Before yesterday I hadn’t had sex in about a year. Shocking? Sad? Too much information? Maybe, but that’s for another story. The point is, it got me thinking about what makes good sex good and bad sex bad. When it comes to people who you actually WANT to be intimate with, of course! The answer may not be what you think…
I watched a TEDx talk today led by Sarah Byrden, sex educator, titled “Good Sex Isn’t About Knowing What You’re Doing.” I squinted at that headline curiously, thinking very decidedly that it really does in fact matter if you know what you are doing — especially when it comes to sex. (And I’m not just referring to knowing how to use what you were born with…)
Her point was that sex really isn’t about all the questions we ask ourselves:
Is he done yet?
How do I make her finish?
Is my partner enjoying this?
I wonder how it feels when I do this…
Is it really worth it to ask him to stop?
Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep pretending?
When did my partner forget my pleasure was also important?
I have to be strong enough, big enough, last long enough, for her to want me.
This played out better in my head…
Are they disgusted because I didn’t do x,y, or z for them?
Am I brave enough to tell him what I want?
Will she say something if what I’m doing is hurting her?
What is wrong with me that I can’t get there?
Why is my body responding when my head is somewhere else entirely?
Why can’t I get my body in sync with my thoughts?
It’s about honoring our emotional states, our brakes and our accelerators (from Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, P.h.D.), the context in which we choose to be intimate with a partner, and having the courage and clarity to work together in figuring out what works — without all this cultural, familial, and experiential baggage getting in the way.
I have had all of these worries, and more, at one point or another.
I have been ashamed of my body, and afraid of letting myself be seen in daylight. I’ve changed myself to suit others’ wants and needs. I’ve pretended to enjoy myself when I was really just counting seconds or thinking about what would happen afterwards. I have used alcohol to make myself more pliable. I have ignored what my body is telling me in order to be liked, and accepted. I have hidden my true self deep within for fear of not being enough. I know I’m not alone in these thoughts, and I’d like to talk about how these get in the way of how I believe sex should be — and could be.
I had two sexual encounters recently that seem like the perfect case study for this proposition:
One: with someone who I’ve known for about three years, who I’ve been intimate with in the past, who doesn’t keep in regular contact with me. I would describe them as relatively inexperienced sexually and insecure about that lack of knowledge.
Two: with someone who I’ve known for about thirteen years, who I’ve had an on again off again sexual relationship with, and have shared multiple life transitions with. I would describe them as more experienced, and primarily focused on learning and discovering throughout the process rather than reaching a potential end game.
On the surface, you can probably guess which one felt more connected, more secure, and more satisfying based on the descriptions. I assumed this was due solely to sexual savvy and finesse. But what if it had little to do with respective prowess and more to do with how loud or quiet those pesky questions were during these encounters?
In the past I’ve seen inexperience or naïveté as a burden.
With the second encounter, I felt more seen, more met, and more on the same page from the get-go. With the first, I was humbled and flattered by the outpouring of attention and adoration my partner offered, but had a distinct worry that they were interacting with a fantasy of who they thought I was, or who they wanted me to be to them, instead of actually seeing me. The more I think about it, the more I realize that these circumstances, these emotional states, these mutual (or not so) expectations set the foundation for the entire interaction.
In both cases, I had a certain level of comfort and trust with my partner — but I couldn’t help but feeling that one of them was drowning in their own insecurity and self-judgement. This in turn made me feel uneasy and wonder why I wasn’t enjoying what was happening to me. To quote the good doctor Byrden — “if we hold back our emotions, our bodies will hold back pleasure.”
In the past I’ve seen inexperience or naïveté as a burden. I do not like to teach, nor do I feel I am very good at it. I love learning from other people, and being able to have faith that my needs will be addressed without the fear of communicating what I want. But I no longer believe lack of experience is the obstacle I’ve so consciously avoided.
The greatest obstacles to good sex are self-esteem, idealization, and narcissism.
For example, if someone doesn’t believe they are worthy, or that they will be accepted if they ask for help — I can’t teach them anything, nor do I really want to. Ideas around our self worth and self-opinion take many years to unravel and can completely sabotage our sexuality. If we’re too worried about how we’re performing or what our partner is thinking about us, it’s impossible to be present to our own experience.
If someone is living in a fantasy about who their partner is and what is expected of them, a need for external validation will be built in from the beginning and color all future interactions. Idealizing a potential partner not only robs them of their own agency in the relationship, it puts a nearly unbreakable barrier between you and getting what you really want from them. If you are unable to see your partner as human, the potential for consent violations, and even violence can ensue. See more in “I fell in love with a fantasy.”
And lastly, and the most difficult to address: narcissism. There is something downright dangerous about someone whose only concerns are their own pleasure and how they look in your eyes. In my experience, best to shut those doors soon after the narcissistic qualities are discovered with a clean boundary and some hefty accountability. A big clear “I feel disregarded and I don’t think you care about me, therefore I’m choosing to stop spending time with you” — will usually do the trick.
All of these things prevent us from being PRESENT — the most important ingredient when it comes to good sex. Present to our emotions, present to the sensations happening in our bodies, present to the thoughts running through our minds, present to the messages we’re receiving from our partners…If we can’t be present, aware, and clear about what we’re experiencing, how on earth are we going to communicate it?
Bottom line is, I don’t think that sexual inexperience is the enemy, nor do I believe that sexual prowess is the savior. My goal is to continue breaking down these walls that we build between ourselves and our sexuality. We all have our own wants, needs, preferences, triggers, fetishes, fantasies, brakes, and accelerators. The idea is to have the courage to speak up and own what we are experiencing, even if the spark fizzles, even if our partner judges us, even if it means we never see them again. I believe it’s worth it — in order to find a partner that will work with me, respect me, and facilitate a context in which we can both enjoy ourselves and feel safe doing so.
If you’d like more information, I highly suggest checking out the following:
Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski
The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy