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Rescripting Sex

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Life has scripts. Little socially-agreed plays that we enact rather than trying to figure out all our interactions from scratch every time. Many of them are very simple.

There's the script you follow when you're checking out at a store ("have a nice day"), the script for talking to someone who's sad ("I'm so sorry"), and of course the script for talking to a dog ("WHOOZAGOODBOY").

And there's scripts for sex. Unfortunately, the most common script out there is terrible.

Script: Consent Roulette

Active partner (generally male) and receptive partner (generally female) are alone together.

They're chatting, drinking, or watching a movie. Active partner detects (or wishful-thinks) the whiff of romance/lust in the air. Active partner gradually increases his physical closeness to receptive partner and makes some sexual innuendos.

Eventually A goes ahead and kisses R. If she doesn't object, A leads R to a bed or sofa and lies her down. A kisses R more and gropes her. If she doesn't object, A then puts on a condom and R is expected to spread her legs and stuff.

Intercourse happens.

That script is not rape, at least not usually. But it's lousy.

It doesn't give people the chance to have any sex besides kissing-groping-intercourse. It doesn't have any emotional dynamic except A's uncertainty about how far R will go. And it's just not all that fun.

Even if A is female and R is male, all that does is ease the man's anxiety a bit; it doesn't fundamentally change the story.

It's "roulette" because it makes consent all about luck. (And consenting, real consenting, isn't about luck.)

If you have this kind of sex with a woman and it turns out she wanted it, then yay--by sheer luck, you're not a rapist! On the other hand, if she doesn't want it, now she has to play roulette--if she says "stop," will he stop, or will he start holding her down?

This isn't just a first-time-sex script, either. I've had relationships where every time was kinda like this. It gets abbreviated and informalized a little with familiarity, but it's the same basic scene: guy senses "the mood" is right and guy starts doing his thing unless girl says "stop."

After a while, even if it's totally consensual, it's just boring.

A big problem with getting people to break that script is that they think you're trying to get them to do this one.

Script: Robot Lawyers Consenting To One (1) Act Of Intercourse

Active partner and receptive partner are alone together.

They're chatting, drinking, or watching a movie. Active partner detects (or wishful-thinks) the whiff of romance/lust in the air.

A breaks into the conversation and asks R, "may I kiss you?" If she says yes, they kiss, although he is careful not to place his hands anywhere not specifically pre-approved.

A breaks off the kiss, ceases all physical contact, stares politely into the middle distance, and asks R, "may I touch your left breast? may I touch your right breast also?"

If she says yes, he touches her breasts. After some silent, tentative, arms-length touching he breaks off again and composes himself before asking, "would you like to have sex?"

If R responds positively, he clarifies: "with me?"

No question, that's dull and awkward and probably would work excellently as Vagina Repellent in an emergency vagina-attack situation. (I'm overstating my case. I've totally had sex with guys like that. But I'm kinda charmed by awkwardness.)

But the problem with it is not that it's too sex-positive. The problem is that it's not sex-positive enough.

It's still one-sided, it still treats sex like a linear progression from first base to home run, and it still doesn't give R much of a chance to say anything beyond "yes" or "no." It may include explicit consent, but it's not a negotiation.

The other problem is that it's kind of a strawman, since explicit consent doesn't magically vaporize all your social skills. People seem to imagine that talking about sex means talking in the dorkiest possible way, and I don't know why.

Personally, I've never seen the romance in no-talking sex. I know it's supposed to be "swept off your feet by the heat of the moment" and all, but in practice it always seems more clumsy and oafish, like trying to convey the concept of "postmodern film criticism" in Pictionary. With your feet. There's things you can't just convey, you know?

Even in long-standing relationships, it's hard to say "I want to gently pull your hair while we make love and whisper sweet dirty things in your ear" with raised eyebrows and meaningful looks.

And then you end up taking a chance and just grabbing their hair when it seems like a look has been meaningful enough, and then they stop everything and go "what the hell are you doing?", and boy, you think you've seen awkward? Even the most stilted negotiation has nothing on the awkwardness of that crushing moment when you're forced to admit you don't have Sexy ESP after all.

So, you're probably expecting me to write a good script at this point.

But I can't come up with just one, because the essence of the good script is that you're dealing with each other as humans, that you're enacting your sexuality and not some stock scene. The best script is always the one you and your partner write together. So I can't write you the good script. But I'll write one possible one.

Script: Communicative Sex That Doesn't Suck

Partners C and D are alone together.

C detects (or wishful-thinks) the whiff of romance/lust in the air. C says to D, "You're super cute, you know that? I'd really like to make out with you." D answers by leaning in and passionately kissing him.

D puts a finger on C's top button and asks "may I?" with a wicked grin and a raised eyebrow. He nods and she opens his shirt, touching and kissing down his chest.

"Shall we take this to the bedroom?" she asks, looking up at him, her lips brushing his skin just above the line of his jeans. C responds by taking her hand and leading her there. D sits on the bed and starts undoing her clothes. She pulls C into the bed with her.

"Do you want to have sex?" C asks.
"Oh yes," D says, and starts kissing C again. She brings her hand down to the level of his zipper but hesitates, making eye contact before going further.
"Hang on," C says, "just so you know, I really don't like having my testicles touched."
"Okay," D says, "but can I play with your penis?"
"Please," C replies, and she slips her hand into his pants.

And so forth.

This isn't the One Right Way. People communicate in different ways. What really matters is that you know rather than hope that whatever your communication style is, it's in sync--that the other person is intentionally sending all the signals that you're receiving, and vice versa.

It's also nice to get in a little more specificity, both physically and emotionally, than "sex or not sex." Also, when you're used to this degree of extremely engaged back-and-forth, it's really obvious when something's wrong or the other person isn't really into it.

For me, this is sexy.

What I remember, what turns me on, isn't just the fact that I did stuff to someone, but that I know they wanted it.

The physical action of touching a penis is boring, it's just rubbing my hand on some skin, whatever, I can take it or leave it. What's exciting is playing with a penis that wants to be touched. It's so hot to know that for certain. It's not the penis that makes my night; it's the "please."

This is the kind of sexual script we need. Not necessarily one that's based in talking a lot (although that's what works for me, and you do have to talk some), but one that's based in desire and shared humanity.

One that's based not in "can I do sex to you?" but in "let's do sex together."


Extra Credit from the Editor: Your Own Scripts

  • What are sexual scripts you've experienced so far that have worked for you and been fun and exciting? What about those that haven't worked, that felt awkward, stilted, or like they didn't even happen at all? Can you pinpoint the differences?
  • In your experiences or your imagination, what are ways someone could ask you for sexual things, or invite you to engage in sexual activities, that would be really exciting for you and make you feel more excited, not less?
  • Do you find expressing limits or boundaries -- what you don't want to do or what isn't okay -- tougher than saying what you do want? Take a look back at how C did that in that last script about his testicles, where it wasn't any kind of buzzkill: how could you do the same thing?
  • Check out how, in that last script, non-verbal communication worked together with communication in words: how might you or your partners make those things work together to make communication-in-words feel more comfortable and fun?

Bonus Round: A Little Mad Lib Action Never __________(verb, past tense) Anyone

__________ (name) and __________ (name) are alone together.

__________ (name) detects (or wishful-thinks) the whiff of _________ (word for sexual desire) in the _________ (noun).

__________ (name) says to __________ (name), "You're super __________ (adjective), you know that? I'd really like to _______________ (sexual or other intimate activity)."

__________ (name) answers by passionately _____________ (the sexual or other intimate activity just agreed to) them.

__________ (name) puts a ________________ (body part) on __________'s (name) top button and asks "_____________ (question to ask for sexy permission)?" with a ___________ (adjective) grin and a ___________ (adjective) _______________ (body part).

They nod and open __________'s (pronoun) ____________ (type of clothing), __________(verb, present participle: aka, somthing-<i>ing</i>) and ________________ (sexything permission was given to do)  __________'s (pronoun) _______________ (body part).

"Shall we take this to the ___________ (place)?" __________ (pronoun) asks, looking up at them, __________'s (pronoun) _______________ (body part) brushing their _______________ (body part).

__________ (name) responds by taking __________'s (pronoun) _______________ (body part) and leading them there. __________ (name) sits on the __________ (place) and starts __________ (verb, present participle) their __________ (item of clothing). __________ (name) pulls __________ (name) into the __________ (place) with them.

"Do you want to _____________ (kind of sexual activity)?" __________ (name) asks.

"_____________ (affirmative answer - otherwise known as some kind of "Hell to the yes.")," __________ (name) says, and starts _____________ (already-agreed to sexual activity) __________ (name) again. _______ (pronoun) brings their _______________ (body part) down to ____________ (place on the body) but hesitates, making eye contact before going further.

"Hang on," __________ (name) says, "just so you know, I really don't like _______________ (limit or boundary)."

"Okay," __________ (name) says, "but can I ___________ (verb) with your ____________ (body part)?"

"______________ (affirmative answer)," __________ (name) replies, and slips a _____________(adjective) ____________ (body part) into _______'s (pronoun) _____________ (item of clothing).

written 01 Jun 2012 . updated 28 Jan 2014

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