The first time I spent the night with my girlfriend, she nuzzled up close to me, flung her arm around my midsection and said five magical words: "I love being big spoon."
It was a relief, because even though I'll happily cradle a partner in my arms when she wants, I always prefer being the one who's held. I love being wrapped in my partner's arms, warm and safe. But there are times when I wonder, as I turn my body and stick out my butt — the universal signal for "please come cuddle me" — whether my instinct to offer myself as little spoon makes me selfish.
The same thought crosses my mind as my girlfriend and I fall into bed, knowing that first we'll focus on me and then we'll get to her. Sex doesn't always go like that, but it does most of the time. And it has with all of my past sexual partners — I'm almost always the one who orgasms first. Some people might call me a bottom, and some might use the more derogatory term "pillow princess" but it all boils down to the fact that I'm not aggressive in bed. I like taking a more passive and receptive role.
So why is it that I sometimes feel guilty? In focusing on my own pleasure, I feel that I'm taking away from my partner's, as if pleasing me doesn't also please her. But it's more than that. It's the idea that being submissive puts me in the "feminine" role of sex, which in turn makes me weak. It's the same reason that we hear jokes about gay men who bottom. It's easier to make fun of a bottom than a top, because the bottom is taking on a "woman's" role and society equates femininity with weakness.
Making women feel weak and submissive has long been a way to control women's power, says Rena McDaniel, MEd, LCPC, a gender and sex therapist in Chicago. "The idea that passivity equals being receptive, which equals being feminine, which equals being weak all comes back to trying to suppress women’s voices."
That power struggle translates to our bedrooms, and can make anyone (regardless of gender) feel as if they're less powerful when they enjoy being dominated or even held. There's no man in the relationship I have with my girlfriend, which should free us from the gendered roles to which many straight couples still conform. Yet I can't help but feel everything that makes me submissive — when she makes the first move to initiate sex, when she lays me down in her bed, and when she drapes her arms around me to cuddle — relegates me to the "feminine" role in our relationship and makes me weak.
As it turns out, I and others who feel the same way can learn from the kink community, McDaniel says. "In BDSM relationships, the power actually rests in the person who’s the bottom. They set the limits, they give permission for the dominant person to be dominant," she says. There's nothing weak about being the receptive partner.
Kink communities also tend to be better at communicating their desires, which could help to ease the guilt, says Rosara Torrisi, PhD, an AASECT certified sex therapist and the founder of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy. "Somebody can completely and utterly enjoy giving oral sex," she says. The person giving oral (and other types of sex when they're dominant) might not be having their genitals stimulated, but they can still feel immense pleasure. And it's the responsibility of that person to tell their partner if they don't enjoy giving, Dr. Torrisi says.
Kink communities have the language to talk about sex roles. People will be clear about being submissive or dominant or enjoying both roles (which is called switch), and it would do the rest of us well to learn how to have those kinds of conversations. "Talking about what we want from sex normalises people saying 'yes' to the things they want to say yes to and 'no' to the things they want to say no to," Dr. Torrisi says. That, in turn, will help get rid of the guilt I've been feeling, because how can you feel guilty when you know how much your partner loves topping you? Or, in my case, loves being the big spoon?
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