Quick Hit: The biological realities of bad sex and really bad sex

Eggplant lying against a white background, with little protrusions that look like shrugging arms

Yeah, eggplant, I don’t get it either

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?

6 comments for “Quick Hit: The biological realities of bad sex and really bad sex

  1. Angiportus
    February 1, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    En-fllipping-tirely. The idea of sex as being painful and even injurious, whether for the first time or the latest, is just not something that ever made sense to me. As an asexual, I stayed out of it, but I still want to delunch when I read something that says this is to be expected, and doesn’t say one blasted word about how it can be prevented. How you can *make sure* it won’t hurt, and proceed from there. Anyone who claims to care about women or girls, and doesn’t blow the lid off this one, is falling down on the job. Life is too short to let someone hurt you, in the name of whatever. At any time.
    Now I will go and read the rest of the article.

  2. Angie unduplicated
    February 2, 2018 at 10:06 am

    Add: choking half to death, whether on dicks or asthmagenic “beauty” products.
    Everything you wrote should be me-too’d and turned into a public scandal. A review of standards in female appearance from the dawn of time should be sufficient evidence to anyone with an IQ over 10 that men can be persuaded that anything is beautiful, as long as they get some pussy.

    I passec last fuckable date ages ago. Damn, middle age and old age are great, except for the finances. No bras, shave only in summer, no more hairdressers, eternally casual clothes except for funerals and rare visits to the courthouse. Now it’s time to get these benefits for younger women.

  3. February 2, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    Re: “Quick Hit: the biological realities of bad sex & really bad sex.” by Caperton Feb 1, 2018. I disagree with “sex hurting long after virginity is lost’ – not with the person who wrote that it did for her, but that is not the way it should be – i.e., for, perhaps, the majority. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, and all I can say is that after the initial first two thrusts, followed by a pause from both of us, the rest was totally pleasurable. The same was true from then on, even with different partners. There are several reasons why it might have happened – I don’t doubt that it did. One would be a mismatch of sexual organs, e.g. his penis is bigger than her vagina. Another might be he is inexperienced…too rough, etc. lack of lubrication – easily remedied. A trip to the gynecologist could reveal if she has physical reasons as well. I worked – now retired – for Family Planning, which probably doesn’t even exist any more, and, if it did, Trump & co. will be trying to get rid of it, too. then complain about illegitimate children/abortions. Sorry for venting at the end, but I hate coming online to read to latest travesty from our hypocrite in chief. Peace & love. Yes, I’m from that generation. ; )

  4. J Dyer
    February 2, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you.

  5. B
    February 3, 2018 at 10:22 am

    If “it hurts, please stop” doesn’t throw a very cold bucket of water on the whole sexual encounter, run, do not walk, away. First rule of good sex is consideration of your partner.

  6. Helen Huntingdon
    February 17, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    I just read a couple of different articles with men whining about how it’s just so haaaaaaard now to know where the line is. Why? According to the articles I read, it’s because women are not fungible! And get this — consent is not transitive! Can you believe it? Men might actually have to care about each and every woman’s consent to each and every act!

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