If there’s one thing that all relationship advice columnists ever can agree on, it’s the importance of communication. Marriage becoming stale and loveless? You need to communicate more. Feel yourself drifting apart from you partner? More communication. Unsatisfied by the sex? Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Communication is a great fix-all solution in theory, but in practice, it is often rather difficult to actually implement. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it enough already for it not to be any kind of problem. But the fact is, it’s hard to tell your husband that it hurts every time he chooses to go out with his work colleagues instead of coming home to you, to ask your wife to be less patronising when she talks about her job, to convey to your boyfriend that no, five minutes of penetration just isn’t enough. And I think that the last example is probably even more difficult than the first two, because talking about sex is so strange and awkward and taboo that saying anything that might be construed as a criticism is entirely off limits.
I admit, I am often not that great at practising what I preach. Alexander had to literally train me to get me to talk about what I wanted in bed, and even when he’d say something like ‘I really want to go down on you and make you feel amazing’, my response would inevitably be ‘Are you sure? You don’t have to if you don’t want. I could give you a blowjob instead?’. Women in particular seem to absorb the message that it’s not okay to be demanding in bed. This is completely the wrong way around, because men can usually come from intercourse. (See my previous post on why masturbation is amazing.) Whether because of simple physiology or because of society’s framework for sex, most men are probably going to have an okay time from most sex. Not brilliant – you have to work to get brilliant – but adequate. But it’s often a lot harder for women to get the same kind of satisfaction, so it’s even more important that women are able to talk about what they like and, god forbid, ask for it. Yet in practice, this remains ridiculously hard.
So, I have a new friend. His name is Leander and, though he is fairly experienced, let’s just say he hasn’t had quite the same experiences as me. (I considered calling him a pet or a toyboy, but fun though that sounds, he’s really more of a friend.) He had never performed (I like that word, ‘performed’) oral sex before, so we decided to get drunk so he could try it on me and I could give him some tips. He learnt pretty damn fast, so I decided to teach him a few more things. High success rate. He’s a feminist, he reads sex positive blogs and did his homework, and it definitely paid off. (Note to all the men out there reading this, if there are any: being a feminist makes you more likely to get laid, and makes the sex better when you do. No, seriously. I promise. Start reading about privilege and the Patriarchy, and just see how it goes.)
I mention Leander here because he is a perfect example about how communication works, and why it is awesome. The other night, we were watching Studio 60 together (an absolutely amazing show by the guy who did The West Wing, everyone should go watch it), and we had kinda agreed that we were going to have sex when the episode finished. He’d been cuddling me and stroking my breasts, and we hadn’t had a chance to do it the night before, so I was very up for it. The episode ended, we chatted for a bit, then he started kissing me and rolled me onto my back.
And I panicked. I have absolutely no idea why. Five minutes ago, I’d been ready to jump him. Now everything felt weird and I felt trapped and constrained and my libido had just dropped entirely. I kept going to for a bit, hoping it would pass. It didn’t. So I gently pushed him away, and said, as calmly as possible: ‘This isn’t working for me right now. Can we stop for a bit?’.
I don’t know what I was expecting. For him to say ‘No, we must keep going, right now’? Um, that’s would be rape. Even with the flirtatious texts and the groping and the agreement that we were going to sleep together that night, it would still be rape. I guess I was worried that he might go ‘Urgh, fine, if that’s what you want, but you really shouldn’t have led me on’. Which is ridiculous because Leander would never say something like that. But various other guys I’ve been with *coughTereuscough* most certainly would have done. What actually happened was that Leander held me and asked if I was okay. I said I was fine, I just wasn’t feeling in the mood anymore, could we watch another Studio 60 episode and then see how I felt after. And of course he said yes, no problem.
And here’s where it gets really strange. For the next hour, I kept apologising to him. ‘I’m really sorry, I just wasn’t feeling quite up to it.’ ‘I know we said we were going to have sex so I’m sorry if I’ve frustrated you.’ ‘I hope I didn’t make you worried – it’s okay that we stopped, right?’ Did I really expect him to say no? I’m a feminist, damn it. A sex-positive feminist who knows that No Means No and Yes Means Yes, that enthusiastic consent is the way to a happy sex life and that I do not owe anyone sex. Even if I said I was going to earlier on.
I know this stuff, but I still felt nervous and guilty that I’d somehow let this guy down, this lovely, easy-going guy who had shown no indication that my request to stop had bothered him at all. What would I have done if he’d said no and tried to keep going? Well, after three rather nasty encounters with a severe lack of consent, I would have made him stop. I would have pushed him off me and left, and probably not seen him again. I would certainly had a long, serious discussion about how consent works. But I learnt this stuff the hard way. What about people who don’t read feminist blogs, who get the same inexplicable guilt I did but who don’t have the experience and the understanding of power dynamics to counter it?
This is where all the ‘grey area’ rape apologia comes into play. It’s where ‘she consented’ actually means ‘she felt too uncomfortable to say no, or she didn’t say it strongly enough to be listened to’. And that is rape. Or if she stays quiet because she’s too nervous to say anything, well, maybe that’s not rape exactly, in all cases (and I say that with a lot of caveats), but it’s still taking advantage of a society that has taught women, even smart, educated women, that it’s not okay to say what you want in bed. And that includes saying what you don’t want.
You know what would have happened if I hadn’t asked Leander to stop? We would have had sex. It would have been lousy sex. I would have stayed statue-still, lying on my back, trying to make myself forget that I wasn’t into it. He would have sensed something was wrong, even subconsciously, and therefore enjoyed it significantly less. (Because, you know, sex is so much better when both people are enjoying it!) And then I would have gone back to my room feeling used and uneasy.
You know what actually happened? We stopped. We watched another Studio 60 episode. My unease miraculously disappeared (once I’d stopped apologising), and by the time the credits rolled, I was desperate to jump him. We had amazing sex, twice, and I came three times. I went back to my room feeling sexy and satisfied and very much up for doing it again.
Communication is hard. I find it hard, and I talk about how important it is every day. I still get nervous about saying ‘will you go down on me?’ or ‘put your hand there’ or ‘I don’t want to do it right now, can we see how I feel in an hour?’, but I force myself to say those things anyway, because sex is so so much better when I do. For both of us.
So learn. Even if it means practising saying the words out loud in front of a mirror, just to test how they sound. Learn, because even if it’s awkward at first, it is so worth it in the end. And if you don’t have a partner who understands that, either teach them, or get a new partner. Because I’ve been down the other road, and let me tell you, it does not end with orgasms.
To conclude, a conversation from last night, over dinner together.
Me: Please don’t take offence at this, but is there anything we could do so that, uh, penetration maybe lasted a little longer?
Him: Durex Performa condoms?
Life is good right now.