I’ve recently written a couple of published pieces that have got me thinking more about my own sexual “journey”. The first was about why it’s important to learn to have sex while sober and the second was about the so-called half-night stand (where you hook up with someone but you leave in the middle of the night instead of sleeping over). You can read the sober sex one HERE and the half-night stand one HERE (and watch this space because I really like The Debrief and am hoping to write more for them).
What occurred to me while I was writing them is that I was essentially giving people advice about sex and although I certainly referred (and often refer on this blog) to my own experience, I don’t always talk explicitly about how I arrived at the viewpoints I set out. It isn’t always necessary, of course. But after a conversation at a party this weekend in which someone said they admired my attitude on a sex-related subject, I realised it might be time to confess something: I haven’t always been good at sex.
It sounds obvious but I think it can be a useful thing to talk about. When you read someone’s work or you hear them speak confidently, you’re unlikely to be able to imagine them ever feeling confused and insecure. As a sex writer, I worry constantly about sounding smug or as though I think I have all the answers. I can tell you right now, I don’t. Sex writing for me has never really been about telling people what to do or feel but about interrogating issues I think are interesting and important and encouraging others to do the same. I don’t believe sex should be something we just do. I think it should be something we think about and talk about and generally pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean I was always good at it.
By “good” I don’t mean the mechanics, although I had to learn those skills too. I mean the ability to really connect with what I was doing on both a physical and emotional level, to recognise it as mine, to own it. Even now the idea of someone being “good in bed” does not mean to me that they have any special physical skills (the benefit of which which would be entirely subjective anyway) but that they are engaging with it both as a physical activity and a social interaction. If Michael Fassbender and I went to bed right now (or Scarlett Johansson – whoever’s available) I’d be excited, obviously, but I can’t guarantee we’d have an amazing time. I like to think we’d give it a good go but ultimately it’s not down to what you do so much as how much attention you’re paying and whether you’re communicating (verbally, non-verbally – whatever).
Put it this way: I have always loved food but it took me some years to become a good cook, to understand how to combine ingredients, to learn how to select recipes and find ways to cater to different people’s dietary requirements in a way that would still produce a satisfying meal for both of us, to enjoy every part of it, from the inspiration to the preparation, to the actual eating and to know my own tastes and preferences, the scale of my appetite and what was the most delicious and healthy way to satisfy it. So it was and is with sex.
I knew from an early age that I wanted in on this phenomenon and I just couldn’t bring myself to subscribe to the notion that it was something sacred or secret. The first time I did it I was pleased simply to have got it out of the way, to have crossed the invisible line into the world of “people who have sex”. In classic “first time” style, the actual experience was largely unremarkable. The only two things I remember about it were the moment of thinking “So, here I am. I’m having sex.” and wondering where to put my legs (Around his waist? Splayed outwards like a frog? With knees pulled back against my shoulders? I tried out a few different options before settling for a sort of awkward mid-air crooked knee, giving me the aerial aspect, I imagine, of a flailing beetle).
It never occurred to me then that “having sex” could be defined as anything other than the straight, cis, penetrative sex I was having and I never thought to question whether the other sexual experiences I’d had and went on to have might have just as readily been “sex”. That’s an adjustment in my thinking I made much later. At the time I accepted what the magazines suggested, what the limited sex education I’d had at school told me. Someone’s cock was in my cunt. Ergo, I was having sex.
Mainly I was fucking delighted to have got the stupid, useless virginity thing out of the way so I could crack on with the good stuff. And yet I was still cowed by society’s messages about what I was “supposed” to think, feel, and do. As I teenage girl in the late 90s I was not supposed to want lots of sex… or, I was, but not on my terms. I was supposed to look like I wanted sex, of course. Hell, I could even behave like I wanted it occasionally, but at the same time I had to try to seem unattainable, as though I didn’t actually want it at all. Even if I did it, I was not supposed to let on that I did, in fact, want it; that I’d wanted it all along; that it was probably my bloody idea in the first place. It was a game that frankly I couldn’t have played if I’d wanted to.
For reasons I genuinely haven’t been able to properly fathom, I never really had relationships in my teens. I had interest and I was interested (oh boy, was I interested) but nothing ever really materialised. I’d go through phases of snogging the same person for weeks on end, groping each other in dark bars and in the cobbled alleyways around Guildford castle (yes, I grew up in Surrey – well, I’m confessing everything else, I might as well throw that in) and exchanging cryptic texts, but that was about as far as it ever went for me. It was fear of rejection, of course. But also fear of negative public opinion. Given the intense scrutiny we all put these kinds of flings under, I never felt comfortable or confident enough to move them onto the next – sexual – level.
It became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while. I told myself I wasn’t prepared to “play the game” as it were and the lack of enthusiasm I received as a result convinced me I’d made the right decision. Fear of rejection causes you to put your guard up, to shut people out, and they can sense that. When people perceive you as unavailable, sexually or emotionally, they tend not to bother pursuing you. Or so I experienced it.
So while many of my friends had the security of a “proper” relationship in which to practice sex, I was reluctant to do it this way, in the “open”, with the potential experiments, failures, and new discoveries and boundaries all there to be discussed and dissected by friends, acquaintances, anyone who happened to find themselves on the grapevine. After all, we’d all heard the story of our friend who’d been “fingering” a girl when she secreted what was later described to us as a “yoghurty lump”. I saw that woman years later in a shoe shop looking, as she always had, immaculately groomed and sophisticated and yet the words “Yoghurty Lump Girl” still leapt unbidden into my head.
Oh, and how about the time I slept with someone who later told my friend, who gigglingly reported back to me, that I’d been “really wet” – as though that was somehow a bad thing?!!
No, this was not a stage I wanted to improvise on. Instead I had sex in secret. It’s less melodramatic than it sounds. In what I now realise was probably an unconscious bid to avoid the social politics of sex, I started confining my romantic and sexual entanglements to people no one else knew. The first person I slept with was someone I met on holiday. So was the second. The fourth and fifth (and sixth? I forget now and frankly who cares?) were people I met while backpacking through Asia. Then there were the ones I met while working a summer job in Greece. And the one while I was living abroad in Italy.
Even then, I often struggled to get what I wanted out of it. Sex to me was a social interaction, as well as a physical one. And while I wasn’t bothered about falling in love (though I did that too), I was bothered about the apparent soullessness of a lot of the sex I was having and hearing about. I did have a couple of really engaged partners who encouraged me to talk about sex, to connect with what we were doing on an intellectual level as well as a physical one, and they brought a glimmer of excitement and hope. And of course there were a few who were just plain fun. You don’t need love for good sex, but you do need joy – at least on some level. But mostly what I got from people was a feeling of “let’s have sex while simultaneously pretending we’re not having sex”. The levels of detachment, the lack of real interest in it or apparent enjoyment of it, and the self-policing when it came to the emotional side of it, I found deeply depressing. But it affected me nonetheless.
If I tell you not only did I fail to have a relationship with anyone I met at university, but throughout my second and third year I also did not have sex with anyone, how sad does that make me seem to you? It’s OK, you can say it. Actually I was quite sad. I wanted a relationship. To be honest, my guard was so high by now, my “bitchy resting face” so honed, that while I had plenty of flirty friendships, I didn’t exactly invite romantic advances and needless to say I did not attempt any of my own. Still, I also wanted sex and didn’t see why lack of romance should be a barrier. The problem was, I still felt that this kind of attitude was judged negatively and – angry though it made me – the fear of that judgment was strong. Nobody wants to be an object of ridicule (OK, that’s demonstrably untrue, plenty of people do – but not me) and at that time in my life, at the college I was at, casual sex was definitely seen as something faintly ridiculous, something nobody, at least not any women, did intentionally. It was something to be ashamed of. I admit this is entirely my conjecture. Nobody ever sat me down and told me I couldn’t do it, that would have been absurd. But once you perceive something that strongly, it stops mattering whether it’s a reality or not, such is the power of its influence.
When I look back, the thing I am most ashamed of is my inertia. What seems ridiculous now is that someone who loved sex, who felt instinctively that it was healthy and enriching, not to mention great fun, could wind up feeling so conflicted by the political baggage that she sometimes didn’t do it at all.
But it’s not ridiculous. And that’s exactly why I wanted to write this post. We all have – for want of a less wanky expression – a sexual journey and this has been mine. All things considered, it’s reasonably undramatic. There’s no big finale, no climax, metaphorical or otherwise (since physical pleasure was never part of the problem). Eventually, like most people, I grew, and learned and had more experiences and read more and thought more, and became more secure and confident as a person. And I also became more secure and confident with sex. I’ve touched on the fact that there were a few specific incidents – and people – who helped with that but today is not the day to talk about them. Maybe I’ll share those stories another time.
I’m not going to lie, learning to cook was a lot less emotionally fraught and I spent a great deal less time wondering what I was doing wrong (though perhaps I should have spent more, given the amount of crap food I ate as a student) but ultimately I put the work in with both pursuits and as a result two of my favourite things in life have become even better.
Not that I’ve finished, of course. I’ve always been an overthinker and these days I’m unapologetic about that. Overthinking stalled my sex life in the past but in the end it’s led to me having some of the most incredible erotic experiences, whether talking, thinking, writing, reading or actually doing. There is always room for improvement and development, evaluation, learning and discovery and actually it’s this attitude, more than any other that makes me – indeed, anyone – “good at sex”.