I want to talk about bad sex for a minute.
I don’t mean “bad sex” as in sex that wasn’t pleasurable, or sex that was awkward, or sex that hurt. I don’t mean when you’re having sex with a new partner and you don’t know yet what the other person likes or craves or is viscerally annoyed by. I don’t mean when you lose your hard-on or aren’t wet enough or the cat is watching you and it’s super distracting. I don’t even mean sex that disappoints you so much that you don’t see the person again.
By “bad sex,” I mean the sex we have that we don’t want to have but consent to anyway.
Let me be clear: bad sex isn’t rape. It’s not being forced to do something against your will. I don’t want to feed into that whole “false rape accusation, saying you were raped when you really just regret the night before” bullshit narrative that conservatives and Men’s Rights Activists and Betsy Devos like to pretend happens all the time. Bad sex isn’t even necessarily coercive. I’m talking about having a sexual encounter you don’t want to have because in the moment it seems easier to get it over with than it would be to extricate yourself.
Young women say yes to sex they don’t actually want to have all of the time. Why? Because we condition young women to feel guilty if they change their mind. After all, you’ve already made it back to his place, or you’re already on the bed, or you’ve already taken off your clothes, or you’ve already said yes. Do you really want to have an awkward conversation about why you want to stop? What if it hurts his feelings? What if it ruins the relationship? What if you seem like a bitch?
(Not to mention the mental calculus women have to do every time we reject a man: What if he becomes violent? But if you’re genuinely afraid for your safety if you don’t comply, bad sex can cross a line into assault.)
The hard truth is that we teach young women and girls to not make a scene, even when there’s no one else in the room. Don’t be difficult, don’t be selfish, don’t be inconvenient, don’t be rude. Your discomfort is less important than his comfort. Your feelings are less valid, less valuable than his feelings. Not to mention most teenage girls — and too many adult women — think “blue balls” are a real issue and that refusing a man who is already erect means causing him physical pain.
I don’t know how often I had sex in college when I didn’t necessarily want to have sex but didn’t know a way out of it. Sometimes I lost interest in a hookup and just went along with it for fear of seeming rude or hurtful. Most memorably, there was the friend I made out with at a party after my actual crush blew me off. We went back to his dorm room despite not being all that interested in each other and then had sex because hey, it seemed too late to say no. I don’t think he was all that interested either, but men have been socialized to believe that real men always want to have sex. This night wasn’t assault, it just sucked. It was uncomfortable and humiliating and after we were finished, I went back to my dorm room and threw up vodka in a Doritos bag. Neither of us knew how to say “Actually, hey, let’s just call it a night.” Our friendship never recovered, but neither of us was at fault. Men and boys are victims of our culture too.
Bad sex can leave you feeling violated, sick and confused. There isn’t anyone to blame: no one forced anyone to participate. You could have said no and you didn’t. You didn’t have the words or you didn’t have the courage to say them. It’s a terrible, disgusting feeling when the only obstacle to sex is the presence of the word “no” as opposed to the absence of the word “yes.” It doesn’t necessarily traumatize you, but it can stick with you, a moment of embarrassment or regret. You try not to think about it, do your best to brush it off, maybe even joke about it with your friends the next day at brunch.
Too much of the time, bad sex is the norm for young women, not the exception.
Conservatives would argue that bad sex is the result of a society that has devalued sex, and that you should wait for love, if not for marriage. I strongly disagree. Bad sex is the result of a society that makes discussing pleasure, desire and consent impossible. In the US, we do not teach young people how to enjoy sex. We don’t teach them how to talk about sex before, during or after. We don’t teach people how to say no, and we don’t teach them how to say yes. We don’t teach young women that our comfort and our partner’s comfort are both critical. More than that, we don’t teach young women that we have a right to actually desire our partner. Women are as entitled to gratifying, safe, and yes, orgasmic sex as men are.
We need sex education that focuses on pleasure, not just on risk. We need to create a culture of enthusiastic consent. And we need to talk about all of the many nuances of consent in order to fix our broken sexual culture.
Here’s a fun and potentially disturbing question: Do you remember the first time you had sex that you really, actually wanted to have? The first time you had sex because you desperately wanted that person? I do. I was about to turn twenty, and I’d already been sexually active for two years. He was a very attractive stranger at a party, just some hot doofus on the water polo team who was wearing a cape for no particular reason because #college. We had amazing chemistry and I could not wait to lick his chest. I’d never felt that kind of desire before. It was incredible.
I wasn’t in love with him. I barely knew him. I wanted him so much that the sex was some of the best I’ve ever had, even if it was actually pretty normal and not the stuff of high-priced pornography. It was a watershed evening. Before that night, I hadn’t known that sex could be that thrilling, satisfying and memorable in real life. The sex I’d had before wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t vital. I just wound up having it: hookups that escalated, or sex that I felt like I had to have because it was time for us to have sex, we’d been dating long enough. I wanted those partners but I mostly wanted their approval, or their affection, or simply their attention. I had not hungered for them.
Here’s the ironic thing: I wasn’t some abstinent, meek young girl raised on fairy tales. At the time I was literally about to become the Editor-in-Chief of my university’s art and sexuality magazine, otherwise known as the soft-core porno mag. I didn’t have any of the hang-ups that most people struggle with: I didn’t think sex had to be “special” or that you should love the person you’re fucking. I wasn’t ashamed of myself after sex. What made the sex feel “bad” wasn’t about morality, it was just not wanting that person, that interaction. I don’t wish I’d waited for marriage or even for a relationship to have sex when I was a teenager. But I wish I had known earlier that it’s not rude to say, “This was fun, but I’m going to go home.”
I haven’t had much bad sex since that water polo doofus because it dramatically raised my standards for the sex I wanted to have going forward. Now I try to only have sex when I want my partner that much, that “I want to crawl inside of your skin and drink your sweat for sustenance” kind of want. And I want that for all women—hell, I want that for everyone. Don’t teach kids to wait to have sex until marriage; teach them to wait until they really want it.
This essay was inspired by a remarkable new short story in the New Yorker, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. I cannot recommend it enough.