I’ve long thought of good sex as surrender. It’s giving into desire and feeling sometimes extreme or intense physical and emotional sensations.
My first sexual experience was not good sex. My sex education was limited to what many American children receive in health class: “Sex is when a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina. You should only do this when you’re married. Here are all the STDs you’ll get if you don’t wait.”
How can you consent to something you have so little understanding of?
I was ill-equipped to understand the complexities of sex, and therefore consent was difficult, if not impossible. How can you consent to something you have so little understanding of? My first partner took advantage of my ignorance and naivety.
He understood sexuality more than I did, and he did things he thought would feel good to me. Often, they did — physically at least. But physical sensation is only one part of a sexual experience. The other parts are emotional and psychological.
I never knew what he was going to do with or to me before he did it. I told him I wasn’t ready for sex numerous times, but he’d tell me it would be okay for this or that reason, and I would eventually give in because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.
But I certainly never gave enthusiastic consent, which Lily Madigan explains is, “about acknowledging that consent can’t be given where there is manipulation, pressure, threats, and where both people aren’t in the right state of mind.”
I never felt safe to surrender to the sensations of my first sexual experiences, and so they were far from good sex.
After that relationship ended, a fire entered me.
I’d been pushed into submission over and over again for nearly a year. After I finally got out of that relationship, I promised myself to never let a guy push me into having sex again.
If someone tried to do something I wasn’t completely comfortable with, something I didn’t feel I had been given a chance to consent to, I’d automatically fight back. If things started getting hot and heavy, and the guy would initiate something without asking first, I’d sometimes have impulses to shove, punch or slap him.
I tried to use verbal language as much as possible to ask him to stop or slow down, but if the experience was centralized in my body, it was hard to process what was happening in the moment and I would react from my body.
I mostly learned to fight these impulses, but if they were strong enough, my body would jerk, shake or convulse from the effort of repressing them.
In long term relationships, this impulse would arise in the beginning, but then fade as I began to trust my partner.
For a long time I thought this was a normal way to feel.
I didn’t see the connection between my traumatic first sexual experience and these impulses until years later when, after being with my partner Drake for four years, I began craving an outlet for my fire. I trusted him completely and I didn’t feel the urge to fight him during sex — but I started feeling a subtle but persistent burning to express this urge, just not necessarily with him.
I craved sex that wasn’t gentle, along with love, deep intimacy, passion and trust. While I tried to explore this with Drake, he didn’t like aggressive sex, and I respected that. I told him that I needed to explore this part of myself, this part I didn’t quite understand but felt, and he eventually suggested opening up to consensual non-monogamy.
I began having sex with new people more often, and my fiery impulses arose more often.
My impulse to fight would come up more often and more strongly. This was no longer something I could just ignore until it passed; it was screaming at me to listen to it.
The question became: Do I continue to fight my impulse, allowing this internal war to distract me from really enjoying sex, or do I find a way to safely and consensually explore and express myself?
It’s important to acknowledge power dynamics during sex so that it can be factored into consent.
A friend of mine in college, who at the time was a virgin, claimed that when she had sex, it would always be side-by-side. She didn’t want to engage in the imbalanced power dynamic that occurs when one person is on top.
I remember thinking, “That’s sweet, but you’re going to change your mind.”
I have no idea if she actually has or not, but at the time I couldn’t wrap my mind around why anyone would want to have sex lying side-by-side.
Now I’m coming to realize how much of my enjoyment of sex is dependent on having space to feel, embody and play with the power dynamics between myself and another person. Perhaps this has always been a part of my sexuality, or perhaps my first sexual experience planted this desire in me. I just know that with my first partner, I was passive and now I’m not.
I’m curious about this college friend of mine, but we’ve mostly lost touch since graduation. I see photos of her, her husband and her children on Facebook, but it would be a strange message to receive from someone you haven’t spoken to in years: “Hey, how do you feel about sex now? Do you and your husband always do it side-by-side?”
Maybe she does, and maybe it’s great for them. Maybe sex is a place where she wants to experience as much equality as possible and she found a partner who wants the same. Maybe that loving sense of equality gives them pleasure. I can understand that and have experienced this kind of sex with some of my partners.
But I’m also intrigued by power. I’d rather acknowledge it and feel into it than to try to eliminate it. I’d tried to extinguish this craving to play with power for years, but it hadn’t go away.
Since embarking on Ethical Non-Monogamy, I’ve been learning about my own body and my reactions to different stimuli.
I’ve noticed when I’m with a man and we’re lying side-by-side kissing, if he shifts his body on top of mine, I will often be triggered.
Men are generally stronger and heavier than women, making the male/female physical and sexual dynamic inherently unbalanced. Men generally have more physical, not to mention social power. If a guy gets on top of me, he is taking his inherent position of power further.
When my body reacts with the desire to hit him or push him away, it’s protecting me — it wants to test the situation and make sure that I still have control over what is happening.
I don’t necessarily want the interaction to stop, I just want to know that I can make it stop if I need to.
My sensitivity to power shifts has led me to explore the subtleties of consent.
When you’re uncertain, it never hurts to ask your partner if they want to do something. If you’re thinking, “But asking would kill the mood,” I’d argue the only mood you might kill is the one where you’re in your world, oblivious of where your partner is.
Nothing kills the mood faster than non-consent. Especially if you’re with a newer partner, I suggest you use your words.
“Can I get on top of you?” is actually pretty sexy to hear.
That said, there are also ways to ask with your body.
Clumsily climbing on top of a woman who has given you no signals she’s interested is the least sexy and most presumptuous way to initiate the desire to be on top.
If you shift your body slightly and notice how your partner responds, you’re creating a dialogue. If she stiffens, even a little, pause. Take note of how you feel. Does it upset you? Are you offended? Concerned? Your body can tell you a lot if you pay attention.
Just noticing how you feel can help you develop into a more compassionate and respectful lover.
Ask her how she is. Ask her if she wants to stop or take a break. Let her tell you what she wants.
Hold space for what’s there — her experience as well as your own. There’s no need to rush through it or escape it. This is where intimacy is born.
When you’re in tune with your own body, you can be more in tune with your partner’s. Sex becomes a dance. There is give and take, movement and stillness. Communication happens at a micro-level.
This dance creates a strong foundation of trust. The sex can grow intense, and power can be exchanged fluidly.
When I met Shay, It seemed we knew each other intuitively.
By the end of our first date, we were making out in his car. I found myself on top of him straddling him, my hand inches from his face. As usual, I caught myself and fought the urge to slap him. But he was looking directly into my eyes, and he nodded.
(Looking back now I realize this nod should have also been verbalized. He knew I wanted to hit him and so he nodded “yes” to give consent, but words would have been ideal to confirm what was going on.)
For a long time, I didn’t have a term for what I liked in the bedroom.
I knew that my sexual preferences lay somewhere in the realm of BDSM, but the dynamic I craved didn’t necessarily put me in a clear position of submissiveness or dominance.
The thought of submitting both terrified and infuriated me. Why would I let a man, who already has more power than me, take more of it away? I understand women who feel empowered by submitting, and I can see myself enjoying that at some point with someone I know and trust, but right now, the thought just upsets me.
As for taking on a dominant role, it can be fun, but it doesn’t have the same physical release as fighting does.
What I liked was playing between the two and struggling for power in opposition to someone else’s.
I didn’t research “struggle play” for a long time.
Even after I heard the term and knew there was something in it that hit home, I wanted to explore my own experience with it before reading anything.
When I finally looked it up recently, I found articles about rape fantasies, as if struggle play and rape fantasies are one and the same.
In reading, I realize that in many ways, my fantasies fall under this term. I want to struggle and try to fight my partner off, but ultimately continue having sex.
According to this article, rape fantasies are theorized to occur for between 31% and 57% of women, and possibly more who haven’t shared.
Psychology Today explains that there are three theories for why women fantasize about rape: they want to avoid being “blamed” or shamed for having sex, they want to be seen as so desirable that a man can’t help himself but to have sex with her, or they are openminded and simply want to explore their sexuality in different ways.
I can relate to each of them to some extent. Yes, it’s liberating to be freed from the outcome of having sex — the feelings of shame and guilt, especially around sex that isn’t in a committed, long-term relationship. Yes, it feels good to be wanted. And yes, I feel justified in fantasizing about whatever I want.
But it’s hard to fit your sexuality into a multiple-choice question.
Ultimately, I like feeling “forced” into sex because it gives me the chance to fight back, which is an outlet and way to process my anger, not just towards my first boyfriend, but towards so many men who don’t respect women.
I tend to avoid confrontation, but sex allows me to quiet my thoughts and simply act.
Shay was the first person I explored my impulse to fight with. He’d fight back, but I knew that if I asked him to stop or slow down, he immediately would.
And that was the key difference between what happened with my first boyfriend and what was happening now: consent.
No matter how rough things got, I always knew he would stop the second I asked him to.
He could read my body well, and he rarely pushed me to a point where I asked him to stop. He could feel what my body communicated to him, and he would respond.
The most intense it got was one time when we were having sex, I managed to push him out of me and away. It was the only time I fought him hard enough so that my strength overpowered his, and it felt amazing to have the chance to fight that hard.
I was trembling from the release of energy. He paused longer than normal, surprised as I was, and we simply looked at each other. We held each other’s gaze for several moments before he asked, “Do you want to stop?”
“Keep going,” I said, kissing him and pulling him back on top of me.
Read more about sex, BDSM and consent by Anne Shark here: