If Sex Isn't Good At First, Is Your Relationship Doomed? (Spoiler: No.)

A new series from the editor of Yes Means Yes that explores the politics of sex, power, and representation.

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This week, Jaclyn tackles a question about bad sex from one of her fans...
QUESTION: I recently had a breakup that was much needed. We didn't exactly have the best sex life. I like to take new relationships slowly before having sex, especially when I meet someone on an app. This man was the opposite. He clearly thought my sexual boundaries were prudish, and I liked him, so I agreed to have intercourse with him sooner than I normally would.
And once I did, he didn't seem to care! The third time we became intimate, he fell asleep while I was performing oral sex on him. Wanting to fix this issue, I told him some things I really like in bed (oral sex, lights on, looking at each other during the act, etc.), and asked him what he liked. His response? "I don't know."
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For months I tried to make sex good for the both of us. Sexy underwear under my overcoat. A rose petal bath bomb. Telling him my porn preferences and trying to talk about it together. No, no, and… no. In the breakup conversation he said to me, "I just didn't feel we had a good sexual connection. I just expect it to be great off the bat, and I didn't like it that I couldn't make you come. It's been great with other women, just not with you."
In my previous experience with relationships, sex has gotten better with time, rather than starting explosively and ending just as fast. Am I.... wrong here? Am I too pragmatic about sex and thus underperforming? Do I not care enough about chemistry? I'm really struggling that despite my efforts with him I was complicit in bad sex. Any ideas of how to adjust my perspective, improve, and move on from this sexual shame spiral?
Thank you,
Anna Beth
Dear Anna Beth,
The most generous thing I can say here is that neither of you are wrong. He wants sex to be one way, you want it another, and you both have the absolute right to want what you want. There’s no such thing as “too pragmatic,” nor is there a right amount to care about chemistry. You just had really different expectations of what sex should be like, and that caused tension between you.
But I’m not really that generous. This guy is trying to blame you for not being his manic pixie sex girl, and the only way to improve your life in the face of this crap is to pour yourself a glass of something bubbly and toast to the fact that you never have to deal with him again.
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If he’s not interested in learning about what you like, or even articulating his own desires, it’s no wonder there was no chemical reaction: he’s inert.

Of course sex can get better with time and communication. The more you learn about each other, and the safer you feel together, the more the sexual possibilities multiply. But that’s never going to happen if he’s just lying there, waiting for you to spontaneously become the sexbot he was promised by the movies. If he’s not interested in learning about what you like, or even articulating his own desires, it’s no wonder there was no chemical reaction: he’s inert.
As frustrating as it is, it’s not terribly surprising he thinks about sex this way. In fact, it sounds like he's sold on on the dominant way sex is culturally constructed in most of the world: as a heteronormative commodity exchange in which men try to get some, and women do or don't give it up. In plain language, that means he seems to see sex not as a creative collaboration, but as something men try to acquire from women. That may be why, once he pressured you to “give” him sex, he became less interested — because (forgive me) once he checked off your box, he immediately saw you as having less value to him. And yes, that’s exactly as gross and dehumanising of an attitude toward women as it sounds.
It’s also no surprise he thinks sex should be effortless on the first try. Think of all the sex you’ve seen depicted in pop culture. Now try to come up with examples of when you’ve seen two people have an awkward, bumbling first sexual connection that requires patience, direct communication, and multiple tries. I’m thinking of one right now — from Jane the Virgin. Maybe you can come up with a different example. But I bet we can all agree that this kind of realistic depiction is the exception and not the rule. Instead, media constantly sells us the idea that sex is instant and easy. That when it’s right, two people just wordlessly click into a sexual mind-meld, where they’re both psychic about what the other wants, where nobody ever feels awkward about their body or their boundaries or how to sexily take off their socks, and every orgasm is simultaneous.
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The fact that we’re drowning in fake news about sex is what's got you doubting yourself. But you're not in the wrong here. The only thing you're complicit in is allowing him to put the blame on you.

Given your recent experience, I don’t think I have to explain to you why that’s such a toxic fantasy. This approach to sex discourages communication and makes deliberate attempts to better your sex life seem automatically unsexy. It also discourages people from practicing affirmative consent; how can you make sure your partner is into what you're doing together when you can't even admit to yourself that you might be sexually fallible?
The fact that we’re drowning in fake news about sex is what's got you doubting yourself. But you're not in the wrong here. The only thing you're complicit in is allowing him to put the blame on you.
You deserve a partner who knows that sex is a collaborative process for making something great together, not a competition or a trophy for the wall. One who isn't just willing to do what it takes to discover the sweet spots where your desires intersect, but actively wants to do that work. One who knows that the journey you’ll go on together to figure each other out in bed isn’t what you have to do to get to the fun part — it is the fun part.
And the thing I'd like to challenge you to improve on? Seeing through people who want to blame you for their own limitations. Women have been raised to prioritise our desirability over our own desires. So when someone, especially a man, tells us we didn't do enough to make them want us, we feel it on a really primal level. But if you practice prioritising your own needs over a man’s opinions of your worth , you'll get better at telling those guys what they need to hear: It's not me. It's you.
Have a question about sex and relationships? You can email Jaclyn at unscrewed@jaclynfriedman.com
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