Your Right to Be Lousy in Bed (After All, No One Has to Have Sex with You)
You were so tired you literally fell asleep in the middle of sex, leaving your partner all, "Umm? Hello?" You tried to do something sexual you thought was super-sexy but the other person thought was weird, silly or downright gross. You were pretty sure you were rubbing someone's clitoris until they mentioned, and only afterward, that you were nowhere near when you thought you were right on target. Something one partner of yours thought was the hottest thing ever turned out to be something that, when you tried it with another person, bored the pants not even off of them, but right back onto them. Your biggest turn-on is someone else's buzzkill. Your idea of what your own sexy is doesn't match up to someone else's. Your earnest sexuality right now is someone else's tired sexual cliche, or a phase in their own sexuality they're now past.
In any of these situations or many others like them, you might feel like you were bad in bed or someone else might think that about you. Despite how crummy or embarrassed we or others might feel in these situations, and despite a lot of messages we might get out and about in the world that being "bad in bed" is the kiss of sexual death, the truth is, mediocre sex, sexual things we try which just don't land, or what we or others experience as downright lousy sex -- and I'm not talking about sexual violence, abuse or other kinds of sexual non-consent, I'm talking about consensual sex -- happens. It happens a lot, as it turns out. When it does, life, including our sexual life, really will usually go on. If we let it, it always does.
Here's the biggest thing to know about that, before I say anything else at all: When sex is consensual, we all have the right to be our own idea or someone else's idea of who or what is "bad" in bed. Sometimes; anytime. That's because we're human. While we can give consent -- or ask for it -- for a given kind of sex, and put a lot of specifics on that, what we can't ask anyone for, nor can anyone insist on with us, is that there is consent ONLY if sex is totally awesome. No one can ever promise that or be expected to deliver that. We also have the right to suck at sex in someone's estimation because anyone else involved always has the right not to have sex with us or, if they already have, to opt out of sex with us at any time, or to choose not to have sex with us again. Someone we have any kind of sex with gets to be what we consider a lousy lover because we have the right not to have sex with them, to opt out of sex with them at any time, or to choose not to have sex with them again.
I keep noticing lately that there's a lot of media and cultural messaging out there, that continues to be out there, that would easily have us believe that life doesn't go on when crummy or substandard sex happens or we're any part of sex being crummy or unsatisfying for someone else. That it's really not okay, or as simple to accept or address as I just did with it up there. That a "bad" lover by anyone's always-arbitrary standards is a broken person who needs fixing at some kind of sexual fix'em-up shop, rather than someone who had the unmitigated gall of simply being a human being in one of the most human things we can do. I also keep noticing an escalating fear of "doing it wrong" in bed, like just being a human being learning one's own body, someone else's body, exploring their sexuality and those of others -- and slipping in the mud, or choosing a route that turns out to be less-than-stellar, as we'll all do at least one time or another when exploring anything from sexuality to a new hiking trail -- is the equivalent of stepping on a land mine.
Any of us who read anything about sex, especially in popular media or when penned by people without real experience, training and learned sensitivity in talking about something as loaded and vulnerable as people's sexuality, will often see everything from gentle pitches to really aggressive pushes about what a given person or group of people needs to do to be sexually appealing to, or to sexually satisfy, a given person or group of people.
This stuff is found on magazines whose covers provide "Twenty-Seven New Ways to Please Your Man," or on websites that state boys or men who desire sex that in any way resembles something they like in pornography are broken and in need of repair. We see it everywhere we see anything that tells anyone what they need to do to be sexually appealing to someone else, whether we're talking about the pushing of push-up bras, six-pack abs, bikini or back waxing, or pick-up artistry. And that's just the lighter fare: genital mutilation in some cultures, for example, is almost entirely about trying to limit or hamper one person's sexuality or sexual embodiment to please or cater to what someone else wants. Sexual violence is often driven in many ways by the darkest version of an intent to make people sexually conform to someone else's wants or agenda.
This is also nothing new. For instance, a hundred years ago, there was massive cultural pressure put on women to have "vaginal orgasms," because of a cultural effort to make only the kind of sex that involved a penis - a cultural effort put forth almost entirely and only by people who had a penis -- The One True Way. In the Victorian era, circumcision was done as a proposed "cure" to forcibly stop boys from masturbating; throughout history horrific things have been done to people who were or are homosexual in order to try and "normalize" their "deviant" sexualities. It's not surprising that any or all of this can make people feel really twitchy or fearful, because all of this stuff really plays -- and sometimes capitalizes on quite profitably -- our collective fears, shame and insecurities about our sexualities as a whole.
Helping people to develop and create a sexuality and sexual life that's satisfying for them and their partners, that everyone feels good about and enjoys isn't a bad thing. Often, it's a really good thing, especially when that help is provided in such a way that it's not pushed on anyone, but is instead extended when someone electively seeks it out because they want it for themselves.
By all means, there are some ways people go about their sexuality, or think about it, that can be, at best, likely limiting for them or their partners, creating a sexual life or self that doesn't feel satisfying, enriching or comfortable for anyone, for a person or any of their partners. But that person, not their partners, really needs to get put first in that assessment when they're the one to do the changing or adapting; it's not our place, be we lovers or educators, to decide for someone else how they feel, or how we think they should feel, about their sexuality.
My primary job as a sex educator, as I see it, is to do what I can to help people who want help understanding, accepting, exploring and managing sexuality as a whole and their own unique sexuality, and to support people in the things that I know have soundly been found with a lot of study, broad data and many careful, thoughtful years or decades of work, to be what's mostly likely to result in a happy, healthy sexuality and sexual life for most people. In doing that job well, I always have to do the best I can to a) stay aware of my own biases and keep them in check, as well as staying acutely aware of the difference between my own sexuality and...well, my job, b) leave a lot of room for people to make their own way, and c) bear in mind that, to date, still, sexual information, education and other kinds of help have been very prescriptive, and has erred, and continues to err, often in those first two ways, to everyone's great detriment.
I'm very concerned, more and more every day, about approaches -- wherever they come from, but particularly when they come from "experts" or people held up as, by themselves or others, experts -- that imply or outright state groups of people are "broken," and need to be fixed. My concerns exponentially increase when these kinds of approaches clearly come from a very personal agenda. In other words, I'm starting to feel like, for example, there's very little difference between, say, telling men, as a group, that they need to masturbate less and use pornography less because some women they have sex with don't like it, and fundamentalists trying to convert gay people so that they become straight people because they don't like it; neither of those groups, after all, has to be involved intimately with those folks. Both of those groups, after all, are primarily motivated in their statements and actions by the desire to get someone else to conform to their own wants and values, rather than just letting people live and let live, and seeking out like-minded folks who share their wants and ideas. It looks like an awfully slippery slope from where I'm sitting.
I've said it so many times, but if we know anything, anything at all, about human sexuality at this point, we know it's diverse. That "human" bit in front of the word sexuality reminds us that it's human, and the people involved in it are mere human beings, not superheroes, Olympic athletes at their gold-medal-winning best, or Oscar-winning actors or actresses while playing that award-winning part. It also should remind us, that word human, that we're automatically talking about great diversity because we know human beings, in so many ways, are tremendously diverse.
Often when we say or hear that sexuality is diverse, it's to explain or defend what someone may think about as unusual or divergent sexuality. But wide sexual diversity also includes people whose sexualities are more typical for a given time, or who may have a sexuality, or be in a phase of their sexuality, that strikes us as very common, or mainstream, rather than alternative.
In other words, the folks or sexualities who some might think of as cliche or stereotype, like the young guy who masturbates often and utilizes visual pornography while doing so; the young woman who only feels turned on when a male partner is touching her body.; the lesbian who has no desire for any kind of sex that involves vaginal entry; the gay man who doesn't want an exclusive relationship or marriage; someone who wants a sex life that's mostly vaginal intercourse; a person who, even in sex with someone else, wants the focus to be mostly or only on their pleasure or their body, not a partner's; a person who is only sexually attracted to people within a very strict cultural beauty ideal.
Even though sometimes these things are stereotypes about larger groups of people, these people are real people, not just stereotypes. In some cases, these people are a big group of people, other times a smaller one. Sometimes these people are in a sexual space that's developmental or phasal for them: where the needs, wants or preferences they have now are stepping stones to a later place in their sexuality. Other times this is certainly a part of that person's sexuality that is sticking around for decades: in other words, whatever this thing or dynamic is, it's clearly a part of their sexuality that's not likely to change. Sometimes, folks like this might want to change, and find that if they can and do, it's beneficial to them and gives them more of what they really want. Other times, folks like these might be perfectly happy just as they are, and so might what sexual partners they have. And when that's the case, they get to be happy just as they are: after all, again, no one has to have sex or a sexual life with them if they don't want one. That's one of the great things consent has to offer.
Everyone -- you, me, everyone -- should be considered to have the right to have the sexuality they have, the sexual desires they have, and the sexual history they have. Everyone should have the right to want the things they want when we are not talking about doing anyone harm. And everyone should be considered to have the right to be something less, sometimes considerably less, than some sort of magical, mythical being with the completely impossible ability to be everyone's idea of a perfect lover every time they have any kind of sex.
In a lovely bout of synchronicity, just as I was starting to think about this, this little gem, from UK comedian Miranda Hart was making the rounds:
MIRANDA: I hate those kind of programs. Welcome to “I’m Okay, You’re Obese”. I know what I’d do if I had one of those shows.
MIRANDA: Um, excuse me. Hello. Right, let’s have a look at you. Well, I wouldn’t wear that top, but you look comfortable. Are you?
MIRANDA: Do you like it?
MIRANDA: Do you care that others may not like it?
MIRANDA: Brilliant, than wear that then. Bye!
Most of us get to choose what we wear, and for a lot of us, what we choose to wear is going to boil down to comfort (physical and emotional), what we have access to choose from in the first place, and how we choose to express ourselves through our clothing. Other folks may or may not like what we choose to wear, and in general, we have the right to care as much or as little about that as we'd like. If we want to wear clothes no one on earth would choose to wear, or clothes everyone else thinks are hideous, we get to do that.
For sure, our choices can limit us in some things: having pink hair can mean limiting job opportunities. Not wearing shoes means a lot of places aren't even going to let us in the door. Some people just might feel a little less than open to telling you vulnerable things about themselves when you're wearing a t-shirt that says "You Suck" on it. But, with things we can and want to change, adapt or adjust, we can opt to do that if we want fewer limits like those. Or, we can decide that our pink hair, bare feet or a t-shirt with a joke about vampires on it that people don't just seem to get are so much a core of who we are, or so important, that whatever changes we even could make might net us, we don't want to make them.
Let's try Miranda's approach on when it comes to sexuality:
SOMEONE: Um, excuse me. Hello. Right, let’s have a look at your sexuality. Well, that's not my sexuality, but it appears to be yours. Is it?
SOMEONE ELSE: Yeah.
SOMEONE: Do you like it?
SOMEONE ELSE: Yeah.
SOMEONE: Do you care that others may not like it?
SOMEONE ELSE: No.
SOMEONE: Brilliant, than have that sexuality, then. Bye!
In the case that that sexuality is something a person wants to express with that someone, nothing really changes here: that person, if they don't like what your sexuality is or what you want sexually, and don't want it to be part of their sexual life, just edits that last sentence to something like, "Okay. Not interested, then. But still: brilliant, and have that sexuality, then. Bye!" We don't like or aren't interested in being part of someone's sexuality? We don't have to be part of it. Easy as pie. And it can help to bear in mind when that person someone is opting out of is you, even though it can sometimes really feel crummy or even downright heartbreaking, it ultimately really is a matter of one person just wanting something different than another one, and people just being different, as people are wont to do.
On top of remembering that sexuality is so very diverse, I think it's also very important all of us remember that sexuality is fluid, especially over a lifetime, and a lifetime is the length of time it truly takes to develop our sexuality. Something I find both hilarious and maddening all at once, for instance, are older people who criticize younger people for having a sexuality that resembles one of younger people rather than older people. It's kind of like being annoyed with a three-year-old for being so short. We all get to have, and need to have, developmental phases in our sexualities, and they get to be different from where other people are at.
Most people will have personal growth and change in their sexuality just like they will in all the other big parts of their lives and who they are. Someone's journey in that, all of our journeys in that, is going to be as unique as we are. How long any of us stay in things that will be phasal for us, or stepping stones, is going to vary. If ever we have the idea that we're helping someone to insist they be pushed out of a given place or sexuality "for their own good," (or ours) we need to take a step back and check ourselves. While any of us can often be helped in our personal growth, real growth, the kind where we are simply becoming more of and the best of our unique selves, just can't be forced, any more than we can -- or should -- try and force a plant to grow in conditions or an environment that just don't really take it, rather than what people want from it, into account.
We need to also try and thoughtfully consider what a sexual problem, when it is one, actually is, whose problem or issue it actually is and what the real solutions are to that actual problem, not the problem we or others assign because it's easier, less complicated or fits our personal agenda. For instance, for the person who isn't getting their sexual needs met by another person because their sexualities are just way too different, the problem isn't that one person is broken. The problem is usually that two people are trying to be sexual with each other when they're just not going to mesh, and the real solution is usually for one or both of those people to find partners they DO mesh with, and maybe to also develop a better understanding of how everyone's sexuality, including their own, is more something to honor and accept, rather than something to try and conform or mold. There can be other things we can change, and also know really are healthy and always beneficial, too: for instance, someone not communicating to partners about what feels good and doesn't, or when they are or are not actually touching their clitoris, is really always going to improve their sexual life and experiences by working to improve that. I think we can safely say very few people will express that they like feeling unable to communicate what they want.
(This last example is also a fine reminder that "bad" sex, or unsatisfying sex, is pretty rarely only about one of the people involved. Consensual sex with someone else is something that no one person can do really right or wrong all by themselves, because they're not doing it all by themselves.)
We need to check ourselves, to make sure we're not putting a "problem" on someone else that really is our problem, or isn't any kind of problem at all, but instead is just a mismatch where the fix is just to not try and mash those two parts that aren't fitting together, just like if we picked a bolt that didn't match a nut (I'm talking hardware, the real kind, not making sex euphemisms), we'd know what we need to do is just find the right sizes of nut and bolt that fit and accept that sometimes that process takes a lot longer or is more difficult than we'd like. We need to check ourselves, a lover or educators, to make sure that our motivation in trying to get someone else to change isn't so that we can avoid having to grow ourselves.
We need to try and do all of that as lovers -- including the lovers of ourselves -- or potential lovers. So does anyone and everyone who is a sexuality educator or "expert."
And of course, we always, always need to remember that all of us are only human, and any kind of sex we engage in is ultimately an expression of that humanity. It's supposed to be, anyway, rather than being a performance, a competition or some kind of measure of our worth or value. It's also supposed to involve intimacy of some kind. Even though all of our definitions and experiences of what intimacy is, can be, and to what degree it's part of our sexual experiences vary, while intimacy can tend to sound like something fluffy, in a flowing lavender script on a Hallmark card, I tend to think of intimacy as something a whole lot more clumsy and messy and. I think intimacy looks a lot more like a Jackson Pollack painting than it does a Rembrandt. It's a space where we're being ourselves, someone else is being themselves, and we're mutually accepting and experiencing each other in a big way. And our selves are anything but flawless. Who we are, and how we connect or try to connect, whether we're talking about sex or other kinds of intimacy, is just as often a stutter as a speech, a faceplant as a fouetté. Not only is that all okay, I posit that life -- and sex -- would be tremendously boring, and we'd all feel incredibly empty, if that wasn't the case.
In fact, sometimes when the sex is crap with someone, it winds up being one of the experiences that actually increases our intimacy more than other times we've had sex and everyone thinks everything was fantastic. It can, for instance, initiate talks we haven't had yet about what we like or we don't. It can help us learn to lighten up about sex so that we can relax and enjoy it more. You or someone else might get the chance to find out that they still like you, accept you, still think you're cool, and maybe even do still want to have sex with you even when you did something sexual that was a total flop, or some part of your sexuality doesn't mesh just perfectly with theirs: talk about a weight off your shoulders. Even if it turns out we or someone else nix sex again in one of these situations, it can help us or others identify what we want, and what kind of people are or aren't the right sexual partners for us. Sometimes, even, the sex that in one respect is awful winds up being some of the sex we remember most, or think is the most fun of all. Of course, let's not forget the value of a hilarious sex story. After all, how else are you going to make your best friend spray a drink through their nose?
Once more: we all have the right to be our own idea or someone else's idea of who or what is "bad" in bed. We have that right -- and even if we didn't, it'd still happen anyway -- simply because we're human and that is all any of us can be. And because no one who wants to be in that part of our human experience has to be unless they want to, or for any longer than they want to.
Bad sex, or the experience of someone's sexuality that just so isn't yours or a fit with yours, is something most people get over and get past most of the time. Like with the rest of this post, I am not talking about sexual violence or nonconsensual sex. I'm talking about consensual sex that just is considerably, sometimes very considerably, less than satisfying. That's going to happen sometimes, no matter what you or anyone else does. And when it does, everyone will live through it, and usually pretty darn easily, so long as no one is a total jerk about it.
We're all at wherever we're at when it comes to sex and our sexuality, both in very physical, more literal ways -- you want a sex toy, they want oral sex; your hand is here, and their clitoris, is, as it turns out, way over there -- and much larger, more holistic ways -- I am this person, at this place in my life and sexual history and experience; you're another person where the different places we're at are different, and sharing a sexual life doesn't make us one person. Sometimes, we find places, literal and figurative, to meet and connect sexually and it clicks. Sometimes, we can't find those places to connect, or we can, but when we try, it very much doesn't click or connect in the way we'd really like. I figure we're all very lucky when it does happen -- be that with a given relationship or a given single experience.
It doesn't make us unlucky, though, when it doesn't. It just makes us human. And if being human isn't a basic sexual right we should all have, I just don't know what is.