Not too long ago, I copulated regularly with a woman who screamed a lot during the act, invited me to attend an anal sex workshop with her, insisted on giving hand jobs in taxicabs (to me, just to be clear), exclaimed, “Fuck me!” with such enthusiasm and urgency that I couldn’t help but believe her — and comply — and who shuddered and moaned when she had an orgasm, which was most of the time we shared nakedness, at least in my fevered and admittedly sort of credulous brain. She was 20 years younger than I was, had been a professional dancer, and had confided, on our second date, before we’d even kissed, that “really intense sex is very, very important to me.” In other words, I was—according to men’s magazines, frat-house guidelines, and most of my male friends who watched more than 30 minutes of televised sports weekly— having great sex. Ideal sex. World class sex. “Living the dream,” one guy said. “Don’t fuck this up,” said another. “Does she have friends?” asked more than a few. But to me, it wasn’t ideal sex. It wasn’t world-class sex. It wasn’t even fun sex. To me, it was just bad. It was bad sex.
Such a thing would never happen. Adventurous, orgasmic, shuddering, emotionally undemanding, former dancer sex with a woman 20 years my junior? Such a relationship could not bring a man anything but unadulterated glee. A man who would complain about that type of sex does not exist. Right? Gentle reader: It could. He does. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no beef with loud gymnastic rutting; younger women; out-of-the way places; or moving vehicles.
I’m talking about more complicated, emotionally distressing bad sex— the kind that, according to many women, couldn’t register in men’s lizard brains or, if it did, represents nothing but the tiny bleating of an entitled oppressor…someone who can afford to bleat. “The game remains rigged,” Rebecca Traister wrote in a NewYork piece about the sexual mores on college campuses circa 2016. She describes a world where “male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to ‘take’ sex and women presumed to ‘give’ it to them.” Traister went on: “Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look and fuck like porn stars—plucked, smooth, their pleasure performed persuasively. Meanwhile, male climax remains the accepted finish of hetero encounters; a woman’s orgasm is still the elusive, optional bonus round.”
Traister’s overriding point was that by focusing on the issue of consent, many contemporary feminists have failed to address what’s more commonplace: all the “joyless, exploitative encounters” that women have to endure. Kudos to her for acknowledging that consent is necessary, but not sufficient for satisfying sex for women. But what she and her fellow females seem oblivious to is that my people have awful sex too. I’m not talking about the yikes-it-burns-to-pee sex, the what-do-you-mean-you’re-not-on the- pill sex, the oh-shit-now-she’s into-me sex. And I’m definitely not talking about failure-to-perform sex, a phenomenon with which all guys are familiar, and which few want to talk about. Including me. I’m talking about the bad sex that dare not speak its name.
“I’ve had bad sex,” says William Ratliff, a 23-year-old student who lives in California. “Emotionless, unenthused. I remember feeling detached and just going through the motions. I remember discomfort after realising that maybe I wasn’t as down for this as I’d thought. The experience was ultimately meaningless, emasculating.”
Sam Baker, a 23-year-old cameraman from New York, admits to another kind of bad sex. “I’ve had sex to spare her feelings, and I didn’t want to have to explain to her that I didn’t feel like sex right then. I didn’t want to go through that argument of ‘Is it me, or are you not man enough?’ ” “I don’t like it when she laughs during sex. It feels like it’s at me,” says a 34-year-old personal trainer from Manhattan, who requested anonymity. “And I don’t like when, right in the act, she starts picking at a mole on my back. It feels hostile.” Why trust me to testify about bad sex? Well, I’ve had my share. In eighth grade, I was a sweaty and nervous transfer student from a blue-collar neighbourhood whose family had recently yanked him into a suburbia of pearl-bedecked mothers, manicured lawns and good teeth. And then there was Elsa.
There I stood, the new kid, resplendent in an iridescent-green crewneck sweater. It was New Year’s Eve. I was sipping a ginger ale, desperately scanning to see if mine was the only crewneck in the room, when I felt pressure on the inside of my right calf. I looked down. There was a shoeless, stockinged foot rubbing up and down my calf. Attached to the foot was a slim leg, and attached to the leg was a brunette who had gigantic breasts by eighth-grade standards. She looked up at me from half-lidded eyes, a look I had only seen in movies before. I tried and failed to speak. She offered a delicate hand, attached to a slender wrist, encircled by a silver chain of silver hearts and polished turquoise butterflies.
“I’m Elsa,” she said. I’d heard of Elsa. “Nympho,” a girl in science class had told me in a tone of voice usually reserved for the fish sticks the cafeteria served on Fridays. “Kicked out of seventh grade and sent to boarding school on morals charges,” the guys at basketball camp whispered. “Insatiable,” promised a ninth grader rumoured to have gone to reform school. “Hi, Elsa,” I said. She crooked a finger, and suddenly I was sitting next to her. “Do you like my dress?” she asked. It was peach-coloured, with spaghetti straps and a fuzzy texture that made my stomach hurt. After answering in the affirmative and being informed that I was “sweet” and “seemed like fun”, I put my arm around her smooth, white shoulders, because that’s what I’d witnessed an eighth-grader who already had a moustache do with his girlfriend. We sat on the couch and gazed at the party, and I snuck a look at Elsa. She’d turned her face towards mine, lifted her pointy little chin towards the ceiling, and closed her eyes. I kissed her. It was my first kiss, and even though it was tongueless, grinding, slightly bruising, and doubtlessly alarming to any girl who’d ever been sent away to boarding school on a morals charge, to me it was life-altering. In those 50 or so seconds (unsure what the proper amount of time was, I thought it best to err on the long side), I travelled the short but infinite distance from never-kissed-a-girl to Experienced. I was in love.
The next day, I called Elsa’s house. “May I speak to Elsa, please?” I asked her mother, who sounded drunk, but maybe because that was the way I imagined mothers of insatiable girls to sound. “Hi, Elsa,” I said. “It’s Jackson.” “Jackson who?” Elsa asked. Is it reductive and unfair of me to blame Elsa for my inclination to associate things like shame, disappointment, inchoate rage, and self-loathing with beautiful women who kiss me? I’ve discussed that with my shrink, who says it is. Still, my experience with Elsa has served as a kind of template for less-than-happy sexual encounters throughout my life. Even though the kiss was incandescent, transformative and arousing (it should probably be said that to an eighth-grade boy, the sound of crickets or the odour of a burnt waffle is arousing), it ended with me feeling humiliated, rejected. It ended with me feeling like I had been desired not for my learned opinions about Simon (the genius) and Garfunkel (a stooge), or for my A in social studies, or for the way I could spin a basketball on my finger, but for something that had nothing to do with me. My blue eyes? My green sweater? To the girl with the turquoise butterflies, I was nothing but a virginal transfer student she could toy with.
Later, there was the blonde chef with the brunette nurse at a bar who sent me a drink and a note inviting me to a threesome. After checking into a motel, we rolled around long enough for me to see the chef was far, far more interested in the nurse than in me. I felt, literally, like a tool. Can I ever forget the copy editor at the newspaper where I was a cub reporter? After she rubbed her bare foot against my thigh while we were watching Hill Street Blues, and after I said I didn’t really want to have sex, she took off her shirt and said, “I don’t really care what you want”? There was the publicist who— as we lay together, limbs entwined, hearts and genitalia melded; after I’d confessed my love, promised I’d never hurt her, and sketched beautiful word pictures of our joyous future together—commanded, “Shhhh, please stop talking. And put your hand there. No, there!” There was the doctor who screamed, “Oh, Bob! Oh, Bob,” when we were in bed, even though my name isn’t Bob. There was the multi-orgasmic yoga teacher who, when she wasn’t contorting her body in ways I had to admit were exciting and that definitely helped with my inner peace, was going down on me, or nibbling my earlobe, or doing something else to suggest we get busy, even if it meant I’d miss a crucial basketball game.
Late one night, as she was brushing her teeth, I asked her if we could not have sex, if we could just hold each other this time. She wasn’t having it. “C’mon, you know how much I love you,” I said, “How much I love sex with you. But I’m tired. Let’s just be with each other.” “We don’t have to have sex,” she finally agreed. “But can’t you just take care of me?”
Speaking for all men, isn’t that our line? Wasn’t she saying something we penis-owners are supposed to say, because all we care about is getting off? And isn’t this something all women complain about, even (maybe especially) when they give in to us louts? “Namaste, Sugarplum,” I said, “How would you feel if I said, ‘I know you’re not in the mood, but how about just a blowjob to relax me?’”
“That’s different,” she said.
“It’s so crude.”
“But isn’t the message the same?”
“No, it’s not.”
She had no answer, but I have some theories. Is it because our cultural narrative holds that women are bubbling cauldrons of hopes, yearnings and fears, whereas men operate on a basic, binary (food and sex) system? Is it because we’re told, over and over, that to women, sex is a mysterious, sometimes unsettling, sometimes life-affirming act, and to men, sex is just… fun?
From my perspective, feminism has done a great service to women by leaching judgement from female expressions of sexuality, allowing and blessing everything from celibacy to loving monogamy to recreational, selfish, even divorced-from-emotions sex. The bandwidth is narrower for men. Consider the guy who complains about being objectified, who longs for more talk and less role-play; the man who wants an agreement about exclusivity before sleeping with someone. Which is more transgressive—a woman who likes whips, takes multiple partners, and shops online for sex toys, or a guy who says he just wants to cuddle? Be honest, now. Yeah, I thought so. You don’t want to hear such kvetching from my kind? You think that after several millennia of objectifying and oppressing women, we should man up and just quit whining? You think it’s time for women to be the pleasure-seeking, emotionally heedless brutes so many imagine us to be? Fair enough. But if you want that kind of sex, take it from a past practitioner—it’s not all that. I’ve unleashed my inner Elsa on an undeserving population before. There was the time at summer camp in Wisconsin, when I picked up a platinum-haired, pink lipped townie, made out with her next to the lake, and then, because I feared I’d never get another chance with another human female, lunged for her breasts. “Why is it every guy in the world thinks I’m a two-bit whore?” she spat, pushing away.
There was the time I picked up a woman at a bar in Nebraska, during graduate school. We were both drunk. She was 5’10’’ and bony, wearing a pantsuit and heels. It was the first and last time I prayed during sex. It turns out I was more drunk than I thought I was. “Don’t let me puke on the Black Widow, God,” I muttered to myself, as we ground together. Thinking back on that sex, that quite-possibly objectifying, dehumanising, occasionally even destabilising sex I might have been not just party to but initiator of, I feel more compassion for the ex of mine who whispered once, during what I thought was a very close, loving moment, “Hey, don’t forget about me down here.” What I think she was saying was that the thrill of the tall, dark stranger in the tux and the curvy dame, in the plunging neckline, both have a place; that velvet handcuffs and zipless fucks and steamy gropings and spirited games of ‘Pharaoh and the Heathen Handmaiden’ have their place, too. I think what she would have said, if we’d ever felt comfortable enough with each other to have spoken frankly about such matters, was that sex where feelings don’t matter is easy, and bad sex in that realm is even easier to fix. Move here. Do that. Harder. Slower. Faster. Put on the pirate eye patch. Take off the pig mask. Stop making that sound.
These complaints are variable, come from both men and women, and have everything to do with technique and nothing to do with intimacy. And really, how bad is that bad sex anyway? Well, for someone who wants more than unencumbered endorphins and responsibility-free thrusting, it’s pretty depressing. For someone who craves connection, it can be the very saddest of bad sex. That’s what happened with my hand-jobs-in-taxicabs sweetheart. Except she wasn’t my sweetheart. I wanted her to be. I asked her to be. I suggested we promise fidelity to each other, see each other during daylight hours, and that at least we promise not to sleep with anyone else. She laughed. “What do you think we have?” she asked. When I didn’t reply, she laughed again. “Aww, did I hurt your feelings?” You see, when it comes to men, sad, bad sex and feelings, that’s probably the biggest secret of all: We have them.