An Immodest Proposal
Just last Tuesday, right down the street from you, or perhaps even right where you live, two teenagers had sex for the very first time, and it was exactly as we all wish those first experiences to be.
Our ingénue loves her boyfriend of over a year, and he's always made her feel good about herself. He's a good guy; he cares about her and demonstrates that care in actions as well as in words. Her parents really like him, though they were initially concerned this was too serious a relationship. They felt better about it when they watched him encourage her to apply for the colleges she had the most interest in, even though some of them would have meant a separation, or that if he wanted to stay with her, he’d be the one considering a college that wasn’t his first choice in order to be together. They’re not thrilled at the idea of the two of them having a sexual relationship, but they’re realistic in their understanding that young people will probably become or already are sexually active, and if their daughter is going to be, they feel comforted in the notion that it will be with someone where they don’t see her at any big risk of getting hurt. They haven’t ever discussed this directly with her, but they haven’t said they were opposed, either.
He’s never forced or pressured her into anything. He has often made his sexual interest clear as their relationship has developed, but was equally clear that he didn't want to push her into something he wanted but she wasn't ready for, happy to wait for her when it came to any given sexual activity. After the first time he kissed her, they’d had more of their kisses, the extended makeout sessions on the couch, the furtive first touches that he initiated, but she allowed and often even enjoyed: even when she was nervous at first, she’d always end up feeling closer to him. Once they’d been together long enough for her to feel more secure, they tried some fingering for her, some handjobs and blowjobs for him. He usually asked before putting his hands inside her pants or shirt -- and she was wary, but agreed -- and he's usually asked if she'll provide him the oral or manual sex. When he wasn’t asking outright, it was because he’d either move his hands inside her pants -- looking at her face to be sure she wasn’t saying no -- or move her hands to his pants, and gesture with his head that oral sex for him would be nice, hoping she knew him well enough to know she didn’t have to. The times she declined any of this, or looked like it wasn't really okay, he backed off without an argument and held her afterward so she knew he wasn’t angry.
With any of this, he usually reached orgasm, and while she didn't, what he'd done usually felt good even if it hurt for a bit sometimes. She hasn’t said much about that because she figures it’s just something you get to over time: women just need to get used to these things. Once he asked if there was something else he could do that she liked. She said no because it was something she just didn’t have the answer to: she didn’t know what she liked or might like just yet. He was her first partner, after all.
He's made clear he loves her and they've been together a long time, only with each other, ever, so isn't the time right to take things to the next level and have real sex? She's not feeling quite ready yet – and she’s particularly nervous about moving to things where her clothes come off, worried about how he’ll perceive her body -- so they have this discussion a few times. Sometimes it happens when they start to go further in the kinds of almost-sex they're having, but she's put the brakes on, but he's been cool about it, even though he's felt frustrated. She goes with a friend to a clinic to get on the pill first, for whenever it does happen, even though they agree they'll also use condoms, she wants to be extra safe about pregnancy. She’s also worried about bleeding – enough of her friends have said they did – but is just hoping that it doesn’t happen to her or, if it does, that he won’t notice.
Soon enough – and before she’s really 100% about all this -- his parents are going out of town. Who knows when that'll happen again: they don’t get a lot of opportunities for extended time alone in a place that’s safe. She loves him, he waited for her, so if now's not the right time, when will be? She says she'll stay over when his parents are gone, which is her also saying, albeit indirectly, that she’ll have sex with him. The evening comes around, they spend some awkward time at the house -- impending sex the big elephant in the room, both unsure of how to initiate even though they share the expectation it's going to happen tonight -- and after watching a couple of movies and sharing a pizza, they eventually head to the bedroom where they engage in a few other sexual activities before going ahead with intercourse. It's fairly brief -- he got off, she didn't, but that's normal enough the first time, which is probably why he didn’t ask her if she did and also why she didn’t say anything about it herself -- and it hurt her a little bit, but it wasn't terribly painful like she was expecting. . She felt a little like she was just lying there, and wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to think it was a problem.
Afterwards, they do feel closer, and she's really glad she did It with him. They talk about it, and both agree that it was special and that they’re feeling good about it, and drift into a comfortable sleep. The next morning, before she goes home, he makes clear that he really loves her, that his feelings for her have only grown, and she gave him a real gift that he values greatly and doesn’t take for granted. When he drops her off, they say “I love you,” and mean it, and she feels lucky and loved.
Sound familiar? It’s a pretty common script for young adult sex or sexual initiation that's a typical current ideal among young people and adults alike. It isn't all fairy tale, either: in the last decade I've worked with teens and sexuality, I've heard many similar versions of this scenario from young women reporting what they feel is a remarkably positive first time.
On the surface, it looks pretty good. The guy is a good guy. The girl wasn't forced into anything she was opposed to or strongly did not want. They only moved forward into things when she gave consent, and her consent was always sought out actively through words or body language. They were safe and smart about their first intercourse in regard to pregnancy and infections and while it was not exactly blissful for her, it wasn't terribly painful either. He didn’t change his behavior towards her afterwards, it made them feel closer, they're both glad that's who they chose to be with, and it'll be a good memory for them, whether they're together ten years from now or not. All in all, it fits many ideals very well when it comes to the idea of what a positive first sexual experience is.
But something monumental is missing from this picture. If it takes you a minute to find what it is, don't feel bad: after all, the missing piece isn't just missing from this picture, but from nearly every common idea and ideal about sex and women, and it's been missing for so long, plenty of us don't even see the giant void that sits smack in the middle of our pretty first-time fantasies.
The black hole in that scenario is her desire.
Nowhere do we really see a strong, undeniable sexual desire, deep, dizzy sexual pleasure, or earnest and equal sexual satisfaction on her part. It makes no appearance in a sexual script many would posit as an ideal initiation. We heard her say yes, but we never once saw her beg the question herself. We saw her yes as the answer to someone else’s desire, rather than as an affirmation of her own. Her yes is uncertain, but sexual desire – whether we choose to act on it or not – is wholly certain, unmistakable and persistent.
If I'd have told you that same story and swapped the roles, you might have felt like you were reading speculative fiction. If she were feeling sexually frustrated – if we thought it just as common and given that she feels strong urges for sex -- if things weren't moving fast enough for her, if he was the reluctant or slow-moving partner, if she was the one initiating, she was getting off, he was the one who felt okay about it because at least it didn't hurt... what planet does THAT happen on? If I had told you I thought that this was a crap first-time scenario overall, you might have felt surprised.
We, as a culture, still tend to consider a woman’s yes to a man’s sexual invitation revolutionary. That’s unsurprising, of course. This is a world where women still frequently are not asked for consent, are frequently raped or become engaged in sex through coercion, still engage in sex with partners out of feelings of duty or obligation, usually have our sexuality depicted in grossly inaccurate ways by men and other women alike and where independent female sexual desire and earnest sexual enjoyment is not only often disbelieved, in some circles, it’s even “scientifically” contested. And for many women, just finding a partner -- the first time at bat, no less -- who fully seeks and supports her consent, and accepts any nonconsent, is indeed huge and often personally revolutionary. We, validly, consider such women lucky.
But consent -- our mere yes – is ground zero. While there are a lot of positives in a script like this one – and basics which many women young and old still do not have or cannot count on -- many of those positives are but a band-aid on a wound: a best-case scenario in substandard conditions, making the most we can out of an incomplete set of materials. They're a half-assed paint-by-numbers version of Van Gogh's Starry Night where they forgot to include a pot of yellow paint.
Consent is absolutely foundational for any kind of healthy sexuality. But our sexual revolution can only begin not only after every woman is at yes, with every invitation, but after – be it to man, woman or someone else entirely, and spoken by anyone – that yes is less one person’s answer to another’s request and more an expression or validation of any person’s own or shared desire.
I'm going to bypass the usual discussion when it comes to the patriarchal roots of much of this. If you're reading this collection, by now you probably know what they are, if you didn't already know like you knew your own name before you cracked the cover. I say they're obvious, and I don't suggest them as possibilities because they are factual realities.
In case they're not obvious, or you feel the need for a quick review, here are the Cliff's Notes. We've got more than a few millennia, and possibly more than that, where we have every evidence that women's sexuality has usually been considered an adjunct of male sexuality. We've got our whole documented human history of men as a ruling world class taking command of their sexuality and women's sexuality alike (even when that sexuality has nothing to do with them); we've got women often having no voice when it comes to what men do to their bodies and call sex, or women, when allowed that voice, only allowed it within the limited window of male desire and sexuality. We've got road-weary miles of history which considers the sexuality of women linked solely or only to reproduction and marriage, while men are allowed to have a sexuality which exists separate from their reproductive processes and their spousal partnerships or arrangements. We have the endlessly tiresome arguments based in Darwinian theory or biochemistry trying to show (or is that snow?) us that this absence of women in the equation of sex has nothing at all to do with social conditioning or the status of a given gender, but with the “fact” that women do not actually experience real, physical desire.
We've long idealized or enabled the romance-novel script of ravishment: reluctant women and passive girls swayed into sex by strong partners. While we're slowly coming around to the notion that violent force is not romantic, and rape not sex, but assault, "gentle persuasion" is still swoon-worthy stuff. The young woman who is provided a sexual awakening by an almost-paternal male partner remains an ideal, common fantasy or a profound fear if those roles can’t be adequately performed for or by women and men alike.
The chastity-belts of yesteryear are on display in our museums; those of the current day live on the mutilated genitals of poor women of color in Africa and wealthy white women in Los Angeles alike, in sex education curricula and the tiresome continuance of good girl/bad girl binaries, and in suburban households everywhere where a male partner has a hard-drive full of porn everyone knows is there and recognizes he may bring in his head to sex with partners while his female other makes sure her vibrator is well-hidden and would never consider asking her partner to use it during sex together for fear of making him feel insecure.
And all of this and more has gone on for so long and been so widespread that what should be a simple given of our yes can often seem an unattainable ideal.
This is all the work of ages to try and undo or redo. It’s a monumental tangle, so it’s going to take monumental work and time to untangle. Unfortunately, the arguments about it continue so endlessly and overwhelmingly that we often find ourselves stuck there, unable to move forward, wanting someone to take responsibility or someone to blame. Absolutely, it’s helpful and important to identify and be aware of history and current attitudes and behavior which are barriers to our equality, sexual and otherwise. But that’s a seriously long haul, and I don’t want to find us trapped in it, especially when we can step over some of that process to get to the good stuff, and when getting to the good stuff is about more than just rectifying an repairing an ugly history.
If we want to arrive at a new destination, we’ve got to have our eyes on the prize; we’ve got to be able to clearly visualize something of what it might look like when we all get there so that we can get there.
In Zen Buddhism, we aim for a beginner's mind; for a way of thinking in which we approach all we can with the freshest eyes and the fewest preconceived notions or expectations. The unknown can make us fearful, but the opportunity to have an unknown, to be able to approach something completely anew is a gift. People often view sexual inexperience as a burden, as something to be embarrassed about and ashamed of, a state we often hope to change as quickly as possible once we become sexually active. Sadly, in thinking that way, we often miss out on the fact that we are all in a unique position of opportunity when presented with any situation in which anything is new to us (and with sex, that’s the case with every new partner, and every time we engage in it: we get first-times constantly).
It's a truism that people tend to resist change and cling to the familiar. Yet we all know by now that one of the few universal givens about sex is that novelty tends to be more exciting for most of us than tradition: tradition has no real place in sex, particularly when it’s so ugly and so at war with peace and pleasure.
We need to stretch our beginner’s minds. Let’s just say – just because we can – that we, all women, in every sexual scenario imaginable, are already past the no and the yes. Let’s say that nothing even starts without that yes, and that when it is issued, it is firmer, stronger and more exuberant than we may be able to presently imagine it could be. Let’s write a new ideal sexual initiation script.
I don’t want to scrap all of our previous draft. I still want our heroine to have support and care, a partner who treats her with love (of whatever variety or definition) and respect, and I want for her to be able to reduce her risks of unwanted or negative consequences and for her to feel good afterwards.
Even with those common threads, what I prefer to envision – and posit as an alternative ideal and reality -- looks a lot different.
What if her foundation looked like this: her family recognized that serious or casual, long-term or short, all wanted sexual relationships have value and that what risks of negatives we must take with sex are offset by the possibility of great positives? Parents do not see the risk of heartbreak or disappointment when it comes to academic contests, college applications or going out for sports as being negatives simply because they may have unsatisfactory outcomes: they recognize that risking hurt for something which may be wonderful is often well worth it. What if her family felt the exact same way about their daughter’s experiences with sex? What if rather than nurturing an environment of passivity or silence about sex, her parents provided her and her partner with a safe space for sex, active help and encouragement with birth control and sexual health, and very direct discussion about sexuality that began well before puberty started, including her own sexual desires -- not just her desires for emotional closeness or security -- sexual health, masturbation, anatomy and body image and how sex is often unrealistically presented by peers and media? What if her parents spoke to her about their own early sexual experiences, realistically, including both their joys and disappointments, and what they’ve figured out about sex since then?
What if she felt just as comfortable in a partnership that had only lasted a month, or was with someone of the same gender, rather than a different one, and everyone around her was just as supportive of her choices and the value and import she feels they have? What if she chose her first-time sex as an opportunity to say goodbye to a partner rather than as a gesture to continue a relationship and no one had a problem with that or suggested that without continued external validation from a partner she wouldn’t be okay? What if what she feels is truly her “first time” is receptive oral sex, or providing anal sex for her receptive male partner (and what if he felt that was his “real” first-time) or masturbation with no partner at all and she did not even remotely question the validity of experiences like that as bonafide sexual initiations? What if she prioritized physical pleasure rather than emotional intimacy in her first-time and no one automatically defaulted to presuming that she was acting or thinking like a man (and defaulted to thinking that’s what all men experience or feel like in the first place)? What if she had no expectations of pain whatsoever?
What if she alone was trusted to make sound sexual choices, care for herself and reduce her own risks even if her male partner didn’t yet completely inspire that same trust? What if she felt like the right time for her sexual initiation was at the time she was getting concerned that if she didn’t do it soon, she was just going to pounce on her boyfriend like a hungry dog, rather than merely about when she has some safeguards in place, and when it’s been too long to ask a partner to wait for it? What if she came to her first-time already intimately familiar and comfortable with her own body and sexual response, and her male partner had no expectation of being the person who taught her about her sexuality or gave it to her or took it from her, but rather of being the person who was the first besides herself to learn about it? What if she had all of these sorts of foundational factors whether she or her partner were white or black, gendernormative or not, queer or straight, wealthy or poor, thick or thin, 14 or 30?
What if the cultural landscape about sex and gender had been changed enough that she has grown up trusting women – including herself -- wholly when we express sexual desire, even when it doesn’t resemble our own or occur within contexts we find individually ideal or familiar? What if she was reared with the absolute that women experience, initiate and pursue desire and that it is completely acceptable to do so with great enthusiasm? Britney Spears had to say “Oops,” before she told us she did it again, both so we knew it was also an oops the first time and to make clear that while she may have lost all of her senses, it wasn’t something she meant to do, because girls can feel sexual, but it’s not something they completely intend or purposefully pursue. What if she was reared without that “Oops,” but instead an “Atta girl!”
Let’s take it as a given that because she will also often be taking the initiative in sex, she knows already that she may have to deal with sexual rejection in a way that men had previously experienced far more than women, and were more practiced at coping with, even if all did not cope with it well or if the way they coped was influenced by the way masculinity was defined? In fact, if she chooses male partners, she knows already that they may say yes less often than they did before some prototypical masculinity roles of the past were done away with, and her ideas about what male sexual desire looks like are radically different than what any of us had often had in mind.
Without the assurance or expectation that she has an age-old script to follow that wasn’t written by her, she not only knows she will have to be more creative sexually than women before her, she’s looking forward to it. She has no expectation of being asked to perform or of asking a partner to perform: her expectations are all about both of them engaging in expression, not performance. She’s not expecting porn or a romance novel: she’s expecting an interpretive dance. That also helps a lot when it comes to feeling comfortable about her body from the onset: she knows that the unique way that she looks is part of what makes sex so individual for her and her partners. Plus, reared without feeling her female body or her sexuality were dirty, immoral or the promised property of someone else, she’s already plenty familiar with her own genitals and sexual response, with the aid of no one beyond her own two hands. She knows plenty of things that will get her off by now.
Additionally, what sexual activities she’ll engage in with a partner on any given day are things she expects to vary, since who knows what she and her partner will feel like doing or discover anew. There will be the distinct element of surprise afoot, rather than the experience of perpetual planning and constant preparation that led to any one inevitable place. “Get lucky” is a euphemism for sex which has fallen out of vogue, but when we recognize the rarity of Big Time Desire that is perfectly mutual and miraculously simultaneous, our expectations are adjusted in such a way that when it occurs, we all will know we have, in fact, gotten quite lucky, and it is a great fortune to be able to experience even one moment like this, let alone many. Our gal and her other did plenty of planning and risk-reduction in advance when it came to being prepared for the time that those desires DID coincide, but when it actually all came together may have been the weekend before or after they had expected it to.
What if, when they both chose to follow shared desired like this – not when they “just happened” -- expected or unexpected, she had, we had, this sort of foundation beneath it all? What if we all visualized her yes, our yes, not as a happy ending, but as the barest beginning?
Here is my shamelessly immodest proposal.
By the time someone asks the other The Question, the yes they receive is already so completely known and felt that it’s moved beyond a mere answer and found itself reborn as a hungry, aching request almost arrogant in its knowledge that it will be gladly met.
The sex itself? It’s sweatier and it’s sweeter, all at once. When it’s tender, it’s not tender like a Hallmark card, but like a cookie fresh out of the oven: steaming, moist, delectable and melt-in-your-mouth. When it’s forceful, it’s not so because one partner is being assaulted or dominated, but because the energy and strong unity of a shared desire feels so urgent and deeply wanted that both partners leap upon it like someone who has been on a hunger strike for a week might approach an all-you-can-eat buffet. Her expectations and the experience of her sexual initiation seem less like a country-western serenade and more an 80’s power ballad.
By the time anyone gets near anyone else’s genitals they are puffed up with arousal like a baboon’s bright red behind. Both partners are equal parts terrified and fearless, and both those fears and hopes alike aren’t about being harmed – or avoiding harm -- but about the eustress of exploring spaces unknown to them and full of glorious mystery. Words are used to verify the obvious and to specify the wanted, but they’re often in the unique sexual language of monosyllables and half-sentences punctuated by gasps and sighs and laughter and moans. Whose hands are whose hands, whose limbs are whose are tough to determine to the outside eye: they’re moving too fervently and too fast, and are too tangled to tell, especially if both sets belong to partners of the same gender. If one sexual activity only lasts a few minutes, no one cares because they simply slide into another effortlessly, hungry for all of it, and this dance continues, ever morphing from one rhythm into another with feelings only of floating, not of failure. If and when something hurts or is uncomfortable, voicing that is easy, because of the equally easy expectation that partners will experiment to find the things which not only don’t hurt, but which feel crazy good.
Embarassment or shame about normal body functions and fluids would seem quaint and archaic: after all, sex is about wanting to crawl as deeply into the muck of someone else as is humanly possible and roll around in it with the relish of a pig in mud. Someone, at some point, will do something that seems completely instinctive and really sexy, but which is actually quite silly. Someone will have laugh out loud and it will be easily interpreted as an expression of joy rather than a potential insult. No one will be stressed out over how long it’ll all go on for because every few seconds are stretched out like taffy and feel like hours: if all the sex is over an hour later, both are surprised because it felt like mere moments and days at a time, all at once.
Everyone gets off, whether that is through orgasm, having a hand in someone else’s pleasure, being that close to someone who you adore and are attracted to that much, or whatever other authentic and unique expression of diverse human sexuality someone gets off on. No partner has to ask the other, shyly, if they got off or not. It already has been so clearly demonstrated, and the understanding crystal clear that if any partner does not feel satisfied, they say something plainly because they know, without question, both want nothing more than to give and receive pleasure mutually. No one has the expectation that any one activity will get both people off, and they may well already have discussed that there will probably be times when it might be more fun to take turns where sex one night is all about one partner, and the next it’s all about the other. No one moment in sex has been privileged as the apex: the orgasms are amazing, but so are those brief moments of complete clarity just afterwards, those feelings of breathy loss of control the moments before, those first dizzy flushes of arousal, those utterly exhausted moments after it all before you fall into a well-earned and deep sleep.
This sex doesn’t just feel okay, nor is it good simply because it is painless. This sex feels freaking magnificent. Sure, sometimes it’s magnificent like riding a rollercoaster or having a near-death experience, and at other times it’s magnificent like soaking your feet after a long day, but it’s always so much more than just okay.
The next morning, in attempting to talk about the night before, both partners are reduced to stupid grins and vague expressions of “So, last night…well…yum…mmm. Wow.” Having both been so amped them up the night before, the next day they look like two people who just came back from a four-day massage, from a place where physicality, psychology and biochemistry delivered the potent cocktail they do.
And all of that may have come from any combination of sexual activities whatsoever: it doesn’t matter which, because when you feel like that, no one has to ask if what you did the night before was sex. It couldn’t have been anything else.
What if this was our first-time fantasy and ideal? What if it was our commonly-shared reality?
What I’m envisioning here isn’t the stuff of speculative fiction or utopian fantasy. It’s not at all out of our reach. While we’ve got a helluva lot of work to do to get everyone here all the time and unquestionably, it is entirely possible for someone – including you -- right this very minute.
We can (and if you ask me, should) absolutely be anarchists about this. We can create small communities, small partnerships, singular existences which live outside a presently pervasive sexual oligarchy, where how we want things to be can either be exactly how we think they should be, or as close as possible within the limitations of the macrocosm we still live in. Unlike rape, we get to choose when we have sex, how we have sex, and with whom we have sex: we get to choose if we’ll ever have sex at all, and it is not mandatory, but optional. How the rest of the world and our culture thinks of, presents and treats sex has an impact on us, to be sure, but none of that dictates how we must have sex or how we visualize the best-case scenarios of our sex lives and those of everyone else.
What we individually and collectively visualize has power and influence when it comes to what we manifest. By all means, not a one of us can somehow erase or alter all of the barriers we have right now when it comes to real sexual agency for all women. But there are no barriers beyond the limitations of our own imagination when it comes to rewriting the scripts of our sexual ideals, our individual sexual lives, and what we present to ourselves, our sisters and our daughters. We have the power to dream up and manifest something far better than a woman merely being able to say no and to say yes; something which is an entirely different animal than scenarios which are positive primarily because they have avoided the most negative consequences or results. Good sex, great sex, and enriching sexuality are not just about the absence of physical or emotional pain nor only about emotional intimacy. They are about desire and the full expression of that desire.
We often knock reality and defend fantasy, sure reality could never hold a candle to it. But if and when we do that, what we discount is the notion that a reality that is, literally, fantastic is entirely possible. We so often get lost in the weight of our current oppressions that we forget there are things we do have the power to change, with the tools we have, right at this moment.
There is not only plenty of room for women’s desire in every sexual equation in which we choose to take part, there remains a vacancy sign, flickering, with one light on the fritz, in many sexual relationships where everyone involved is breathlessly wishing, waiting and hoping for the appearance of that desire and will have the whole of their world positively altered when it finally shows itself and howls its first-found rebel yell.
And then, on some Tuesday sometime soon, right down the street from where you sit or perhaps even right where you live, two people may have a first-time – even if they have had 300 times before then – which is exactly how we all wish it to be, and may finally have dreamed, written and birthed itself into being.
Reprinted from Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, Seal Press, 2008