When Sex is Just a @#*&!ing Bummer

Sometimes sex is freaking amazing. Sometimes it's not, but it's still mighty good. It's little more than nice at other times, but as fine a way to have spent those twenty minutes as any other. Then there are times when it's none of those things: when it's an oh-well, an oh-that's-so-good-oh-wait-now-it's-so-NOT-ACK-STOP!, a WTF was that even? or even an OMFG-WHY-ME-WHYYYYYYY. And times when there's little to no humour in a sexual disappointment or outcome at all, just some seriously rough feelings or difficult things to contend with.  

Everyone is going to have at least some of those times, way more than just once or twice. Sometimes, or in some interactions, relationships or phases of life, we may even experience sex more often being a bummer for us than being satisfying and awesome.

Maybe sex stunk because someone seemed to think trying to lick your eyeball was sexy, while you felt like they were coming at you with some kind of cannibal agenda they'd clearly kept hidden until now. For every single time one of you moved one way, the other guessed wrong and moved the same way, so all you both got out of sex was bumps on your head and a shiny new tube of Neosporin for where your lip got split by their earring. Your little sister walked in on you, or you shot a condom across the room while trying to get it on and your unstoppable laughter kept you from getting back into your sexy. You and someone else just may not be clicking: everything you do starts out being something one of you likes, and turns out to be something the other doesn't. Maybe you just can't get out of your head enough to stay in the groove, or get in the groove to begin with. Or perhaps you've become a new member of the statistically large group* who discover that a bed surrounded by candles more often creates smoke damage and a need for new curtains than it does romance.

This is about consensual sex, not sexual abuse or assault. When I talk about bummers, I mean disappointments or unexpected outcomes that were no one's intent; abuse or assault is an intentional and deeply impactful crime that results in serious trauma.

What determines what is or isn't abuse or assault isn’t sexual satisfaction. People in healthy, happy sexual interactions or relationships can have sex that turns out to be disappointing. People in unhealthy relationships can have sex they think rocks. And sometimes, people who are being assaulted or abused have involuntary physical responses popularly considered "proof" of enjoyment, arousal or desire, like erection, lubrication or orgasm.

Sexual abuse or assault is about a lack or refusal of free and informed consent. If everyone involved in a sexual interaction is able to make their own informed sexual choices freely, is seeking consent throughout and giving consent to what's going on, sexual abuse or assault probably isn’t what happened. If those pieces are missing for anyone, even if anything felt good or created a sexual response, those feelings or responses do not negate abuse or assault.

Many sex bummers are silly or funny, so long as we have a sense of humor about them. Others aren't, like being triggered during sex from previous trauma or abuse, or having someone you just had otherwise-amazing sex with open their mouth after and say something carelessly stupid that gets them the gold in the Douchebag Olympics. Sometimes people have a hard time being kind or patient with themselves with the learning curve of masturbation or sex with partners. Some people have sexual expectations and ideals that are clearly unrealistic, but they still have a very big, sometimes even religious, emotional attachment to those ideals, so being shown the realities can feel devastating. Being unpleasantly surprised by our emotional reactions to certain things -- like having post-breakup sex you thought you were cool with, only to find out that you are in no way cool with it -- can also be something we may need to cry out rather than laugh off. Some bummers are more challenging or emotionally rough than others.

We know that resilience is key in healthy sexual and personal development. Being able to experience and move forward from anything from a mere disappointment to a terrible trauma or tragedy is vital for being able to live our lives and find happiness in them. Being resilient is ultimately about having the tools and the desire to adapt to life and its experiences, rather than getting stuck or mired down under the weight of things.

Resilience is what's asked of us when sex is disappointing, especially if we don't want it to be chock full o'bummer evermore. Perspective is a big help with resilience, because it lets us know the real gravity of something. When it's truly not a big whoop, it helps us to let it go more easily. Someone should be able to easily cope with not getting an erection or not reaching orgasm now and then, or finding out that a partner just isn't into one or two sexual things they are. Those things are, indeed, bummers, but great tragedies they are not. On the other hand, struggling for years to reclaim a sexual life that was hijacked by sexual abuse or assault, feeling so unaccepted and unsafe in being queer that you never even let yourself love whoever it is you love, battling serious sexually-transmitted illness and its worst complications: that's huge stuff we can't (and shouldn't) just brush off.

If we sweat the small stuff a lot, we won't be able to deal with the truly hard and challenging stuff. When we learn to let go of the small stuff, so it's not part of our stresses and strains, we have way more of our own emotional reserves to help us through the big stuff. And when aren't sweating the small stuff, we're far more likely to actually enjoy most of our lives, including our sexual lives, fumbles and all.

But isn't sex supposed to be about pleasure?

Sex of any kind, be it masturbation or sex with partners, is primarily about seeking and intending physical and emotional pleasure. But seeking something out or intending it doesn't mean we'll always get or find that thing, or have it go as we expected or intended. Sex being about pleasure also doesn't mean that every nanosecond we're sexual in some way will be amazing, without fumbles or moments where things are only so-so. Like any other part of life, sex is something we're likely to have a wide range of different experiences with, including how much pleasure we do and don't wind up experiencing each time, and how much what we experience is or isn't as we expected or were going for.

There are things we can certainly do to make it more likely we'll experience pleasure with masturbation or sex with partners, including the most basic stuff we need to do to just be safely and soundly sexual with ourselves and others. We can all do consenting well, so no one is doing anything to the other they don't want or aren't okay with. We can aim to please ourselves or each other, and put our all into that. We get to choose what we do with which body parts, and how we use them, how we communicate and how we listen and what we do with that information.

But there's a lot about engaging in sex, alone or with partners, that is simply not entirely within our control. Always doing all of those things above that are within our control still can't make it so sex is always fabulous. Doing those things, for instance doesn't always mean we'll discover or answer what we or others really want just yet, that our intent to please will always result in pleasure, or the kind of pleasure we want, or that even open, rich shared communication will result in agreement, compatibility or all the orgasms all the time. Just because we are seeking out and can find pleasure and other kinds of awesome in sex and sexuality doesn't mean we always will.

Same deal, different context: I’ve been making music since I was a kid: it’s one of my first loves in my life. It's my happy place. Except for the times that it isn’t, or it is, but it just doesn't make me as happy as I know it can, or doesn't go the way I expected.

Sometimes practicing is pure bliss; other times it's a total drag. Some days my hands work beautifully; other days, my fingers feel clumsy and I can’t sustain a pattern or rhythm to save my life. Playing with other people rocks when we all really get in the groove together. But we can’t always do that, so sometimes it feels more like work than play, and can result in hurt feelings or petty resentments. Sometimes I grab an instrument excited to play, but once I start playing, I just can’t get into it that day at all. Sometimes I break a string and don't have an extra set (and once sliced my cheek open in the process of breaking one, just to add injury to insult), discover the piano's fallen out of tune, or have a cold, so singing feels and sounds like a duck on its deathbed instead of feeling and sounding good. All of these things are out of my control, and all can totally tank what could have been an opportunity for me to play and enjoy playing.

Sex is a lot like that, for most people, often as much of the time as it is all they want or expect it to be. Because of the bonkers-high expectations that get placed, or we place, on sex, it can be harder to see it the way we would similar things that we seek pleasure in, but just don't find sometimes, whether that's about playing music, eating cupcakes, getting a haircut or falling in love. But just like other things that don't go as we wanted have a potentially positive value, the same goes here. Today's sex bummer could result in next month's victory dance if you let it.

Using Bummers for Good

Besides furnishing you with some dishy content for your memoirs, there are other hidden upsides to sex that isn’t great.

Bummers can tell us more about what or who we do and don't like sexually: When we find out what doesn't work for us, and what or who we don't like or aren't really into, that helps us narrow down what does work, what and who we do like and what we are into. Even with something a sexual activity someone usually likes, they'll still learn over time that there are ways of doing or being part of that activity -- whether we're talking physical mechanics or interpersonal vibes -- that they like more or less, and they'll tend to learn that as much from things not feeling good or going as they wanted as they will from experiences that meet their expectations.

Bummers can give great cues about a need to improve or change communication: Communication is something a lot of people struggle with in their sexual lives. So often, sexual bummers involve a lack of communication period, ways of communicating that just don't work for everyone involved; communication that is very one-way, or dishonesty.

If the sex we're having keeps feeling like it's more about what someone else wants than what we do, that's a cue we probably need to start talking more about  and asking for what we want or need. If we feel like we aren't connecting well with someone else, and keep feeling clueless about what it is they do and don't like, that tells us that we clearly need to be asking them more questions or listening better to what they tell us. And if one person feels like they are doing all the driving, going bananas trying to guess what someone else being passive wants and is or isn't okay with, communication is that missing piece.

Bummers can show us a need to adjust our expectations: Many people have unrealistic expectations about sex and their sexual lives, especially when it's all new. Whether those unrealistic expectations are about bodies, sexual performance or preferences, interpersonal dynamics, gender, orientation or desire, when we start to experience a pattern of some of our expectations not being met again and again and again, that's often a cue that the problem isn't so much the sex, our partners, or our bodies as it is what we're expecting from them.

Bummers can bring up needs or wants we may not have realized we have: If we keep getting walked in on, we learn that we need more privacy.  If we have sexual experiences where we have a hard time keeping our head in the game and out of our daily-life stresses, we can figure out that we need to decompress in some other way, before getting sexual. If things feel too hurried or rushed, we find out we need more than a few minutes of free time or space available for sex. If the bummer is something like sex we enjoyed and felt good about, but which was followed by an STI or pregnancy scare -- or by an actual STI or unwanted pregnancy -- we can realize that we obviously need to change something up, be that adding methods of safer sex or contraception, or scaling back our sexual activities to a level we feel comfortable with when it comes to those kinds of outcomes. If we keep entering into sexual relationships with people we find aren't at all into what we are, we learn we need to put what we want out loud and up front, before getting sexually involved.

Not being able to deal with run-of-the-mill bummers -- taking disappointments very hard, and finding that even though they're not huge, they tank you emotionally -- is often a good cue that we're just not ready or in the right headspace or life-space for sex at a given time. If we're in a pretty good place for sex, bummers aren't the end of the world or much more than a blip.  If they feel like they are, or the kind of bummer you're dealing with is just a really rough one, that's usually a good clue you may need to put your focus and energy into your own self-care right now rather than into sex or a sexual relationship.

Bummers can build intimacy: We can sometimes wind up becoming closer from sex we share that goes sideways than we can from the super-perfect stuff.  The sexual so-not-greats are where, for instance, we wind up with inside jokes and stories about our shared sexual life to laugh together about and bond around.  When we're disappointed, or just have things go differently in sex than we wanted or intended, we're more vulnerable: being in that space and getting through it with someone builds mutual trust and brings us closer to each other.

Bummers can take the pressure off: We can worry so much about sexual mishaps or missteps that it's actually hard to really just let go sexually -- which plays a huge part in things like our physical sexual response on top of often being a big part of what makes sex enjoyable -- so when we make them and see that it's totally okay, it's liberating. When a partner sees that we can do that and it's no big deal, it lets them know that they can feel more comfortable just going with the flow and don't have to worry about being amazing all the time, either. Just truly being human with each other, and allowing for that, which includes everything from farts to being in very tough and un-sexy emotional spaces, makes it easier to let go of performance or perfection concerns that get in the way of everyone enjoying themselves. You heard me right: a flop-on-your-face while trying to take your pants off in a sexy way could potentially result in increased sexual freedom.

Bummers can help us create better frameworks for sex that actually allow us to be real people: A lot of people have frameworks or standards with sex that aren't particularly rich or realistic and don't really make any room for the range of experiences we will tend to have with it, especially when it's something we're really exploring, not just going through the motions of. Some people have the idea we're either good at it or bad at it, doing it right or doing it wrong. But it's just not something where we can have such polar and universal standards. Our experiences with it are going to vary widely and have layers, and even when we or someone else is doing everything "right," things can go sideways or otherwise not meet our expectations. The pursuits of pleasure and intimacy are often clumsy, because that's just how it is for mere mortals exploring just about anything.

Sex that isn't all we wanted or expected can help us get a better grasp on what "good sex" or "good in bed" really is and isn't, both widening and focusing our lens when it comes to sex, sexuality and what we're looking for in them. It can help us better understand that the usual standards of what "good sex" is are awfully narrow, and not very interesting, especially over time. Those usual standards, for instance, don't usually include things like the value of being with a supportive partner through a trigger or an insecurity, having something embarrassing happen and finding new freedom by learning to laugh it off and not make a big deal of it, learning to have sex with your own body, by yourself and for yourself, like a boss, and other real-deal sexual discoveries that only you are going to be able to find out about for yourself through experience. These things -- way more than getting off from a certain kind of sex we want to, or having someone tell us we're sexually appealing -- are more of what actually make sex and sexuality compelling and make our sexual lives unique and real, rather that just a button we push only to get something specific out as if sex were little more than a vending machine.

Having a pattern of bummerful sex?

It’s one thing to have lousy sex every now and then. But when it seems like all of the sex we engage in, sometimes even including masturbation, is a bummer for weeks, months, or longer, that’s obviously a tougher pill to swallow. If we're staring to see patterns of sex that's leaving anyone feeling flat, conflicted or challenged in a way they can't (or don't want to) cope with, it's time to try and get to the bottom of things and turn things around.

My best advice if and when your sex life is stinking as a rule, not an exception, is to start by stepping away from any part of sex or situation where sex is sucking for you. Take a break from the argh. Give yourself some real space, time and energy to start sorting all of this out for yourself, and to at least start by breaking the pattern by getting away from it for a while altogether. Then, with pen and paper, your laptop, a spray can and the side of a building -- whatever tools you like to use to think through challenging things -- start thinking though and making note of the bummers that have become a pattern. Take stock of your feelings about any or all of them. Then start thinking about what you can try to change this pattern, bringing these thoughts and observations to any partners involved.

Some of the most common sources of sex being a bummer again and again are:
  • Doing things you or a partner don't feel ready for or want on the whole, or don't feel ready for or want to do with each other specifically
  • Trying to follow someone else's sexual directions, like from porn, magazines or what a friend says their partner likes
  • Having unrealistic expectations about sex, including masturbation, or sexuality
  • Doing sexual things that someone else is into, but you're not and NOT doing things that are about your own sexuality and sexual desires
  • You or a partner approaching sex as something that's about product (like reaching orgasm), not process (as an experience about enjoying and exploring each other or yourself the whole time, regardless of how bodies respond)
  • Being sexual with others you do not feel a real sexual desire with, or being sexual when you are not feeling a real desire of your own to be sexual at the time
  • Being dishonest about what you really do and don't enjoy, and how your body really does or doesn't respond, including faking or hiding sexual responses
  • Having sex within relationships or interactions that are abusive, dysfunctional or just plain meh
  • A lack of shared and honest communication or responsiveness to communication
  • Coming to sex frustrated or impatient right from the start
  • Other larger issues you may need to work on, or learn ways to manage and work with, like depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, low self-esteem or negative body image, sexual shame or a general health condition or disability that makes sex or sexuality more challenging for you
Relatedly, some of the ways to turn a pattern of sex or a sexual life that stinks around (and some links to help you dig in) are:

A blah sexual experience or twelve seems to leave some folks feeling like they're somehow doomed to a substandard sexual life. That's not likely, though, especially when you're keeping those bummers in perspective, and using information they give you to improve or adapt things so you're more likely to have sexual experiences and a sexual life you think is pretty awesome.

Sex and sexuality really are a lifelong learning process for everyone, and something people tend to become more comfortable and confident with over time. Like anything else, sex with ourselves or others is often something where our experiences improve with practice, and where, when we’re just starting — and I mean in the first decade or so of exploring, not the first few days, weeks or months — we’re more likely to experience more not-so-amazings as we are knock-your-socks-offs.

At the end of the day, there is something about having a sexual history to look back on -- and know you'll get to experience more of -- that is complex. That is sometimes hilarious, sometimes challenging and even hard, that's got peaks and valleys, and as many places where we've felt uncertain or unsure, vulnerable and unsexy, as we've felt sure of ourselves and all sex-bomby. The biggest part of what makes a sexual life a good one, so far as I can tell, is that it really enriches us and our lives in some way, and, as it usually turns out, there are an awful lot of ways we can be enriched in this department, including some we don't usually expect or consider.

For sure, a sexual life being something enriching can mean having a few rad orgasms in just one day or discovering a sexual activity you like so much, you want to tattoo its name in a big heart on your backside.  But it can also mean experiencing being in a vulnerable sexual place safely with someone, gaining more self-love and confidence by living through a sexual embarrassment just fine, or discovering there are ways of being sexual we really don't like and becoming resilient enough to shrug that off and just use that information to seek out what we do like. Our sexual lives being enriching requires some real depth and a range of experiences, and that enrichment that can often be found in the most unexpected of places, bummers included.

* This is an estimate based on absolutely no scientific data whatsoever.

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