A famous quote from Margaret Atwood lays out one of the big divides that stands between women’s and men’s life experiences: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” At The Week, Lili Loofbourow gives us a bad-sex corollary: Men think sex is bad when she’s just lying there, and women think it’s bad when we come away bleeding.
The real problem isn’t that we — as a culture — don’t sufficiently consider men’s biological reality. The problem is rather that theirs is literally the only biological reality we ever bother to consider.
So let’s actually talk bodies. Let’s take bodies and the facts of sex seriously for a change. And let’s allow some women back into the equation, shall we? Because if you’re going to wax poetic about male pleasure, you had better be ready to talk about its secret, unpleasant, ubiquitous cousin: female pain.
The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss “bad sex” suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. (Here’s a very unscientific Twitter poll I did that found just that.) But when most women talk about “bad sex,” they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. “When it comes to ‘good sex,'” she told me, “women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms.”
A complicating factor in the discussion of women and heterosexual sex, casual het sex, good sex, bad sex, leaving when we’re uncomfortable, is that woman are led to believe that being uncomfortable is just part of the deal. Fake orgasms are a pop-culture punchline and a subject for public debate, but usually the conversation centers around whether she’s being dishonest — not whether she’s encouraging him to wrap it up because, for a variety of reasons, “This hurts, please stop” is just something that frequently doesn’t make it into our vocabularies.
Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.
In the real world, the very first lesson the typical woman learns about what to expect from sex is that losing her virginity is going to hurt. She’s supposed to grit her teeth and get through it. Think about how that initiation into sex might thwart your ability to recognize “discomfort” as something that’s not supposed to happen. When sex keeps hurting long after virginity is lost, as it did for many of my friends, many a woman assumes she’s the one with the problem. And, well, if you were supposed to grit your teeth and get through it the first time, why not the second? At what point does sex magically transform from enduring someone doing something to you that you don’t like — but remember: everyone agrees you’re supposed to tolerate it — to the mutually pleasurable experience everyone else seems to think it is?