Sex hurts. Not (in this case) in the physical ways that you think I’m talking about, and not always. Maybe not often. Sometimes, though, sex can hurt our emotional selves in ways that we are completely unprepared for.
Sex is a good, and healthy, and important part of our lives that we should be able to talk about and enjoy without feeling shame or judgment. We should be able to ask questions about positions or desires or worries without feeling silly. We are allowed to be interested in, curious about, down for or indifferent to the many ways in which human beings can enjoy sexual pleasure, and it shouldn’t be much more or less of a mark of character than how we feel about cooking shows or self-help books.
A lot, these days, we’re being taught that sex is simply about physical needs. We’re taught that seeking out pleasure – especially as women – is empowering. We’re learning that to turn away from sexual adventure is to be old-fashioned and sex-negative. Fashion magazines tout threesomes, and moresomes, as quite standard activities for sexy young things. Everywhere we turn there is polyamory and secret sex parties and feminist porn and powerful dominant women taking men by the scruff of the neck and pegging the patriarchy.
It’s very empowering. It feels fantastic to be a woman in my forties and find that there is such a thing as pegging the patriarchy. Feminist porn performers and sexual adventurers gave me courage to try all sorts of new things I might have missed out on. I am all for it.
Except when it feels like if I don’t want to be a sexual adventurer, I’m a prude. Except when the fact that I only want to have naked intimate sex with my life partners makes me uncool. Except when I see intelligent young women and men lining up threesome after strap-on after upside-down-in-an-aviary, trying to keep up with this idea that their friends and Fetlife and even Cosmo magazine are putting out, that they’re just not truly independent or interesting until they’ve fucked the whole of Tinder, possibly at the same time.
Nerve endings and pleasure centres mean that we can indeed have purely physical responses to sexual stimuli. We absolutely can thoroughly enjoy the pleasure of sex with a complete or relative stranger, sex with multiple simultaneous partners, rough sex, upside-down sex… The thing is, just, that it’s not only nerve endings that are affected by sex.
First, the physical act that stimulates the nerve endings also causes the release of all sorts of lovely chemicals. Endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin, prolactin, Most of these create feelings of pleasure and happiness. Oxytocin also tends to make you feel more connected to your partner … unless they just got up and walked away. That could potentially be a bummer. Most of these chemicals are released during or just after orgasm. That’s one reason why sex without orgasm, though it may be really incredibly pleasurable, can sometimes feel unfulfilled: your brain is waiting for its hit of happiness. (Don’t knock it though.. orgasm is not the be-all and end-all of sexual pleasure, for sure. Just train your brain.)
Second: the ways we respond to sex are inextricably bound up with our self-esteem, our attachment style, the messages we’ve received from our family and society, and how we respond to those messages. We can come away from even a highly pleasurable sexual encounter feeling inexplicably sad, because we didn’t achieve a connection we needed that day. Or we can have a profoundly connected and amazing encounter with someone we didn’t expect to have it with, and that makes us feel incredibly vulnerable. We can believe that we’ve failed miserably because we didn’t have the stamina, or didn’t experience multiple orgasms, or didn’t really enjoy anal sex, and we’ve been convinced we’re supposed to like all that stuff, every time. We can feel that something we consented to, and wanted to do, has somehow left us feeling empty and we don’t understand how, or why.
If we aren’t able to say, there and then to our partners, or at worst afterwards to our friends, that sometimes sex can hurt: we can’t heal from that hurt. If we aren’t able to say that sometimes we don’t want to have sex, or that particular sexual encounter, because we know, or suspect, that it will hurt: we will keep being hurt over and over. And sex will become something that always hurts. We’ll find less joy and more emotional pain in this joyful, healthy, pleasurable act. We’ll begin to suspect the old biddies were right when they told us this was a bad idea, and good girls should stay at home on Saturday nights.
Sex is amazing, and being open to a wide variety of new sexual experiences makes our lives more full and exciting and adventurous. It’s ok to decide what sex is joyful for us, and what sex is not right for our own personal combination of interests and fears and delights. Taking charge of your own sex life means you get to decide. Have you read this awesome article about a woman who chose a gangbang for her birthday, planned it carefully with her boyfriend, and had the time of her life? This, for me, is a great example of deciding to do something that is new and outside her sphere of experience, and then going about doing it in a way that is planned to maximise the beauty and minimise the hurt.
This post is not about how you should not try things in case you get hurt. I love that sex can hurt, because the messy emotions and vulnerability and connection are part of what makes sex a totally amazing thing. Just, own that. Know that that can happen. Be open to the vulnerability if you want to feel the real deal of what makes sex (vanilla, kinky, or in the aviary) a thing that we humans love to do waaaaay beyond what evolution had planned. Realise that sex can hurt, and it’s ok to say so.