Does sex have to involve penetration? The idea of it makes me totally sick.
Heather Corinna replies:Okay so I'm pretty sure I'm lesbian and the reason for this is that when I read something naughty straight stuff makes me sick. When I read lesbian erotica I like it... until they start penetrating each other, but everything else excites me and I know I want to have sex. If you are having sex with a girl does there have to be penetration? Is it unusual to not want it? I mean just the thought of it makes me sick.
I think one of the coolest things about sex is that it's a lot like our taste in music.
When it comes to music, we get to like what we like, and listen only to what we want to listen to when we get a choice. Obviously, in the grocery store or at a club what we hear not going to be up to us, but that's not how it goes with sex: consensual sex always involves having a choice, just like listening to music in our own space does. With music, we also get to try listening to something to see how we feel about it, and if we don't like it, we can turn it off or switch to another station or song. We can try listening to music other people like, too, to see if we also like it, and it's okay whether we do or we don't.
Sometimes we'll find we like different music at different times or in different situations. I love listening to Aimee Mann when I'm feeling low, but it's not at all what I like to listen to when I want to get happy. When I'm high energy or want to get revved up it's great to listen to the beloved punk of my youth, but if I want to chill out or my head hurts, that music is like torture. We might have music we love to listen to any time, and music we know we never like, but we'll also tend to have plenty of music that we like or want sometimes, but don't at other times.
While sex can be more loaded than music, I'd say that has more to do with what people choose to load it with, or sign on to, than what it's really supposed to be like when we're all coming to it in a healthy way. Because really, all those things up there that are true of what music a person likes, don't like, listens to or chooses not to are just as true of sex and the way we not only can, but ideally should, approach it ourselves and with others.
Sex itself should always be a choice, not an obligation or requirement, and that also goes for how we choose to have sex, for what kinds of sex we choose to have. And just like there's no "right" taste in music, only what taste each person has, in general, or at any given time, the same is true about sex.
Whatever the gender of a person or their sexual partner is, no one ever has to have any kind of sex or have sex any given way if it doesn't work for them or it doesn't feel good, physically, emotionally or both. So, for a woman with partners who are also women, no one has to engage in any kind of sex where anything -- a body part, a toy, whatever -- is inside the vagina if that isn't what they want, but the same is also true of a woman with partners who are men and also for men or people of other genders with any kind of partners they have.
If and when someone doesn't want those kinds of sex, but their partner does, no always should trump yes; if someone doesn't want to do something sexually, that needs to be put before what someone does want to do.
Now, a person who wants something a potential or current sexual partner doesn't can certainly make a decision to choose a different partner who does want what they do instead of staying with or a partner who doesn't. Everyone should have the right to choose sexual partnerships that are a good fit for their own sexuality and the sexual lives they want, and that's the healthy way for any of us to pursue our preferences, not doing what we don't want to or pressing or forcing someone else to do what they don't want to. Just like someone who doesn't want to have a given kind of sex has a right not to, someone who does want a kind of sex has a right to seek it out with people who do.
Is it unusual not to want vaginal intercourse of any kind ever? That's a tricky question to answer accurately, especially when it's coming from someone young who it sounds like hasn't even engaged in any kind of partnered sex at all yet, but is only trying to figure out what they do and don't want based on erotica or porn; based on fantasy, not reality.
But in general, most folks with vaginas will tend to at least want to see what that kind of sex feels like -- even just out of curiosity, alone -- and while it doesn't turn out to be everyone's favorite thing, and some people find out they certainly don't want to do that anymore and choose not to, it is something many people enjoy and find they want. From that standpoint, not wanting to do that in any way at all, throughout a whole lifetime, would be unusual.
I want to qualify that with a few things, though.
First of all, trying something a few times and in a few different situations throughout life (not just at one time of life or with one person) and not liking it is a very different thing than never wanting to try at all, and not having an interest in trying something is also a very different thing from having a strong feeling of aversion: something like feeling utterly sick at even the thought.
Too, not everyone with a vagina is comfortable with gender roles often ascribed to people with vaginas, including when it comes to sex. What some people can feel averse to, or just want to avoid, when it comes to intercourse, are some of those assumed or ascribed roles, like being subservient or submissive, like being a "hole" for someone else to fill, or like being "the girl," in a relationship or sexual interaction, period. None of those things are how it has to be with sex that involves vaginal entry, but those are pervasive ideas, and plenty of people don't feel comfortable with them; some feel very uncomfortable with even the possibility of them being a part of any sex they have.
Our world has also set up vaginal intercourse, specifically, as the "default" sexual activity: as the one kind of sex the majority of people will tend to think of or figure went on when someone says "I had sex." That certainly isn't the only kind of sex people have, even straight people, it's just one of many ways to be sexual with someone else, but that's not how it's presented a lot of the time. When something is framed like that, as the thing to do, people will tend to learn, covertly and overtly, that that's what sex is and that's what they should want. Strong messages that people should want something tend to pack quite a punch, especially for people -- as many are -- who are very concerned with normalcy. So, with a message like that around intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry, it's tough for us to really say how many people who do that do so because it's what they, uniquely want, and how many people do it or want it because they've learned they're supposed to.
Look, if the "default" sex in our world was, say, putting peanuts up our noses, way more people would be doing that or wanting that than people who are doing that or want to now. When anything is set up as a norm, or as the definitive Thing To Be Doing, then a lot of people are going to want that thing, probably more than would want to do it if it wasn't.
Most importantly, I think, concern with what's "normal," "typical," or "usual" when it comes to human sexuality is a lot less useful and helpful than it can seem. Even calling anything one of those words accurately is always iffy. I say this a lot, but if we know anything at all about human sexuality by now, we know that what's most normal isn't everyone being the same, but diversity. When it comes to the sexualities and sexual lives of the billions of people there are in the world, we know that what people do and don't do, like and don't like is much, much more diverse than it's usually assumed to be or presented as. What's normal is diversity, not everyone doing the same thing, or doing the same things the same ways.
What we also know by now is that when people go about their sex lives in a way where they're focused more or only on what they think they're supposed to do or want than focused on what they actually want it usually doesn't lead to the healthiest, happiest, most satisfying and enriching sexual lives. Sexual expression is a very personal, individual expression, just like art or the way we talk. What sex is really, ideally, supposed to be about is who we uniquely are sexually, and when sex includes partners, who we each are ourselves and who we are, again, uniquely, together. That's the way of approaching sex that people tend to most enjoy and find benefits them and their lives most, not trying to be "normal." That's also what tends to make sex be anything but a total bore.
That all said, I do want to talk a little about aversion. Aversion is a word for a feeling we have, about anything, which is an extreme dislike or disinclination. Aversion is a different feeling than apathy or disinterest. And because we like or want to do one thing doesn't have to mean we feel an aversion to something else, and also isn't usually because we feel an aversion to something else.
Aversion usually is something we want to resolve or at least have some understanding of. Not because we have to want, like or do anything we feel an aversion to: we don't. In other words, what I'm not saying is that someone has to "fix" themselves to make themselves like, want or do what they feel an aversion to. Rather, we usually want to resolve it because feelings of aversion are very uncomfortable, cause people distress, and usually come from somewhere: from something we usually do need to work out or at least identify.
For example, often feelings of aversion come from some kind of trauma. With and around sex, having experienced sexual abuse, assault or shaming are common causes of sexual aversion. For instance, some people who were raised with strong messages about how their genitals or sex are sinful or evil or gross or off-limits experience sexual aversion as a result (either on the whole, or just around certain activities). Some people who have been sexually abused or assaulted find they feel aversion to the idea or experience of consensual sexual activities which were the activities involved -- with out consent -- when they were abused or assaulted. You can probably understand why that might happen for anyone with those experiences.
To give you a personal example of aversion from trauma, my dominant hand was smashed and partially severed as a child in an accident. If and when I find myself in situations where I could seriously injure my hand -- like when cooking and using knives that feel too big for me to balance properly -- I tend to have a strongly averse reaction. That's about post-traumatic stress, but that's also sometimes about caution. I know, after all, what a serious hand injury can mean and have reasons to feel fearful about it. I also know that not being cautious can make a serious injury much more likely.
Hopefully, an example like that one also illustrates that aversion doesn't have to be seen as a bad thing or something to feel embarrassed about. It can be totally neutral and even beneficial in some ways. It is beneficial for me to be extra-careful with my hands, for example. At the same time, it's also helpful for me to know why I experience those feelings, to have an awareness of when they're sound and when they aren't -- and also to just recognize when I'm feeling scared -- and to work through the root of some of those feelings so I can deal with them and do the things I actually want to do. That keeps my feelings of aversion from being a big obstacle in my life. That awareness also helps me to cut myself a break about it and not get all judgy about not wanting to do things other people experience as no big whoop. Processing and working through trauma we've been through is important for our mental health, and for the quality of our lives.
Aversion can also be a reaction to pressures of some kind. For instance, no one could blame anyone who isn't straight for having strong, negative feelings about a way of living, loving or having sex that is pushed on them like no one's business, sometimes in some really ugly ways. That happens incessantly to almost all of us, and some people do develop string feelings of aversion because of it, which is hardly a shocker.
I also want to make clear that sexual orientation is usually defined as who, if anyone, we ARE attracted to emotionally and sexually, not who we aren't or who we feel aversion to. In other words, a lesbian person is not someone who doesn't like men or intercourse within a heterosexual framework, or feels averse to them, and so chooses women. While some lesbian people -- like some any-people -- may experience aversion to those, or dislike them, what it is that makes them lesbian is an attraction to women, not an aversion to men.
In order to figure out how you feel about women, you want to focus on women, not men or descriptions of straight sex. To figure out how you feel about potentially being lesbian, your reaction to heterosexual sex or sex that involves anything being inside your vagina isn't going to be very helpful. And of course, women aren't just what kind of sex they do or don't have, so how you feel about sex with entry, including between women, isn't likely to tell you how you feel about women as whole people. Being lesbian, like being any orientation, is about more than just sex, since even our sexual relationships are usually about more than sex. It's about love, too, or at least really liking someone as a whole person in a way that's not just about sex: that's more often the bigger piece, here.
Let's also talk a little about porn or erotica. Porn, whether it's written or visual, isn't the best way to try and sort any of this out because it's about fantasy: it's fiction, not nonfiction. It's also about the fantasy of someone else: the person creating it, not the person reading it. Sometimes it may be a fantasy you share, but it's not one you've made unless the person who wrote it or made it was you. And, as you've discovered, sometimes you might share parts of that created or manufactured fantasy, but not others. When that happens, it can be because you don't like the sexual activity being talked about or shown, but it can also be about not liking the WAY that activity is presented or talked about, too.
When we're trying to figure out what our orientation is or what kinds of sex we want to have, while our fantasies (or someone else's) can give us some cues, that's about it. To really get at how we feel and what we want in these departments, we're going to need to be dealing with real people in real life. We also often can't figure out what we want sexually with any partner until we are actually with that person, or at least know who they are. Again, it's a lot like what music we want to listen to: hard to know until we can actually hear it and until we're in the space to make a choice, with whatever unique mood, situation, and p;ace of life we're in.
Lastly, let's get real about the idea of the kind of sex that's freaking you out: the idea of letting someone literally inside our bodies, whether we're talking about the vagina, anus or mouth -- and outside sexual scenarios, with things like a surgery -- is pretty freaky in some ways, and can even feel scary, especially when we're nothing close to ready for that in our lives or in a given relationship.
CJ and I talk about that in Let's Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry, when we say things like:
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.
Things like that are part of why a lot of people consider sex with entry to be more intimate than sex without it. That's also why these kinds of sex can sometimes just feel plain old scary. And why when it comes to our sexual development per how we express ourselves sexually, we don't tend to start right at the gate by letting people into our bodies, but instead usually start with external kinds of sex with people, or even our own masturbation. So, some of your feelings here may also be about these issues, too.
Again, none of this means you or anyone else has to have these kinds of sex or that something is the matter with you if you don't want to try them, or do try them and find you aren't into them. But I also think that it might be a little bit early in your life and life experiences to even try and figure out what you want and don't want, and certainly if it's only based on impressions you have from fictions or other people's experiences.
If and when you're in a real-life sexual situation or relationship, who knows how you might feel. You might experience being with someone where every single way of being sexual with them doesn't feel right to you, not just intercourse, but other sexual activities, too. You might find that in a different relationship you and the other person want to explore absolutely everything you possibly can together. You might discover, as people often do, that how a given sexual activity with someone feels isn't just about that activity or those body parts, but about the interpersonal dynamics and relationship between you: about the how, not just the what.
So, here's my advice: for starters, know that it is an absolute given that you do not ever have to have any kind of sex you don't want to and don't feel good about, nor do you have to have any kind of sexual relationship you don't want, or any sexual partner you don't want. Do what you can to really understand and feel that as a given: that's something that's so important for everyone to really know, understand and accept, both about themselves but also about anyone and everyone else. When we approach any sexual relationships or interactions with that as a given for ourselves and our partners, we're coming to sex, then, with one of the most important foundations for a sexual life that's healthy and comfortable for everyone.
I'd also suggest trying to cultivate the same kind of acceptance around ideas of what's sexually typical and isn't, working to make it a given that whether someone does or doesn't want a kind of sex -- in general or at any given time -- that someone else does or even that a lot of people do, it's all good. We don't all have to be the same, which is good, because we're not all the same. Even if you are unusual in any way, you get to be unusual, and it's just as okay to be atypical as it is to be typical. Plus, more times than not, those things aren't even based on realities well, so our ideas of what normal or typical or usual even are are often skewed.
Do take some time to try and identify where those feelings of aversion are coming from and try to make some peace with them. I'd suggest that stepping away from the porn a bit instead of digging in might be a good move: some space away from other people's suggestions or presentations of something is important when we're trying to identify our own feelings about it. What making peace means for you isn't something I can dictate: only you can figure that out. It might mean just knowing you don't have to do anything you want to, so you don't have to get so worked up about this or worry about it. If you have had trauma you think might be part of this, it might mean getting some help and support in healing from that trauma. Maybe making peace will mean just recognizing that you don't have to make any of these decisions now no matter what, and leaving room for yourself to figure out how you feel about any kind of sex with partners when you actually get there. Just put some energy into thinking about this in a more relaxed way and see where that takes you.
Same goes with your orientation: all you or anyone can do is feel it out as you go, seeing who you DO feel emotional and sexual attraction to, more than who you don't feel those things for. Whoever, individually or as a group, that turns out to be, you always get to voice your own preferences when it comes to any kind of sex you don't want to have and that always should be respected. Whoever it turns out you do feel sexually and emotionally attracted to, you only have to have whatever kinds of sex you feel good about, whether that's with women, men, both, or anyone else.
Here are some links I think can give you some more help and some extra food for thought:
- Am I normal? Who cares?
- The Bees and...the Bees: A Homosexuality and Bisexuality Primer
- Driver's Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
- What's Sex?
- I'm so unhappy in our sex life, and he just doesn't understand.
- This is what sexual incompatibility looks like.
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