Heather Corinna replies:
Some folks have the idea -- usually before they have any or some kinds of sex with a partner, or when the only kinds of sex they've had have been when one or both partners either feel uncertain, not ready or just aren't all that excited and aroused -- that you can divide any kind of sex with partners into an issue of one person being active (or "doing the work") and the other is passive (or "just lying there").
But when any two people (or more) are passionate about each other and the sex they're having, into and comfortable with partnered sex, and enjoying the sex they're having, that just isn't how it usually happens. When we're really all into it and enjoying ourselves, it's pretty hard to tell if any one person is more active than the other, just like when two people really good at dancing together, it can be hard to tell who, if either of them, is leading.
For example, if you're asking about penis-in-vagina intercourse where a woman is on top, what you'll usually experience is the female partner moving back and forth or up and down, grinding her pelvis against her partner's. She might also be using her arms, shoulders and back the way one does when doing a pushup. She might be using her knees or feet to push her body back and forth. And don't forget: the vagina, all by itself, is an active muscle. It grips what it around it: it doesn't just hang out and whistle Dixie while things happen to it. Her partner may be gripping her waist or hips with his hands to pull and push her as well, and may be moving his hips beneath her in tandem. He might even be using his hands to rub her clitoris or massage her buttocks or breasts at the same time.
To give you a better idea of how this passive/active thing isn't what goes on, here are a few more examples:
In case it isn't obvious, that doesn't mean that in any of these scenarios any given person has to be doing all of that. Some people have disabilities which restrict their movement in some way, some people may even role-play having one partner be immobile or passive sometimes, and sometimes, any one partner is a little more active in a given way than another. That's all okay and all those situations are also possibilities for healthy, satisfying and consensual sex. As well, there's more than one way to be active and all-there with sex: we can also be so verbally as well as physically. But overall, both partners should usually be pretty equally engaged and active together.
See how in those examples, while there can be receptive partners in terms of whose genitals are being engaged or given focus, or partners whose genitals are taking in or filling up some part of the other, it doesn't make sense to think of one partner as active, and another passive? When we're all really into what we're doing and sex is feeling great, it's kind of like that feeling sometimes when you're just so darn happy, you've got to jump up and down; you often can't help but move and groove with it.
If you do ever find yourself in a situation where you or your partner are being very passive or seem/feel immobile, you'll want to stop what you're doing and check in with them and/or yourself.
People who behave that way during sex often do so because they are fearful, nervous, aren't experiencing pleasure or because they don't really want to be having the sex that they are. So, if and when you experience something like that, take a pause and have a chat with your partner, making sure that you're both having the kind of sex you and s/he are really interested in, only if and when you both wants to, and that you both really wants to be doing what you are. If you or they need anything additional to feel more comfortable or good, you can reassure one another about sharing that, and communicate what you need to each other. If, no matter what, a partner or you aren't responsive physically or verbally with this kind of situation, you just want to stop having sex, period. The only healthy time to be sexual with someone else is when you're both keyed up, turned on and open enough to each other to really be engaged in and fully present for what you're doing.
I really hope that whatever kind of sex you have with someone else, it never feels like work for either of you! Sex with a partner is about play, about communion, about both partners kind of crawling inside one another to explore something deep, intimate and pleasurable, no matter what kind of relationship you're in. Partnered sex is like an adult version of a pillow fight or a ticklefest. If it ever feels like a drag or like it takes a lot of boring effort to be enjoyable, I hope you'll remember that it really shouldn't and revisit your partnerships, your and their motivations for sex, and whatever it is you both do together to find a shared sex life that's always enjoyable and never a burden.
Here are a few more links to drive all of this home: