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Heather Corinna replies:
I'm 16 and my boyfriend is 17. We have been talking about having intercourse. It would be the first time for both of us. We've gradually gone over all the details with each other, and everything was fine until the question came up: Who's on top? Neither of us wants to be. His reasoning? He's lazy and inexperienced and doesn't know what he would do. My reasoning? If I'm on top, I have to do all the work, and that means I'm the only one who can mess it up. I have low self-esteem already, and the only thing that could make it lower would be not satisfying him. We're not sure what to do now. Who should be on top, or how can we settle this dilemma?
How about considering this in a different way?
If and when you do have intercourse, some of what I'm about to say will probably be a big duh; be things you'll find out for yourself. If you have already had other kinds of sex, you may know much of this already, but just not realize that as things tend to go with other kinds of sex, the same often goes with intercourse. A lot of people assume things are SO different with intercourse than other kinds of sex... until they start having intercourse. Then many folks will usually feel mighty silly for thinking it would be so different. That's okay: it's easy to get over feeling silly when you're enjoying yourself, after all. Plus, we'll feel silly about assumptions we make through most of our lives: sex is hardly the only place where that will happen.
You two are stressing about either something you don't need to stress about, or may be so focused on this one thing that's really a non-issue that you can't see the things that might be the real issues. So, even though I suspect you'll learn what I'm about to say on your own in time, I'll go ahead and fill you in anyway.
It's a tired cliché, but sex really is a lot like dancing. If we're dancing with someone, it's not like one person just stands there like a statue the whole time while the other jumps, shimmies and jiggles around them like they're trying to raise the dead. Instead, we move together, trying to gauge and flow with each other's rhythms, following or mirroring each others' steps. Sometimes someone will lead and the other person will follow, but the person who is following is still moving themselves and an equally active part of the dance. If we didn't do all of that, either we'd be standing there looking like we'd rather be somewhere else while another person had their boogie shoes on, or both folks would wind up with some seriously bruised feet.
When we dance, we won't often do just one step the whole time we're dancing: we'll tend to mix up a series of steps or movements, instead. Sometimes we make up or discover steps we didn't even know before: sometimes they're brilliant, and other times they're not so brilliant or result in a sprained ankle. Sometimes dancing will feel very effortless and symbiotic, while other times it can feel awkward and ungraceful. But we just feel it all out as we go, because unless we're in some kind of dance competition or are a primary dancer for the New York City Ballet, dancing is mostly and usually just about expressing and enjoying ourselves freely through movement, not about doing things right or wrong, or following a prescribed choreography.
In sex where both partners are and want to be active participants, it's rare any one person is huffing, puffing and doing "the work" while the other is just lying there prone, staring at the ceiling or filing his or her nails. Certainly, people can choose to do things that way -- sometimes people even enjoy setting up a sexual scenario where one person wants to/agrees to be still or passive while the other person does things to them for their enjoyment. One person in sex also may sometimes be exerting themselves more than a partner, either because of the activity, the position, or because different bodies have different abilities and limits. And by all means, if and when someone involved does not really want to be having sex at all, and is only complying with the other person out of fear, by force or because of feelings of obligation, then sure, it can happen that one person isn't actively engaging, no matter what position they're in.
But most of the time, when people want to have any kind of sex together, are mutually active participants and the sex they're having is about seeking pleasure, all the bodies involved are or can be active in many different ways. It can help to remember that our bodies aren't just genitals and then everything else in one big lump. Our genitals are only one of many potentially active parts or sets of parts; our feet, thighs, calves, bottoms, arms, eyes, hips, mouths, ears, tongues, hands and fingers, pelvis and abdomen, and a wide array of other parts are or can potentially be equally active players and components. Sex that is literally only genital not only is often impossible since our genitals can't do things without other parts coming into play, it also tends to be awfully boring for most people.
When we're having any kind of sex with someone, we won't often agree on or commit to one position for all of sex or all of any given kind of sex. Not only do we not need to, that often doesn't work out very well both per enjoyment, but also because these are human bodies we're talking about, not machines. Not everything is or stays comfortable during any kind of sex: we might get a leg or neck cramp, our hand might get tired, or we might need to change things up to get the kinds of sensations we like, especially since during our sexual response cycle, any one thing can tend to feel different as our arousal and sex continues. Rather than agreeing we'll do something one given way for all of sex, we'll instead feel things out and experiment as we go, and do what feels best for the both of us in any given moment as well as throughout the whole of any given time we're having any kind of sex.
To contextualize what I'm talking about, sometimes, one position might feel good the whole time (especially if "the whole time" is only a minute or two) and we'll stick with that or only slight variations to that -- like changing up where our arms or legs are or adjusting the tilt of our pelvis. Other times, we'll do this position, then switch into this one, then maybe adjust that one slightly, then go back to the other, then maybe try one more different position before we all feel done. Often enough, it's not just about switching positions for any given activity, but about switching up what we're doing per sexual activities. For example, a couple might make out for a while, then engage in some manual sex, then in some intercourse, then add a sex toy, then do some oral sex, then make out again and then move back to intercourse or manual sex. And during all of that switching around, more than one position may be involved for any of those activities.
When someone is on top and someone else is on the bottom that doesn't mean the person underneath isn't doing anything. I mean, it could be that way, but that sounds a lot more like masturbating on someone to me than it does having sex with someone. The person on the bottom can be, and often is, using their hands and legs to stimulate parts of their own body or parts of their partner's body, to provide balance or resistance (not the emotional kind: the kind where we push against someone because it feels good) for a given position, or to be part of the shared movement, such as both people rocking their pelvises in tandem. Of course, when genitals are involved, even if one person is lying very still, unless they are not at all sexually aroused, there are whole bunches of muscles around the genitals or which are part of the genitals that are engaged.
If either of you want a better idea of what I mean in a more tangible way, you might see if you can't find a yoga class nearby expressly for partners or a DVD that's yoga for two. For instance, who's on top in this asana? If your answer isn't no one (and if it is, good answer!), can you see how the person on the bottom has to be just as active and engaged with the person on top for that person to even be and stay on top? Can you see how both of them are using their bodies actively and interactively?
You talk about who is "doing the work." Thing is, sex that's about seeking and sharing mutual pleasure shouldn't feel like work. Sex isn't work at all, it's a grownup kind of play. It's something we do together mostly because it feels good, it's exciting, it''s fun, it reduces stress, it's a way we might bond or get to know or explore someone or ourselves. It's what we do to kick back, not a duty or a job. If and when something that's supposed to be about pleasure does feel like work, usually either someone does not really want to be doing it or something is otherwise amiss in a given situation, relationship or headspace.
So, if you two do have intercourse, who's on top? Whoever wants to be, for as long as that feels good to each of you. Maybe it's both of you, switching back and forth. Maybe no one is on top at all: maybe it's about who is behind who, or about the way you're next to each other having intercourse. There are many ways bodies can fit together, there are more than two sexual positions out there, and they aren't all about top/bottom. Even if and when they are, it doesn't mean only one person is doing something.
Please know that consensual sex truly is really hard to either mess up OR get absolutely right. During any kind of sex with someone else, we are experimenting: it's about process, not product.
Even when we get to know someone's body, sexual response and sexuality well, people don't tend to stay the same sexually their whole lives or even from day to day. What felt good on Tuesday may not feel like anything to write home about on Friday. We can have this sexual experience that felt pretty awesome, this one that was good, this one that was actually kind of ho-hum and that one that knocked our socks off, and all the ways those experiences can be those ways can vary. Sometimes sex is great, for instance, because we or a partner had a crazy-big orgasm, but other times it's great because we extended our arousal a really long time -- even if we never get off -- really connected or learned something new about ourselves. Sometimes it's so-so because one of us was more tired than we thought, because we're just not connecting well on that day, because we didn't have an orgasm when we wanted one or it was just hard to find what felt good. When people having sex together who both want to, and who like being together, it doesn't tend to either always be totally wrong or totally right, to always be good or to always be bad. None of those various and multifarious experiences we have with sex are usually complete screw-ups or award-winning: they're a range of different experiences we're pretty much bound to have because we're human and there's a lot going on in sex and with the people having it.
No one walks into sex with someone else knowing exactly what to do, either. There are people who think they do, sure, but those folks tend to be the folks we'll file as our least favorite lovers.
What tends to make someone a great sexual partner isn't usually knowing exactly what to do, but quite the opposite. Great sexual partners are more often people who know we can't ever know or predict exactly what to do, and who're copacetic with or enthusiastic about sexual improv; with being creative, flexible and spontaneous, and who are just as cool with finding out what doesn't work for themselves and someone else as they are finding out what does. Sex is not only something we learn: when we're doing it right, it's something we are always learning, where we never stop learning and stay ever open to learning more.
Of course, in some situations anyone can feel pressure to "do things right." If you or your partner find you're feeling that way, my best suggestion is to hold off on sex until you can both ditch that kind of pressure, whether it's coming from each other or from within your own heads. If we can be guaranteed of anything at all with sex, it's that we'll often be surprised and that things will often not be as we expect. While those surprises can include discovering something that feels amazing, or great satisfaction, they certainly also include times when the surprise is that something just doesn't feel so great, when someone who was in the mood stops being in it abruptly, or when sex just wasn't as satisfying as we wanted it to be. So long as we're in the right headspace to deal with the unexpected, that's usually not a big deal, but if we're not cool with surprises we want and also don't want, or feel a lot of pressure to have certain sexual outcomes, those surprises can be tough to weather.
I like to remind people that sex isn't a place of performance: it's a place for expression. Sometimes I give professional lectures. I am usually paid, I am expected to talk about a certain topic in a certain way, I need to wear something besides sweatpants and should probably take a shower first. I should try not to say "fuck" (even though I'm often talking about fucking). Even when I'm being real, lecturing is a performance. On the other hand, if I'm hanging out talking with my friends, I'm not paid. I can talk about anything I want, whether that's world peace or the hair on my toes. I can wear my sweatpants, don't have to take a shower, and I get to say fuck as much as I want. That situation is about expression. Sex isn't about giving a professional lecture: it's more like hanging out with your friends. If it feels like it can't be that relaxed and uncharted then something isn't sound, whether that's you not being in the right headspace or phase of life, a relationship or sexual situation not being right for you, or the way you or someone else conceptualizing sex is...well, not the kind of conceptualization that tends to lead to actually having a good time we feel good about.
I think it's totally possible both of you are just overthinking this; that if and when you have intercourse, it'll be obvious, everyone will feel fine, and even feel a lot better about this than you have been. But I also don't know much about you and know zip about your relationship. Lacking that larger context makes it hard for me to suss out if this is just about overthinking, or if maybe for one or both of you, you're just not in the right space for sex together yet or at all. I'd consult your head and your guts, especially after reading the things I've told you. If after reading all of this, you both feel completely chill now, it's probably all good. On the other hand, if you're still feeling conflicted or stressed, I'd take some time to think through things some more.
Based on what you've said, I'd first do a check-in, alone then together, about if you might be moving too fast, before you have had time for other kinds of sex to get familiar with a lot of the kinds of sexual dynamics I've been talking about. You might just need to slow down and take longer to get to intercourse or other kinds of sex. Or maybe you just need to hit the dance floor.
I'd consider what you said about your own esteem. Do you feel like your low self-esteem makes sex feel very precarious and uncomfortably emotionally risky for you? If so, I'd put your energy into working on your esteem now instead of into sex or a sexual relationship. In a lot of ways, sex with people can tend to require more self-esteem than it's able to provide. Sex can't really give us self-esteem. Even when it's great, and all we want it to be, it supports good esteem more than it gives it out. If our esteem is very low, it is hard for it to feel good, for us to be honest and open, to ask for what we want, to do the kind of sexual improv I talked about up there, and to accept all the imperfection and awkwardness that can tend to be part of sex, especially when it or a partner are new to us.
Are these kinds of arguments, especially around sex, common for the two of you? If they are, you might want to either re-evaluate this relationship full-stop, and hang off on pursuing sex further in it, or have some more talks together about the real issues, not about who is going to be in what position. For instance, since you both voice fears about "messing up," how about reassuring each other that you're both going to be learning, and so long as you're communicating, no one is doing something the other doesn't want, and you're both following what feels good, it really is okay. How about reminding each other that the learning process of sex is supposed to be the fun part? Or even that any "errors" can be fun in their own way? Sex mishaps or missteps will often make for some of the best stories of your life and some of the funniest, most real moments in any relationship. Trust me on this. They're comic gold.
I also feel a partner saying they're "lazy" from the onset might, knowingly or unknowingly, either be voicing that they're not all that interested in sex -- especially shared sex with a partner, where they do need to be actively engaged with the other person -- or be giving you a cue they're probably not ready to be a good sexual partner. Someone looking to opt out from doing their part before you even get started, and being very candid about it, no less, could be a pretty clear signal that this just isn't someone to be having sex with right now. Is he "lazy" or unengaged in other kinds of sex? If you don't know that yet, experiment with those kinds first and see. If you do know that already, figure that expecting anything different with intercourse is probably expecting too much. If you already don't feel so good about yourself, having a partner who isn't engaging with you during sex or who just wants to get off for themselves is only going to make you feel worse. Your partner may also be expressing what he is the way he is because it's much less scary to say than "I'm so terrified I'll muck this up, make an arse of myself and disappoint you." No matter what's at the heart of his expressing feeling lazy and that he doesn't know what he's doing, I'd try and talk it out to find out before you get sexual.
So, think about all of this, talk about all of this, and see where you both land now that you've got some new things to know, consider and discuss. Just like there's no "right" way to have sex, there's also no right answer here: the best you can both do is to be honest with yourselves and each other, make the choices that feel most right to both of you right now, and figure and feel this all out as you go along. I'm going to leave you with my best wishes and some links to look at that I think you could both potentially benefit from: