Reciprocity, Reloaded


1 : the quality or state of being reciprocal (shared, felt, or shown by both sides) : mutual dependence, action, or influence
2 : a mutual exchange of privileges; specifically : a recognition by one of two countries or institutions (or people!) of the validity of licenses or privileges granted by the other

I’m going to suggest you look at reciprocity in sex -- the idea that one person gives something, so the other should get something of equal value back -- in a different way than you might be used to.

With activities like sexual intercourse, dry sex or kissing, where the same or similar parts are getting used and stimulated at the same time, we assume reciprocity: that both parties are giving and getting the same thing. That in and of itself is often a false assumption, because that doesn’t mean we’re having the same experience, or that our enjoyment in that activity is identical to that of our partner, or vice-versa.

With activities like oral or manual sex, people usually assume that one partner is giving, and the other getting, and the giver and the getter don’t get to be both giving and receiving unless the same activity is “performed upon” the other partner. Assuming that assumes a lot. It assumes that in some sexual activities, only one partner is sexually engaged or pleased, because of the (flawed) idea that our genitals are our only pleasure center: that if one person’s genitals aren’t involved in a sexual activity and someone else’s are, that only the person whose genitals are getting some action is “getting” sex which the other is giving.

If during any partnered sex activity, either partner feels they aren’t getting anything out of a given sexual activity, or pretty equal satisfaction, then something really isn’t okay. And I mean at the time: not social status later, or a partner liking you more because you did something for them they really wanted, and you really weren't that hot on doing or taking part in.

During partnered sex, not only are there two (or more) people present, there are two (or more) things going on for each person: both giving AND receiving pleasure. If we’re with someone who is a good partner for us, we’re not just getting off on being pleased, we’re getting off on our partner experiencing pleasure with us. Lots of people -- we can even safely say most people who really are interested in mutual pleasure -- get a real buzz and a real sexual turn-on from sexual activities which are receptive for their partner: performing oral or manual sex to a partner, for instance. Lots of people enjoy a given sexual activity which may not do all that much for them physically, but deliver emotionally or intellectually.

It’s also worth making sure you or your partner isn’t just being a selfish dope. It happens, even to the best of us, every now and then. Even for otherwise good, caring partners, any of us can get so caught up in having so many sensations all about us or directed at us that we space out our partner’s experience, or their wants, needs or limits.

If both the "giving" or the "receiving" isn’t pretty freaking fantastic for all involved, no matter what role you’re in during a given activity, or at a given moment, that’s something to seriously consider. Check to make sure you’re sleeping with someone you really like and are really attracted to, for instance, and who you know likes you -- including outside the bedroom. Take stock of any messed-up messages about sex you might have internalized along the way, like the idea that partners or people of a certain gender are obligated to do certain things sexually or play certain roles. Be mindful for hidden trouble spots in the relationship -- like feeling constantly taken advantage of or only seen as having one use or value, that your needs are ignored, or like you always feel you have to be the leader or the instigator -- that lack of satisfaction could be symptoms of. Double-check with yourself to be sure that partnered sex, rather than masturbation, is even what you (and your partner) want and are ready for right then, and that you’re not engaging in any given sexual activity out of obligation, rather than the strong desire to do whatever it is you’re doing because it feels good for everyone, and because you're enjoying yourselves.

Sex & Obligation

Nobody “owes” anyone sex. We don’t lend and borrow sex like we lend and borrow money or our favorite sweaters. But plenty of people consider or engage in sex or certain sexual activities out of feelings of obligation or duty. Obligatory sex usually feels crappy and boring at best, and horrible, emotionally and physically, at worst, especially over time if it becomes a habit. When we’re really not interested in partnered sex at all and agree to it, it may even feel like rape. When our partner is doing their homework in their heads during sex rather than being fully present with us, or just saying yes to avoid an argument, it can feel pretty weird, and create some unhealthy patterns.

Maybe your partner performed oral sex for you, so you feel that -- no matter what you want -- you’re obliged to perform a similar or understood-to-be-equal activity. Your boyfriend or girlfriend is someone you feel you don’t deserve, or who is somehow above you, and sex seems like a good way to even the scales. Friends may push or pressure you to become sexually active or engage in sex for their own agendas. Perhaps your partner has had a level of previous sexual experience you feel you’ve got to live up to. Maybe it’s been a certain length of time at which point it seems sex should happen, by some arbitrary and invisible timeline, or it’s been a few weeks since you had sex, and even though you’re not in the mood, for whatever reason, you don’t want to leave your partner without sex from you.

Once you or your partner engage in any given sexual activity, you’re not then forever obligated to keep doing so. If you find there’s something you just don’t like or have interest in, if at any given time something you usually like just doesn’t have appeal, or if at any point you feel you want or need to take a break from sexual activity or partnership altogether, that is ALWAYS okay. If we go out to dinner with our best friend at her favorite restaurant, we shouldn't feel obligated to ever-after go out to dinner with her every time she wants to, at that same restaurant, and the same goes for any sort of sex.

If your partner performed oral sex for you, and they’re expecting something in return you aren’t interested in, then you can let them know you aren’t interested in whatever that is and fill them in on the things you ARE or may be interested in instead. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is someone you feel you don’t deserve, or who is somehow above you, then you deal with the esteem issues or relationship imbalances that are causing you to feel that way. If it’s been a certain length of time at which point it seems sex should happen, by some arbitrary and invisible timeline, then you can start talking to your partner about feeling that way, and discuss, between you, what both of your own individual timelines are and what you feel ready for and want. If it’s been a few weeks since you had sex, and you’re still not in the mood, start talking: look into why that might be, like relationship or sexual problems, stress, depression, low libido, or just not feeling up to sex at this point in time. You owe your partner communication and honesty, not sexual favors, and they owe you patience and understanding.

If you find yourself in a situation, or putting a partner in a situation, where it’s NOT 100% optional, or where one or both partners feel they’re owed or owe things, whether or not any actual desire to engage in them is there from both parties, you two need to be talking and working it out, not schtupping to keep that discussion from happening.

Who’s In Charge?

The structure of our society often gives us the impression that things between people often have to be leader/follower, top/bottom, boss/employee: that power is something one person has over another, or that one person has more of at another person's expense. But they don’t have to be that way, and on our most intimate relationships, we get to choose if they are that way or not. That’s just one way of structuring and seeing things.

In a healthy sexual relationship, BOTH partners should be the active partners and the partners with the power, in initiation, in decision-making, and when it comes down to actual sexual activity. Even if you're role-playing during sex, and there literally is a top and a bottom, both partners should still be active partners, with equal say, value and weight. In a healthy sexual relationship, everyone having sex is in charge, not just one person.

If you’re worried about asserting yourself, about stepping up and talking about what you really want and need, about being in charge just as much as your partner is -- or about threatening your relationship by doing so; if you feel threatened or usurped by a partner doing those things, step back and evaluate the situation. Are you really ready to be in an intimate relationship with someone else or not? Is your partner? Are you involved with someone who’s really not right or appropriate for you? Are you ready to make full allowances for someone else’s needs and wants and learn to work with theirs, even when it’s hard or disappointing? Do you feel confident enough in yourself to both assert your own needs and desires AND to make some compromises with them sometimes? Do you feel secure and safe enough with the person you’re with to screw up sometimes and deal with that? All of those things are worth looking at to be sure that you’re both able to share the wheel.

All things being equal and reciprocal doesn't mean every single thing you do sexually needs to be decided by a long consensus session before you do any given activity, every time, nor that every partner is doing the exact same thing to their partner as is done for them (unless that's what's really wanted). Often, it's a foundational issue. In other words, if the basis of your relationship, and your general dynamic, is one where -- in every aspect, in bed and out -- it's an absolute given (or at least, something you're both earnestly and actively working towards being an absolute given -- our culture is such a mess with relationships that it's not uncommon for people to have to work at getting to that point over time) that BOTH of you are equal people, with equal say, in equal roles, whose needs and wants have equal value? Then a lot of this stuff is going to come pretty naturally, without a lot of work or worry, just through your general dynamic and your daily, open communication. And if all of those things aren't an absolute given in the other aspects of your relationship, then chances that having them somehow be equal and reciprocal in bed when they're not anywhere else aren't very good.

None of this means, too, that you have to have every piston firing in your brain during sex, when part of the joy of sex is being able to just relax and take a break from heavy thinking! These are things that we can think about on our own time, talk about with partners not just in bed, but outside of it, and strive for over time. When we're young, that's a bit of a given: after all, we don't come to partnered sex somehow knowing what activities we automatically like and dislike with someone (especially since what we like with one partner, we may not with others), what all of our needs and wants are, or what all of our partners' likes, needs and wants are. Interpersonal sexual development, just like individual sexual development, is fluid and evolves as we go.

But if you come to it with some of these ideas in your head from the get-go, with the understanding that you are the author of your sexual life -- not the media, not pornography, not whatever roles and dynamics your parents had or your friends have, not what anyone else tells you -- and that you and your partner get to jointly decide what you do, based on what you BOTH want , and you're having sex in relationships that are healthy from the start and throughout? You may very well get reciprocity just right, right from the start.

Excerpted, adapted and expanded from S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College Want to read more on these issues in the book? Nab a copy for yourself!

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