There have been times when a guy was everything I thought I wanted—he had a great body, he was friendly and kind, he seemed as attracted to me as I was to him—and yet our sex was bad. Maybe he came too quickly or I was distracted by something work-related and couldn’t enjoy what was happening. Maybe I tried role-playing a fantasy and immediately regretted it, or he was dominant and aggressive in a way that made me feel disrespected. Maybe we just couldn’t get our ridiculous bodies to fit right, or he kept accidentally pulling my hair, or the condom wouldn’t stay on, or his dirty-talk voice made me want to laugh.
As someone who’s had a considerable amount of bad sex, I’m here to deliver good news: It’s not the end of the world. In fact, bad sex can help us parse out what works for us from what doesn’t, what always keeps us from having a good time and what pushes the wrong buttons only occasionally. Maybe that silly dirty talk voice will totally do it for me next time, or maybe dirty talk will always make me uncomfortable. It’s trial and error; noticing what I don’t like is part of learning what I do, and can entail a number of missteps. Sex can be unpleasant just by virtue of it involving another human being—selfish, disappointing, and unreliable as they tend to be.
Not only does our culture often fail to understand this about bad sex, we rarely acknowledge that it exists. We tend to treat the pleasure of consensual sex as a given—or rather, the pleasure of cis, straight sex as a given. Men are regarded as entitled to sexual enjoyment, in large part because it’s assumed to be so easily, “naturally” obtained for them. Women, meanwhile, are assumed to have to work a little harder for their orgasms, but they’re still expected to have different types of climaxes and probably more than one at a time. (See also: Cosmo’s sex tips that presume the existence of an indulgent partner and a baseline level of enjoyment, or any TV show’s sweaty collapse of two dazed parties who fall on their pillows saying only “wow.”)
Our culture operates on that ludicrous adage comparing sex to pizza: “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” Sex is so fun and hot and convenient now that birth control’s widely available, and Tinder serves up a buffet of eager dates. If your sex isn’t passionate, orgasmic, and satisfying, something must have gone terribly wrong. When we do acknowledge bad sex, we focus on the damaging, the traumatizing, the assaultive. “Bad” sex is a scary possibility given our cultural legacy of the sexually endangered everywoman, the woman under constant threat of sexual violence who is thoroughly ruined by assault. “Consent is sexy!” campus posters chirp. Get a yes, it seems to say, and you’re armed for a night of ecstasy.
“Bad sex,” of course, means different things to different people. It could mean an awkward night full of mutual embarrassment or it can mean a painful, cruel encounter that ends in tears for one participant. There are endless shades of nuance to bad sex, not all of them involving clear-cut standards like consent. In 1982’s “Towards a Feminist Sexual Revolution,” Ellen Willis wrote, “Freedom from violence is equated with women’s liberation…. [but as] most of us have had occasion to discover, it is entirely possible to ‘freely’ participate in a sexual act and feel frustrated, indifferent, or even repelled.”
A recent article by Rebecca Traister, “Why Consensual Sex Can Still Be Bad,” invokes that dissonance. She argues that the abundance of bad sex in young women’s lives indicates feminist “shortcomings,” that many college girls feel cheated by exhortations that they partake in as much sex as they’d like, since they’ve learned firsthand that sex itself is not a guarantee of pleasure or satisfaction.
There’s one early moment in the piece that deserves a closer look: the oversimplified cultural assumption that “sex is feminist. And empowered women are supposed to enjoy the hell out of it.” Traister frames this impossible expectation as a feminist crisis; her subjects emphasize the achievement of “sexual equality” through sharper feminist dialogues and, presumably, male education. Her subjects mostly point to toxic or clueless attitudes from male partners as the primary culprit of their displeasure, and Traister defines bad sex as “joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture.”
And yet, that’s just part of the story. Feminism can open up a world of possibilities for both men and women, but it can only go so far. In a strange way, embracing bad sex can be just as feminist as demanding good sex.
Before we go any further, let’s agree: A satisfying sex life isn’t a god- or biology-given “right.” It takes effort, and I don’t mean the grim, buckle-down-and-make-it-work type of exertion that’s associated with acrimonious marriages. I’m talking about summoning a modicum of thoughtfulness and self-assertion in service of having the sex you want to have, recognizing that the mere presentation of your genitals doesn’t count as passing your partner a detailed road map. The extent to which anyone “deserves” good sex is unclear and probably irrelevant. It’s like parenting or establishing friendships, or pretty much any other intimate, cooperative endeavor: It takes attention and recalibration to be done well even when you’ve made a particularly felicitous match.
The upside of living in a sex-obsessed culture is that many of us have been exposed to types of sex we might never have conceived of, and, thanks to the internet, we have access to bodies we might never otherwise encounter. This glut of options mimics the problem of a mega-market aisle; there might be four types of shampoo that work miracles on your hair, but there are 30 that do nothing, eight that smell bad, and three to which you’re severely allergic.
Of course some bad sex has to do with sexism. I don’t dispute that adult men, including those long done with college, harbor misogynist attitudes towards women, sometimes especially towards women they sleep with. Having sex with those guys is a tedious exercise in masochism and degradation. A public discussion that acknowledges this, without gravitating back to “consent” as some type of cure-all, would be beneficial.
But the problem Traister ends up identifying is less the sexual tyranny of straight men as a whole and more the reluctance of supposedly enlightened college women to advocate for their own pleasure, to cut unsatisfying encounters short, to initiate instead of acquiesce. This behavior may not occur to women raised in repressive communities that stay hush-hush about sex, just as it may not occur to some women that sex should or could be a source of delight for them in the way its presumed to be for men. You can’t ask for what you don’t realize is possible, and this sort of eye opening is where feminism steps in. But many women, especially those in college—which is increasingly treated by the media like a sleepaway camp for overgrown children instead of an educational institution full of voting-age adults—do have the education that supports standing up for themselves. It might be interpersonally uncomfortable and go against how we think we “should” behave, but the option is still there. To ignore what agency we already have is disingenuous and counterproductive.
It can certainly feel like an unfair burden to explain how you want to be touched or kissed or talked to when his orgasm comes easily and yours does not. (And as long as sexist social mores insist on intercourse as the sexual gold standard—in fact, the only act that’s synonymous with sex—it will be acutely unfair.) Educating a partner takes time and energy you may not be willing to expend. Acquiescing to underwhelming sex is not necessarily more damaging than eating an unsatisfying meal, and if my suggesting as much fires up your anger, see if you still feel as outraged when you imagine the gender roles reversed.
Women can withstand disappointing or awkward or comically lame sex because imperfect sex is not inherently traumatizing. Historically, the idea that women are corroded and destroyed by less-than-ideal sexual encounters came not only from an overtly sexist conservative movement but from the mutant legacy of sex-anxious feminism, as well. A certain strain of second-wave radical feminism endorsed the idea that straight sex by its very nature is a losing proposition, that we sacrifice our power upon participating in that dynamic. Naturally, bad sex felt extra horrible to women who suspected, even unconsciously, that penetration is inherently violating or can only be an act of subjugation. In this framework, otherwise mild post-sex disappointment is amplified to a sense of having been exploited, and ambivalence melts into shame.
Nowadays, there’s the powerful element of sex-positive feminism as forced through the sieve of a capitalist patriarchy: the imperative for women to prove how liberated and progressive they are by having a lot of straight sex. As Dana Densmore wrote in 1973, “it cannot be argued that access to sexual pleasure is denied to us now. Our ‘right’ to enjoy our own bodies has not only been bestowed upon us; it is almost a duty.” In 2015, Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth, has described this same dynamic as “replac[ing] one brand of regulation with another.” Instead of women’s reputations resting on their chastity, it’s now tied up in enthusiastic sexual conquests, but “like the old feminine ideal, the new one still places sexuality at the core.”
Sleeping with someone for such a symbolic win naturally complicates using sex to satisfy other motivations like fun or intimacy or bonding. Conversations about how women can have better sex with men are pointless if the women in question are after a sense of political achievement rather than good sex. If you’re not having sex for connection, it makes sense there’s little tenderness the next day. If you’re not having sex for pleasure, it’s no surprise when the sex doesn’t feel that great.
Just as there is no amount of orgasms in the world that will make sex worthwhile if the sex-haver isn’t seeking physical pleasure, there’s no amount of feminist education that will transform every man (or woman!) into an amazing lover by the standards of every partner. Even the most flawless feminism will not remove the necessity of speaking up when it comes to our desires and preferences and moods.
Thankfully, men are probably more inclined to help women with their orgasms now than they’ve ever been. The clitoris is no longer a secret, and with women’s orgasmic potential touted in pink, 18-point font at the most remote checkout counters, men have taken on the idea that their partner’s pleasure should be a part of sex. Even if they’re acting from their ego instead of selflessness, lots of guys are eager to get women off. One study suggested 90% of straight men are invested in whether or not the woman they’re regularly sleeping with has an orgasm.
And not pressuring a woman to come can be evidence of respect. Sure, some guys are lazy or apathetic, but I’ve been in many situations where I found my partner’s lack of “did you come?” to be tactful. There’s nothing worse than someone badgering you about your enjoyment while you’re trying to enjoy yourself. Men who don’t presume the lack of a noisy, exaggerated climax means it didn’t happen; men who don’t constantly ask “are you close?”; men who trust me to be mature and confident enough to speak up if there’s something in particular that I want or need—they’re the real heroes. Among all the myriad wrongs men routinely commit against women, not verbally confronting us about our orgasms is low on the list.
Bad sex is not always failure of feminism, or a symptom of the patriarchy. With the help of feminism, certain flavors of misogynist sex might become nearly extinct, but bad sex itself isn’t going anywhere. It’s a basic human inevitability given our cooperative fate, and the wide-ranging bodies and personalities and kinks and styles that exist alongside us in the pool of sex applicants. It’s a feature, not a bug. Regret is a symptom of freedom, and sexual regret is not something women can shy away from if they want to be truly autonomous.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.