I'm not talking about slowing things down for religious or moral ideals or social pressures. I'm not talking about slowing things down to prevent STIs and/or pregnancy. Heck, I'm not even talking about slowing things down for legal reasons or because of your age. I'm not talking about Just Say No, and I'm not talking about not having sex at all for people who want to be sexual.
I'm about to tell you something that you may not want to hear, that you might not have heard before, and that a whole lot of people -- maybe even you -- can find threatening, insulting or downright objectionable.
Genital intercourse or other kinds of insertion not only isn't the be-all end-all, greatest sex act of all time, it often isn't all it's cracked up to be, ESPECIALLY all by itself, and especially when you run into it like a Mack truck in an ice storm. Intercourse and entry is not, just by having Tab A inserted into Slot B, "real" sex while other kinds of sex are not.
That can be the case whether we're talking the first time or the 301st; whether you and yours have no idea what you're doing, or you're sleeping with (or are) Casanova.
Now, that isn't to say vaginal (or anal, for that matter) intercourse or entry sucks eggs, or that it can't be enjoyed, even greatly: not at all. But all by itself, in a big massive hurry, without a bunch of other stuff going on before, during and after? As some sort of default sexual setting or obligatory act? As the only sex someone is having? As product, not process? It DOES often suck, especially for most women, but not for women alone.
When we're talking penis-in-vagina or penis-in-anus intercourse on a purely physical level, while for many people with a penis people, going right into sexual intercourse, or having that be the only thing going, can be -- and often is -- physically pleasurable, for the vast majority of the people with the vagina in that picture, it is not, and to boot, is often even uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of being physically painful.
Why is that? Let's look at the physics.
When we're talking about genitals, the whole of the penis (especially for uncircumcised men) is very sensitive. There are often areas of the penis with greater sensitivity than others, but what is being stimulated by intercourse alone is satisfactory for a majority of men, physiologically. For those with vulvas, not penises, on the other hand, the most sensitive part of the genitals isn't stimulated by intercourse much, because often the clitoris is not being stimulated, as the most sensitive portions of it are not primarily located in or around the vaginal canal.
That isn't to say the vaginal canal is numb, because it isn't. In fact, parts of the clitoris -- namely the urethral sponge, often called the G-spot, located on the anterior wall of the vagina (towards the belly, rather than the back) a couple inches in -- ARE inside the vaginal canal. But most of that sensation not only is often not as intense for many women as more direct clitoral sensation (or paired with same), the strong sensation that does exist within the vaginal canal is pretty much only in the first 1/3rd of the vagina.
(Which is a big part of why heterosexual men worried about penis length are generally being pretty silly.)
For most receptive partners in any kind of sex with entry, high levels of sexual arousal are required for pleasurable entry, even just COMFORTABLE entry, and before that entry begins. Very few of these folks are likely to enjoy themselves sexually during intercourse or other vaginal sex if no other sexual or affectional activity has been engaged in beforehand, or is coupled with intercourse. The vast majority of people with a vulva will not orgasm from intercourse alone just because of basic physiology, though emotional factors are also often an issue, including the way a partner approaches intercourse: if a woman is pretty clearly being treated as little more than a receptacle, it's not a big shocker that physically and emotionally, she's going to gain little from intercourse, or that it may be uncomfortable for her.
(Which is a big part of why heterosexual women worried about not reaching orgasm from intercourse alone, and thinking there's something wrong with them are generally being pretty silly.)
This isn't to say that for plenty of women heterosexual intercourse or vaginal entry (as well as anal entry) of other types isn't enjoyable, because for a whole lot of women, it very much can be. But. If that is ALL that is going on? Not likely to be so great. Men, too, may find it's not enjoyable in those instances, not only because of their own pleasure, but because most people of all genders are invested in their partner's sexual enjoyment and comfort.
During heterosexual intercourse, if partners haven't already become aware of what else women enjoy/need, what angles, positions, combined activities WITH intercourse DO create satisfying stimulus, AND/or the environment of intercourse is such that a woman is dehumanized, then it's often unlikely to be enjoyable, especially for the female partner. You can read books to find out what those things might be, but ultimately, the only real way to find them out with YOUR partner is to experiment, explore, try different things, and talk to one another, treating each person and their pleasure as equally important. If doing all of that isn't enjoyable or makes either partner uncomfortable, it should be pretty obvious that intercourse is NOT the logical next step. In many ways, partnered sex is like freeform dancing: there aren't required steps one needs to know, it's simply a matter of doing what feels natural, and working off one another's rhythm, movements, and individual quirks. How you dance -- or have sex -- together and what you do is going to depend on who you both are, what music is playing, what both people are comfortable with, how well you know one another and what feels good and what doesn't.
Too, just like some people just don't enjoy or like oral sex or manual sex or anal sex, there are plenty of people -- of any gender -- who just don't enjoy intercourse, or for whom it just isn't their favorite thing. We've all got to be careful about considering any sexual activity obligatory or some sort of holy grail -- after all, we'd not do that with food, we always recognize that there are foods some people just don't like -- because in general, or sometimes, or with certain partners, some folks just aren't going to like everything, and that includes intercourse.
Physically, women carry greater risks than men do from heterosexual intercourse. Obviously, pregnancy is the biggie. But as well, women are not only more inclined to develop sexually transmitted infections -- and that's more the case with younger women than older women -- but the complications from STIs are greater for women: infertility and reproductive cancers are not uncommon due to contracting an STI. Those issues alone make intercourse a bit of a bigger deal to women than to men, whether we're aware of it or not.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention emotional aspects. We hear a lot of generalizations about how women can't have good sex outside of love, about how emotional needs are more important with women than physical ones, and those generalizations are not only not especially helpful, they just aren't true for all women at all times. However, without sounding like a total cheeseball, there is something unique about the process of essentially letting another person enter inside your body: men who engage in receptive anal sex can know something about this, too, but otherwise, men just don't have an equivalent. That isn't to say that for most women, intercourse has to be approached with utter seriousness, or as if women were breakable in any respect, but even a little reverence and acknowledgment of this issue goes a long way. Conversely, when intercourse is treated without any recognition of that whatsoever, it's not uncommon for that to feel a bit callous, disrespectful or dehumanizing, especially given that as explained above, the vagina is not simply an open hole to insert things into. Rather, it is a canal which, when a woman is aroused, interested and consenting, welcomes, for lack of a better word, what is being placed inside it, and really draws whatever that is in -- be it a penis, fingers, what have you -- and which when she is none of those things, literally does what it can to physically bar the gates (by not lubricating or loosening, as well as by not tenting to pull the cervix back).
So, much like if someone opens the door of their home to us, we're grateful for that and recognize it as their trust of us, as an intimacy, the same should go with intercourse, whether the scenario is casual or long-term. That is one aspect of intercourse which really does make it uniquely intimate that really isn't about social or cultural agendas, religious mores or the like.
Something many people don't often think about when it comes to intercourse is how much its importance with people is based on certain patterns, ideas, values and gender issues in our world as a whole.
For a really long time, and in some places and with some people still, women's pleasure from partnered sex just wasn't considered to be very important. Sometimes, it was considered absolutely irrelevant, as was women's consent or libido. Through most of history, and sometimes still, it was and is expected that sex for women is a passive, rather than an active, act: intercourse is one of the few activities where a woman could be completely passive. A woman can, indeed, "just lie there" while intercourse occurs without disrupting the act of it much. If you flip through literature about sex and relationships from as little as 40 years before now, you'll find loads of references to heterosexual intercourse, and sex as a whole, as a "wife's duty," as something which a woman owes a man, and is obligated to do for HIM, primarily or solely. Even calling intercourse "penetration," as it's still often called, suggests that either a woman and/or her genitals are passive.
While in some arenas, we've gotten away from that, that idea is still pervasive and still carries influence with a whole lot of people. So, it shouldn't be at all surprising that it's still thought to be The Thing to do for everyone, even though we know better now, and even though we have been making cultural strides in terms of recognizing that female pleasure is just as important as male pleasure is. In many ways, ideas about obligatory intercourse, and the great weight put on intercourse, are very much still feminist issues.
Obviously, penis-on-vagina intercourse is going to be given cultural importance sheerly because it is the sexual activity which can create a child, and it goes without saying that that is a pretty incredible thing. As well, since our culture still generally defines sex as genital and as heterosexual, it shouldn't be a shocker that an activity with direct, simultaneous genital contact between two opposite sexes is what is presented as "real sex," or as the only "sex." Yet people have heterosexual intercourse with no intent of producing a child all the time, and to boot, people with same-sex partners have rich, satisfying sex lives without feeling like they're missing out on anything at all. It's a testament to how screwed up we are as a culture about understanding the incredible range, and the truth of, sexual intimacy when we hear all the time questions like, "But how do two women have sex?" The answer is pretty simple: like anyone else does, because intercourse is only ONE form of MANY forms of sexual expression, and what any two people do together sexually is -- and should be -- what they enjoy and what feels natural for them, with their whole bodies.
While we can certainly say that a lot of other members of the animal kingdom also have intercourse (those that reproduce that way, anyhow), which includes other mammals like us, it's interesting to take a look at the fact that for most species, intercourse is NOT about pleasure, and again, especially for the female. For the vast majority, it is other types of physical affection and behaviour that are engaged in for mate, familial and group intimacy and bonding: massage, grooming, hugging and embracing, kissing and fondling, and in sexual relationships, often engaging in these things without orgasm as an aim, but certainly with pleasure and comfort in mind. In the animal kingdom, intercourse is largely about procreation and power.
Our culture is often lacking in basic physical affection, something which has often been noted in studies as one likely contributor to the massive violence humans are so plagued by, despite our capacity for reason. Basic touch is actually incredibly important for our well-being, whether we're talking about sexual relationships or platonic ones. It's not a huge stretch to posit that sexual relationships in which intercourse and intercourse alone is the sole or primary form of physical affection and sexual/physical intimacy among couples not only may leave one or both partners with something of an emotional void, and a lack of bonding, but that the cultural focus put on heterosexual intercourse as the "only real sex," may in fact be a contributor to certain types of violence, especially violence towards women. That's a huge issue that can't easily be addressed in a few pages, but the short version is this: defining sex as a single activity in which female pleasure is unimportant or secondary, but male pleasure is tantamount, where a man must be present for sex to be considered to exist at all, and defining sex as something which does NOT address a whole person and their whole body is somewhat violent, and can certainly support attitudes and approaches of violence in sex when it is seen as something done TO women, or which women agree to passively or out of obligation, rather than something in which they are active participants benefiting just as much as their partners are.
With some regularity at Scarleteen, we've heard users talk about moving on to intercourse because they're finding that other things aren't enjoyable or are boring: kissing, hugging, things like oral or manual sex and the like. The thing is, taking into account that some people do simply have a sexual activity or two that isn't their favorite, in general, if kissing your partner, for instance, is lackluster or boring? Intercourse not only isn't going to fix that, it's likely to be the same way. When we're with someone who we're very sexually attracted to, who we have strong feelings for, it's usually pretty hard to find anything that isn't pretty enjoyable together when it comes to intimacy.
Sometimes, kissing, embracing, petting and so forth not feeling very enjoyable is about loving or liking someone we're just not very attracted to: other times, that may be about a relationship changing, or having certain problems or conflicts we can't resolve, or don't feel able to address. But the answer to that IS addressing those issues, however tough; is about making sure that whoever it is we're having any sort of sex with, we do have both a profound desire to be having sex with them, to experience sexual intimacy together, and that it's healthy for both parties to be doing so. Intercourse isn't the answer.
It's a news flash to no one that there are lots of social pressures when it comes to intercourse. Plenty of teenagers are obsessed with which of their friends has "done it" and which have not, and the act of first intercourse is thought by many to be a huge rite of passage, even though not everyone will engage in it, and even though for plenty, it often doesn't hold up in reality to its advance billing from cultural and social ideals. A whole lot of folks have been reared with the idea that intercourse is THE sacred sexual act, the one which is unilaterally the most important, for everyone and anyone, as well as the most intimate for everyone and anyone. Yet there is little to bear that out: people of all genders, all ages and all orientations have experienced deep intimacy from a wide, wide array of things, and plenty have experienced that intimacy with other things and yet NOT with intercourse (something which often leaves people wondering what went wrong when likely nothing actually did). Dropping the idea that intercourse is the be-all end-all not only is likely to improve your sex life as a whole, it'll likely improve intercourse as well, when and if you do engage in it.
• There are some additional benefits to forestalling, eschewing or cutting back on heterosexual intercourse, namely vastly reducing pregnancy risks, perhaps even down to zero. Doing so, if engaging in other sexual activities with oral or genital contact does NOT remove STI risks, and if you're engaging in say, unprotected anal sex, or a partner is ejaculating on anothers' vulva, the pregnancy risks are still present as well as the STI risks, something that all too often is left out of abstinence approaches to intercourse. But if you're engaging in other activities safely and smartly AND not engaging in heterosexual intercourse your pregnancy risk becomes nonexistent, and as well, activities like manual sex, mutual masturbation, fondling and kissing -- even oral sex -- are far safer when it comes to STIs than vaginal or anal intercourse is.
• One thing that building up intercourse -- be it the first time or the 301st -- as a be-all end-all, as something far more special than anything else is, can do is make it easy to forget that it is ALL special. How special it is really isn't about what you're doing (or not doing), but about what you and your partner bring to it. When you're both really bringing it during any sexual activity; when you're both viewing and experiencing whatever it is you're doing -- whether it's kissing or touching fingertips or oral sex -- as intimate and special, as anything can be, both your sex life and the quality of your relationship are really enriched. When you don't do that, and put all your eggs in the single basket of intercourse, it's all too easy to take everything else for granted, and usually, at least one or both partners really get ripped off.
• While it may seem like setting intercourse aside, engaging in it less often, putting it off, or simply giving other activities equal airplay is primarily of benefit to women, doing so can actually have big bennies for men as well. It's pretty common for most men to be reared with the idea that sex is all about their penises, or primarily so. That idea actually robs a lot of men out of experiencing sex with their WHOLE bodies and whole selves, not just their penises, and of understanding that their sexual "worth" is about a lot more than their genitals. Just as it is for women, so is it for men that the whole body and whole self is a sexual organ, and it also is so for men as well as women that again, most sexual arousal, excitement and sensation is based in the brain and the nervous system. Making sex about the whole body, the whole mind, and the whole of a relationship can take a lot of pressure off of men. After all, when sex is made to be just about the penis, men have to worry a whole lot about erections, which is a big part of why we see such a massive fixation on having erections as well as penis size among men. But when we recognize sex as about way more than intercourse, and, in fact, see intercourse as fully optional, and the lack of such as no big deal at all, it's going to be a lot easier for men to relax and enjoy themselves, and for their partners to do same. Stress can take a pretty big toll on sexual arousal and satisfaction, after all. It's not unreasonable to suggest that a lot of widespread erectile dysfunction and male sexual body image issues -- like a fixation on penis size -- are probably about the pressures involved when oneself, a partner, a relationship or a culture defines "real" sex as intercourse.
In a nutshell, none of this is all that complicated.
1. Heterosexual intercourse really, truly is NOT the only "real" sex, not the "best" sex unilaterally, all the time, for everyone -- even for heterosexuals! -- and does not sum up the whole of what partnered sex and sexual intimacy are very well. Even for people with whom heterosexual intercourse is an activity they can engage in at all -- again, bear in mind that those with same-sex partners, full-time or sometimes, have sex with partners without intercourse. Real sex is whatever it is you are doing which is sexual to you and yours, where you are sharing physical and emotional intimacy, where you both find sexual pleasure. That can be intercourse or oral sex, but that can also be giving one another backrubs, kissing, or just holding one another. What makes it real is about what you're feeling and experiencing, not about what you're doing or what's recognized as real by someone else. Reread The Velveteen Rabbit for more on this.
2. Can you imagine having green beans for every single meal: nothing else, just green beans? Maybe one night they'd have lemon juice, and the next be served with almonds, but still: just green beans. Ugh. Even if you liked green beans a lot, you'd get sick of them pretty darn fast: you'd likely find that after a while, when mealtime came around, you even stopped feeling hungry. The same goes for intercourse: often couples seek new positions to try and make intercourse "work," or be more fulfilling, and while there's nothing wrong with experimenting that way, all the new positions in the world aren't likely to be helpful if intercourse is all that's on the menu, physically and emotionally. You and your partner might need to talk about this if your sexual life has become, or looks to be, the equivalent of all-green-beans-all-the-time. A whole lot of people are raised with the idea that intercourse is The Big It, and a whole of culture supports that idea, so it's not too surprising when some partners might have those ideas and either not know better, or not know how to approach things any differently. Those conversations don't have to be terribly difficult or a strain. Simply saying something to the effect of "I want to take things slowly, and really enjoy exploring one another -- our whole bodies, our whole selves -- for both of our pleasure and for us to feel really close," is the sort of opener that should put you in a place where you can get a good start on having these sorts of discussions and nurturing the sort of openness and intimacy that a real, quality and balanced sexual relationship requires. Even in very casual relationships, this is usually doable, just by being an active participant, and clearly voicing your limits as well as your desires (of course, if you're not comfortable being assertive in that way with someone you don't have a longstanding relationship with, casual sexual relationships probably not the right thing for you).
3. Short-cutting to intercourse because other things don't feel right, seem too complicated, because one or both partners just want to get it over with, feel it can provide intimacy other activities (sexual or otherwise) cannot, or because it's the only activity viewed as real or complete are all Bad Ideas. Sexual intercourse (vaginal and/or anal) DOES carry risks many other sexual activities do not: pregnancy risks, much higher disease and infection risks, social and cultural backlashes, the works. And the truth of the matter is that it cannot -- in and of itself -- provide ANYTHING else which other activities cannot in terms of intimacy or pleasure. The only thing it really CAN create or provide which other activities cannot is pregnancy. If every other activity seems lackluster, unfulfilling or unsatisfying, for either or both partners, chances are good the reason why isn't because of not having intercourse. Rather, that lack of fulfillment more likely lies in things like a relationship that just isn't good, healthy or truly wanted, self-image or body image issues, lack of communication, lack of comfort or readiness with sexual activities, or engaging in sexual partnership for the wrong reasons entirely, for instance, with the aim of proving oneself of worth, proving a certain orientation, or trying to give sex as a gift to a partner to prove love or care.
4. The good stuff almost always keeps. In other words, rushing into intercourse because you're worried you won't ever get the opportunity again, with a given partner or with ANY partner, is just plain silly. You WILL be afforded those opportunities more than once in your life, and chemistry DOES keep when it's going to, with or without intercourse. If you suspect a given relationship will end UNLESS you have intercourse, that's even more foolish, because intercourse doesn't have the power to sustain relationships going astray, and if a partner tells you it does, or puts an ultimatum on you to do so or else, that's about one of the worst reasons TO have intercourse, because it's a recipe for physical and emotional dissatisfaction and disaster, pretty much for everyone. Partnered sex, of any type, is not required: it's optional. If it doesn't feel optional, that's a problem you need to resolve, and not one solved by caving in to actual or perceived pressures, or putting them on a partner.
When it all comes down to it, partnered sex really is about pleasure, for the most part. It's also about intimacy, comfort and companionship -- even casual sex -- and about the whole of a given relationship, and for some couples, intercourse may well be about procreation. But if it is NOT, in large part, for BOTH partners, about physical and emotional pleasure, that's a pretty big problem: it's a bit like taking a walk when not only do you not need to go anywhere, but you've got a profound leg injury that makes walking totally uncomfortable, or it's hailing out -- there's just no good reason to do it.
Other sexual activities aren't guaranteed to provide pleasure to everyone, all the time, either: again, some folks just don't enjoy certain things, and that varies from person to person, partnership to partnership, day to day. Other sexual activities can also be pushed or run into solely or primarily for another partner's enjoyment or needs: intercourse alone doesn't have that power. So, in many ways, it's about engaging in ANY sexual activity for the right reasons, but the things discussed here are often more pervasive with intercourse than with other activities because of the physiological, cultural and social issues listed above.
Awareness of all of these things alone is half the battle: all too often, people just don't question certain things which our peers, our partners or our culture either don't put up to question or don't allow us TO question. So, look at the context, both in culture and in your own relationships. Talk to your partners, ask questions, and do what both of you can to have an open mind: one or both partners seeking either to wait on intercourse, or to make it a far smaller part of your sexual repertoire doesn't mean anyone has been slighted, robbed or is somehow undesirable. Rather, partners wanting to approach sex in a far-more well rounded way is quite the opposite: a partner saying they want to explore sex more deeply, more fully, and with the whole of everyone in mind is a pretty strong statement of interest, desire, real intimacy, trust and acceptance.
Don't forget: you have all the time in the world. Even if your relationships don't last until the end of time, not only is your sexuality with you, and always developing, shifting and growing through your life, but forestalling any one sexual activity in a relationship doesn't cut a relationship short or take opportunities away from you. In fact, it's likely to do quite the opposite: it's pretty much impossible to enjoy a good meal if you're stuffing your face as fast as possible to get to dessert or to be able to leave the table. And it's pretty much impossible to be able to enjoy good sex, real intimacy, and bonafide sexual partnership -- where two people really are active, willing partners BOTH concerned with the enjoyment and feelings of both partners, equally -- if you're racing to get to an arbitrary finish line rather than giving both of you the time, the process and the space to enjoy and explore every single step of the way.