I was 19 when I lost my virginity, two years older than the average American woman. I’m talking vaginal intercourse here, the heterocentric interpretation, the kind of sex I’d been taught since childhood to imbue with near-mystical meaning. I didn’t touch sex again for nearly a year. I couldn’t risk feeling that small again anytime soon. I had neither said no nor expressed much enthusiasm; I wanted my partner, the person I was casually seeing at 19, but was propelled also by what I didn’t want: to be a virgin; to lose his interest. And I hoped I wouldn’t feel like an idiot for entrusting him with the experience. More than anything, I felt irrelevant. I didn’t have the rhythm right, so he grabbed my hips and moved my body for me. I drove home numb; we stopped seeing each other almost immediately. He later told me he was worried that I, newly devirginized, might get clingy. I’ve understood since the dawn of my partnered sex life, as do so many people and especially women, that sex doesn't have to be unwanted to be not the sex you want. The message I received when I was young was that sex is something “very special” that happens between two people, and that was about it, while the “sex-positive” brand of feminism that has surrounded me ever since has told me consensual sex is awesome. I should have as much of it as I want with whomever I want, and it should be pretty great, because that’s my right.
Sex doesn't have to be unwanted to be not the sex you want
All this left me altogether unsure of what I wanted. Sex can be very special; sex can be awesome; sex can be rape. Sex can also be none of these, as my early encounter with it was. For months after, I found myself unable to articulate why I felt so small, so stupid, and so alone. I’d said yes, hadn’t I? My partner hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? And wasn’t virginity a social construct anyway? I’ve had better sex since then, thankfully. But I am more convinced than ever that too few women have the time, space, and resources we need to figure out what sex we want to have — independent of what our parents, partners, peers, politicians, or religious leaders prescribe — and then go have it. Sexual assault has received a surge of public attention over recent years. We’ve begun, with fits and starts, to improve teens’ understanding of consent, draft legislation that tackles the issue, and believe the survivors brave enough to share their stories. But, as New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister put it so well, narrow feminist focus on rape has left “a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish” unexamined, “leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.”
So let’s examine the bad sex. Women deserve sex that’s not only free of obvious evils, but full of what is good: communication, agency, and pleasure. You’re reading the first installation of The Bed Post, a series that will explore what holds us back from loving and fucking whom, when, where, how, and why we want. Many of these obstacles seem obvious. We’re rolling into another year of a national war on healthy sex lives, and it is not looking pretty. The terrifyingly misogynistic rhetoric that has characterized the Republican presidential race — in which all candidates support overturning Roe v. Wade and five of them oppose abortion access for victims of rape or incest — will only ramp up from here until November 8. Planned Parenthood remains under fire, and sex ed in this country remains paltry, with just 23% of schools in a recent CDC study reporting that they teach students how to put on a condom. All the while, every 107 seconds, another American experiences sexual assault. Let’s talk about this — the barriers that we face to sex lives free of rape, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy — and then talk more. Let's discuss the gender dynamics that place a higher premium on men’s pleasure than on women’s; the exhortations to modesty that contort into fear of our own bodies; the stigma placed on sex that doesn’t look like it could be in either a Hollywood movie or a mainstream porno. I’ve been having, thinking, and writing about sex for a while. I’m better now than I was at 19 at choosing partners who respect how I feel and what I want — and who want to find out what that is in the first place — but I am, like anyone, still figuring it all out. I know that yes means yes, protection is a must, and my IUD is 99% effective. I’m not sure how to navigate the sometimes-murky parameters of an open relationship, or how much to rely on vibrators for pleasure, or how to stop evaluating my sexual experiences based on partner's orgasms. (Bad habit, I know.) Here, I’ll tell my stories and those of others as we parse what makes sex good or bad, anxious or relaxed, lackluster or orgasmic — because nothing buttresses the status quo like shame and silence, and few things threaten it more than discussion.
Women deserve sex that’s not only free of obvious evils, but full of what is good: communication, agency, and pleasure.
In that spirit, here are five of my personal and political sex resolutions for 2016. What are yours? 1. Know myself. My body, that is. Spend more time hanging out with myself and with my partner while worrying less about orgasm. Exhibit A: I like getting oral. But if I’m not coming anytime soon, I’ll cut my partner off. But why? Being goal-oriented at work: great. In bed: not always such a good thing. I’m working on it. 2. Kegels. 3. Strive to know others. My sliver of sexuality, gender identity, and romantic and sexual experience is only that, a sliver. Not everyone moves through the world as I do, nor faces the same restrictions on their love and sex lives. There’s this phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” commonly used by the disability rights movement, but applicable to anyone whose story is pushed aside due to race, age, gender, sex, religion, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or sex worker status. In other words, before assigning people desires, needs, and identity, ask them what they are. So that I actually know what they are. 4. Help elect people who give a fuck about women, underrepresented groups, and reproductive rights. 5. And attend a sex party, because I’ve been talking about it with my partner for forever, and we need to just go do it. See you all next week in bed!
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.