Let’s Talk About [Good] Sex

Author’s photo from the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21, 2017

How do you know if you’ve had an orgasm? This was a serious question I had at seventeen, and the answer certainly was not covered in my public school’s abstinence-only sex education program. We also didn’t talk about orgasms, masturbation, or other pleasurable aspects of sexuality at my church youth group. I didn’t know masturbation for women was even a thing until years later.

I received two overwhelming messages about sex as a teenager: one, it was only a permissible activity after marriage; and two, it was my job to stop guys who couldn’t control themselves from taking advantage of me. There were no conversations about my own sexual desires or agency. It was always about what not to do, and how to avoid putting myself in compromising positions.

This narrative is obviously flawed. It assumed I would always be in a defensive position and it placed heteronormative marriage on a pedestal without unpacking how a forbidden activity was suddenly supposed to be pleasurable once vows were exchanged. It also tremendously discounted men, painting them as savage creatures who were not capable of controlling their sexual urges. In my small hometown, women-to-women slut shaming was alive and well. If hooking up was talked about at all, it was never a positive conversation.

How would my early sexual experiences have been different if I learned about orgasms, masturbation, and sexual fantasies? What if instead of learning to fear external sexual threats I had been empowered to think of my body as my own, and a potential site for pleasure? Instead of judging each other, what if my friends and I had talked about what felt good as we began having our first sexual experiences?

More than a decade later, my friends and I still rarely talk about amazing sex. These conversations may happen in whispers with some select folks, but there’s very little collective discussion about it. This lack of dialogue about good sex, among friends and in more public outlets, has important implications in this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

When I worked with undergraduate students who experienced sexual assault, very few students came into my office declaring that they had been assaulted or raped. Instead, women were often confused, noting that something about their experience “didn’t feel right.” Part of the reason it was so hard for these women to label their experiences as assault is because we don’t have language and cultural scripts for talking about good, positive sexual experiences, let alone bad ones.

If we learned about orgasms and other aspects of good sex — and we talked about them — it would be easier to identify deviant, negative experiences. Part of the public conversation about #MeToo has been the attempt to grapple with a continuum of “bad behavior.” What’s the line between icky and inexcusable? We’re trying to delineate these nuances in a context where sexual encounters are inappropriate and unwanted.

It’s easier to define the parameters of what counts as assault and harassment if we know what excellent, positive sexual experiences look and feel like. And we need language and space to talk about those great moments. I want to know about the time you had 10 orgasms, or when you tried out that new position and it felt great. Too many of our images and scripts about sex still come from TV shows and movies that are not always realistic, or pornography that is watched behind closed doors. We need more age-appropriate, empowering conversations about sex and sexuality.

Let’s invest in a world where we’re taught from a young age not only about our bodies, but about our own power in determining what happens and what feels good to our body. In this landscape, when we encounter an ambiguous sexual scenario it’s easier to determine if something feels bad — or is inappropriate — because we know what it looks and feels like when it’s good. Let’s give voice to that.

In the last year, women have marched in the streets, flooded social media with their stories of sexual assault and harassment, and demanded consequences for men engaged in predatory behavior. Let’s channel that momentum and talk about good sexual experiences too. Seventeen-year-old me would have loved to read op-eds, Twitter threads, and think pieces about positive experiences of sexuality. And it certainly would’ve given me a different narrative to better identify when a sexual experience did not feel good. If we’re going to dismantle the patriarchy, we need to both address the pervasive culture of sexual assault and harassment and change the narrative by talking about times sex is pleasurable and good. Let’s talk about good sex.

Brittany Dernberger is a friendly Midwesterner who couldn’t break her habit of waving at other runners until she lived in Washington, DC for almost a year. She previously served as the Assistant Director of Grand Valley State University’s Women’s Center, where she spent most of her time getting students off campus to explore gender justice in their local communities and in South Africa. Now, she’s a Sociology PhD student at University of Maryland, College Park, studying gender, jobs, and economic inequality, and trying to figure out what role she can play in making this world a brighter place.

Leveraging research for social change. Sociology PhD. I study gender, inequality, and the college-to-career transition. A friendly Midwesterner. @bdernberger