Lately the definition of “pleasure” has been difficult to grasp—with our needs and desires changing daily, depending on the kind of world we wake up to. And yet, at the same time, pleasure is so crucial. Whether it manifests as a croissant purchased on a whim, a head-whipping dance break, or gratifying solo or partnered sex, having the nerve to seek pleasure at all is its own radical form of self-care.
I’ve realized this on a personal level during quarantine, and I’m also now beginning to understand different, and beautiful, versions of love and sex outside of heteronormativity with my girlfriend. The cultural conversation around sexual pleasure has so consistently centered on a narrow category of cis-white-hetero maleness, that exploring and redefining pleasure is now a necessity. (Pleasure as resistance is a fundamental aspect of queer and feminist theory, discussed through different lenses by the likes of Audre Lord, Adrienne Maree Brown, and Eve Sedgwick.)
So when Man Repeller had the opportunity to partner with Swedish intimacy lifestyle brand Lelo on a story, I looked back to the heart of their business, which began in 2003 with the question: “What if our most intimate items were made as beautiful as the ones we displayed with the most pride?”
Queer intimacy and queer sex feel directly connected to this premise. It’s both crucial to display and share stories of love and pleasure in queer partnerships so that young people—like the younger version of myself—can more clearly see the shape of their sexuality. And so they can see their sexuality as one of the most extraordinary parts of themselves. Not to mention, toys are often a key element of queer intimacy.
So, I decided to talk with two queer couples about how they define and express pleasure in their relationships (and so much more).
The Couple That’s Saying “F*ck it” to Gender Roles
Brittany Cortez, 21, and Mack Litzenberg, 22
Brittany, an educator and writer, and Mack, a computer science student and musician have been together for a year and a month and met on Tinder (“Somehow we missed the boat on Lex?”). For our Google Hangout interview, both wore bandanas around their necks, an instance of matching that they describe as “never planned, but somehow always happens.” Their dog Xoco sat sandwiched between them.
My first question is kind of broad: What does the word “pleasure” mean to you both?
Brittany: It means a lot of different things. I’m super passionate about nourishing yourself in small ways throughout the day. I like to surround myself with certain colors, and smells, and things like that. [To Mack] What about you? I feel like, for you, pleasure is, like, organization. Kind of the opposite.
Mack: I like it when things are where they should be.
Brittany: Can we talk more in a sexual way too?
Mack: We’re very open with each other. She’s a top, I’m a bottom. We’re very open to trying new things with each other, and having that trust and vulnerability can be really nice.
Brittany: One of the most interesting things about queer sex is that you don’t have these predetermined roles. When you say “sex” to a queer person, you have no idea what they actually could be referring to. The acceptance of that has been key to a lot of our pleasure. Just like, Wow, we can literally do anything, and if it makes us feel good, and it’s fun, it’s sex.
How does asserting and discussing queer pleasure manifest in your partnership?
Brittany: Both of us came in with a lot of shame. I continue to have shame that doesn’t go away—but one small way you can fight against it is to have fun with your body. That alone is so powerful.
Mack: Yeah. Part of it is also not feeling like because you’re queer, the sex that you have is “less than” because it’s not your typical [finger in hole gesture] sex…
Brittany: I mean, it can be.
Mack: Well, it can be, but it’s not “less than” if it’s not that.
How has quarantine been for you guys? Has it given you the opportunity to spend more time together, and how has that felt?
Mack: We’ve heard of a lot of other people break up during quarantine. But we really get along all the time. We squabble about stupid shit. It’s like, “Oh, I moved the pot, where was it before?” And by “pot” I mean flower pot, not pot.
Brittney: We’re so sober.
Mack: Just clarifying it’s our orchid Constance.
Brittney: Not to bring up astrology, but I’m an Aries and they’re a Sagittarius, so it’s like impossible to hide our idiosyncrasies.
Mack: If we have kept stuff from each other, it never lasts very long. You know? We have managed to foster something where we’re actually able to talk about literally anything and not be judged. I haven’t really had that with a lot of people.
Mack: I also got [top] surgery in quarantine. So that’s a whole fun thing.
Mack: Thank you. It was very exciting.
Since toys are such a special aspect of queer intimacy for many—how do you feel about using them? How do you like the Lelo products?
Brittany: Toys are an essential part of sex for us. They’re just a really cool, unique part of queer sex and partnerships.
Mack: You get to pick the dick size you want. Can’t do that with straight people.
Brittany: We don’t want to say that all gay people have the same bodies or anything like that, but queer people, regardless of their anatomical features, are more likely to have sex in a variety of ways with a variety of objects. And that’s super cool.
Mack: The Lelo product we picked was the spicier one…
Brittany: It was super unique—we had the suction one. [Note: It’s the Sona™ 2 Cruise!]
Amalie: I saw that and I was like, “I don’t even know how that works, but I’m intrigued.”
Mack: 10/10 would recommend.
The Couple That Finds Pleasure Through Intimate Understanding
Utibe Mbagwu, 25 and Cristal Jefferson, 24
Utibe is the social media editor at Glossier and Into the Gloss and her partner Cristal is a production coordinator and camera operator at Vice. They’ve been together for four years, since they met via the Organization of Black Women at NYU. Cristal patched into our call from Portland, where she’s covering Black Lives Matter and Antifa, among other things (including murder hornets) and Utibe called in from their shared apartment in Bed Stuy.
How are you two finding time for yourselves right now? And what do you most enjoy doing when spending time together?
Utibe: I’m really busy during the weekdays. It was kind of accepted that from nine to six, when I’m working, I’m really in the office working. We usually try to spend time together in the morning, and talk about our day, and make plans for what’s going to happen after work hours, when we like to watch something on Hulu or cook dinner.
Cristal: I need a little bit of time with her in the morning before she hops out of bed, because when she says she works, this girl works. I can’t get too many moments in that timeframe when she’s working. For someone like me, who has more free time, I’ve definitely had to learn to adjust my needs.
It sounds like you guys have really figured out what works for you! I’ll move on to one of the headier questions: What does the word pleasure mean to you both, individually and also as a couple?
Cristal: You can go first, babe. That’s your thing.
Utibe: For me, it’s finding the things that create that energy where you’re just… where things feel magical in the relationship. The person just gets you.
Cristal: The understanding in this relationship is really important. Utibe knows my relationship with sex, and she knows my limits. She’s very verbal. We like to talk through it. That itself is very pleasurable and comforting. It’s just weird. The way we vibe is really weird.
Utibe: [Laughs] Clarify what you mean by weird!
Cristal: It’s great. It’s unexplainable. I’ve never been able to just talk to someone all day, every day, and never be bored, or always find excitement waking up and being able to talk to you, Utibe.
So for this next question: I know we talked about how I based this pitch in concepts from queer theory about pleasure as a form of resistance, so how do you both feel like that comes into play for you?
Cristal: Being in the relationship and being queer has forced me to break down a lot of the heteronormative images and experiences that I have had, to open up my view of how sex can be—and how relationships can be, and how gender roles are not really a thing. I feel like our friends really look up to Utibe and I in this weird way because we’re queer.
Utibe: Being truly ourselves has allowed other people to be truly themselves—and be open about the kind of lives that they want to lead. I have a couple of friends who, through me being open with them, has allowed them to be like, “I really want to have a relationship with a woman at some point. How was your experience coming to terms of your queerness?”
I made friends with a couple last year, and I credit them for showing me what real love is and showing me the side of my sexuality that I didn’t even understand. Their relationship is so beautiful and special. I was like, “I want that.” I’m sure you do that for a lot of your friends, too.
Utibe: Sometimes people need a possibility model. People need to know that this is possible.
Totally. Okay, now I’m going to ask about the sex stuff! How do you feel about toys in the bedroom in general and how do you feel about the Lelo products?
Utibe: I would just say that Cristal and I just go with the flow and go with the mood. There isn’t really a plan. It’s just kind of if we feel like it, then we’ll use one. Sometimes we’ll be hanging out with friends and we’ll pass by a sex shop and we’ll all go in and be like, “Okay, let’s get this one little thing and see how it goes.” It’s just kind of how we feel. I think that’s how it is for a lot of people.
Cristal: Yeah. I think maybe within the last year or so we started using sex toys and it’s been fun. It’s been exciting. It spices up the routine of it, you know what I mean? I feel like you got to warm yourself up to sex toys and getting into that. But I feel like they’ve been very…
Utibe: They’re fun. They’re ultimately fun to use.
Cristal: Yeah. “We like sex toys” is basically the consensus.
Honestly, same! We talked a little bit about how your relationship has changed in quarantine—has it impacted your sex life or made you feel more intimate with each other at all?
Utibe: Well, Cristal and I just moved into our first apartment together. She’s been living with me forever, but we officially are living together now. I feel like we’re having more sex than before because we’re together all the time. I think also building a home together has been a really intimate experience and that’s created another layer of love between us. We’re having a good time together.
Cristal: You have to be very mindful because I feel like a lot of people have also broken up during Covid. Utibe and I have been really good at working through this in a healthy way. What I love about being in this relationship is that Utibe is very much an active partner in making this work for as long as it can. And it’s really special.
Utibe: I feel like there’s so many places with stressors and we’ve been working, managing them together. It hasn’t always been perfect, but we’ve given each other this grace to make mistakes.
I’m so glad you guys have had each other through this, and I’m glad you moved in when you did. It sounds like it’s been really important.
Cristal: Yeah. We’re very lucky.
The last thing I’ll ask you guys is if there’s something we didn’t get to in our conversation that you want people to know. Thoughts?
Cristal: Recently my friends have said, “Oh, I don’t know how lesbians have sex.” And people will ask me. But you should educate yourself. You shouldn’t put the labor on someone else to educate you about queer sex.
Amalie: Totally, and sex is so many different things. It could be literally anything.
Cristal: Anything. It could be rubbing on someone’s shoulder with your shoulder.
Utibe: People don’t get it.
Utibe, do you have anything that you wanted to add?
Utibe: Just that I love Cristal.
Cristal: Oh my God. I love you too, Utibe.
Photography by Beth Sacca.