When Sex "Just Happened" (And How to Make It Happen Instead)
"It just happened."
This is something I hear often from some readers and users at Scarleteen. That sex, consensual sex, sex they expressed wanting at the time, wasn't something a person actually, actively made choices with and participated in, but something that "just happened."
But when sex with a partner, of any kind, is consensual, it doesn't "just happen" to anyone involved. Consensual sex is something we actively do: if we're not actively doing it, it can't happen. It's something people decide, when they decide to, to actively make together. It can't "just happen," just like dinner doesn't just happen: someone's got to have made or found dinner for there to be dinner at all.
It's not like someone is just walking by, then trips onto someone else who was just minding their own business playing Angry Birds, everyone's clothes magically fall off, and then HOLY CRAP! WE'RE HAVING SEX! Just like eating isn't something that happens to us, but is something that we do, or writing a book isn't something that magically happens (if only!) but is something we have to intentionally do, so it is with consensual sex. Consensual sex isn't whatever songs come up when we have an iPod set on random shuffle: it's an intentional mix tape we make, bearing in mind what we know everyone listening likes and doesn't like.
Now, if everyone felt just fine about sex being something that felt like it "just happened," I'd not be saying anything about this. But more times than not, most of the time, at least one person isn't left feeling fine at all, or there have been things that happened with that "just happened" sex which created big physical or emotional risks or negative outcomes, which often do, like the absence of contraception or safer sex (and sometimes the result of an unintended pregnancy or an STI), a lack of making sure a person was having sex in the kind of relationship they only feel comfortable having sex within, or the expectation, which turned out to be false, of a certain kind of care, safety or cooperation in managing feelings or physical issues that came about during or after sex, be those pregnancy scares, conflict with family or friends or feelings of vulnerability.
Sometimes what happens is that sex with someone that gets into a pattern of "just happening," at some point crosses the line from dubiously consensual to being absolutely nonconsensual. In some ways, some of this "just happening" stuff can set a stage or create a general dynamic that's more supportive of sexual abuse or assault than of a healthy, consensual sex life. It certainly also better supports a sexuality that feels like it doesn't really belong to you than one which does, and feeling like your sexuality really isn't yours, or isn't something you have real ownership of is an excellent recipe for a crummy sexual life you frequently feel crummy about.
There's a big meme in a lot of our cultures that says that sex is only hot when it feels like it just happened to us and our partners; when throughout, there's a sense of wild abandon, a lack of control, an effortlessness, or when someone is being, or feels like they're being, taken or surrendered in some way.
Some of that meme is crap, and some of it is even bullshit of the worst possible kind: the kind that enables and excuses rape and other abuse, that presents sex or sexuality as something that is out of everyone's control and which we all need to be afraid of, a collective vulnerability some big groups have exploited throughout history -- and are still exploiting now, and boy howdy, do you know about that if you're a young person -- to socially control or oppress people.
On the other hand, some of that meme is about some of the good stuff people often want from sex that not only doesn't hurt anyone, but is beneficial for everyone involved: an escape from the more stressful parts of life, for instance, or from negatives we might often experience or feel about our bodies or minds. An ease. A place or way to feel free or less guarded. A safe way to explore parts of ourselves we wouldn't bring to dinner with anyone's parents. A way to be vulnerable with someone else where we and our partners might well be giving or sharing parts of ourselves to each other we often keep just to ourselves. An adult way to play like we played in other ways as kids, where we do things on the fly, forget who we are a little bit, and get totally caught up in the play to the point where we almost forget about everything else, like what time we were supposed to be home for dinner or that we're not, as it turns out, in an actual castle, but instead are playing inside a cardboard box.
There's no need to get all judgy about anyone who wants to enjoy or experience spontaneity, or a feeling of surrender, freedom or abandon in their sexual life. There's nothing that isn't okay about enjoying those things or wanting those kinds of experiences.
The good news is that whatever good feelings we can have or enjoy from that general feeling of sex "just happening," are things we can still have when we're all being a lot more intentional, and when we all have real control in and of sexual experiences and interactions. We have the capacity to have sex that feels like a lot of it's just happening in the good ways -- where plenty of it feels spontaneous, and like we can let ourselves go in it, or float in it -- while it's all also what we've mutually, consensually and actively chosen, both at the time and in advance. We can feel out of control with something while still actually being in control, and if you don't believe me, ask a professional skydiver, a musician or a dancer.
Before I say anything else, I want to make sure one big thing is clear: Sometimes someone feels like sex was something that just happened to them because they were sexually abused or assaulted. They don't feel like they had any say because they didn't. They don't feel like they were an active participant in sex because they weren't. They don't feel they had any real control over the situation because they didn't: the other person took it all. They might not even feel like they were even really there because they were so disregarded by the other person, as someone being abused or assaulted IS disregarded by the person abusing or assaulting them. They might not feel like they were really there because at some point, they tuned out because being fully present was much too painful, physically, emotionally, or both.
I'm talking about consensual sex or the aim of consensual sex by all parties in this piece. I'm not talking about abuse or assault. But sexual abuse or assault certainly are things where it very much can feel like sex "just happened" to the person who has been abused or assaulted, and we know it's often the case, particularly for the youngest people, that sex that feels like it just happened wasn't consensual and is assault or abuse.
If none of what's below rings true to you, but some of what I just said now does? Then it's likely that little to nothing below are things that, if you had only done them, would have prevented what did, in fact, happen to you: not doing any of the things below doesn't make abuse or assault your fault. It's one thing to feel like things are out of control when they're not, but it's something else entirely to feel like things just happened to us that really were not our choices, that really was not within our control. If you want to talk about an experience with abuse or assault, figure out if that's something that happened to you -- whatever your gender, as this by no means is just about girls -- and get help finding help or support, let us know, and we can help you with that.
I tend to think of the sense that consensual sex is "just happening" as a big clue that a person needs to do some checking in, increase their awareness around their sexual choices, sexual relationships or interactions, and the way they're constructing, creating or doing their sexual lives and make some positive, empowering changes. In other words, I think of it as an opportunity to get more clear on what's going on that's not so great so that your sexual life can get a lot better: get richer, become more enjoyable, be more emotionally sound and feel-good for everyone involved and feel far more like it's something that's really about you and really belongs to you. My hope here is that I can help you better identify what's really going on, to help you use this feeling as an opportunity to make some changes so that sex feels more like something that you make happen with someone else, something full of your mutual participation, something that really is more about you and belongs to you far more than it has.
In the event it's a partner who has felt this way, where you feel like sex is probably like this for them, or they've expressed to you that the sex you engage in them with feels like it "just happens," my hope is that getting some extra insight around why, and some tools to work on it will not only help you be a better partner, it'll help you feel like your sexual partners really are more of a partner to you, and less like someone who's just there when you're sexual, and like sex is less something where you have to make all the moves and decisions, and more like something where you and another person are making something jointly.
What are some common "just happened" scenarios we see, and what are some ways to make adjustments to them in order to switch from anyone feeling like sex is "just happening," to everyone feeling like it's something they're actively, fully making happen together?
The Zero-to-Sixty in Two Minutes Flat Scenario
In this situation, if you thought "It just happened," you probably finished that sentence with, "...so fast!"
In other words, it's feeling or felt like a total blur, the way things tend to look when you're driving in the fast lane on the highway at night. And when that's how it's going, it often will feel like sex "just happened," because you went from not having sex to sex being over so freaking fast, it felt more like being tagged and then tapped in a game of freeze tag than it felt like being fully engaged in and co-creating something intentional.
If this is what's going on, you and yours probably need some help learning how to slow things down, big time. We've got a whole big article on some helps to do just that here, but some basic helps for that when you find yourself directly in that situation can be things like:
- Asking questions: "Is this okay for you?" "How are you feeling?" "Is there anything you want to know from me right now?" You can also say what is and isn't okay for you, of course, and what you want to know from a partner, but if you're someone who feels like that's hard for you to do, easing into it by asking them questions might work better for you to break the silence.
- Taking breaks. That can be a break to stop and look at each other, a break for kissing or caressing without anything else going on, a break for a joke, or even a break to just go pee or get a glass of water.
- Initiating something slower, or working to draw something out you're already doing. You can do that just by suggesting you do something that doesn't feel too fast or too soon for you, and do it very slowly, taking real time with it, so you both can savor what's going on. Talking it through as you go can help with this, too, and in a way that's exciting, like you or a partner saying what you're doing as you're doing it, saying what you love about it, then you or they responding in kind, saying what you love, or saying what you'd like to happen next.
- Raincheck things. For instance, maybe everything is going super-fast because you only have ten guaranteed minutes alone in a space, and one or both of you feels like you need to try and fit everything people can possibly do sexually in. Not only does that not have to be what you do, ten minutes of rushed-everything is not likely to be very satisfying for anyone. So, if there's something you or a partner want to do, but now feels too fast, you can say, "I'd like to do that, but not right now. Let's bookmark that for another time."
No matter what you do or say, if and when things felt or seemed much too fast like this, say something. If you don't, like with most things sexual, it's not likely to change, because when we don't say something, our partners will tend to assume it's because everything is going as we like and want. And like with most sexual communication about things not going as you'd like, what you say doesn't have to be something that could easily be construed as an accusation or insult, like, "Hey, Speed Racer! Where's the damn fire?" You can instead say something like, "That went a lot faster than I'd like, so next time, can we work to slow things a lot more so we can really enjoy ourselves?"
The "It's Too Awkward To Say Something" or "I'm Too Shy," Scenario
When I was new to being a sex educator, I was much more brash and blunt than I am now. Some of the ways I said things back then make me headsmack myself, but I think there were some things I got right. One of the things I used to say when talking about feeling too shy to speak up or talk during sex was that while being naked with one's legs in the air and someone in between them, or while putting one's genitals in someone's body? These simply are places where shy has clearly not only left the building, it hitched a ride clear out of town.
In other words, while we all may have different levels of social comfort in different situations -- and sex with someone else of any kind, ultimately, is a social endeavor -- if we feel too shy to speak up or assert ourselves, then we probably feel too shy to be having any kind of sex just yet. Sex just isn't a place where we can be so shy that we feel unable to speak or otherwise communicate clearly in some way, including communication about the pace of sex. Ideally, what we want to aim for is comfort with a sexual partner to the degree that we do feel able to do that first, and then move to being sexual with them, rather than the other way round, which is all too often how a lot of people do things, even people who aren't shy at all. There are a lot of downsides to sex-first-learn-to-talk-about-it-later, but one biggie is that if we establish a pattern of not communicating, it doesn't make it easier to do that as we go along: it only tends to make it harder.
There's this idea some people have, one that's particularly common with younger people who don't have any or much real-life sexual experience, and whose ideas about sex often come only from media or peers, that talking isn't something people do when they're engaging in sex: that talking during sex is this thing that only weird or old people do.
If you have that idea, know it's wrong. People, real people, especially real people who have sex everyone enjoys, do communicate during sex with something besides their genitals. Real people talk during sex, and also talk about sex, and what they want from it, with their partners when they're not having sex. Sure, most people don't talk every second they're engaged in sex; the talking is often balanced with moments of not talking, but talking is something that happens, whether that talking is communication about what feels good and doesn't, how we do or don't want to do something, or whether it's a joke or a laugh, or even some random thing someone says out of nowhere that seems to have nothing to do with anything, but which they were compelled to say. (And sometimes *that* is weird. But it's also usually both okay -- because we're all weird in our way, and goodness knows sex is, itself, weird in plenty of ways -- and generally hilarious.)
The Non-Negotiated D/S Scenario
In other words, a sexual dynamic where one person wants to float on a cloud while the other person does TO them, or calls all or most of the shots.
Some people frame this as domination and submission, but you don't have to if that doesn't speak to you, and that isn't always exactly the kind of dynamic that's going on. There's nothing wrong with being kinky, but if you don't feel like fits you, maybe a different way of framing this dynamic might work better. You might instead, for example, think of this as D/P: as a driver and a passenger. Where one person is sexually doing most of the "driving," and the other wants to let them do that and mostly go along for the ride.
No matter what you call it, though, or how you feel about kink, there's something basic to learn from kink frameworks and communities around this. That's that when D/S play -- or D/P, if you prefer that -- works, and is truly physically and emotionally safe for everyone involved, it's when it's acknowledged as being that in advance, clearly and well-negotiated in advance, and some tools are set up or agreed upon to make it something people are still actively choosing and participating in mutually throughout. Want someone else to do the driving? Then before any of that kind of sex starts, take time together to talk about that, ask if that's something they want and feel comfortable with. Talk about what you do and don't want, what your limits and boundaries are, what is and isn't okay with you, and what you require for certain things, be that condoms or dams for anything where someone's genitals are involved, or that certain words are used or avoided. Pick a safeword -- a word you or they can say where it's agreed that, once spoken, everything stops -- to use when it's needed or wanted. Make sure the person driving knows they're only in charge with the things you've agreed they get to be in charge of, and make sure the person who is the passenger knows that being "along for the ride," doesn't mean they don't get any say, or that they can totally check out: they still need to be engaged and hold just as much responsibility as the other person for themselves. If what you want is the other way around, all of the above applies.
The "I'm Scared I'll Be a Buzzkill" Scenario
If this is how you feel -- you need to just let the other person do what they want to do and go along, no matter how you feel, even when things you don't want are happening -- because you're afraid of killing the buzz -- and the kind of scared we're talking about is about being afraid the other person will do you real harm of any kind, then we're talking about scenarios where the interactions or relationships just aren't healthy. Engaging in any kind of sex due to fear of harm isn't consensual sex, and it's something to work on getting away from and staying away from. In this kind of scenario, your fear is trying to tell you something: that this just isn't safe for you.
If, on the other hand, we're talking more about a fear of making an ass of yourself, having the other person not be turned on by you...and it's not about being harmed, but about things like losing that person's sexual interest in you or not being the greatest lover that they'll ever have in their whole life, then here's what I've got to say.
Things like that -- someone losing sexual interest in you, not being the Best Lover in All of recorded History, or doing something you or a partner think are goony, so very unsexy or awkward -- are likely to happen eventually no matter WHAT you do when you are sexual with other people. Seriously. No matter what you do or don't do, at some point, you're going to be a benign buzzkill. We all are or already have been. And if we don't do it ourselves through some strange magic, then the dog, the phone, a roommate walking in, a flooding basement or a safer sex or birth control device are going to do it for us.
You can go bananas trying as hard as you can to always be sexy to someone else, but you won't be sometimes, even when YOU think you're being the sexiest thing since sliced bread. You can try and be whatever your idea of pitch-perfect is, and.... gravity, uncontrollable body functions, outside factors or plain old humanity are going to decide it's your turn to be or feel embarrassed or buzzkilly at some point.
Since it truly is utterly inevitable that those things are going to happen, no matter what you do, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to try and avoid them, especially when what you're doing to try and avoid them is probably having a bigger negative impact on your sexual life and how you feel about it than being a buzzkill -- if, in fact, you even are -- now and then. Not letting our partners know what feels good and what doesn't is what keeps us from sex we all feel satisfied with: that's a buzzkill. Not fully engaging in the process so a partner feels like they have to struggle to keep guessing at what we want or like: that's a buzzkill. Someone not willing to open up and just be themselves so we can actually have sex with the whole person we want to be close to in the first place: also a buzzkill. And heck: even going without some awkward or uncomfortable-but-positive thing or another that we or someone else did, so we have to have sexual relationships without any inside jokes or any history of really giving each other opportunities to learn one other better, and better connect to what we all really want and like? That's a huge buzzkill.
The "I Want Someone Else To Take All the Responsibility" Scenario
This one seems to happen often, but it is mighty hard to see when you're in it. I think it's one of those things that tends to be a lot easier to see in hindsight, when you're looking back on sexual experiences, rather than when you're in them or are walking into them.
Let's be real about this: it can feel really scary to have and hold full, real responsibility for our sexual lives. Not when everything is great, everyone is having a fantastic time, and nothing anyone thinks is bad or crummy is happening, sure: then it's usually very easy. But most of us grow up -- and may still experience now -- hearing a whole lot more about The Terrible Things That Can Happen If You Have Sex than we do about the good stuff. And if you grew up in the last 20 years, you probably know more about that than your grandma did. So, when we know that we might also have to be responsible, or mutually responsible, about things not going right, be that someone not getting off or liking sex, or be that an STI, an unplanned pregnancy or a broken heart, it's hardly surprising that there are times when what we might really like is to get what good stuff we can from sex but leave the responsibility bag in someone else's hands. If consensual sex "just happened" to us, we're saying whoever else was involved was the person who called all the shots and made all the choices -- we're denying our own agency and consent -- so it's that person who is responsible for the whole works, including, and probably particularly, any unwanted or bad outcomes.
I don't think it's hard to understand that's not cool. Think about it this way: you and a friend are on a road trip. They say they think they should take this route. You say, "Whatever, do what you want." When it turns out to be a terrible route that gets you stuck in traffic for half a day and crabby like nobody's business, then it might be presented as their fault, not yours, even though you made a decision, too: you made the decision not to make one. So, really, you're both still responsible for the choice, it's just that your friend is the one that easily winds up looking like it was on them and has to own it.
Like with assertiveness, being ready to share responsibility when it comes to any kind of sex with partners is something that's a big part of being ready, in the most basic way, for sex with partners. It's possibly one of the hardest ways to be ready, too: there can be a lot of responsibility to hold when it comes to sex with someone else, so it's not unreasonable for that to feel overwhelming or daunting.
If it's sex, not abuse or assault, then it's consensual and it's something we're doing with someone else; something we're in together. That means that we're in, we've got to be in, for the responsibility together, too, whether those choices we make are what we or someone else thinks of as good ones or bad ones; whether outcomes from sex are outcomes we like or outcomes we don't.
The easiest way to manage this is to do our best to make sure that we're only having the kinds of sex, or sex in the kinds of situations or relationships, that we do really feel ready to share responsibility for. At any given time in our lives, that might not be every kind of sex or sexual situation there is under the sun, or that we or someone else want. Especially when we're younger or new to sex with others, we're probably not going to feel ready to hold responsibility for all of it, and that's okay, because we don't have to be, and we don't have to do anything sexual where we don't feel ready in that department, or when we feel ready to hold responsibility, but we just don't want to.
We can always go about our sexual lives or interactions gradually, seeing how we feel with each step, not just during, but after, including whatever it is with sex we need to take responsibility for, be that another person's feelings or limits, our own desires or active expressions of those desires, safer sex and birth control, taking care of our own bodies or our own feelings, or simply being a person in a situation where we've got to be responsible and can't ask someone else to take responsibility for us. You might also need time simply to come to terms with engaging in sex at all, and being an agent of any kind of sex you take part in, especially if you were reared with ideas like sex itself isn't okay to be taking a real part in, having and exploring sexual desires is wrong or bad, or that only people who are passive in sex, rather than active, are good people.
If you didn't take things gradually so far, and have wound up with way more responsibility than you found out you can handle, remember that you always have the right to step things back, even way, way back. No one is obligated to keep doing something sexual or keep being sexual with others, just because they did it before.
We can't all always be ready for everything, and we're not all always ready or willing to really take responsibility for everything. That's okay, and it doesn't mean anything is wrong with any of us or that we lack maturity. But it's a lot more okay -- and also demonstrates a lot more maturity -- when we make choices that honor and make room for whatever our limitations are, rather than doing things we aren't sure we can manage, or know we will blow off managing, maybe even shifting responsibility unto someone else.
It's okay, for the record, to make mistakes, or to have found out that something wasn't right for us by doing it. You're going to make mistakes, simply because you are a person, and people do that, but also because in something as complex as sexuality can be, none of us is ever going to be able to go without stumbling in it at one time or another. Sex just isn't something anyone can do perfectly.
We don't need to absolve ourselves of responsibility for mistakes or stumbles to be okay: we can have responsibility, and have messed up, made a choice that wasn't our best or did something we or someone else didn't like and work with that. In fact, when we really own our choices, we're much more likely to be able to use them to move ourselves forward and figure out what we do want, are ready for, and what doing it right means for us. When we put all the responsibility on someone else, it can really hold us back from doing that as well as putting a level of blame on another person that just isn't fair.
A mega-bonus of sharing responsibility? When the amazing stuff happens, and the best of all possible outcomes are what something sexual has resulted in? You get to share the credit. One of the downsides of not sharing responsibility in sex is that when it's awesome, it's only the other person who really gets to be the awesome one; they get to be "great in bed," and you wind up just being the person who happened to be there when they were, a passive and pale witness to their greatness. This way, you get to be every bit as much a part of that awesome as they do.
Ever hear someone talk about being at and part of some kind of historic event? They tend to say, "I was there." When they say that, they don't usually mean they were just walking down the block and witnessed something passively, like, "Yeah, I saw the 1963 March on Washington, but only because I was getting a cup of coffee nearby. Once I had my latte, I went back to my much-more important afternoon of getting my nails done." When they say that, they usually mean they were not only just physically present, but that they were a part of what happened: they were present all around, and thus, were part of that historical event and it was part of them.
That's really what we all want to go for when it comes to our sexuality and our sexual lives if we want them to be and feel as good as they can, and be as much a part of us, an expression of us, as they can. When we want them to be of some importance, and to have some real meaning, and when we want them to be important, meaningful and beneficial for our partners. If we aim for a dynamic where the only things that happen are things we are part of intentionally making, actively co-creating with others, then we generally get to feel about our sexual lives -- however they go -- like they're really, truly ours. Like they're really about us. Like we're the real author of them rather than someone plagiarizing another person's efforts or work. Like we are truly, wholly there.
Here are a few extra links that might help you out some more with this:
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- Driver's Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Risky Business: Learning to Consider Risk and Make Sound Sexual Choices
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner
- Reciprocity, Reloaded
- Safer Sex...for Your Heart
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
- Whoa, There! How to Slow Down When You're Moving Too Fast