Sex is hard work. And this fact is something that I found out the hard way. I was so restricted in my understanding of how sex worked; thanks to a lifetime of gendered conditioning, that I genuinely believed that because I was a woman, I would just need to follow the already established way of having sex and all would be fine. I was conditioned by systemic patriarchy to believe that woman is an established character in heterosexual relations, and if I was just “the good girl” and followed this prescriptive way of being woman, then everything would be okay. And, I guess, in a way it was. It was okay for the men I was having sex with. They were able to gain the sexual satisfaction within the curated nature of the relationships that existed between us. Except the very foundation of what existed was void of anything of mine – except my body. Patriarchy rewarded me with both attention (I actually find a lot of value in the sexual focused attention sex bring me) and status that having a boyfriend brings a woman; especially young women. Navigating this “good girl” narrative hurt me, it still hurts me. While I am in the healthiest of sexual relationships I’ve ever existed in, the totality of our relationship exists bound by the two, often conflicting, approaches to sex that we both have.
A lifetime of social conditioning created my individual frame of reference – my own unique sent of experiences and understanding that frames the way that I have sex. Our framing – and we all have one, is constructed through our sociocultural upbringing. All the beliefs that we have about sex, in general, and our own moral compass surrounding our sexual behaviours come together to create how we have sex.
Women often have a complicated relationship with sex. Conceptualising who we are as sexual beings – who happen to be women, can be fraught with the lingering effects of trauma, a lack of effective sex education, dominant social mores and attitudes about sex or the multifaceted emotional relationship we have with our own bodies and sexual histories.
To further complicate how women experience sex are all of the patterns of communication that exist. While there are many facets of communication pertaining to our sexual spaces; I’m quite confident in arguing that it is decision making, the way that we go about the minor and major decisions that create the way that we have sex, which is often misrepresented or minimised when considering how it is we communicate about sex.
Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen writes that communication is a continual balancing act, we are in a space that asks us to consider both our own need for independence and intimacy. We need to establish boundaries and a mutual understanding of what is expected to meet our own desires, while at the same time factoring in those needs, desires and boundaries of the person we are choosing to have sex with; and sometimes these needs, desires and boundaries are in conflict with each other. This is one complicated decision to be made.
So how can we, best, go about this?
Get comfortable with sexual language
If you want sex, then you have to be able to talk about it! Often, we become lost in the awkwardness and uncomfortable nature of sexual language. It’s not like we insert words like vulva, pussy, penis, cock, fuck, orgasm, anal, condom or lubricant, in our everyday conversations. But how can sexual communication be effective when we cannot speak the language?
Avoid questions that can only give you a yes or no answer.
These closed questions offer little to no value to the sexual decisions that need to be negotiated. Yes or no has no meaning nor do they provide us with any relevant information. Without information we cannot make informed decisions; and consent is all about informed decisions!
Asking the right questions is at the heart of effective communication. While a yes or no answer may elicit a statement that resembles fact; an answer that moves beyond yes or no offers fact, knowledge and feeling – all of which are required in order to provide more information. And it is from this information that we develop open conversations that enable us to make more informed decisions about what we choose to do sexuallyListen to understand, not to respond.
Sexual communication is more often thought of in terms of what we say, not what we do with the words that are being said to us.
Sexual communication is what enables us to share the same space. And while it involves two people, the commonality necessary to have sex is brought about by bringing together multiple, interdependent, pieces of information. Information that ranges from general to specific, that must not only be shared through words spoken and non-verbal cues interpreted, but used to create mutual understanding. What is said cannot be understood without connecting it to a great deal of background information. This is why negotiating consent cannot be one, brief, conversation that brings about a yes or no answer.
The dominant narrative that “successful” communication is dependent upon accurate messages being sent to another – most often the words of a woman being said to a man is wrong! Communication is, very much, a two-way street. The words that are spoken are meaningless until they are heard and understood by another. Communication is a shared responsibility. If you, or your partner, are not obtaining understanding through listening to what is being said then you are impeding the communication process.
Accept that this is going to feel uncomfortable.
Talking openly and honestly about sex; particularly desire and boundaries, but also birth control and STI’s, is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. These conversations ask us to sit in some deep vulnerability. These conversations are ongoing; they aren’t something that is done and dusted on a first date or in the first few emails. Sex is complicated and this complication filters through to the conversations that we have about the sex we want – or don’t want.
It’s okay to feel nervous. It’s going to feel uncomfortable. But if you keep going into these conversations, if you keep cantering the goal of sex – to have mutually satisfying and consensual sex.
But most of all remember this, you are entitled to have sex that satisfies you. You are inviting another into your erotic space in order to create something that is mutually satisfying. The mechanics and “how to’s” of all this are not that important. They are more of a means to an end, rather than the foundation of our sex lives.
We cannot escape the socialised framing that we all bring into the sex we have. Nurture, as we call it, is a formidable force – for good and for bad. But what we can do is make the best choices for us. We can centre the whole of who we are as women; more than just a body, into the sexual decisions that we are making. Communication; the speaking and the listening is what brings about the safe, satisfying, consensual sex that we all desire.