August 24, 2012 by WAR
by Spencer Wharton
The following is an adaptation of a five-post blog series, the first post of which can be found here.
Your first few weeks here at Whitman are going to be filled with people giving you advice: how to handle your workload, how to navigate campus, how to figure out that financial aid crap, how to live with your roommate . . . the list goes on. It’s all good advice, but as someone who’s been through it before, I know that after a while, it can get dry. I want to give you some advice I guarantee will be more interesting than anything you’ll hear during Whitman’s Orientation Week.
I want to teach you how to have really great sex.
Now, maybe you’ve already decided that you won’t be having sex on campus. That’s cool; it’s your choice and I’m certainly not going to tell you otherwise. More power to you. But it’s more likely that you will—if not this year, then probably the next, and almost certainly before you graduate.
You might be wondering what an article like this is doing in a radical zine. The answer is that WAR believes that the personal is political. We live in a society that stigmatizes sexual pleasure, tells us to be ashamed of our bodies, and holds all of us to rigid gender roles that stifle our self-expression. By having great sex, you take a revolutionary stand and challenge all that, working toward a much more human view of our bodies, our relationships, and each other.
To that extent, I want to give you some tips. I want to challenge your assumptions and urge you to think about sex in ways you haven’t thought about before. I want to disorient you.
Welcome to Great Sex 101.
Dealing with Baggage
American society has a bit of a complex when it comes to sex. We treat sex like it’s some great corruption—just look at the silver screen, where movies that show explicit sex scenes are often branded with ratings stricter than films with intensely graphic scenes of torture and violence. We’re taught that sexuality is inappropriate and should be hidden away, and that, more than anything, we should be ashamed of it. Though we might enjoy sex, it’s a guilty pleasure.
Stigmatizing sex like this has real-world implications. Chiefly, the abstinence-only sex ed movement, which is rooted in a deep fear of sexuality, provides inaccurate information about sex, which in turn leads to higher teen pregnancy, birth rates, and rates of STI transmission.
A cultural fear of sexuality also throws up big obstacles for people who are beginning to explore their sexualities. In a society that is too ashamed to talk frankly about sex, you see people who are wracked with guilt over their sexual behaviors and sexual thoughts. This is our “cultural baggage:” the sex-negative attitudes most of us have been socialized into, often without realizing it. These attitudes translate all too easily into shame, guilt, and discomfort, all of which are not conducive to a healthy view of sexuality. If you want to be having great sex, identifying and dealing with your baggage will go a long way.
The best way to shed your cultural, sex-negative baggage is by replacing it with a healthier sex-positive vision. Mine is simple:
A sex-negative culture says that some (or all) expressions of sexuality are intrinsically wrong. I’m telling you the exact opposite: there’s nothing wrong with sexuality. We should celebrate and embrace it in all its manifestations.
Sexuality is regularly moralized in our society. That line between “This isn’t something I’d do” and “This is something nobody should ever do” is crossed so regularly that it’s hard not to think of sexuality in moral terms.
If we want to embrace and celebrate sexuality, we have to also learn to see it as a matter of taste. We don’t label people immoral deviants based on their tastes in food or music, even when they disagree with us—rather, we accept that people can have divergent tastes and opinions.
Of course, sex is more than just preferences, and people can be very hurt by how it’s practiced. Loving sexualities doesn’t mean that anything involving sex is immediately immune to criticism. Rather, it means that we need consistent standards for judging whether an action is wrong, and the mantra, “Safe, sane, consensual” (often shortened to SSC) is a strong foundation I tend to use. As long as an act is safe, meaning that everyone involved is identifying and preventing risks to health; sane, meaning that everyone involved is capable of making sound judgments; and consensual, meaning that it’s being done with the affirmative consent of everyone involved, then no matter what the act is, it’s far more likely that no one’s being harmed.
When someone violates these principles, then I’ll be the first to call them out as wrong. On the flip side, when sexualities don’t violate SSC principles, then no matter how I would feel about them personally, I’m not in a position to pass judgment. They’re just different ways that people find joy.
Having great sex is a skill. No one’s born with an innate sense of how to do it; rather, it’s learned and developed through practice.
If, you want to be intelligent about how you improve your skills, you have to supplement practice with education, which gives you a sense of where to focus your efforts.
Now, in a perfect, just, and beautiful world, this is what sex education would be about. But that ain’t the world we live in. Unless you’ve done some research on your own, took other classes that happened to cover the topic, or happened to be in a really progressive sex ed class, there’s probably a lot you don’t know.
If you plan on interacting sexually with anyone’s body, whether it’s yours or another’s, you should know what you’re dealing with. The human body is complex, with far too many pieces and nuances for me to do it justice in this article. However, if you’re interested in learning more, you should check out Scarleteen’s comprehensive guide, “With Pleasure: A View of Whole Sexual Anatomy for Every Body,” which explains human anatomy in the context of pleasure, providing detailed descriptions of each body part and its functions.
Turn-ons and Turn-offs
Did your high school sex ed class talk about fetishes? Yeah, mine didn’t either. But that doesn’t make them any less real—everyone’s got their own turn-ons. Similarly, everyone’s got their own turn-offs.
Of course, if you haven’t been given either information about fetishes or the opportunity to explore your own sexuality, it might be hard to imagine what these might be for you. Having your fetishes and fantasies fulfilled can bring your sex to new heights, but, naturally, it’s hard to get there if you don’t know what yours are.
There are a couple of ways to overcome this and drum up some ideas.
Talk to someone about their turn-ons. Find a friend or a partner who you can speak honestly about sex with, and ask them what their turn-ons are. Remember the point above regarding baggage and try to hear their answers without judgment, even if you don’t find them sexy in any way.
Read and watch. Read some erotica. Watch some porn. Neither of them provide 100% accurate views of sex, but you may find some things in there that get your blood pumping and your imagination racing. Others might strike you as entirely un-fun.
Check out a sex checklist. These are great resources designed to get you thinking about what aspects of sex you’re into. They’re very simple: typically a list of activities that you simply mark according to your interest. You can find some here and here and here and here.
Don’t forget: everyone’s tastes are different. There’s nothing inherently wrong or shameful about any kink or turn-on you might have. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with being “vanilla,” nor should you be ashamed of your turn-offs. Everyone has their own individual set of turn-ons and turn-offs. Taking some time to figure out what they are will empower you to take more responsibility for your pleasure.
Technique and Sexual Variety
You’ll notice that throughout this article, I’m avoiding giving any advice on technique. That’s intentional. I can’t teach you, for instance, the best way to give oral sex, because of a truth so many people overlook: Everyone has different tastes.
Having the same genitalia as someone else does not mean you both like to be touched the same way. Some people, for instance, have very sensitive clitorises, and can only take minor stimulation without it being uncomfortable. On the other hand, some people love hard and intense clitoral stimulation. What works for one won’t work for the other.
Neither Cosmo, Maxim, nor I can tell you what your partner wants or likes. The only way to know that is through communication. That’s why, rather than learning how to have sex, you should focus on learning about anatomy and sexuality, turn-offs and turn-ons, so that if the time comes when you forge a sexual relationship with a partner, you have an educated understanding of sex while remaining open to their individual sexuality.
Communication and Consent
Communication is a cornerstone of any good relationship, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship, and/or a sexual one, for a very simple reason: unless you’re planning a surprise party or an assassination, more transparency is always better.
When it comes to sex, communication is even more paramount, for a couple of reasons. First, since no one’s a mind-reader, communication is key to figuring out your partner’s preferences. Your partner’s never gonna know you want to be spanked if you don’t communicate that fact. But what’s more—in fact, more importantly by far—communication is the only way to establish consent, which is crucial any time you’re interacting with another person’s body. You simply can’t have great sex without communication.
Talking about sex, however, can be difficult and embarrassing. As embarrassing as it is, it’s important to be able to talk about sex if you want to maintain a healthy sexual relationship.
When talking about sex, the first thing you want to do is minimize the discomfort that you and/or your partner might feel. You want to be able to speak and be heard without pressure or urgency, and a great way to start is by having conversations about sex in non-sexual contexts, particularly when introducing something new. Having these conversations in bed is often hard—you’re turned on, you’re in the moment, and it might be harder to feel like you can express your feelings without killing the mood. Agree to set aside time to discuss them outside of the bedroom.
What sort of conversations? Scarleteen’s “Yes, No, Maybe So” is a checklist that may give you some ideas. It goes beyond what you want or don’t want to do in bed. What level of sexual language are you and your partner comfortable with? Where (if anywhere) is off-limits for touching? Do you have certain anxieties—either about things you might do, or about things you feel you can’t do? Conversations about sex should address the whole sexual experience.
Although you should have important conversations about sex in non-sexual contexts, that doesn’t mean that communication should stop when you enter the bedroom. On the contrary; communication is just as important, if not more so, when you’re actually having sex with someone. Good sex, contrary to many people’s expectations, isn’t always silent and intuitive, and communication, when done well, isn’t going to kill “the mood”. If you and your partner(s) are into each other, the sexual atmosphere shouldn’t be in any danger of being ruined by a question or feedback. Hopefully, it’s easy to see how talking about what you want to do and how you want to be touched could be not only informative, but also hot as hell. The thing that most people find un-sexy about communication in bed is the possibility they’ll be told “no.”
I’ve written another article in this zine about consent, so for the sake of avoiding redundancy, I’ll keep it brief here. Everything you do to another person’s body needs to be done with their affirmative, enthusiastic consent. Remember, sex without consent is rape. Consent doesn’t just mean that your partner hasn’t said “no,” it means that they are actively, freely, and enthusiastically telling you “YES!” Not “Maybe,” not “Okay,” not “I guess,” but “YES!” It’s not that hard. Besides, it can be fun. What could be hotter than knowing your partner’s completely into everything you’re doing?
A Word on Hookup Culture
Here’s what you need to know about Whitties: when it comes to sex, we either go for one-time hookups or long-term committed relationships without a lot of in-between. That’s the prevailing culture. And while it’s one thing to sit your long-term committed partner down and talk about what is or isn’t working with your sex, it’s another thing entirely to try to communicate all the important things during a hookup.
If you’re hooking up with someone, communication is still crucial, but it will probably look a little different. You should, of course, be willing and ready to talk things out beforehand, but in all likelihood, that won’t happen. Be open and honest with your preferences during the act, and listen extra-carefully to everything your partner is communicating (both verbally and non-). Hookups are different from sex with a committed partner, but you can and should still communicate during them.
Keep this in mind when you’re hooking up with someone. We tend to assume that a hookup means sex, and that sex means a pretty standard script: making out leads to rolling around in bed, which leads to a blowjob, finished with penis-in-vagina intercourse. But neither you nor your partner(s) are obliged to follow that. Hookups and sex vary according to the people involved, their moods, the location, the time, and a million other factors. If you’re hooking up with someone, you might want to follow that script, or you might want to do something entirely different, and that’s your right. Only through communication—both talking and actively listening—can you and your partner(s) share what you want from sex.
Despite what you may have been led to believe by our culture, sex isn’t just hard penises in wet vaginas. It’s not just going hard in the missionary position until someone comes. It’s not just between people who are romantically involved, it’s not only between couples, and it certainly doesn’t only have to be done in bed. Our internal assumptions about what constitute “sex” can form invisible constraints that keep us from fully appreciating our sexualities. The last step to having great sex is to expand your idea of what “sex” means.
So stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young couple decides that they want to “save themselves for marriage” and retain their “purity” by abstaining from sex. One day, one of them mentions in passing conversation that they regularly do oral. They do anal. They masturbate together. They get naked and make out with each other. When asked, “Aren’t you saving yourself for marriage?”, they respond, “But we haven’t had sex!”
Reducing sex to parts in parts does a disservice to the myriad expressions of human sexuality. Although penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse is the standard cultural image of sex, that’s an incredibly narrow definition. It’s heteronormative as hell, too; if “sex” is only penises in vaginas, then many lesbians and gay men, no matter how many sexual partners they have had, are virgins. And to only consider PIV intercourse as sex is rather disingenuous when it comes to sexually transmitted infections—if only PIV intercourse is sex, then you can get a sexually transmitted infection without ever having sex.
Sex shouldn’t be defined by what parts touch what parts, nor should it be defined strictly by the potential of infection. Sex should be about consensual mutual pleasure.
And don’t mistake me, either. When I say “pleasure,” that’s not a code word for “orgasm.” If you think that orgasms are the only source of pleasure when you’re having sex, then you’re overlooking a hell of a lot of what goes into sex. You can get pleasure from simply being touched, both in sexual and non-sexual ways. Simply feeling another person’s intimate presence can be amazing. There’s also a lot to be said for observing (not to mention having a hand in) a partner’s pleasure. So take the orgasm, as phenomenal as it is, off the pedestal. As long as everyone’s getting the pleasure they want, orgasmic or no, then there’s nothing to be worried about. Appreciate sex for all it entails, from the first seductive glance to the very last touch of skin on skin.
Speaking of, when is sex over? We tend to see orgasms—especially the orgasms of people with penises—as the indisputable end of sex, as if once a person with a penis comes, they’re entirely spent. Already, you should be starting to see the world of possibilities overlooked in this image of sex, not to mention the exclusion of people whose sex doesn’t involve penises at all. If sex isn’t just about orgasm, and it’s also not only about parts in parts, then why would sex have to end when someone comes?
True, there is some physiology at work here. After orgasm, the body of a person with a penis enters what’s called the refractory period, where additional orgasms are impossible and maintaining an erection is difficult. This is a physiological fact; it’d be silly to deny it. But whether this is a problem for sex depends on your definition of the term. If someone with a penis has had an orgasm, there’s still a ton they can do. Sure, intercourse is probably off the table (for a little while, anyway), but they still have hands and fingers. They still have a mouth. They can still use toys. They can still whisper sexy things in their partner’s ear, or touch their body, or kiss them. There’s a world of options that don’t involve a hard penis that can still be great sources of pleasure. And, who knows—after a bit more sustained sexual activity, they might find that they’re erect again.
Once more: sex is about consensual mutual pleasure. The only thing that should dictate how long sex goes on is the interest of everyone involved. Sex should go on precisely as long as everyone involved wants it to, and no longer (or shorter). If, after orgasm, everyone agrees that they’re happy, great! Sex can end there. But if everyone still wants more, there’s absolutely no reason to stop. It’s not over ’til it’s over.
On to Great Sex!
Sex is a huge topic. I can’t pretend to have given you a comprehensive understanding of everything you need to know about it, because no one can do that. I guarantee that as long as you’re alive, you’re going to continue discovering new things about sexuality—about yours, about those of your partners, and in general. It’s a learning process.
I hope, however, that this article, even if not comprehensive, has left you feeling empowered—not just to have more pleasurable sex, but to have better sex. Great sex, after all, is more than pleasure. When you have great sex, you validate the desires of everyone involved; giving someone what they want recognizes their right to be happy. When you practice open communication, you allow people to speak their mind and feel like they’re being listened to. When you ask someone for consent, you reinforce their right to and ownership of their body. Sex can be an incredibly powerful force for empowerment in people’s lives, but if you just glance at our society today, you can very quickly see how sexuality is quashed, disparaged, and ruined. You are capable of working to change that, both within yourself and for everyone whose sexualities cross paths with yours. In a society where these rights are frequently ignored or invalidated, having great sex is a revolutionary act.
If you’re new to the ideas I presented in this guide, great sex isn’t going to happen overnight. Sex, after all, is a skill that takes practice. You’re going to have to practice these perspectives. Practice loving sexualities, even when you don’t share them. Practice open, supportive communication. Practice consent. It may take some time before they feel truly natural, but once they’re part of your life, I guarantee you’ll live happier and healthier, not only in terms of sex, but in terms of your body and your relationship with yourself as well.
There’s no final to Great Sex 101. If you want to prove that you’ve learned something from this, put it to work in your own life.
Go have great sex.