“Bad Sex,” Or The Sex We Don’t Want But Have Anyway

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.

Hey there! My name is Ella and I’m a sex and culture critic. If you enjoyed this essay, you’ll be right at home in my Patreon community!

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

122 thoughts on ““Bad Sex,” Or The Sex We Don’t Want But Have Anyway

    1. Of course sex with any kind of violent coercion is rape. There is nothing in the article suggesting otherwise. But this is not what happens in “Cat Person.” There is no real threat of violence from Robert, just Margot’s unspoken fears of being alone with a man she hardly knows. Margot’s pressure to have sex with Robert, insidious in its own right, is largely self-imposed.

  1. While you’re at it, also teach your kids to stay away from social affairs and family get-togethers unless or until they really want to join.

    Unwholesome pressure to consent out of guilt and fear rather than a genuine desire to engage and participate is being exerted in areas other than sex as well, and it isn’t any less frustrating there.

  2. In 2018, Can we please ditch this whole gender thing. Bad, unwanted sex is not a perspective unique to the female gender so why is it the focus of this article is driven with a female-centric view point. If our goal is to narrow the gap between men and women, wouldn’t it be smarter to have articles that showcase how we suffer from many of the same issues. As a man who identifies with a lot of “female-centric” issues, I find it frustrating that I’m able to identify, empathize and relate to a lot of these female issues but am often made to feel like my contributions are not welcome or that it isn’t my place to talk about my suffering and discomfort (two separate things, mental/physical discomfort isn’t the same as mental/physical harm/suffering). I feel both, so why is it I’m often left to stand alone in isolation because everyone wants to tell me I don’t have a dog in this race. I know Ella mentioned men go through these things too, but she made a piss poor attempt to bring men and women together on social issues we both suffer from. It’s almost as if she said “oh, men go through this too but that’s not important…”

    It’s just sad. I’m tired of feeling alone, isolate, discouraged and hopeless. Women aren’t the only ones suffering.

    1. I think Ella does a fair way of acknowledging that this isn’t a gender exclusive thing. I think your real criticism is her presentation. When viewing her other blogs, you’ll notice that she writes from the first perspective. Because she is a woman, that’s the perspective that comes out first for a blog that is in first perspective. If you want men’s issues to be brought more to light in the ways you are saying, why don’t you consider your own blog. I don’t know who’s telling you you don’t have a dog in the race. We are all entitled to be heard. In the absence of your desires, maybe you can consider how you can fulfill your desires or needs yourself in a way that may be beneficial to others like you. The purpose of this article isn’t to bring men and women together on social issues we both suffer from. It’s a call to want the sex you have. So in considering Ella’s likely intentions with this blog, it’s not looking to fulfill what you are looking to have it fulfill.

  3. This is an excellent piece, but isn’t part of the problem the appallingly low bar many men (most men?) have for what is acceptable sex? In fact, I suspect when most men experience the kind of transcendent sexual experience Ms. Dawson talks about, their thinking almost immediately turns to marriage (and their partner may have little interest in).

  4. The thing about this kind of sex is that it damages us even though it isn’t rape. It is damage we do to ourselves. The selves we are have of course been created within this culture of patriarchy and the ever-present threat of rape and yet we feel both the pain and guilt of the injury. Both of which we can seek to bury. Creating more problems down the road.

    1. It’s also damaging (to the person being shot down) to shoot someone down at the last moment when they physically aren’t everything you thought up to point of getting naked. Both men and women have body issues and anxiety about being attractive and performing well during sex.

      In the story, Margot leads Robert up to that point (initiating the flirting, asking to go back to his place, etc.) and at the last moment she gets turned off by Robert’s big hairy belly (but what did she expect up to that point?)

      As a guy, in my younger days, I’ve been in exactly the opposite situation – you’re a bit drunk in a dimly lit bar and you go home with a girl and then when the lights are on and you’re naked woah you really don’t want to keep going. But as a considerate guy I’ve also thought “hmm like most women she probably already has body & confidence issues and I can tell she’s nervous at me looking at her now and if I act revolted or stop it could really scar her” and just gone along with it. It’s called sucking it up and being considerate.

      1. Whoa. I would not want someone to suck it up and have sex with me. If you’re not into it, tell me so. I would far rather have someone tell me they’re not feeling it, than pretend. And, it may be the case that the other person also isn’t feeling it in which case you give the other person a desired out! Everyone gets rejected now and then. Life is learning how to recover.

  5. I was lucky enough to grow up in a church* that had a very comprehensive and sex-positive sex ed program for middle school and high school aged youth. I can remember very clearly when one of the people teaching the class said her hope was that we’d all only have sex if we couldn’t stand not to. Because of that program and advice like that I can honestly say that the first time I had sex I “really, actually wanted to have” it. And yes, I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. That’s not to say that I’ve never had “bad sex” by your definition, though I think it was always within the context of an ongoing relationship.

    *That church-based sex ed program was called AYS (or About Your Sexuality) and was available the Unitarian Universalist And United Church of Christ congregations. It has since been replaced by a full lifespan religious education curriculum known as OWL, which stands for Our Whole Lives. OWL has separate UU and UCC versions and has been successfully adapted for secular environments, including school sex ed.

    1. My childhood friend (a boy then) was extremely damaged by the ‘church’ program you mentioned. You have skillfully left out the part where (in the early/mid 70s version) they showed pornographic films to children – including a grown man masturbating onto his stomach & then tasting his own semen (touching it then putting his finger in his mouth).

      My friend converted to Catholicism as an adult due to that amongst other reasons. The *education* you refer to is simply horrific brainwashing child abuse. Which is precisely *why* the Unitarian ‘church’ (scare quotes) abandoned that.

      There is *already* a sex positive Church. It is the oldest Church in the world. The original Syriac Aramaic Church(es). This is because Arabs wether Muslim or Christian or Jewish are not repressive about sexuality (Christian priests marry & have children & drink wine etc.); but there are healthy boundaries to do w/ love & commitment & spirituality & family. People copy Arab dancing for a reason. There is a big difference between celebrating sex & a world devoid of boundaries – including for the young children exposed to those pornographic films the Unitarian Church used to force children to watch.

  6. Oh, wow, did this essay resonate with me. I had a lot of consensual bad sex in my younger days, mostly because it just seemed easier to do it than to gracefully extricate myself. Most of the time the sex was unsatisfying for me as the men were not at all concerned about my pleasure. We barely knew each other! It was partly a young woman’s inability to ask for what she needed, and her overly-pleasing attitude (not wanting to hurt the guy’s feelings or disappoint him). I never felt afraid as I am pretty intuitive about reading and staying away from dangerous people. I am now a long-married woman and look back on those days with self-forgiveness and a bit of cringing.

  7. Really nice essay – thank you. The cultural conversation we are having right now about sexual assault and harassment is great, but the issue is so tremendously complicated and interwoven into every aspect of our society, and your essay here is a great scratch in the surface of the social construct we have that runs the gamut from violent rape down to not being clear on if a casual no is a real no, or what degree of consenting enthusiasm is required for sexual engagement. The big things are tied into the little things and they will all have to be opened up for discussion.

  8. I’m writng this from Germany, my home. I spent some time in the USA as young man. The peer pressure is greater in the USA to have sex, even if one doesn’t innerly relate to the other person. The Americans in general have more sex than other people, they’re also divorced and married more often. The more sex you have the higher the risk that there are bad instances. Americans are also more polite, in general, than Germans. This makes it more diffcult for them to say no.

    1. Wirklich Martin. Plus no pointless job interview style soulless ‘dating’. Lol. Germans we just meet someone amongst friends or elsewhere whilst living Life. As my Frankfurt Opa said ‘The apple high on the tree is better than all those fallen on the ground’. Most Americans prefer shallow small talk above more profound conversation (which often brings on mocking in the States) also. So it is no wonder that this extends to making love also. We (Germans) are more romantic also. As a German painter said “Germans can fall in love at a garbage dump.” (And I am born/raised in the States. German mum & Arab papa).

      I am not even going to finish reading this thread – this all feels so completely soulless! Please people – find your spiritual life within you & without you. The narcissism in the States is through the roof (people score higher on tests compared to the rest of the world). So not surprising all this *difficulty* w/ sex. People need to stop being so soulless…

      And men: women should not have to tell you they loathe you & hit you over the head w/ the nearest heavy object for you to leave us alone when we are clearly not interested. Especially when there is some *required* interaction. The maintenance man to my building has been relentlessly harassing me – which has been escalating – and I am going to the police. Just because some women are hospitable & have warm personalities does not mean they/we fancy *you*. Yet another thing American men in particular have trouble getting their head round. In England Germany Italy Lebanon Poland etc. you can offer the workman in your home a cup of coffee or tea without him assuming you are interested in him. It is completely *mental* here in the States. I am really tired of it.

  9. “Women are as entitled to gratifying, safe, and yes, orgasmic sex as men.”

    I would agree with that. But as a man, I also feel quite nervous that I won’t be able to deliver. It would be interesting to hear Ella’s views on ‘bad sex’ as in disappointing. Consider, say, the man who is great in almost every other way, but turns out not to have a clue in bed. Perhaps he hasn’t had much practice, if any. Perhaps an attempt at one position or two goes awry. Anyway, has Ella (or anyone else, for that matter) had to teach a disappointing partner how to please her properly? What is that experience like?

    1. 1. Ask her what she likes. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. Different women like different things, and rather than being given a list of possibilities, the best solution is to start off with, “What would you like me to do?”

      If you don’t want it to sound like you’re clueless, make it sound like a sexy game: “I want to pamper you first. What would you most like me to do?”

      2. That said, be prepared to do what she wants. You might be surprised by what that is, but be prepared to do things that please her (assuming you’re comfortable with them). It’s worth it.

      3. Although I said that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, oral sex comes close. If you don’t know where the clitoris is and how to find the “g-spot,” then learn those. And then become a cunning linguist. With the rare exception of a woman who might not like oral sex, this is an important pleasure tool for you to have.

      4. Books exist. “She Comes First” might be a decent starting point for some basic pointers for you.

  10. “Women are as entitled to gratifying, safe, and yes, orgasmic sex as men.”

    I would agree with that. But as a man, I also feel quite nervous that I won’t be able to deliver. It would be interesting to hear Ella’s views on ‘bad sex’ as in disappointing. Consider, say, the man who is great in almost every other way, but turns out not to have a clue in bed. Perhaps he hasn’t had much practice, if any. Perhaps an attempt at one position or two goes awry. Anyway, has Ella (or anyone else, for that matter) had to teach a disappointing partner how to please her properly? What is that experience like?

  11. I am a straight shy man who went to college in the late 1970’s early 1980’s. Sometime in my Junior or Senior year, I finally got up the nerve to ask a woman out, and we went on a date, I walked her back to her suite, where the embarrassing noise of one of her roommates making loud love was present.

    We started making out, and french kissing, and then the woman started using a technique I had not encountered before: she started sticking her tongue straight out stiffly. It really was not doing much for me, but I persisted for another 15 seconds, and then it finally dawned on me that this woman did not want to be kissing me and wanted me to stop.

    I was mortified, and left immediately. I never talked to this woman again, and even if she had just wanted to slow things down, or not kiss anymore that night or whatever, I never talked to her again, so I will never know what was going on. I have always been a gentleman, and would never have forced myself on this woman if she had just stopped, and explained what was going on.

    It is a sad commentary on our society that she thought it was better to fend me off in this way as opposed to being more open and honest about the whole thing. I came away feeling like she trusted me so little and thought so little of me that she could not be open with me.

    My usual low self-esteem took a huge drop that night, and I never asked another woman out while at college. Since women don’t ask men out on dates (at least not in my experience, or my 27-year old son’s experience), that meant I was not going to be going out with women.

    A saying from my parent’s generation: “All is fair in love and war”, though in disfavor now because it might be interpreted as a rule to live by, is still (and probably always will) be descriptive of the “battle of the sexes”. Nobody should treat finding your partner (straight or gay) as an activity for the weak-willed or faint of heart. We have all got these hormones and confusing desires coursing through our veins for a reason. Sometimes after encounters with the other sex (or the sex you desire) it does feel like you have just stumbled out of battle with deep wounds. “All is fair in love and War” can be meant to allow us to forgive the horrendous damage we all do to one another while trying to find our love.

    I actually think the one thing we do not talk about is how even though women want parity with men in the workplace, they have not become any more assertive in their love lives. Maybe dating apps like Tinder take the burden away from both sexes now from having to make that first (& 2nd & 3rd) leap and ask someone out or try to make something go further. Until women start asking men out as much as men ask them, they will remain “preyed upon” at some level.

    One place this could start would be the convention that the man be older than the woman. I recall my mom making the astonished comment that all of the 8th grade girls in my class were ditzier than the boys after going an a class field trip. She had assumed that the girls would be more “mature” whatever that means.

    Having the man be older is part of this non-assertive woman/assertive man equation (not all of it of course). Not all men are less mature than any given women, just as not all women are not less qualified than any given man for a job. Sexism exists in subtle ways that feminists do not protest, and seem oblivious to, possibly because they believe it weakens their argument that women are as powerful as men.

    Now of course, somebody is going to reply that not all women only go out with older men– No kidding! (I am married to a woman 11 months older myself.) …And women do act as the protagonist to more forward relationships (like by asking men out on dates) …but, there is no way anyone could claim the balance on these two metrics is anywhere close to 50/50.

    Until women take the bull by the horns and start asking the guys they want out on dates, they will not get the men they want, they will keep getting the bolder man who wants them.

    1. Honestly, being very shy with low self esteem is not going to get many women asking you out no matter what the culture. I had the opposite as a fairly outgoing guy back in 1986 at SIU – I had women asking me out many times and even asking for a role in the hay for just the night.

      I as a guy have a similar view with this writer, in that – when a girl shows up asking for sex, you do it as guys are told and have sex. Yet, after a few such encounters where the sex was at best ok and left a lot of baggage to overcome. The sex just should have been avoided.

  12. Holy! This really resonated with me. You were able to put into words what I couldnt really describe before! Thank you so much for putting this out there! We need more of this in this world. Thank you.

  13. I’m personally not excited to see this trend of thought. As a muslim, I feel what this article is arguing is so conservative about sex that it’s almost islamic.

    Sex should not be too big a deal, or at least I’d like to think not. That is not the same as arguing that we should tolerate sexual abuse in any way. It’s just that, we all do things we don’t want, out of social inconvenience. I’ve had disgusting meals cooked by my boyfriend and pretended to have enjoyed it, just as I had had sex with people I’m not necessarily attracted to just because I didn’t want to turn them down and see them disappointed. When I did so, I didn’t feel coerced, nor powerless, because I would, and can, say no anytime if I really didn’t enjoy it or the person in question is simply too unattractive for me to be sexually courteous. Yes, it’s just something I do out of courtesy. This has nothing to do with male dominance or putting men’s pleasure above women’s.

    Women’s should and can decide what to do with their bodies. What this article is essentially saying is that some women are not properly educated to make such decisions, and implicitly, sex is so divine that decisions about it should be made with extreme discretion, which sounds exactly like any repressive thoughts towards women.

    1. I think maybe the nuance between your point and Ella’s is that you can have sex with someone for a number of reasons besides physical attraction (I guess that’s what you’re referring to when you say “not necessarily attracted to”).

      In the Cat Person story, Margot has sex with Robert despite not actually enjoying him that much or being attracted to him. She vocalizes in her head just before doing it this she wishes she had a way out of the situation but she’s conditioned to think that no kind one exists, this to me seems like the opposite of power in this situation- even if it’s not Robert who’s making her powerless.

      And if I understood Ella’s point properly is that too often in borderline situations like the one in Cat Person we fall back into the role that our gender is assigned: “men always want sex and women shouldn’t be teases”. This is often an embarrassing mix when one or both of the people doesn’t feel the way they “should” So, it’s not exactly about male dominance it’s about a culture that tells men they should be dominant in the bedroom- which, at worst can lead to coercion and assault, and at “best,” can lead to these embarrassing and sometimes harmful miscommunications despite the noblest intentions.

      As a bisexual woman, I’ve found that this is one of the main differences (at least in my own experience) between heterosexual and female-homosexual sex: I’ve never hesitated to turn down a woman when I feel what Margot felt in the story or hesitation for any other reason, whereas I almost never vocalize my hesitation with a man- and prefer to “get it over with.” (maybe bi-guys can comment on this for the male side of the equation? People who have slept with several genders in general, do you agree?)

      So, in reference to your first sentence, I don’t think it’s about second-guessing whether or not it’s morally “right” or “wrong” to have sex with whomever you please- it’s about being honest about when you actually want to or not, aka giving more agency to everyone involved.

  14. Without feeling so close, so connected, so comfortable to a person for what I have sex. At this stage I can see most of the men are still primitive about sex. Sex is more than an act of pleasure, it is a way of showing your appreciation and love to the loved body through her senses

  15. what’s most disturbing here is that you’re reinforcing the idea to young women that there is such a thing as consensual sex (ie not-rape) that one does not want to have. this is a paradoxical idea. it’s dangerous that you clearly don’t see that the reason women choose to refrain from saying no is because they make a mental calculus beforehand and decide that “it’s not worth it” – what that means is that there is potential downside to saying no, that being some sort of dangerous or negative consequence from one’s sexual partner for doing so – an implied threat. doing this mental calculus and deciding you don’t want to say no for any reason is THE VERY DEFINITION OF COERCION and it’s scary that you’re out here screaming to women that when they choose not to say no to a sexual experience that that could ever be anything other than nonconsensual. this nonexistent grey area you’ve introduced between consensual and nonconsensual sex is clearly something you and other straight women like yourself have invented to keep yourselves from having to face the sheer number of times you’ve been used by men for sex. this isn’t your fault because men are awful, but it’s so irresponsible to tell other young women that they can engage in sex that they force themselves to accept while not considering that instance rape or sexual assault or otherwise coercive. it’s clear you don’t understand human behavior and you shouldn’t be writing about this stuff. you are hurting women with your words.

    1. I don’t think you can call it coercion when the man isn’t actually doing anything. The idea that women are being coerced because they’re afraid of a nebulous potential threat is kind of ridiculous. If you really think the chance that saying no will lead to danger is so high, don’t put yourself into that situation to begin with.

      I think that was more or less one of the points the article (great article, BTW) was making — it’s time to reexamine arbitrary cultural norms instead of feeling pressured to adhere to them.

    2. Hi, Christine. It would be helpful to reword your comment so it expresses positions with facts to back them up. As it is, your comment just comes across as a rant.

      As others have pointed out, you could start by understanding what coercion means –
      http://www.dictionary.com/browse/coercion. It’s not at all what you claim.

      I’m well aware of the difficulty of navigating the world as a woman, especially the dating and sexual world. My wife experienced abuse in her own family and I know too many others to think this is a rarity. Bad sex is not coercion. Men have it a lot, for social reasons others have detailed here. Women have it because it seems like the easiest way to extricate themselves from an unpleasant situation and get to a better place. Men do the same, though more rarely.

      When there is a serious power imbalance between two people, then coercion comes into play. When two people meet and somewhere along the way, one partner decides they’re no longer interested but goes through it anyway to avoid hurting the other’s feelings, that’s a social problem but it’s definitely not coercion.

    3. Men aren’t all awful a vast majority are good respectful and kind, I think you need to re-assess the type of man you interact with, yes there are some awful ones just as there are some awful women too, I’d never be soo naive as to say all women are awful just because I’ve met a few who were.

    4. I’m a non-straight woman and I take issue with your harsh response to this article. As Serge mentioned, you need to review the definition of coercion.

      I have had sexual encounters with other women that, part of the way through, I was less interested in than before the encounter started. I don’t think those women sexually assaulted me and those experiences have nothing to do with “awful men”.

      As the author (Ella Dawson) of the article mentioned, my unwillingness, or fear, of ending those encounters “early” was more about my lack of interest in an uncomfortable experience than sexual coercion, or the other person’s gender. Furthermore, the most explicit “sexual assault” I’ve experienced involved a woman and initiated a sexual encounter while I was sleeping. That’s not to say that sexual encounters I have had with men have always been enjoyable and without a “gray area”. I have also been very close to intercourse with a man and said, “I’m sorry but I can’t do this” (More than once). Sexual encounters are nuanced and coercion is primarily more about threat than one party’s loss of interest during the encounter. Your argument suggests that any sexual encounter that doesn’t end in the female orgasming is sexual assault. I sure hope not!

      I should mention that I’m well read regarding sexual assault, grooming, coercion, and forcible compulsion. I’m also well aware of the legal definitions (in NYS) of sexually motivated crimes.

      I’m not a man hater or misogynist. Your response appears to be influenced by your phenomenological experience rather than research, statistics on sexual assault, or normal human behavior. I also realize that sexual assault, especially deviant sexual behavior involving children is a serious and frighteningly pervasive phenomenon that significantly impacts far too many people, most of whom are female.

      In my opinion, conditioning woman to go along, not make a scene, and keep the peace clearly contribute too “bad sex”, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, sexual assault, and other sexually motivated offenses, but does not make all men the root of the problem.

      I don’t mean to be offensive or dismissive of sexually motivated offending behavior, but I think you missed Ella’s point.

    5. “Men are awful”. Not my husband, 2 brothers, father or the many male friends i have. Some men are awful but then so are some women.
      If you’ve a woman or man who’s engaged in sex with someone willingly and then regretted it or went along with it but probably shouldn’t have i suggest you work on ways to communicate your feelings more effectively. Or you can just go oh well that was a bit of a mistake, learn from it and move on. Not everything has to be psychologically damaging.

  16. Great article. I’m a cis guy and my first sex ever was with someone whom I liked, but with whom I basically had no chemistry. I was really eager in the lead-up to the event, but once we were there I wasn’t really into it, but didn’t want to leave either. It was so awkward that I finished ASAP and spent the next 10 years avoiding sex because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone else.

    But when I did meet someone I really really wanted to have sex with, oh man it was so different. I was completely in my pleasure and I didn’t want to be anywhere else but there. We’d go for an hour and a half, two hours, I would orgasm and stay hard, sometimes when I was getting close I would just stop and kiss her for a while so that I could prolong the session. It’s SO much more productive to turn the conversation from “don’t have sex” to “sex you don’t want is really awful sex so what’s the point”, it’s a night and day difference.

  17. Awesome article. Happy to say I was the young woman in college who stopped in the middle of encounters to say that I was done. Only one guy got mad. The rest were probably frustrated but more understanding. I have had a lot of great sex in my life, and I encourage everyone to say no when it starts not to feel right. Recognizing our boundaries and sticking up for them is valuable and important work.

    1. Men are used to getting rejected. That is a byproduct of having to make the first move ( mostly). I discussed this with my wife today and men understand and accept rejection. What they don’t understand is ambiguity. A solid “no” is way better than a, “sort of, kind of, not really sure… I wish all women had as much courage as you, Star.

  18. I married my soulmate 19 years ago and haven’t had bad sex since college, but reading this brought back vivid memories! Thank you so much for writing this frank and realistic depiction of a woman’s mindset – it transcends generations. I’m bookmarking this to share with my 11 year old in 5 years.

  19. So true. I’ve felt this and believed this for many years but could never have articulated it as well as you have here. I’ve often wondered how I might be able to communicate this to my children as they get older; that is, the importance of waiting for sex until you really REALLY want it – but I’m not sure yet how I’ll do that. But thank you for validating my thoughts on the subject. Sadly I have had a lot more “bad” sex than good sex in my life.

  20. Thanks for writing this. Great piece, and yes, that NY story is wonderful. My only additional bit is that I am a man, and this – bad sex as you define it – has also happened to me, and I suspect to many other men. And that’s a good thing, because we – all of us – should absolutely be having this conversation. Thank you!

  21. Wow, this is so sad. The only “bad sex” people should be having is as part of an ongoing relationship where the good sex vastly outnumbers the bad. One where you normally have enjoyable encounters but sometimes you just can’t get in the right mood however since you love your partner you want him/her to feel good even if it isn’t happening for you at that particular time. But if it isn’t someone you love, you should not have to tolerate bad sex at all. It is one thing to choose to occasionally put up with bad sex in the name of a good relationship. But just because you lack the spine to tell your random hookup partner how you really feel? Very sad…

    1. I’m not at all sure about this at all. Bad sex (defined as when you don’t really feel like it) could be really damaging for a relationship. Especially in the long term (if it becomes a pattern that one of you participates when not in the mood). Given the mechanics of the whole thing if you go for some penetrative sex it could even be a bit on the painful side. I wouldn’t recommend developing this dynamic as it can undermine attraction and develop the idea that sex is something one person does for the other.

      If only one of you is in the mood why don’t they just masturbate? Seems a better way to go on… But this might depend on personal taste.

      1. I would much rather (and do) masturbate than have sex with my sweetheart when I’m the only one into it. They will often participate by kissing, touching or caressing me, and encouraging me with appreciative comments. It’s so incredibly sexy.

  22. In the story I read, two people had sex. He’s not good in bed, and clueless, but he has NO IDEA that this is unwelcome, and no WAY of knowing. Everything leading up to that point would lead him to reasonably believe that she wanted to have sex with him and he does.

    And after they have sex, she rejects him with a one-sentence text (after thinking about ghosting him), doesn’t give him any clue as to why, and and makes fun of him to all of her friends. For being fat and not a good lover.

    Like a switch was flipped, she suddenly acts as though his feelings don’t matter at ALL.

    And for some reason, I’m supposed to sympathize with her.

    The protagonist of the story is a completely selfish, uncaring human being. A jerk. She does nothing but talk about her feelings, but she has no empathy whatsoever.

    1. That’s the whole point, she puts herself in that position and doesn’t know how to walk away (unawkwardly/safely). Because she went through with it, she felt horrible and couldn’t handle how to communicate with him. The point is not to sympathise with her, its to understand that these icky very awkward situations happen and as a society if we talked about it more we could build ways for people to remove themselves from these situations.

    2. I must admit, I agree with the above: she flirted with a guy out of boredom and vanity, continued over time by means of manufacturing a fantasy about him, blew him off cruelly and harshly and he’s the baddie? He, quite understandably, thought she was actually seriously interested, didn’t see how unattractive he would be to a better educated, better looking younger woman, poor pathetic fool that he is.
      The real lesson to take from this is that people who engage in sex out of vanity or boredom ought to stay away from people who don’t. And, contrary to the writer of the article, not everyone who does not want sex without emotional connection is an unenlightened conservative. Some people just are that way and they’re as much out of fashion at present as the writer would have been a century ago. Their feelings are as valid and worthy of care as anyone else’s, even if they’re fatter and older than one prefers.

    3. Well…I have a slightly different take on the characters. It’s true she flirts with him out of boredom and vanity, and is able to continue with him for a time by only means of manufacturing a fantasy about him. But didn’t the guy have his own fantasies that really had nothing to do with her? If he really thought that he going back to his place after seeing a movie was going to be the “fist time” for this attractive, confident woman, then he also has his own delusions. He had created some story in his head about her being enamored of some arrogant jock in high school when her actual story was much more complicated and interesting. But he didn’t ask her about it, or seem to want to find out. Also, the sex involved him flipping her around like they were in a porno, all the while grunting out comments that made it seem as if he was really locked inside his own head. She didn’t write the text breaking off with him; she had been dithering around trying to figure out what to say to break it off and her friend grabbed her phone and, in what I think is the most obnoxious move in the whole story, sent the text. The guy’s a sad sack, but his problems aren’t her fault

      1. “He had created some story in his head about her being enamored of some arrogant jock in high school when her actual story was much more complicated and interesting.”

        Isn’t it ironic that the author in the article above describes her first great sex as a random hookup with a water polo player (Jock.) Perhaps that inspired the man in the story’s insecurity.

    4. I hear you. There was also the narcissism of her loving how she imagined him seeing her. And it was written as if this is how a lot of women think. (See the book ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger). It’s not btw. As if she (the character) only percieves herself through the male gaze; which both men & women are trained to do in our society. See women as if they are always on display. (Hence those heinous ‘Smile!’ comments when we women may even be leaving a funeral in NYC or exiting cancer treatments…). Women objectifying *themselves*. She was thinking about how she appeared. But there didn’t seem to be any intended commentary or criticism of that. So it came off as if the author just thought that was something every woman would understand. As if every woman is thinking about how she looks in that intimate moment. Not everyone is shallow. Some people actually pay attention to other people!

  23. What a hugely important discussion to be had. As a lesbian I am tempted to cast this off as an embarrassingly heterosexual issue — “are the straights okay?” — but I have had 100% had “bad” gay sex before and it felt just as difficult to get out of as straight encounters are. (Except maybe the looming threat of violence or coercion — I haven’t had any partners that I worried would hurt me, but violence definitely exists in queer relationships)

    It’s hard to get out of a vulnerable situation precisely because you are already vulnerable – half or fully naked, touching someone, being touched, is already stressful and exposing (especially with a new person) and stopping it and having to explain why (or feeling like you’ll have to) is so daunting because it is even more vulnerable than continuing!

    I’m really looking forward to the challenge of combatting this in my personal experiences, and for my friends and community, and for the society and world at large.

  24. It reminds me of a passage in Joseph Heller’s ‘Good als Gold’, where the protagonist (Julius Gold) has lunch with one of his sisters, the youngest one actually. Julius asked his sister about her Jewish experience and she answers as follows:
    ‘It’s trying not to be. We play golf now, get drunk, take tennis lessons, and have divorces, just like normal Christian Americans. We talk dirty. We screw around, commit adultery, and talk out loud a lot about fucking.’
    Gold drew back in horror. ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk like that to me,’ he chided gently, almost pleading. ‘It makes me uncomfortable.’
    ‘That’s part of your Jewish experience,’ she said.
    ‘Do you screw around a lot?”he asked.
    ‘Not since I married Jerry,’ she replied, and teased, ‘I do worse. I eat pork.’

    1. I find it really tragic that a lot of second generation children of immigrants feel that they have to jettison the elegance & modesty of whatever their culture was before in order to *feel* they are seen & accepted as true Americans by their peers & hence behave like the most obnoxious frat boys & sorority girls one has ever met in one’s life.

      Post WWII it was the children of a lot of elegant Europeans; now it’s the children of a lot of equally elegant Muslims & Southwest Asians & East Asians. I don’t like it. It’s like everyone has to sink to the lowest common denominator of depravity drunkenness & cursing to feel accepted by their high school & university peers & seen as *American*. Some people seem to resist this apparent compulsion better than others.

  25. Just wanted to hop in and both congratulate you on this amazingly well-written article, as well as point something out:

    Blue Balls do exist, but it’s mostly genetic in how quickly they manifest and how much pain they cause. BUT! There is never ever a point where they can/should be used as a reason for anyone to have sex that they do not want to have. As the dude in the scenario, relieving yourself from the pain can easily done by masturbating, after either party has decided that hooking up was not a good idea. There is absolutely nothing to it and whoever guy uses this as an excuse to pressure the girl into having sex is a gigantic piece of shit.

    1. Masturbation is an option folks! It’s like thinking someone will die of thirst if you don’t get them a glass of water. They can get it themselves. If you have blue balls, you can relieve it yourself. I often masturbate when my partner is not in the mood. They will often participate by kissing, touching or caressing me, and encouraging me with appreciative comments. It’s so incredibly sexy.

    1. Re. the “70s”. There was a *lot* of sexual bullying of young girls (early gen x then) by baby boomer boys & men who were pushing ‘free love’ as a manifesto. This has been written about – but I was also there then. Including the mocking of young girls who wanted to be in love before sleeping w/ someone/losing their virginity. In friendship circles & also in the media. Films: The Lords of Flatbush & Rocky Horror Picture Show. Music: that Meatloaf song (something about by a dashboard light?). It was a nightmare for very young girls then. A NIGHTMARE. Thirty year old plus men hitting on thirteen year olds. Jimmy Page etc. sleeping w/ fourteen year olds & younger. My dad was in the music industry – so I saw it from the inside. I think that baby boomers had their innocent years but because of their monopoly of the sexual dialogue in the media (& almost everywhere else); we who were twelve/thirteen/fourteen when they were in there twenties & adults in the 70s – were not allowed our innocence. (If you lived in or near big cities like NYC & SF etc.). My girlfriend & I were twelve visiting my dad at a hotel & in bikinis by the pool & had to fend off someone in Black Sabbath’s band & entourage (I won’t say who). The pedophiles thought the gates had been opened for them in the 70s. And even in school near NYC I knew girls pressured into having sex at age fourteen & fifteen. Joni Mitchell said that Free Love was only free for men. Which makes sense since she’d had a child very young that she gave up for adoption. I knew a lot of young girls who had abortions. It was normalised. Sorry but it was not some Utopia prior to AIDS (& I had two close male friends die of AIDS later also…).

    1. Sometimes tragically – not every man abides by that. Hence the warnings not to go to a man’s flat alone or have him to yours – early on. Hence date rape. And then there is also marital rape. So people don’t even always abide by that even inside what is meant to be a trusting relationship. Sorry to throw sand on your comment! But you know what I mean – no? There is the ideal & then the reality. Sadly.

  26. Great article. I’m a male college student and this speaks to me on many levels. I feel like I’ve had sex many times just because it seems like what you’re supposed to do in college or because I feel like I have to prove my masculinity in some way. But it’s hard for me to really think of a time where I’ve really, really wanted it, and especially of a time where I didn’t regret it 5 seconds afterwards. I think the best solution is communication, but that’s really difficult in this culture. After having sex with a new partner for the first time I’ll usually straight up ask them if it was good, what they liked, etc. and only get awkward yes or no responses. I don’t blame them, I think people have been conditioned in a certain way like you have said. But it’s hard to improve yourself without feedback. I hope this article really contributes to a discussion on this sort of thing.

    1. I’d encourage you to ask for feedback or create conversation during foreplay and sex, instead of after. And ask not just about yourself and how to improve your technique, but because you want to please your partner. Tgat can be the hottest sex. “do you like this?” “What do you like?” “I really like it when you touch me like this…”

  27. The thing is, I’ve only wanted sex in the way you described twice in my life. And I’m 36. I would have missed out on a lot of great sex if I’d waited for non-“bad sex”. That overwhelming level of desire doesn’t exist for everyone.

  28. Hi, I love, love, LOVE (did I mention that I love?) your article, but more so the way that you express yourself in a rational and thorough manner. This could be a potentially emotionally charged subject yet the way you addressed it is so relatable yet intelligent without being dense or overwhelming. I think your ideas are well thought out and expressed beautifully, and naturally the positive response you have received is on account of your successful execution.

    Thank you so much for expressing yourself…I have been searching for months for someone or anyone who was willing to define and discuss just a little bit about this blurred psychological line of unwilling consent women and men face in their personal lives.

    Do you know of any other writers or online communities who write about bad sex?

  29. “Women are as entitled to gratifying, safe, and yes, orgasmic sex as men are.”

    Yes, effort should be made to ensure that sex is gratifying, safe and orgasmic for women! But I can imagine a man reading the sentence above and thinking, “Well I am entitled to amazing sex, too.” I mean, the sentence implies that men are already entitled to sex (good, bad, whatever) in the first place. Which I know isn’t what you intended – but “entitled” is an insidious word. Men are socialized into feeling entitled to sex, and that’s reflected in the way we talk about it. You know, men just gotta have it. Or they’ll get blue balls, like you mention. Or worse. And sex is now commonly referred to as a human need… I sometimes wonder if the people who make these claims have ever heard of masturbation or nuns. Anyway, nobody is entitled to sex. Not even good sex. I think we need to be careful not to accidentally reinforce or lean on rape culture (in this case, male entitlement) when we discuss it.

    1. I don’t think she meant having sex as a right, I think she meant that if you want to have sex, and have consenting potential partners, the fact that you want to have sex and those partners exist doesn’t mean that you’re somehow obligated to have sex with them. You can turn people down and just have sex with the guy who wants to have sex with you that you actually really like. When you think “entitled” you might think “take without another person consenting”….when I think “entitled” in this context I think, am I really allowed to say no to one guy who is perfectly fine and yes to another who I actually really like? Am I entitled to make that kind of decision since, you know, I want to have sex anyway and there’s nothing wrong with that first guy? I think women often use the word entitle very differently than men do.

      1. In 2018, Can we please ditch this whole gender thing. Bad, unwanted sex is not a perspective unique to the female gender so why is it the focus of this article is driven with a female-centric view point. If our goal is to narrow the gap between men and women, wouldn’t it be smarter to have articles that showcase how we suffer from many of the same issues. As a man who identifies with a lot of “female-centric” issues, I find it frustrating that I’m able to identify, empathize and relate to a lot of these female issues but am often made to feel like my contributions are not welcome or that it isn’t my place to talk about my suffering and discomfort (two separate things, mental/physical discomfort isn’t the same as mental/physical harm/suffering). I feel both, so why is it I’m often left to stand alone in isolation because everyone wants to tell me I don’t have a dog in this race. I know Ella mentioned men go through these things too, but she made a piss poor attempt to bring men and women together on social issues we both suffer from. It’s almost as if she said “oh, men go through this too but that’s not important…”

        It’s just sad. I’m tired of feeling alone, isolate, discouraged and hopeless. Women aren’t the only ones suffering.

  30. Wow Important message, well described – it resonates as I reflect on all my sexual experiences. & Makes me think that “the pleasure principle” has not yet had its day in full sun — Thank you

  31. Thank you for being you. I have been reading your website since we went through a very similar experience with being diagnosed at the same time in our lives. Your essays helped me become me again. But your essays on every topic, not even close to just herpes, speak to me and I’m so grateful you’re still writing. Keep on inspiring people, your experiences are so valuable.

    This article is exactly what I experienced in college and I think many other women deserve to hear this and ask for more than just bad sex.

    1. you put into words – and very well – something that needed to be said! A whole new category of—-sex missteps or unempowered decision-making. It’s unfortunate that the Focus of sex education is on risks/ not pleasure! Huge omission Thank you for your open/honest insight
      Ella for surgeon general!!!

  32. Great essay. Sadly, many of us take charge and stop acquiescing to bad sex only to start again as we age, gain weight, and/or suffer depression or self-doubt. A lesson not only for the twenty-year-old but the fifty-year-old.

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