Why Do I Care About What I Look Like During Sex?

Confession time: I’ve faked an orgasm. Actually, I’ve faked several. Definitely enough to hit the double digits. I’ve also made disingenuous noises and feigned sexy expressions and pretended to enjoy a position I hated because I thought it would look hot. Sometimes I even lied about the orgasm afterward; my partner would rise in a sweaty ecstasy to pee and say, “You came, right?” And I’d smile and give him a goofy nod. Not only was he satisfied, that nod said, he had satisfied me.

Both my straight and gay girlfriends could empathize, though I did notice faking orgasms seemed more common among those of us in heterosexual relationships. While we hid the truth from our sexual partners, we’d reveal it to one another after a few glasses of wine. We excused our sexual trickery for myriad reasons: men didn’t know what they were doing, sex was harder for women, orgasms during intercourse were impossible. In the guys’ defense, we never actually communicated the issue. In our defense, we didn’t know how.

Sex might be everywhere, but it’s a notoriously taboo topic of discussion, especially when those discussing the subject are women. And with sex education programs focused more on the heterosexual logistics of intercourse—rather than desire and communication—many of us receive the majority of our information from personal experience or the media. Most of this media (from porn to American Pie to Spring Breakers to Mad Men) depicts sex and women from the perspective of a heterosexual male, an idea most eloquently captured in Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. For women, this sometimes means subconsciously learning to play a role in someone else’s game.

“The most common issue I see is women externalizing their sexual experience,” says Dr. Laurie Mintz, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida and author of Becoming Cliterate. “And on top of that, many of these women feel guilty about it, or wonder if something is wrong with them. But it’s a societal issue.”

It’s an interesting dilemma: to be obsessed with ourselves, but not for the benefit of ourselves.

Sexuality doula Isabella Frappier calls this “performative sex”—the act of engaging in sexual behavior specifically to benefit our partner with little to no connection to our own bodies. She also agrees with Dr. Mintz in that performative sex, or performative receiving, is “hands-down the number one thing she sees among vulva-owning clients.” Adding that “many of the women I work with are thinking, I hope I look like this or I hope he likes this. It can happen when we receive, too. We may think, Is he really enjoying this? or stress out about how our vaginas are perceived.”

It’s an interesting dilemma: to be obsessed with ourselves, but not for the benefit of ourselves. This isn’t necessarily surprising; according to Isabella, performative sex correlates with (and exacerbates) low-self esteem and anxiety. And while anxiety during sex is not limited to any particular gender, our society perpetuates a very male-centric sex narrative, making women and womxn especially susceptible to externalizing their sexual experiences. We’re taught to satisfy the needs of others even if it means sacrificing our own. We care about looking good during sex because we aim to please, and we aim to please because we’re told that’s what makes us valuable.

Upon entering my mid-twenties, I started asking myself why I continuously put my own pleasure on the back-burner. Was I really faking orgasms because I thought they were impossible to achieve, or was it because I felt embarrassed and unworthy to share what I wanted? The more comfortable I became with confronting those questions, the less comfortable I became letting old myths dictate my sexual experience. Once I started to weave my own story and instigate more open conversations with partners about my desires, I learned that a good partner is very, very happy to oblige.

Even so, I still experience the occasional urge to externalize—to view myself as a performer rather than an agent. According to Isabella and Dr. Mintz, this feeling is common among even the most sex-positive individuals, and illustrates how ingrained performative behavior can be. Below are some of their suggestions as to how we can step out of our brains and back into our bodies.

Change the sexual narrative.

“Many women don’t realize that they are having sex attached to extreme social constructs,” says Isabella. “Sex should end either [due to] shared pleasure or deciding to stop—not under this weird implicit agreement that it’s over after a penis ejaculates.” In other words, sex should end because both parties are ready for it to be over. This can mean communicating any remaining desires or simply agreeing that you’re both done, regardless of whether both parties have reached climax. Either way, the goal is to find something that works for you and your partner.

“Really identify the thoughts you have associated with sex,” Dr. Mintz adds. Other myths might include that orgasms occur purely from penetration, or worse, the idea that pain during sex is normal. “Focus on scripts that put reality and orgasm equality to the forefront.” Either way, the sexual “rule book” is ours for the making. Let it be a team effort between you and your partner rather than a dated narrative prescribed by everyone else.

Make sex mindful.

“The antidote to being externally focused is to be internally focused,” says Dr. Mintz. This doesn’t mean ignoring your partner’s desires, but rather honing in on the present moment in order to strengthen connection.

“Simply returning to the breath, or even syncing your breath with your partner can be extremely beneficial,” says Isabella. She also recommends “eye-gazing,” which literally means locking eyes with your partner in order to strengthen the connection between your bodies. If that much eye contact gives you the heebie-jeebies, you can also try body-gazing, or focusing on a certain area of you or your partner’s body (collarbones, hands, etc) that looks particularly sexy.

“It’s important that we’re slowing down and checking in with ourselves,” Isabella adds. “We aren’t meant to perform a show we’re barely watching.”

Find the courage to take up sexual space.

Like many women who experience performative sex, I needed a broader sexual journey. It wasn’t just about treating the symptoms, but asking myself why I didn’t feel entitled to pleasure and then finding ways to rekindle a stronger sense of self-worth.

Isabella, who runs the 1600+ member Facebook group, “Sex Positive Women of the Universe,” instituted “Feelin’ Yourself Friday,” a day when members of the group post a selfie to share. In this case, “caring about what we look like” doesn’t come from a place of fear or externalization, but rather deep appreciation and curiosity for our physical vessels. I remember taking my first selfie to share with the group—I wore a cotton t-shirt and my favorite pair of underwear, and laid on my bed in the gray morning light. My definition of sexy. In that moment, I eliminated the male gaze and strengthened my own.

Yes, our society’s attitudes and perspectives toward sex need to change. But a good way to start might be on a personal level, as we learn to “feel ourselves” (and not just on Fridays). Perhaps this is where we find true connection: both to our partners and the one in the mirror.

Feature photos via BBC. 

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