How can I help my boyfriend be more sex-positive?

Just Doing My Best
asks:
My boyfriend and I have been together for several years, and I feel like generally we have a good sex life. When we first started, I faked a lot of orgasms, because I often wasn't getting enough natural lubrication to finish, a lot of which I think is because I'm on the pill. I eventually admitted it to him (based on advice from this site, actually), and it was rough, but we talked it out, and eventually got back into our groove with our sex life. Now, if it's not going to happen, I just let him know, and he's absolutely cool about it, but then everything just stops, and we both still want to have sex. Once I say something though, he of course won't ask me to finish him off or anything (which I've offered to do many times), because he feels bad if he's the only one. Recently, I suggested trying lube, which neither of us have ever experimented with, and he respectfully declined, which surprised me. He basically said if my body isn't into it, it's the same as my head not being into it, which is totally fine, it just means no sexual stuff that day. Which, objectively, I'm fine with, but the problem is that my head and my body DO of course still want to have sex, but a very specific part of my vagina doesn't get the memo. When I pushed a little more, he said that sex isn't the most important part of our relationship, and if we don't get to have it for some reason, that's not a big deal. Am I being unreasonable? I get it if one of us doesn't want to, but if all parties involved want to have safe consensual sex, I don't understand why lube makes it less natural or good. I know he's trying to stay open-minded, but I don't know how to have this conversation in a way that works out for both of us.
Heather Corinna replies:

You are not being unreasonable. I don’t think his response and behavior about the lube is fine. I don’t think it’s okay for him to tell you that not having sex isn’t a big deal for you, or to tell you how important sex is to your relationship for both of you. I don’t think it’s fine for him to be the decider of what happens with sex you’re having together, including when it stops, apparently based on what he thinks about how you and your body are feeling and what he thinks you want.

I think these kinds of responses are super patronizing, aren’t reflective of any real investment in your pleasure, and are just not okay. You — like all of us — should be afforded real sexual autonomy and agency from and with any sexual partners. You — like all of us — deserve a partner who knows that the ultimate expert of what you and your body want and need is you, and whose behavior reflects that basic understanding. It’s reasonable and smart to take issue with any partner or situation where any basics of equitable, healthy and respectful sexual partnership and interaction are absent or refused.

You ask how you can help your boyfriend become more sex-positive. Buckle up, because we’re in for a bit of a drive with this one.

That term means different things to different people. What sex-positivity primarily is for me is a very basic framing of sex that just says sex can be — and if it’s part of our lives, ideally should be — something that is of benefit to us and our lives; something we can potentially experience as an overall positive, even if all our sexual experiences, thoughts and feelings aren’t amazing or great; even if and when some are very unsatisfying or even traumatic.

There are a handful of core things that will tend to make sex a positive and mutually beneficial. I think one of the most important is agency: the capacity to act independently and make our own choices; to have our own power in and for our own selves and our sexualities seen, recognized, honored and met. Having real sexual agency means things like sexual partners recognizing that we — not they — should be the boss and ultimate authority of our selves, our bodies and our sexualities, and then behaving in accordance with that. That looks like a partner always asking us what we want and need, not telling us; making effort to make all the decisions about sex we have together, not for us; and certainly honoring us, not second-guessing or talking over us, when we tell them what we want or need for our bodies or any other part of ourselves.

It looks to me like you have a partner who has been stepping hard on your agency. A partner shouldn’t be micro-managing your sex life or your body, or speaking for you and your sexuality, and to you, no less. That’s not how someone who truly considers us their peer and their equal should behave with us, in sex or any other respect. There’s a lot to say about all that you mentioned, but I think the lube situation illustrates the larger theme here well — I also think some lube facts are called for here, period — so I’m going to focus mostly on it.

Imagine you’re on a walk with a friend. At some point, you say you need some water. They respond by saying, “No. No water for you. Furthermore, if you need water, obviously your body just can’t handle walking, so we are ending this walk right now. No more walking for you.” That would be shocking, ludicrous, disrespectful, controlling and also flat-out wrong, right? (Right.) The same goes for this lube situation.

Literally, wanting or needing lube — which isn’t just something people using the pill need, but something most people who really enjoy any kind of sex with friction generally want and need — is just your body being thirsty and needing a drink. “Respectfully declining” lube when someone asks for it strikes me as something that really can’t be respectful, just like denying someone water when they’re thirsty, or deciding for someone else when their body is done with something, couldn’t be. I don’t think it’s respectful to dismiss what someone tells you they want and need and act in a way that says you think you know their body and its needs better than them. I think that’s incredibly disrespectful.

It sounds like you’re both uninformed about lubrication. You both seem to have the idea that when someone with a vagina wants to be sexual, their vagina always gets and stays wet, and does so early enough, and lubricates for long enough, to make intercourse or other activities with friction comfortable and enjoyable.

Vaginally self-lubricating is something that can and does happen often for many when they feel sexual desire — and even more often, and in more generous amounts, when desire progresses to real-deal arousal, which it usually does by at least starting to do some sexual activities the person with the vagina in question enjoys. But it's also something that doesn't happen every single time for most people, especially over time, and I’d say that’s as true for people who aren’t using a hormonal method of birth control as it is for those who are.

For some people, lubricating happens infrequently. For others, almost never. Sometimes that’s about lack of desire and arousal, other times it’s about other things, like where a person is at in their menstrual cycle, health issues like thyroid balance, how much sleep someone’s been getting or stress. How we know someone with a vagina feels sexual desire and wants to be sexual is when they tell us. No one should ever try to determine or say what someone wants or feels sexually from their body parts instead of from the person who inhabits that body.

Anyway, even when the body makes its own lubrication, it often isn’t enough to make sex as comfortable or enjoyable as we’d like, especially if it lasts more than a couple minutes. Good lubricants tend to last longer and stay slipperier than what our bodies make. Some people also need lube to do the things that get them to self-lubricate in the first place, because they need to do some sexual things before they feel very excited. Lube is also something anyone using condoms should always use no matter what (both to have condoms feel good and to help keep them from breaking), and that other populations or situations will also just absolutely require for safety and comfort. Some people often self-lubricate generously and still always want to use extra lube from a bottle because when it comes to lubrication, the more can very much be the merrier.

Some people also assume that before we had lube in bottles at the drugstore, no one used it, and it's this newfangled, “unnatural” thing to use. In reality, people have used lubricants for sexual activities for at least thousands of years: it's longs been common to use lubricants particularly when mutual pleasure was the intent of having sex. You want to talk weirdness and lube, let's talk things like using mashed yams or animal blubber for lube. Lube has never been less weird than it is now, truly. Also, if discomfort with sex or not having sex you want at all were “natural” but using lube so you can have sex you want and enjoy the sex you have more, I’d say to hell with what’s natural, honestly, because that sucks. But I think hangups about lube not being natural are always a red herring: using lube is no less natural than drinking water when we’re thirsty or moisturizing our hands or face when they feel dry.

But even if all of those facts and realities weren’t, it still wouldn’t be okay for a sexual partner to tell you what your body wants and needs based on their ideas and wants, not yours. No one should decide for you when you should be done with sex that you want or think he can possibly know your body better than you. If he wants to stop having sex for any reason, or doesn’t want to do something sexual, he of course gets to decline for himself. If sex isn’t important to him in the relationship, he gets to feel that way and say that.

But your boyfriend should only be saying no or stop with sex for himself, and should also only be speaking for himself when it comes to how important sex is to your relationship. He can say how he feels, but he can’t and shouldn’t say, how important it is to both of you. He's even set himself up in some ways as the decider of your sexual desire: he says you're into it only if your body tells him you are, and he’s the decider of what it apparently tells him, no less, not what you, the person who inhabits that body, tells him. World of nope on all that.

At the risk of repeating myself, but because it’s just so crucially important to any of us having even remotely decent sex lives, let alone good ones — instead of telling you what is best for you, a partner should be asking you, and should honor and respect what you feel, think and say. Instead of deciding for both of you what’s going to happen and what isn’t with sex you have together, those decisions should come from shared communication and mutual agreements based on both of you. Instead of telling you what your vagina apparently says (as if), this guy should be listening to you, the person whose body that part belongs to, who’s told him what you want and need very clearly. These kinds of things aren’t anything advanced: they’re the barest of basics for the kind of sexual dynamics that result in both emotionally healthy and satisfying sex with partners.

I wish I knew about the parts of your sexual life you say are good, because that information could really help me out here. If the way he is with the things you’ve talked about here are how he is sexually on the whole — like, for instance, he’s generally rigid about trying new things, is squirrelly about a real focus on pleasure, or is uncomfortable, avoidant or controlling if you want something other than his idea of how things should be — then it’s difficult for me to imagine a very satisfying sexual life with this person. It’s hard to have good sexual interactions or relationships with people who act like you’ve described.

You also say he’s working on being more open-minded. Does that mean he’s been working to better educate himself about sex, sexuality and being a good partner? Has he been showing you he wants and is willing to try to change how he thinks and acts with some of this? Has he been taking any emotional risks towards building greater intimacy, like the way you were honest about faking? Is he actually initiating working on any of this, or is it all you? If he has been, and the way he’s been with this stuff isn’t on-brand for him, then for sure, you might be able to change all this for the better together. If he hasn’t been doing any of those things, and this behavior and these ways of thinking show up often in other parts of your sex life or overall relationship? Well.

Maybe you just want to walk away from this entirely — and in the event things are like I just described above, you are just tired of this and it doesn’t feel worth any more trying, or your gut is telling you to vamoose, I do think you should seriously consider it. I hope you know that even if this is the only area of big bummers in your relationship, it would be totally okay for you to decide to leave or to see if you can’t switch your relationship to something that isn’t sexual.

If you want to stay in this, then I’d drop some of the facts I’ve given you here, share the feelings you first expressed to us (and any new ones my response may have brought up), and also draw some hard, not-up-for-negotiation lines.

The lines I think you should draw clearly with him are these:

  1. He does not EVER get to be or act like the decider again of what YOU want and need.
  2. He may NOT ever speak for your sexuality or your body again.
  3. He may — and should — make and own his sexual choices for himself, but he may NOT make sexual choices for you or on your apparent behalf.

To be clear: he of course gets to make his own choices around what he wants or doesn’t sexually, and what he is and isn’t okay with for himself. That’s a given for everyone in consensual sex. If, for example, he isn’t comfortable being sexual in ways where the focus is mostly on his pleasure, he gets to say no to that. Or if he has a hangup about lube he needs to work out before he can have intercourse, so he needs to say no to intercourse until he works that out? He gets to do that. (Pro-tip: that would be the much better, more considerate way for him to handle this if that’s his deal here. Way too many people need lube for plain old safety and comfort, let alone pleasure and enjoyment, for anyone to be having that kind of sex who just can’t deal with using it for whatever reason.)

But what he does NOT get to do, and what isn’t okay, is for him to make any sexual choices for you or to say his choices are about you and what you want or need when they are not.

After you say your initial things and draw these lines, you can find out what he thinks and feels, and then get a sense of where you’re both at. If he’s receptive, understanding, takes responsibility for how he’s behaved, gets it’s a big problem and seems motivated to turn all this around? Great! Maybe you two can start working this out. Real changes in this area would probably improve the whole of your relationship, too, not just your sex life.

If, on the other hand, he’s defensive, doesn’t seem to show any real empathy or compassion for you in what you’re saying, won’t own any of this, doesn’t get it’s a problem or doesn’t seem to want to change? Then this guy probably isn’t going to change, is probably kind of a jerk in the first place (so why bother even trying), and you’re probably not going be able to improve your sex life if you’re with him. Instead, what you’ll likely need to do to improve it is stop having this guy as a partner.

I hope whatever you do and decide, and however this goes, that moving forward you know that any partners you’re considering who are likely to be good partners will — and without you having to school them on it — afford you the kinds of agency I’ve talked about around here. I hope you make some of the limits I suggested setting with your boyfriend your baseline for any future partners, right from the front. We shouldn't have to help partners learn to afford us autonomy and agency: if and when someone is really ready to be a sexual partner, to anybody, they'll be at that ground level already.

You chose “Just Doing My Best” as your handle: I absolutely believe that’s true. You’ve obviously been trying hard to make something work and trying to be flexible, understanding, considerate and patient. I also believe you deserve sexual partners who are always putting in that kind of effort for you, and doing their best. However you get there, I hope you arrive at that kind of partner being the only kind you ever have again very soon.