Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I should start this column by saying that I had some pretty great sex this past week, that there’s a spring in my step because of it, and that this isn’t something I need to feel funny about.
This is a revelation for me. When I was dissatisfied with my sex life, I would chastise myself constantly. “You’re an intellectual! Sex is stupid! You shouldn’t care so much about it!” This didn’t work. Just as I imagine people who have chosen abstinence feel unrepresented by a hyper-sexual culture, and people who are gay by a hyper-heterosexual culture, I was having my face rubbed in my own misery whenever I heard about people having good sex.
It was time to admit that for me, sex did matter, and that there is nothing wrong with wanting to find and live your own sexual Telos, whatever that may be. And I’m writing this down because I needed to read it about a hundred times before I believed it.
… my neuroses, boring, I know. You want the answer to the question “What made the sex so good, how did you of all people manage to have it, and who was it with?”
Let’s talk about the middle part of that, shall we? Whenever I enter into a sexual encounter, I feel like I’ve been thrown onto a movie set where I haven’t read the script, but I’m expected to know it anyway. And if I miss my cue or flub my lines? This movie studio is not going to hire me again.
“Uh-oh. He’s going down on me. It feels good, but in most scripts this is followed by penetrative sex, and I just want to stay here tonight. Also, am I expected to be moaning louder? I kind of like moaning just this much. But he just looked up at me, oh no, he must know I don’t know what I’m doing…”
When I first explained this to a partner, I immediately excused myself. “I’m probably the only one who feels like this, it must be because of how during my sexual abuse I had to say just the right thing or I would get yelled at, so even though you’re a lot nicer, I still feel this pressure…”
He wasn’t a sexual abuse survivor, but he knew exactly what I was talking about.
“I really just want to go down on her. My penis is kind of sore today and it would probably be really painful to try to have sex. But what if I disappoint her when I push her hand away? What if she thinks I don’t find her attractive? I do find her attractive, I just don’t want to have sex, not today…”
Maybe said partner and I are the only two people in the world who have a sense of a script looming over our heads during sex, one which we sort of know the outlines of but not the details, and one which we may very well not want to, or not be able to, perform. But maybe we’re not the only ones.
What if I know I’m not going to have an orgasm (my sticking point–I feel obligated to tell people beforehand so they won’t get disappointed during) or what if I know I’m going to be in pain (but want to be intimate anyway) or what if I just want my toes licked, dammit?
It’s hard enough to check in about enthusiastic consent and safe sex (two things that should be in every script no matter what) so how do you expand your communication skills to include all of these other possibilities? How do you take charge of sex, and not let the looming script take charge of you?
My answer is role play. (And I know this is going to sound weird.) But think about it–if you’re role playing James Bond and a sexy Russian spy, or the President and the Secretary of Defense, or the last two people on earth, at least you’re making the script transparent, and somehow, if you both acknowledge that there’s a script at work, it’s a lot easier to change it up and do some improvising.
Say I’m trying to tell you that I’m not going to have an orgasm and you shouldn’t try too hard. “As a couple of seismologists working on top of Pompeii, I think it would be a bad idea for you to induce an orgasm in me, because the tremors would certainly be so strong as to re-open the magma flow. And then we’d all die.” Or say I don’t want to have oral sex. “Since I’m Sarah Palin, and you’re an anthropomorphic Bridge to Nowhere, and it is the cold Alaskan winter, let’s not lick each other, because we will get stuck. Maybe after the election!”
(And putting on condoms and dental dams? So much more fun when you’re playing Cold War spies.)
Sometimes it’s easier for me to express my desires when I’m not being me. Even if you don’t want to actually role play during sex, try to think about how you might express your desires if you were a different person. Maybe you’ll find something you can incorporate–take the dinosaurs. How would a T-Rex say “not now” to a sexual activity? It wouldn’t use its words. It would push you away and put you where it wanted you. It might growl. Maybe that sounds sexy (rex-y!) to you. If you don’t want to tell your partner “Guess what, we’re playing dinosaurs,” you could still let a little dinosaur out.
Maybe this “express your desires during sex using role-play” thing sounds intriguing to you, but the “let’s turn every sexual act into an extended metaphor and make bad puns” doesn’t. Here’s a couple of games that work on similar principles, that you can play even if you’re not me.
The first one is “Which is better?” and it’s simple. You touch your partner one way (scratch their back!) and then a second way (pinch their cheeks!) and then ask which they prefer. Then repeat that action (scratch their back!) and try another one (slowly rub their neck!). Rinse and repeat. It’s a great way to be able to tell your partner what you like without, you know, actually telling them.
The second one I like to call “Mad-Libs Kissing” and it’s easy to start, but works itself up into a wonderfully exciting froth before long. You start by saying “I want you to kiss me slowly,” and, once you’ve been kissed, ask “How should I kiss you?” They will reply with another adverb.
This will continue through the obvious adverbs into whatever you make of it–slightly escalating the ridiculousness as you go along is a good idea, so that you move from “slowly” to “snake-like” to “Greek-like” to “heteronormative-ly,” or maybe “quantumly” if you’re playing with a physicist, which is way better than “mechanically.”
I like this game because it’s low pressure and easy to start no matter who you’re playing with (face it, if you’ve gotten to the kissing stage, you should be able to say “Can you kiss me slowly?” without embarrassment) but is also great for established couples who want to have ridiculous in-jokey conversations.
So give it a try, huh? If it works, you’ll be one step closer to breaking through the big-studio sexual scripts and empowering yourself to be your own sexual director. And that’s awesome.
(But not as awesome as bad puns during sex.)
I hope you liked my happy column, kids. Next week I’m going to rant about vulvodynia and you’re all going to think I’m A CRAZY FEMINIST again. Until then, keep it sexy, safe, and consensual,