Vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, placing fingers inside a vagina or anus, fellatio (blowjobs), in plenty of ways with cunnilingus (oral sex for women), and even kissing with your tongue are all some ways we might enter someone else's body or have someone else enter our own.
Some people boil these and other activities down to requiring just a no or a yes. Others might take a few more sound steps past that point and talk about how we need to be sure not to be too rough or aggressive, or be cautious of someone else's comfort. Plenty of people are concerned with the "right" way to do any of these activities when it comes to their pleasure or that of a partner, or hung up on how to do what to bring about orgasm. We’d agree with all of those things as important -- both consent as well as a mindfulness of a partner’s desires, likes, preferences, and limits -- but would also say there's even more to it than that. Way more to it.
It's entirely possible that what we say here is going to sound really crunchy granola, but sometimes that's how it is.
From both our personal experiences of our own varied sex lives, and in our work in sexuality with many other people, it seems pretty clear that really letting someone into an internal space in your body, or going into someone else's insides -- which we know might sound a little gross, but that is what's going on with this stuff -- is a fairly big deal for many people. Heck, there's a reason that we usually kiss people in our families or platonic friends differently than we kiss sexual or romantic partners. There's a reason why so many people get so freaked out about seeing the gynecologist, but not about seeing the eye doctor. It seems obvious when you put it out there like that, but it’s one of those things that people don’t often think that consciously about.
We seem to be taught little about how we extend ourselves physically to other people and respond to others. We will often hear a lot about the actual mechanics of sex, and some basic emotional aspects, but very rarely are even invited to consider the metaphysics of sex -- literally meaning, what is above or beyond the physical.
The basics we get as children about touching other people are usually a whole lot of don’ts: don't push, don't shove, don't hit, don't bite, don't touch without asking first. The positives we get are often really vague: be nice, be gentle, or even the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But, really, there's a whole lot missing in all of that, particularly in what it doesn't tell us about how to inter-react and interconnect. The basics we are getting are very much about the surface, rather than about our insides and other people's insides.
If you've done any study of martial arts, particularly arts like Aikido, based in blending your own motions with those of another and using someone's momentum by turning with it, not pushing through it, what we're talking about probably is something you understand well. When we willingly interlock parts of our bodies sexually -- even when someone isn't going inside someone else, but all the more so when that is happening -- we've moved past constructing sexual interaction as an individual experience or something we view as merely about parts and mechanics; it becomes an intricate play between energies, motion, and responding within an environment of shared space and experience.
You probably already know that lots of folks class vaginal intercourse as the only "real" sex, or as the kind of sex which is the most intimate. But we know that not everyone agrees on exactly what constitutes “sex," and that there are many ways people are intimate and sexual, and we can't say, unilaterally, that any one kind of sex is more real, or more intimate, for everyone. While we certainly know that there is nothing any more or less real about vaginal intercourse (or any kind of sex that involves someone’s something going into someone else’s somewhere), we can still recognize that, for some, there can be differences between sex where we are entering someone else’s body or allowing someone else in, and sex where we are literally just on the surface of someone's body or someone is on the surface of ours.
Plenty of people do experience something like intercourse or fingering or fellatio differently than they experience other activities in at least one way which we think makes a lot of sense. What makes intercourse different from someone massaging someone's breasts? How about what makes having someone's fingers in your vagina or anus -- or putting your fingers in those spaces in someone -- different than rubbing a penis or a clitoris? For that matter, what can make fellatio different from cunnilingus, despite the fact than they're both oral sex and so similar in so many ways?
We’d posit that what all those activities have in common is that the people involved are interlocking their bodies in a way where one person is, quite literally, entering another person's body.
But why could that difference be important? Why deconstruct that or spend any time bothering to think about it? Heck, can’t we just do it instead of obsessively considering what it all could possibly mean? Well, we could, but we want to recognize that sex is inherently a pretty complicated thing; it involves so many body systems, interactions, communication, and messages that discussion is warranted. Knowing ourselves, and being able to communicate about our own and our partners’ bodies and desires, is a big part of healthy, beneficial sex.
Let's bear in mind that:
All or all of these are some possible reasons why entry into someone else’s body, or having someone else enter our body, may carry a lot of emotional weight and can be a pretty big deal for one partner or everyone involved. But if we think about it even further, and bring it back to the most essential of concepts, our bodies are an integral part of what we have ownership of as human beings. In life we cannot always control everything, influence the outside world in the ways we’d like to, or control other people. We have our values. We have our beliefs and morals. We have our brains and decision-making abilities. And, of course, we have our bodies.
What we do with our bodies can often be a point of contention between families and kids and young adults. Developmentally it’s appropriate that we want to assert some independence and control over our lives and bodies as we move through adolescence. We know that sexuality gets very tied up in this process. If you look at the raging political and social debates of our times, so often they can be traced back to sexuality, bodies, and control. We debate about abortion and the right to choose, about the age at which someone can consent to sex or medical care, about school dress codes and the age at which it’s okay to get a tattoo or get pierced.
But regardless of laws or cultural or religious values, it is hoped -- and ideal -- that we still have autonomy, a sovereign, inarguable ownership in and with our bodies. One of the many reasons that sexual assaults are so violating is that they often leave the survivor feeling very disconnected from her or his own body, in part because someone else took it from them, or took it over without it having been willingly and freely shared. There are also other experiences in life that can result in any of us feeling disconnected from our bodies, including negative body image, bullying, eating disorders, or low self-esteem. Even puberty can create feelings of disconnection because the bodies we have known for so long get pretty different pretty fast, and are viewed by other people differently than they used to be when we were kids. No matter how you look at it, or what the cause is, disconnection from the body can have a huge impact on one’s whole functioning, not only sexual functioning and sexuality.
When we have ownership over our bodies, we can choose how we express ourselves and have more agency over pleasure, how we relate with others, and who we want to let in. When we do have real ownership of our bodies, choosing to invite and allow someone inside of us, or entering inside someone else who has freely made that choice, is powerful. Small stuff this ain't.
Letting someone enter us physically requires that we trust them to accept us for who we are, with all our imperfections. Letting someone enter into our bodies requires that we both know and believe that this person will not hurt us. It means that we are allowing someone to literally be taken inside of us and, for that time, be a part of our physical makeup. This might sound a little hokey, but entrance into another body — whether you are inviting it for yourself or someone else is inviting you inside of them — is often a profound moment of connection. While all sexual activity, regardless of whether or not there is entry present, is an opportunity for this sort of connection, physically crossing into and entering into another body can be highly emotional for a lot of people. But it’s easy to forget or overlook that when you’re busy thinking about everything else, like how to physically go about it or how you’re performing or whether or not you’re “doing it right”.
That also means that when someone else is letting us into their body that we are being trusted to be respectful and aware that the person we are entering is in a position of some vulnerability, probably greater than ours as the enter-er. It means when we are entering someone's body, if we're really considering that other person, we are going to want to have an awareness about the fact that someone is letting us be, very literally, a part of their body for a while, connected to them in a number of ways, some or all of which may feel very deep to them.
With any bodily orifice, we're not talking about something that is passive or just lying around. Body parts exist within relationship to other body parts, within relationship to complex bodily systems, reactions, and interactions. The mouth is active and full of muscles. The vagina is a muscle. The anal sphincters, anus, and rectum are muscles. And with any of those parts, if we're really paying attention rather than going into our own heads or focusing only on our own bodies, we can feel when they are really are opening up to us and when they are not.
For instance, we can feel, with our genitals, when a mouth is sucking us in: most people have an easy-enough time knowing and feeling that. But the same goes with vaginas or anuses: be it with fingers, a penis, a mouth or tongue, or a sex toy, those muscles can create resistance (a pushing out) or an acceptance (a pulling in). Sometimes those sensations are more subtle or tougher to discern than others, but those body messages are there and most of the time, with some focus and awareness, we really can feel them. Sometimes those sensations aren't subtle at all, and we can feel a very strong gripping or pulling by someone's vagina or anus.
When you're being invited inside someone else's body, here are some basics to keep in mind:
Often enough -- and probably just because so few people are reared with any discussion of this -- we might experience, or hear others talk about, pretty clear dismissal of these body signals. For instance, we can probably agree that way too many women have first intercourse stories where their vaginas were resisting entry, and their partners just kept pushing at the opening without conscious regard to the fact that perhaps the moment was not right, or perhaps something was going on emotionally that was keeping the mechanics from going as desired. When both partners don't realize that these signals exist -- or think entry is supposed to hurt -- it can be really easy to wind up in that kind of situation.
This also isn't always just about a partner being aggressive, unaware, or disrespectful; plenty of women expect first intercourse to happen just like that. When it comes to vaginal entry, even when partners are noticing the resistance and the discomfort a female partner is feeling and ask if they should stop, their partner may say no if she thinks this is just how things go. So many people of all genders have internalized this script of how first intercourse should go and see it as something that you just need to “get through” because it’s going to result in pain, bleeding, discomfort, or any number of other less-than-desirable outcomes. Some folks even believe that if they don’t experience those seemingly negative outcomes then they must not really have had sex, or something is somehow wrong with them or their partner.
We also get questions from men and women about this regarding anal sex. Sometimes they want to know about creams or products that will supposedly numb them to make anal entry not hurt at all. Products such as those are actually quite dangerous, as they prevent us from listening to our bodies and being able to respond accordingly. With any kind of entry, your body will send you messages and guide you in how it needs to go. Numbing out — whether physically or emotionally — means that you can’t receive and respond to those messages. We don’t need creams or other products to numb ourselves; instead we need to find ways to feel comfortable with ourselves, communicate with our partners, and get to the place where our bodies and minds are both relaxed and in a good place to move forward with any sort of sexual activity.
When we really are connecting with someone else, letting them be really inside us, or being really inside them we can't be checked out. We're not talking about “checking out” in terms of scoping out how attractive someone is, but rather “checking out” as a state in which we are not fully emotionally and physically present. In other words, we are unlikely to be tuned into the messages our bodies, and our partners’ bodies, are sending if – for whatever reason — we cannot fully be engaged and mindful in the moment. To be that interconnected you are probably going to need to feel pretty close to someone, and have them feel pretty close to you.
Some people -- or some people, sometimes -- can feel like sexual activity which involves entry into their bodies feels limiting or objectifying when that's the only part of their bodies being paid any attention. Remember that sex and sexuality is way bigger than any one small part of your body or someone else's, and try and keep your focus pretty holistic: on someone's whole self, not just one orifice or body part. By all means, if in your sexual communication a partner asks to just have one part focused on, it's all good, but I'd say it's better to err on the side of all-of-you than some-of-you.
Bearing some of this in mind can also explain why sometimes these kinds of sex don't "work" or feel good even when it seems like everything else is in place: we like or love each other a lot, we're all aroused, we're all relaxed, no one has an infection or other medical issue, there's plenty of lubricant, we've engaged in other sexual activities first that were not about entry and feel really good.
When all of that is on the table, but entry is painful or uncomfortable, or just doesn't feel emotionally or physically right, that likely has something to do with just not being in the kind of space to have someone inside our body at that time, or to enter into someone else's. That could be for of a whole host of reasons. Maybe a person isn't feeling a real equality in it when it comes to them letting someone in and not being let in the other in the same way. Maybe a person is feeling a bit too vulnerable at a time for that extra vulnerability, perhaps due to a relationship conflict, a self-esteem issue, or just feeling very emotionally delicate at a given time. Perhaps there are worries about the physical setting, and whether it is safe or private enough. There may be worries about or conflicts with one’s values, and an uncertainty about whether your desires are in alignment with your beliefs about sex, or certain types of sex. That might be because you or your partners haven't yet really wanted, or been totally open to, entry into the body. It may be because things are so new and everyone is so keyed up and nervous that you either just haven't been able to really hone in on anything more than very general sensation, or your partners haven't been able to relax enough and take enough time to really listen to their bodies or inquire about yours. All of these issues can play a part in our readiness or enthusiasm in the moment, even when it feels like we really WANT to go ahead and engage in a particular activity or kind of sex.
Just like we always suggest deferring to the partner who doesn't want to do something when it comes to sex -- in other words, that a no always trumps a yes -- we'd suggest keeping the same kind of dynamic at heart with entering someone's body. If someone you are entering voices something feeling painful or uncomfortable -- physically or emotionally – then whatever you are doing needs to stop and partners need to check in. The comfort of all partners matter, though, and it's important for each person to voice what they need or want. All of this isn't just about the enter-ee. A partner who is giving fellatio can absolutely bite or be sucking too hard, or for anal or vaginal intercourse be moving too quickly, deeply, or roughly (or too slow or not hard enough, for that matter). The partner who is inserting his or her fingers in manual sex be moving in a way that cramps the heck out of his or her hand.
Our partners will not automatically know what we are thinking or feeling. We talk here about being open to bodily signals, to be focusing on the whole person and open to receiving messages about pleasure or physical comfort—even if these messages are not the ones we want to be hearing. But, again, any time we are sharing our bodies with another person, entering or being entered, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, then communication needs to happen on multiple levels if we expect to really know what's going on with each other.
There are debates within different feminist perspectives about how we construct the ideas of entry and intercourse, and whether these actions can ever truly be based in equality. Some feminists argue that patriarchy has institutionalized both intercourse and sex as a whole, making it not about merging or sharing of pleasure, but about dominating someone and expressing power over someone, particularly when you look at intercourse between individuals that could possibly result in pregnancy.
Plenty of men have been reared with these kinds of ideas about sex so intensely and unilaterally that they either don’t know that it’s not about conquering or forcing their way into someone or something, or, if they do realize that this is not an accurate portrayal of sex, it can still take some time for them to relearn sexuality outside of that limited and dangerous construction. Women, too, have received these messages, and some will still hold closely to the idea that they should play a certain role in relationships or sexuality, or that they are obligated to “do one’s duty” as a romantic or sexual partner.
But is mindfully entering into a woman's body, or anyone’s body, who WANTS you there, with respect, a violation? If so, how? There seem to be some profound flaws in some theories which critique these kinds of sex and suggest it is violating, flaws which include heterosexism (as men can be entered, too), dismissal of the fact that a woman's body is not passive (again, our mouths or vulvas and vaginas or anuses don't "just lay there" when we are excited and wanting a given kind of sex), and, at times, an assumptions that relationships between genders can never come from true respect and equality.
Too, heterocentrisim (the way that we default our concept and construction of the world to assume heterosexuality in everyone and every interaction) and gender normativity (the common but limited belief that there are two and only two genders, and that each gender has specific roles that they “should” play or perform in life) have played a part in how we understand intercourse, entering another body, or being entered. Many men avoid or do not know what it's like to have someone enter their bodies due to homophobia or what they have learned about masculinity. If we have been taught that only women should receive or be entered, then what does that mean if we identify as male and we are entered? This can create complicated feelings that are not always easily resolved or even identified; we must ask ourselves what it means to do a certain kind of sexual activity, or how that activity impacts our identities.
Heterocentrism also makes it really easy to skew this conversation to only be about heterosexually-identified people who were assigned male at birth (and who still identify as male) with people who were assigned female at birth (and who still identify as female). Heterocentrism can mean that we often default to viewing penis-in-vagina sex as “real” sex, and anything else as somehow less or not valid even though they really are mighty similar and have some very important things in common.
All of that said, we know that some people feel conflicted about being entered or entering people sexually, be it with fellatio or intercourse or with hands because they worry those activities are, in and of themselves, about rape or domination. What we posit about that is that most kinds of physical actions don't have a quality all by themselves; they are attached to emotions, to thoughts, to intentions, to relationships, and to communication. So, if in doing these things, no one is LOOKING to violate someone, to force their way into someone else’s body and emotional space – and, importantly, that a given activity has been communicated about and consented to with all involved parties — then we believe that there is no inherent violation present. As good and healthy sexual partners, we need to be clear and honest in both intention and action, meaning well and also doing well by our partners.
So where does this leave us? When we move beyond the mechanics and how-to of all of this, what meaning do we give to this idea of entering a body (our own or a partner’s), or sharing our amazing insides with another person? Why can this particular brand of sharing ourselves sometimes feel like a way huger deal than other kinds of sexual acts? How do we become better sexual partners, able to recognize messages that our partners’ bodies may be sending, how our own bodies are acting and reacting, and what all of the means in terms of what the heck to do with someone?
If nothing else, we need to acknowledge and respect the simple fact that no kind of sex is simple or merely physical or surface. Whether with more casual partners or big loves of our lives, “sex” can be as much an emotional process, a spiritual state of being, an intense vulnerability and place of connection as it can be about getting off or releasing tension. Learning to attune and attend to these different levels takes practice, and often takes our own individual work to figure out whether we personally have barriers to being fully present in our sex lives, and with our own bodies.
The whole of our sexuality can never be summed into one particular activity, or genre of sexual behavior. This is to say that intercourse, entry, or however you choose to label that variety of interaction, is one piece of a whole, one part of our sexual scripts and behaviors. This type of interaction can often be held up as the pinnacle of what sex truly “is”, or somehow the most important aspect of it, but we would like to challenge that notion. If, in our partnerships and sexual pairings, we are so focused on getting to one particular activity or type of activity, or trying to make our sex lives all about that particular activity, we are missing out on experiencing the broader aspects of sexuality and the diversity of ways in which we can interact with our partner or partners. So, sure, entry can be a really big deal, and be different from other kinds of sex, and we might feel differently with it than other kinds of sex.
But sex is not always linear, and each person will have a comfort level and personal view of what sexual activities feel more intense than others. As much as sometimes it feels like it’d be nice to have an outline, a bullet pointed list of steps that tell us what to do, at what speed and with what intensity, to result in the perfect sexual experience, this just does not exist. As we challenge ourselves to learn and respond to the body of another, to truly listen to ourselves, we will likely find that having a specific sexual goal in mind, such as intercourse or entry, takes a back seat to staying in the moment and responding to the particular cues and communication present from our partner in that particular moment.
Lest we unintentionally send an inaccurate message, this is not to say that if the bodily signals are there (erection, lubrication, a flushed face or chest, increased swelling around the genitals, increased heart rate—all of which can be signals of arousal) then all systems are a go and you have complete liberty to do as you may with your partner. Nope. All of the signals need to be in alignment, and indicators of bodily readiness can only take on meaning in the presence of verbal consent. Consent is not simply the absence of NO; it’s an active statement of yes, and a freely given and enthusiastic YES at that.
In many ways, our bodies are hard wired to respond in certain ways. It is possible that even if you do not want to be participating in a given activity that you will lubricate, or you’ll get an erection, or your body will otherwise show some signs of arousal. This can be a challenge to understand and accept; many survivors of sexual assault are told that they “must have wanted it” because they showed signs of arousal, or because they had an orgasm as a result of assault or abuse. For guys in particular, there is a huge cultural belief that if you had an erection that you invariably “wanted” and consented to whatever happens next. Particularly in these sorts of situations that some folks have experienced, where our bodies react one way and our minds another, it’s important to note that body signals and indicators of arousal must be accompanied by verbal consent. When we talk about reading your partner’s signals and listening to what your body is telling you, all of this is one piece of a much larger system and interaction. It takes a lot of presence of mind and heart to be able to put it all together, but it is possible...and, we believe, well worth it.
If you want one Golden Rule on this, whether we're talking about someone's mouth, vagina or anus, remember that an orifice itself is part of a whole person, a person who is also just as actively engaged in sex as the person putting any given body part into that orifice. In other words, people's openings (or the rest of their bodies) aren't just there for us to be using to get off on or with, nor are they "just holes." Really connecting in these ways, any two people earnestly being this open to each other, doesn't tend to often instantly happen in a relationship, and are not things that can be rushed, faked, or acknowledged and then instantly obtained.
Really, all this stuff takes time. And practice. And patience.
As we move beyond the physical, beyond the mechanics, and beyond the hype, we’re left with ourselves and our beliefs and values. We, at Scarleteen, believe that you are capable of making good decisions, and that the best decisions are made when you have good information at hand, and all of the means to explore your own belief and value sets. So, then, you might consider some important questions for yourself:
It is very unlikely for any of us to want just anyone to enter our bodies all willy-nilly. It is also unlikely for any of us to always be in the headspace where we are letting someone into our bodies, or are feeling as if we are comfortable and confident enough to enter into someone else’s. But as we move through these considerations, within ourselves and within the context of sexual relationships with others, we will invariably start to learn to be mindful and more compassionate towards ourselves and our partners. As we focus on our whole bodies and how we can truly be present -- and to what degree -- and at one with our sexuality, we can experience both more pleasure and also more satisfaction from the encounters we choose, embrace, to which we enthusiastically say YES.
We're not all that keen on the term “penetration” to describe activities like vaginal or anal intercourse or manual sex (fingering) in part because of what that word suggests. It does tend to present a dynamic of someone just doing something to someone else rather than people doing something together. It can present the person being entered as a passive recipient, not someone who has equal agency, desire or participation within a sexual experience. At Scarleteen we believe that all positive sexual experiences happen within a context of mutuality, where all involved parties are on the same page, and one partner is not holding power over another.
The wording and construct of “penetration” can imply that one person is pushing through or into another, often by overcoming resistance. In some contexts, that word can deny or make invisible the fact that while, indeed, sometimes that can be how an encounter goes – particularly when we’re talking about rape rather than consensual partnered sex – that’s not actually what is going on when sex is wanted by all partners, and everyone is emotionally present and bodies are fully engaged.
That said, here are some thoughts about other words or phrases to try on that may be more descriptive of what we want out of sexual entry.
For instance, instead of saying penetration, we might say merging, togethering, interlocking, clasping, holding, joining. Intercourse is actually a pretty great term (and isn't limited to use with penis-in-vagina intercourse, either), and very nicely describes the kind of interweaving--physically and metaphysically--that happens when we enter someone else's body or welcome them into ours.
Instead of saying "receptive," when we talk about the partner who is being entered, we might say that a partner and their body are welcoming, yielding, inviting, taking in, enfolding, embracing. Heck, even "entry" is a bit limited. We're short of language for so much of what we're talking about here in large part because for such a long time the ways that we’ve talked about sex were (and in many ways still are) all caught up in the politics of separateness, inequality, of conquering, and of power-over rather than power shared. When we look at who, historically, has had the power to make decisions about their own sexuality, and who has shouldered the burden of responsibility and consequence when it comes to sex, we see that the language we’ve used has largely come from a place and politic that does not represent equality between sexes or within sexual roles, nor one that respects the diversity of sex, gender identity, orientation, or experiences that we’ve had.
When we start to think about sexual entry (and sex in general) differently, with more nuance, and on deeper levels than we're often presented with in much of what we hear about sex, we might discover that the language we used to use doesn't fit so well anymore, but feels limiting or inaccurate. Sometimes, shifting our language can help shift our brains which can help shift our experiences.
Whatever your experiences of sexual entry have been so far, whether you see or experience entry as something sacred or casual, uplifting or just something that you felt like doing, it's pretty safe to say that when most people choose to have any kind of sex they are often hoping for an experience which has something profound about it, on any number of (or all) levels. Time and time again we hear from Scarleteeners that there was so much build-up around having sex for the first time, and they were disappointed at the "So what? Is this it?" feeling they had afterwards.
We're not suggesting that every act of sexual entry will be the single-most mind-blowing, spiritually earth-shattering moment you've ever experienced; that's not realistic. But we would like to suggest that there is limitless possibility when you combine bodies, energies, intents, and emotions. This is something that does not tend to fade with time -- but instead, tends to grow -- nor will it necessarily be immediately apparent, or apparent with all partners at all times. We believe that our bodies hold a great deal of wisdom, if only we could pause to listen. When we get beyond mechanics, beyond logistics and beyond preconceptions, we can open up the potential to greet some of the richer aspects of entry. So, have a think on this one, and see if you can't start to attune yourself to the subtler messages of your own body and those of others, and, when you or someone else are knocking on the doors to enter, meet yourself and your partners with compassion, patience, and open hearts and minds.