. But I was drunk and that’s the last thing I remember. In the morning I didn’t feel assaulted, simply disappointed that I’d missed out on the experience. When consent policies across the land are being drafted to say consent is logically impossible to give if asleep or unconscious but also intoxicated, should I have, in this situation, cried rape? It would seem like my responsibility to do so. Yet I rather feel ok in thinking I wasn’t hurt by this experience, just a bit stupid and I never got that drunk again. But another woman might have felt much differently and so it is not my place to say this wasn’t rape. When we do create a guideline that states, “Yes! This is Assault”, then we will be getting somewhere regarding bad vs unacceptable. Better yet, if our courts of law uphold this definition of assault, then we will be making progress towards the punishment of abuse.
In encouraging people to actively engage with consent, Rachel Kramer Bussel is quoted, “Neither party can afford to be passive and just wait to see how far the other person will go.” But I say, why not? As long as what goes doesn’t include rape? I rather like seeing where someone else takes me in sex. I have a pretty good imagination but it’s way more fun to see what someone else can introduce me to. If you think you’ve got consent, respect, manipulation and power all figured out, stop everything and read Mary Gaitskill’s wickedly brilliant and ultimately vexing story This is Pleasure. In it she writes, “Women are like horses. They want to be led. But they also want to be respected. You have to earn it every time. And they are as strong as fuck. If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie there bleeding.”
As much as I don’t like being compared to an animal, there is some truth to this. I only wish more women understood the power they possess instead of feeling the rider was in control. I want nothing more than for our girls to grow up understanding patriarchal structure and working confidently within it, bending it to their will more easily than men have been at modifying it for them. Female retribution, though sometimes misguided, is at the core of Gaitskill’s story. Her character Margo is speaking to her friend Quinn, a British bon vivant who has been accused by multiple women in his workplace of inappropriate behavior, years of playful eroticism with which these women willingly engaged, their attachments to him seemingly as strong as his compulsion to push boundaries. But they are ultimately the horses who have turned on him. And he will not recover.
Quinn is the Englishman I knew and loved, before #MeToo, before I became more circumspect about sex and power. He is the cheeky, affectionate, irreverent gentleman who can as easily ask a woman what she thinks about when she’s about to orgasm as serve her a cup of tea and biscuits while doing so. He’s a man who will kneel in a restaurant to kiss her feet or bark on command just to make her smile. This is a man who crosses lines good heartedly, desisting immediately if rebuked. What Quinn believes to be the reason his accuser has turned on him, after mentoring her to a promotion in the cutthroat world of publishing, is that he simply stopped inviting her to his parties.
I knew a Quinn. My Quinn pinned my wrists behind my back and bit me on the neck at a bar the first night we met. My Quinn blindfolded me and ran sharp objects over my bare skin introducing me to the simultaneous experience of sense deprivation and amplification. My Quinn made me howl with laughter by pointing out that Lay, Lady, Lay was a grammatical abomination unless you were a chicken. But he grew tired of me. The less he responded to my attempts to maintain a relationship, the easier it was for me to feel I’d been manipulated by a heartless cad and I second guessed whether our sex had been ‘good’. He may have been avoidant but was never anything less than a gentleman who simply didn’t feel a brief acquaintance needed lifelong maintenance.
I operated much like Quinn for a time, though never in the workplace. Verbal intimacy and acceptance of another person’s secrets made me a sympathetic confidant. The more I listened the more men opened up to me. I didn’t judge their infidelities, their open relationships or the things they stuffed up their butts. I just wanted to understand their perspective. It was a valuable education in how the male mind works and what men desire from women, more closely aligned with what women want from men than we give them credit for. What I got in return was tenderness, laughter and mostly honorable sex. Of course, some were twits. But I didn’t hang out with them for long.
However, gaining a partner’s trust can be its own form of manipulation. If we get to sex through obtaining an impression of safety, and then brutishly seek to satiate only our own desire, we are violating our partners. I have myself been this kind of brute, expelling a man from my bed after I was satisfied, or before giving him what he was hoping for because I’d had a change of heart, I’d sobered up, I’d realized I wasn’t having fun and so I stopped. I’ve humiliated men and, thank goodness, none turned violent. Had I been talking and thinking about consent and good sex much earlier on in my life, I may have avoided this kind of behavior.
The Quinns of this world aren’t bad people. They push boundaries for fun and connection, they text you back, lend an ear, encourage your light and cease when asked. They are people who operate within the parameters others set for themselves. They can also leave without saying why. But there are possibly fewer of them now, the more we talk about power, consent and pleasure. Fortunately, there are spaces where Quinns and the people who love them can still thrive. The kink community is miles ahead of us conventional folk when it comes to good sex. Play party spaces and people who gather to erotically interact with each other have done what most of us are still debating here; created clear boundaries and come up with safe words to play consciously with power. The night I attended one of these parties I was required to sit for a 45-minute orientation about what was and wasn’t ok and how to conduct oneself. These are spaces where a woman who has a fantasy of being gang banged can do so under the supervision of a partner who is repeatedly checking in on her. It’s where a man can participate in a gang bang without being a horribly violent and reprehensible person. We can still have this kind of sex. We just need to be thoughtful about it.
I do believe most men, with their inherent power and physicality, are becoming more sensitive to the effects of their behavior. A rare few of them make headlines with their murderous rampages which set us back all over again around the question of whether women can feel safe with men. And it’s not as though men can no longer be dominant and women submissive in sex. What needs to happen is that there is a fairly clear, possibly very sexy, affirmation given all along the way. The whispered, “Yes,” repeated. The pledge to stop if the answer becomes no or, especially, if they can no longer string together a coherent sentence.
But anyone feeling bad about sex needs to start with themselves. As soon as you start making excuses for why someone has behaved in a way that feels bad, trust that as your red flag. Do all you can to walk away. Overcome your negativity bias, “Be poised to gently recognize what is happening when negative patterns start to get activated and practice doing something each and every time — even something very small — to break the pattern.”
Katherine Angel has been deeply thoughtful about power and sex, yet at a philosophical, political and social critic level. Hers is a conversation that makes my head hurt a little, not because I want to shrug my shoulders and make all the complexity go away, but because I’m the kind of person who needs a ‘Next Action Plan’. I want concrete answers to nuanced issues, but I know I won’t always get them. (Like I want Trump supporters to suddenly see their own stupidity.) I want people to stop getting hurt in sex and most of them don’t have the time or inclination to deconstruct patriarchy’s effect on a roll in the hay. I want all the coeds on the alcohol soaked beaches of Florida currently to be playfully, tipsily engaging with their own power to say yes or no. To give and receive. I want a woman to be roughly handled if that’s what she wants. I want a man to be treated kindly if he’s done nothing to offend.
Can we honestly, proactively, negotiate our avoidance of bad sex entirely? I doubt it. Good sex is, to a large extent, trial and error. If it feels bad to you it is bad for you. We should listen to our guts and talk to our partners (or our therapists), tell them why it felt bad and see if we’re capable of making sex better. Without doing so we set a precedent for more bad sex and we fail ourselves. And if bad sex is, as Angel believes, a political issue, we fail our culture not to address this. To put it tritely, be the change you want to see in the world (and the bedroom).
And now I’ll get back to The Thirst. This week I’m reading Five Sex Positions for Mother’s Day. Because Mothers Need Good Sex Too.
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