My entry point into sex seemed utterly unremarkable. I was 18, a freshman in college and a little tipsy. My partner’s name was Tom, and I believed him to be a good kid based on the few things I’d gathered in the week since I’d met him. He had a kind face, a quiet demeanor and a gentle, nervous way of flirting. In other words, he seemed a little nerdy, which seemed just right. The sex we had was consensual, safe and terrible, not unlike a difficult run I might have endured during high school track practice a year prior: an unpleasant task I knew I had to complete, but without the endorphin rush or sense of accomplishment that often came with it.
I agreed to his advances because I had no interest in romanticizing virginity and was tired of being one myself, in a social sense. I also agreed because Tom made me feel comfortable, liked and cared for, which was all I required at the time. Tom didn’t return my calls after that, and he begged my forgiveness for that three years later outside a bar, then on my voicemail on three separate occasions.
I wasn’t overly haunted by my interaction with Tom, even if he was. Aside from recognizing it as cliche and being disappointed that sex turned out to mostly involve being in pain and keeping my face from showing that, I thought about it very little. The haunting feeling came later — much more recently, in fact, when I became sexually educated enough to understand the implications of my thinking that kind of sex was normal.
I learned a lot over the next 10 years, but I only started thinking more critically about my sexual life and identity in the past two. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Endeavoring to learn more about sex, gender and power (and my role in those systems) has been a life-changing experience and has had further-reaching impacts than I could have imagined, including improving my sex life and my relationship with my self and body. Below are some of the things I wish I’d known before that fated night with Tom.
1. “Foreplay” is sex
When I was growing up, foreplay was discussed as a binary: You either did it or skipped it. It took a while for me to dismantle that way of thinking, see it for its misogyny and start defining sex as the whole experience — from the slow and thoughtful start that’s respectful of the body’s natural process and malleable to your and your partner’s mood all the way through to whatever end feels right. Sex is not a race to an orgasm, nor is it simply penetration; it’s a conversation. There’s value in taking your time.
2. The female orgasm is not a nuisance, a puzzle or a box to check
The cultural rhetoric around female anatomy being “confusing” can be alienating, and the idea that a “successful” female orgasm happens quickly while the male one happens slowly is stressful and male-oriented. When sex is viewed purely through the lens of finishing, it invites undue pressure into the situation on both sides. In that same vein, there isn’t a particular pattern or order of activities in a sexual encounter that is correct or fair, and defining it as such minimizes it (or makes it feel like homework).
3. Pursuing your own pleasure is important
With that in mind, it’s also proved increasingly important for me to remember my own pleasure and agency in sex. I was so well-conditioned to perform my gender that I did so during sex for a long time. I’ve since learned that good sex doesn’t require you to look, sound or move a certain way — sex is not duty! — it requires you to be present and equally committed to your own experience as much as anyone else’s. And if you’re not in the mood to bring that, you don’t have to force it. Ever ever ever.
4. Sex is messy, and embracing that is part of the appeal
Our culture is obsessed with bathing, far beyond what’s hygienically necessary. With that in mind: You do not have to shower before you have sex. You do not have to shower after you have sex. Your natural smell and hair do not need to be stripped away in order to have sex (at least not for aesthetic or “purity” reasons). Your body is worthy of love and attention just as it is. If your partner doesn’t think so, that’s worth a serious discussion. Sex is messy, intimate, sometimes funny — all you have to bring to it is presence, desire, energy.
5. Communicating is sexy (and also healthy)
I can’t believe how long I spent being shy about talking before/during/after/about sex. Such shyness — and more specifically, the culturally ingrained shame that inspired it — robbed my sex life of much-needed depth and color. Sex for me was never going to become truly fun and energizing until I surpassed that barrier. Too much shame makes sex an emotional labor. Now I understand how important communication is in an intimate relationship, from discussing your solo activities all the way through to rehashing how an encounter went. That’s how you learn about yourself and your partner, and that’s how sex gets better.
6. Good sex requires active participation and curiosity
I spent most of my sexually active years as a pretty passive participant, certain that having an orgasm was enough of an indicator that the encounters I was having were great. But I’ve since realized how important it is to stay engaged, active and curious when it comes to intimacy in whatever form it takes. As with any pursuit or relationship, you have to give a shit for it to thrive, change and grow, and that means taking the time to listen to yourself and your partner to better understand the multitudes you both contain. I’m happy to say I’m still learning.
Fostering a healthy relationship with sex required me to unlearn most of what mainstream society taught me and get comfortable with being vulnerable. I believe that’s a requirement for everyone, men as much as women. Most of us weren’t given the proper tools to have fulfilling sex lives, so it’s up to us to seize them for ourselves.
What do you wish you knew when you started having sex?
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.