A month ago I wrote an off-the-cuff Twitter thread about how most modern cultures that say they are sex positive really aren’t. It generated a huge response, probably putting into words what many people felt for a long time but hadn’t seen spelled out. I turned that thread into an article on the sex negativity of mainstream culture in Quillette. Go read that first, then come back here for some follow-up thoughts.
I’ve written before about people’s pursuit of fuckability, euphemized for Quillette as “sex-worthiness”, as opposed to actually fucking. I mostly focused on how it manifests in women, the prestigious degrees and impressive careers and yoga prowess and political activism that fail to conjure the relationships they believe they deserve. Since then I’ve heard from several women on the male version of this, like my friend whose ex-husband spent so much time working late and working out that he was always too exhausted to have sex.
It’s not that professional, intellectual, and physical achievements aren’t attractive for both men and women — they are! The problem happens when someone’s identity as a fuckable/dateable individual takes center stage. Then, any romantic rejection or even renegotiation becomes a threat to one’s whole laboriously-built self-image.
This is really exacerbated by the invasion of society and social media into the intimate space. Society is always judgmental, even when pretending to be supportive. And it can only judge on visible features and identity — fuckability — not on how someone makes you feel in private. Is he progressive enough? Is she thin enough? Will they post cringe and tag you in it? If you’re thinking about how a partner’s presence will affect your social media clout, you’re probably not really connecting.
And of course, if people are having bad sex then they’d naturally focus more on fuckability and less on fucking.
Bad So Often
Why is casual sex bad so often?, asked a woman famous for her sexuality. It’s bad because it’s casual, came hundreds of responses, people don’t try.
It doesn’t have to be this way. People could put effort into making their partner ecstatic, and take pride in it. People could tell their partners ahead of time what they’re hoping would happen in bed and what they don’t want to happen — this conversation in itself can be arousing and intimacy-building. Is it really more important on a date to talk about a Netflix show than about what makes you glow?
A big culprit here I think is the faux sex-positivity I wrote about, the “attitude that all consensual sexual activities are fundamentally healthy and pleasurable”. Couples on first dates spend a lot of time negotiating consent and signaling the appropriate level of chastity and promiscuity. But when sex isn’t pleasurable it’s because the people involved didn’t work to make it so, not because their attitude failed to magically produce pleasure.
Another issue with the exclusive focus on consent is that ambiguity is an important component of sex and seduction. “Would you like to come up for tea” doesn’t mean either “I will fuck you” or “I won’t fuck you”. It can mean “I want to keep the option of sex open depending on how you behave, while also preserving the option for either of us to back out without losing face.” Or it can mean something else entirely. Forcing legibility on a sexually ambiguous situation can break the delicate spell.
I theorize that no matter how much a culture tries to impose legibility on seduction, ambiguity will tend to be preserved.
I’ve heard from several woman that being asked for sexual consent explicitly is a huge turn-off. Sometimes they realize this 5 seconds after giving their verbal affirmative consent, rendering the validity of their consent quite questionable! Consent is not the same thing as participation.
The preservation of ambiguity can work in the other direction too. Many (male) commenters on my article lamented that men are no longer allowed to flirt with women in the workplace. But that’s not the case at all, unless you count only minimum-ambiguity flirting as such.
In a Mad Men environment where men pinch women’s behinds in the office and yell “nice tits!”, any subtle flirting will be swamped by the volume of explicit sexual aggression. Once the pinching is outlawed, playful banter can speak much louder and the women are likely to be more open to it once they no longer have to fear for their basic body autonomy. Playful banter is much more ambiguous and requires more skill. Men who insist on their right to catcall are just trying to reduce ambiguity in a way that makes seduction harder for everyone, not easier.
So what’s my advice for those looking for hot sex and deep intimacy? Instead of complaining about the ambiguity, try to get into a spirit of playful discovery both aimed at others and at yourself. You don’t know what will make your partner happy and you may not know for yourself either on a given night, but if you’re open-minded and actually try to find out you will.
What you won’t be able to do is to make both of you happy while satisfying the internalized judgment of outside society and culture. Movies, newspapers, Instagram feeds, high school classes and political platforms won’t get you very far. And yes, blogs probably won’t do so either.
Although if you’re going to read blogs anyway, you probably chose the right one.