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Early in my new novel, We Were Never Here, there’s a scene that was hard for me to write—it skates too close to a truth that fills me with anxiety and shame. In it, Emily, a twenty-something woman on vacation in Cambodia, brings a hot South African backpacker back to her hotel room…
I discovered he liked to mix pleasure with pain, catching my lower lip in his teeth, raking my hair back with a sharp tug. Not my thing, but it was a turn-on to feel a bit like prey, so desirable he could barely contain his animalistic urges. And I’d had enough sex education over the years—quizzes in magazines and wine-fueled talks with girlfriends—to know that the way to Blow His Mind, to Be His Best Ever, is to show that you’re into it and read his nonverbal cues. So I gave his blond hair a yank. Turned a neck kiss into a bite. Ran my fingertips over his bare back and abruptly curled my fingers, ten tiny scratches, and smiled against his lips when he moaned with pleasure.
But then—something changed.
What started as a hot hookup turns into an attempted assault—one that spins even further out of control when Emily’s friend busts in and kills the guy with a blunt object…then hatches a plan to ditch the body and get the hell out of Southeast Asia, because, well, thriller novel.
But in writing the sex scene, I realized I’d done exactly what my protagonist did, pre-homicide. I have definitely thought mid-hookup, This isn’t for me, but if I act into it, the sex will be super-hot for him. This is the messaging I internalized from magazine sex advice columns over the years: Look up and give him a sexy smile while you’re giving him oral sex, regardless of whether you like giving head. Men love a vocal woman, so make a lot of noise, they advise, instead of, figure out what feels good enough to have you moaning with pleasure. One boyfriend actually lodged a postcoital complaint that I’d been too quiet—not, “How can I turn you on more?” but “Your near-silence is impeding my enjoyment.” To me, for much of my adult life, it seemed like the whole point of being “good in bed” was to get a high rating from the man at the end (“10 out of 10, would recommend”), instead of…actually enjoying it myself.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this. It’s no secret that, in heterosexual match-ups, women are having less fun than men in bed. Per a survey in Cosmopolitan, 57 percent of women usually have an orgasm during sex, while 95 percent said their male partners climax every time. (And is it just me, or does 57 percent sound high?)
It’s possible men don’t even know how bad it is out there for straight women, because we’ve been trained to feign enthusiasm. Part of the reason the New Yorker short story Cat Person went super viral was its realistic portrayal of I’m-not-sure-I-want-this-but-I’ll-try-to-act-super-hot sex (“He fingered her a little, very softly, and she bit her lip and put on a show for him”). There’s a reasontwo-thirds of women still fake orgasms, with26% doing so every time they have sex. The most common reason? They“wanted their partner to feel successful.” In the buzzy thriller A Special Place for Women, which came out in May, a main character laments, “If I didn’t have sex regularly and pretend that I liked it, my partner would get…well, he wouldn’t be happy. Not that he ever forced me.”
Not that he ever forced me. Because we’re not talking about consent here—in every case of feigned pleasure studding my own sexual history, I was fully consenting, determined to make this fun. And to state the obvious, we want our partners to crave our enthusiasm; I’m not here to demonize dudes who really, really like to watch you buck and moan and enjoy the hell out of yourself. But the call is coming from inside the house. We got the message that seeming like we’re into sex is more important than actually being into it.
Experimentation plays a role here; the third leg of being, as Dan Savage calls it, “Good, Giving, and Game” (i.e., the ideal sexual partner) is being up for whatever and open to your partner(s)’ ideas and kinks and needs, and sometimes that means following through with a toy or role play or sexual scenario that maybe isn’t your thing. Hey, it is fun to watch your partner shiver with pleasure, even if the situation that gets ‘em there doesn’t take up space in your fantasy collection. Within the confines of a trusting, respectful, communicative relationship—whether that’s years-long or one night only—exploring unfamiliar terrain can be fun and rewarding. My issue is with hookups that prioritize someone’s satisfaction, typically the man’s, at the expense of the other’s comfort.
And just to add one more shade of nuance: Since85% of women experience non-spontaneous arousal, faking horniness can be a way to turn yourself on. Most women don’t just think about sex (or see their partner’s naked bod) and, you know, schwing; it takes a little coaxing for your body to get the message and actually feel turned-on. It’s the erotic equivalent of Power Posing: Stand like Wonder Woman and you’ll feel like a superhero; let your breath catch and your eyelashes bat as things get going, and soon, you’ll be raring to go.
I’m not anti “faking it” if that works for you and leads to a gratifying experience in bed (and in fact, I’m not anti anything that happens in bed between consenting adults). But I’m calling for an end to thinking you need to seem into it for your partner’s sake instead of for your own satisfaction.
In hopeful news, the sex content I scanned from today’s women’s media now centers the reader’s satisfaction—not “be his best ever” but “have your best ever.” Shows like Shrill and Insecure feature female characters prioritizing their own pleasure, too. It’s an uphill battle, what with our patriarchal society telling us our appearance is our worth and our sex appeal is all we have to offer, but I’m hopeful that young women aren’t internalizing the same message I received (and lived out!) as a teenager and twenty-something: this ridiculous idea that the most important way to make sex “good” was to convince the guy that I was loving every second, that he was a sex god, that his dick was gold, and he could do no wrong.
I’m dating a woman now, my first committed relationship without any penises involved. Sex is whatever we want it to be—not defined by penetrative intercourse or time-bound by the arc of his orgasm. One night, a stew of stress and antidepressants meant that, despite my girlfriend’s best efforts, I started to worry I was “taking too long.”
“Hey, you don’t have to keep going,” I said, touching her cheek.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“I just feel bad that it’s taking so long.”
And then she shook her head and said something simple yet radical to my hetero-attuned ears: “You know, you’re not wasting my time. I’m here ‘cause I love you.”
Reader, I told her to keep going. And I’m very glad I did.
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