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By Emma-Louise Boynton
ince starting sex therapy earlier this year (a process I’ve been documenting here on The Stack) I’ve become utterly fascinated by the way in which so many broader social as well as personal, and even political, issues present themselves in the context of sex. From gender relations, to body issues, to mental health issues, to ideas around power… there are so many external factors influencing how we show up both mentally and physically when we have sex. I hadn’t realised the extent to which I was carrying so much into sex until speaking to my therapist, Aleks.
As I’ve embarked upon unpacking some of these myriad issues in my virtual therapy room, I’ve grown increasingly curious as to the issues other people are shouldering in the bedroom too, not to mention the wider conversation around sex that has of late been gaining some pretty galvanising momentum. Companies like Smile Makers, Ferly, Kama, Come Curious and sex therapists like Aleks, Kate Moyle and Dr Karen Gurney, are all helping to remove the shame and stigma that still surrounds sex and female pleasure, while moving the dial forward on how we talk about this most universal of topics.
“So many broader social as well as personal, and even political, issues present themselves in the context of sex”
Hence I’ve launched a monthly live event series and podcast series called Sex Talks at The London Edition, where I now get the opportunity to speak to some of these brilliant minds about all matters concerning… well, sex. And where anyone who wants to join can experience some of the benefits of doing sex therapy, without actually having to follow me into the therapy room just yet. The conversations sparked at these talks will then be continued over on my Sex Talks Club on The Stack app.
Sex Talks: the female pleasure taboo
The series launched last month with a discussion on sex and the female pleasure taboo with Billie Quinlan, co-founder of the sexual wellness app Ferly and Lucy Litwack, CEO of erotica and lingerie brand Coco De Mer. I wanted to reflect here on a topic we returned to continually throughout the course of the evening as it’s one I’ve discussed in length during sex therapy too: communication. That is, the importance of communication before, during and after sex.
As the supposed panacea to all (well, many) of our sexual woes, mastering the simple art of communication during sex doesn’t seem so demanding an ask. Just use words. Simple. Except that it’s not, in my experience, at least. And apparently I’m not alone.
In a recent podcast interview, Emila Nagoski, author of Come As You Are, The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, commented that if you find it easier to have sex with someone rather than talk to that same person about sex, you have a problem. A problem, it turns out, numerous people who come to see her have.
So what’s going on here?
For me, it’s not a matter of feeling shy about discussing sex per se. In fact, I have of late become adept at talking in excessive length about my new favourite topic. And as it turns out, telling someone you’re in sex therapy is not only a great conversation starter, but an unrivalled way to fast-track a discussion into deeper and more vulnerable terrain (let it be known: I hate small talk. Tell me about your traumas, your anxieties, your deepest, darkest fears and fantasies before regaling what you did last weekend, please and thank you.)
Communication, communication, communication
In the context of a discussion with a current or prospective parter, talking about sex therapy has also proven to be a great way of opening up a conversation about what said prospective partner likes and doesn’t like during sex, their relationship to sex generally and what’s informed it, and sometimes too the sorts of fantasies they might not ordinarily give voice to, at least not at an early date. I’m mastering the art of communication prior to sex…. sort of.
But when it comes to actually communicating during sex, my newly established commitment to communication goes out the window. And while Litwack pointed out during our conversation that we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves here, since it’s a hard graft learning to verbalise your sexual desires and one which can take a lifetime, it bothers me that my inability to do so seems to stem from that pesky emotion we give a lot of airtime to in the therapy room: shame.
“If you find it easier to have sex with someone, rather than talk to that same person about sex, then you have a problem.”
I recoil from articulating what I want during sex in part because I can’t help but think: What if the other person doesn’t want to do that to me because they find me gross? What if they are repulsed by my body? What if they think I’m dirty, or that I sleep with too many people? Or too few because I seem inexperienced or uncertain of myself?
WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?
It’s unbearable, that gulf of silence that sits between myself and a new sexual partner, while our bodies are so closely intertwined.
And yet, while I have grown used to extolling the virtues of communication during sex, I haven’t got much better at practicing what I preach.
Re-writing the sexual script
At the crux of the problem is that communicating what you want and how you feel during sex requires so much unlearning - a total re-writing of the sexual script so many of us have grown up with.
The way sex is typically depicted on screen, for example, (I’m talking here about film and tv rather than porn, which has a whole tonne to answer for and which I won’t go into here) has long suggested that two strangers can fall into bed with one another and without so much as uttering a single guiding word, miraculously begin navigating the foreign terrain of the other’s body in a way that suggests a lifetime of familiarity.
The sex is intense, it’s passionate, it’s blood-free and devoid of any awkward moments of repositioning. Two bodies are entangled in passion as they writhe around in equal pleasure, climax seamlessly and in unison, then fall apart in a breathless, satisfied, post-coital daze. Sex is for the purpose of orgasm, and orgasm both parties invariably do.
There is seldom suggestion that a condom has been used, and yet never have I seen that familiar picture of warm come trickling down the woman’s leg post-on-screen-sex. Perhaps that’s because she never seems to need to rush immediately to the toilet to pee? Cystitis is not a concern for our sexual heroines.
In essence, sex on screen has, for too long, been heavily sanitised. So much so that when Michaela Cole included a scene in I May Destroy You of her sexual partner picking up and inspecting a clot of period blood left on the bed following period-sex, it was a news story (or rather, many).
This matters because while formal sex education remains so pitiful (who else remembers the only core messaging of sex ed at school as being ‘how to avoid getting pregnant and contracting an STI’?) the majority of us have been left to fill in the gaps with whatever depictions and descriptions of sex we’ve had access to while growing up. I distinctly remember when I lost my virginity the only reference point I had regarding what the hell I was actually meant to do with this strangers’ body beneath me was Marissa from the O.C. I quickly replayed mental images of her sitting atop a brooding Ryan and attempted to mimic her ‘sexy’ thrusting to little great effect.
Now, with more than half of kids aged between 11-13 years old having watched porn, that sexual reference point is increasingly likely to be a porn-star rather than a teenage tv star having pretty PG sex. Since porn is typically depicted through the male gaze and often serves to reinforce the primacy of male pleasure, while glamorising violent, derogatory and non-consensual sex, it makes for a pretty terrible substitute to proper sex education.
It’s little wonder then that many of us may struggle to communicate properly during sex. We just haven’t learned how to. And what we have learned can actually be quite damaging.
Sex for another
I recalled during that first ‘Sex Talks’ conversation a podcast interview I recently listened to with authors Glennon Doyle and Elizabeth Gilbert, which perfectly captured the miscommunication and subsequent sexual disconnect that is occurring between men and women (in heteronormative relationships) as a result of these prevailing sexual scripts.
Glennon Doyle, the famed author of Untamed, notes:
“We (women) get so many confusing messages about our bodies. We don’t see our bodies. We’ve been so used to being objectified, we objectify ourselves. We only know how to be desired, we don’t know how to desire. We only know how to be wanted, we don’t know how to want.
Women get shamed out of their bodies, men get shamed out of their feelings. They’re trying to love with their bodies but we don’t live there. We’re trying to love them with our minds and they’re not living there.
When you’re trying to love someone you have to unlearn so much.”
Her words reverberated throughout my mind for days as I pondered what it means to know only what it is ‘to be desired’ and hence to be simultaneously unfamiliar with what it means to desire, to want. It sums up so acutely the performative nature of sex, as I’ve often experienced it, that feeling that sex is always for another, rather than for yourself.
In response, Quinlan mentioned a woman she’d recently met during one of Ferly’s sexual wellness workshops. Said woman reflected on her current relationship to sex with her partner thus: the nights when she and her partner had sex, they were ‘for him’, on the nights they didn’t have sex, they were ‘for her’.
Sex was, for this woman, always for another.
“Respect for female pleasure equates to respect for women - it is respect for gender equality, and for the idea that women's feelings and emotions are as important as anybody else’s.”
However familiar, it saddened me to think about the extent to which this woman had routinised such an approach to sex within the context of a long-term relationship. Echoing Doyle’s words, her story reminded me that it’s not just the single people amongst us having casual sex with different people who struggle to communicate for fear of the strangers’ response… it’s a hard-to-shake habit amongst couples too.
Why female pleasure matters
“Respect for female pleasure,’ Litwack pointed out as we began to wrap up Sex Talks number one, “equates to respect for women - it is respect for gender equality, and for the idea that women's feelings and emotions are as important as anybody else’s.”
Ultimately, good communication is key to exploring your own pleasure during sex, as well as the other person’s. When we are silenced by a sense of shame about our body, by a feeling that we are ill-equipped with the language to describe what we think we might want during sex and cowed into feeling it might be ‘wrong’ or ‘weird’ anyway thanks to the reductive sexual scripts most of us have grown up with, then we deny ourselves the opportunity for greater sexual pleasure. Sometimes we deny ourselves the opportunity for any sexual pleasure at all.
Unlearning the many reductive ideas around sex and pleasure that are so continually reinforced through popular culture (and now porn) is hard. But in ode to the very real, as well as the socially symbolic, importance of female pleasure, I am going to make a concerted effort to try and actively shake some of this conditioning through attempting to communicate at least a little more openly during sex. Consider taking up the challenge with me?
The Stack's sex columnist Emma-Louise Boynton explores sex and the female pleasure taboo.
By Emma-Louise Boynton
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