Will the Real Bad Sex Please Stand Up?

One night my partner and I were having sex. We hadn't hit the intercourse portion of the evening's program yet, but I was enjoying the fingering.

And then my partner, because he's usually pretty funny and because we'd been watching a movie (Hot Fuzz, if you're familiar) earlier in the night, asked if I wanted to be "fingered up the duck pond." Never in my life have I been so abruptly convinced that, no, actually, there were any number of things other than having sex I should be doing, including cleaning the litter box or flossing.

My partner could tell I was absolutely not having it and so he stopped and backed off, which is exactly the sort of basic good sexual etiquette that made me want to have sex with him in the first place. Then I yelled a little bit about how not sexy that phrase was and ranted about how, no, that was not okay; he laughed. A lot. We most emphatically did not have any more sex; it took me a couple of days to get over it, in fact.

In hindsight, this is a funny story that we remind each other of sometimes and then we both laugh and kiss and sometimes the mood escalates and sometimes it doesn't and either way is great. We laugh because sometimes even people who are usually good with each other have bad sex.

That means sex that just isn't satisfying for some reason; that means someone got a cramp at an inopportune moment or someone else got distracted by a deadline at work and lost their train of thought. Bad sex can involve realizing the dog is staring at you and not being able to close your eyes and just ignore that long enough to finish.

But the discussion about bad sex that has recently been happening on social media lately is not about sex that leaves you wanting. Instead, people are using "bad sex" as coded language to describe "sex you didn't want to have in the first place but couldn't say no to." At best, that kind of sex falls under the category of coercive sex. At worst, it is clear and unambiguous rape. And no matter what, coercive sex falls under the general heading of sexual assault -- which isn't sex for the person being assaulted -- the kind of thing that so many people seem deeply uncomfortable talking about.

I think the source of some of this discomfort is simple: when we hear these stories from other people, people who have been vulnerable, we must confront the similar situations in which we have found ourselves. And, if we have put years between ourselves and events that made our skin crawl, that made us funnel our rage into "safe" outlets, that made us repress our horror at our own experiences for which we had no words, then those reminders are not always welcome.

This is one way in which rape culture perpetuates itself.

When we shy away from acknowledging the experiences of others as a way of avoiding our own, when we minimize and dismiss sexual assault out of a misguided effort to protect ourselves from the potential difficulty of owning what happened to us, we are complicit in rape culture. We protect a system in which coercive sex is considered normal, just a rite of passage, just part of a shitty date.

We send the message to other people, people in vulnerable positions, that they should acquiesce to sex they do not want to be having. Then we blame them for not being strong enough to say no or remove themselves from the situation in the first place.

This ignores the reality that a lot of people experience, where there is a significant power imbalance for one reason or another — but it's also the voice of collective trauma. We are trying to protect ourselves, trying not to make eye contact with a predator. Instead we are feeding other people to the monsters.

If this were almost any other essay, I'd write here about my own past experiences, about the coercive sexual situations in which I have found myself from the youngest age through to a couple of weeks ago when I had to evade a stranger's attention. I'd spin the narrative of those assaults to illustrate why coercive sex can leave a person feeling not only powerless but guilty, like they are at fault, like they are the ones who failed their part of some ineffable interaction transaction. After all, we might think, after coercive sex, we should have been able to say no. We caved in. We weren't strong enough.

This whole emphasis on the laying bare of personal narrative is bullshit.

It's bullshit for two reasons:

  1. It has the effect of putting every person's experience on trial via social media. Experiences are examined from all angles and the court of public opinion weighs in on whether or not something was sufficiently bad enough to justify trauma. Is giving someone a blow job that you don't want to give him really that bad? Comment sections will debate it endlessly and ignore that the question has already been answered by the person to whom it happened.
  2. It reinjures people who do not need to have those wounds opened up all over again. Yes, these are necessary conversations that we have got to have if we have any hope of combating rape culture. But we don't need to ignore the very real trauma that survivors of sexual assault are living with.

Perhaps the summation of those reasons, though, is that no one owes anyone else a voyeuristic opportunity to observe and learn from their trauma. If you need someone to cut themselves open and bleed out in front of you before you can believe that they have suffered, I can only ask that you pause in your reading of this and consider why you need that performance of pain, why you need to validate or invalidate the suffering of other people like a parking stub.

But I don't want to go too far afield here.

What I really want is to ask, if you are having a hard time with the current conversation, that you resolve to listen. Sit with the discomfort of it instead of jumping to judgment. Consider what our culture might look like if coercive sex were never normalized as bad sex again, never minimized because we don't conflate not being able to say no with our partner orgasming and then falling asleep unexpectedly before we get ours.

That can be a really hard thing to imagine. I think some of us can still only glimpse a world in which enthusiastic consent is more than a nice idea. What do we do in this place to combat the tendency of people to minimize coercive sex? What can we do to remind ourselves and others that, hey, seriously, this goes beyond bad sex?

Simply and honestly, we can talk about sex.

Women in particular are often subject to the idea that they are either virgins or — and it's always meant in a slut-shaming way — whores. There is not a lot of positive sexual agency for women even now. Women are barely allowed to experience desire without it becoming a thing to be mocked, to be feared and defanged with humor. That's why there are so many heterosexual/heterosexist jokes about horny housewives lusting after the pool boy, who always wears hot pants.

Sex is something women are often socialized away from talking about; it's MODEST not to talk about it because sex is PRIVATE. Except that just creates a situation in which we are all bumbling around in the dark. The mechanism of normalizing coercive sex as bad sex really depends on this environment in which we are all isolated, all afraid to talk to each other. There's a reason abusers isolate their victims from friends and loved ones and the function is the same here.

The most powerful thing we can do is speak up and educate ourselves and others. I promise you, none of us are as weird as we think, and it's such a relief to find people willing to have open and straightforward conversations about sex. It eliminates so much of the "am I normal?" guesswork — that's one reason this is such an important website!

Sure, talking about sex can be scary. It can bring up a lot of feelings of shame. Keep in mind, please, that shame is about control; it's a mechanism for getting people to police themselves. You don't need that in your life. Hell, I could be ashamed that my partner quotes inappropriate movie lines when we're getting it on but if I were, I'd miss out on a lot of laughter in bed.

I challenge you to combat coercive sex, to stand in opposition to efforts to minimize it by framing it as "bad sex." I challenge you to normalize sex by talking about it so that people know being coerced isn't anything resembling normal at all.

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