Complicating (and improving) our narratives of sex

CW: sexual assault

Partners with different sex drives

This week, one of my favorite podcasts – AdultSh1t from Kate Peterman and Kelsey Darragh of Buzzfeed – answered a question from a listener whose sex drive is much higher than that of her long-time girlfriend. The listener said she felt bad and uncomfortable asking for more sex because she doesn’t want to feel “rape-y” or like she’s pressuring her girlfriend into doing sexual things she doesn’t want to do. But she’s not getting the sexual fulfillment she needs right now.

Kate and Kelsey advise even more communication, but also to make sure you’re getting what you need in the relationship. I would add a few things to what they shared:

  1. Start the conversation from a point of, “I love you and I want to figure this out together. We seem to need different things and I want to understand why you need what you need and explain why I need what I need.” It is super scary to start a conversation with a long-time partner that you know could lead to some really painful and possibly break-up-inducing discussions. Phrasing it like you’re tackling an issue together makes it seem less intimidating to get into it at a deeper level.
  2. Be careful to not attack her perspective/experience. I think this is especially challenging because there’s an assumption that everyone wants to have sex inherent in U.S. culture. Being sensitive to the fact that she might be ready to get defensive about that assumption (just like you could be sensitive about the assumption that having a higher sex drive is “sinful”) can help. Avoid approaching it like there’s a problem with her. It’s a problem between the two of you.
  3. Share that you don’t want to feel like you’re pressuring her, that you’re struggling to approach the issue, and that that’s a point of pain for you. Specifically share that it can make you feel unwanted, unsexy, and confused. Maybe this can lead to her sharing ways that you can introduce sexy times without it being pressuring, or what specific language y’all can use to discuss whether to get it on in the future. Also, ask her to tell you how these situations make her feel – is she uncomfortable? Annoyed? Sad? Frustrated? It might also be hard for her to know she’s not fulfilling all your sexual needs. My good friend Annaji introduced me to the powers of the “I” statement. If you keep it about how you feel, that acknowledges there’s room for misinterpretation and offers the other person space to clarify where they’re coming from, too.
  4. Once you’ve both been able to share how y’all are feeling about your sex life, then you can talk about next steps more freely and as a team. Maybe you can brainstorm some solutions or compromises. Maybe, even though it’s scary, you both will find you really do need a partner whose sex drive matches your own more closely. Even though it’s a tough decision to make after so many years together.

I was once in a relationship where I found out almost 2 years in that my partner was unhappy with how much sex we’d been having. He felt like we had sex too often. He told me that our intimacy cut into his time to do personal projects that were important for him to be fulfilled. This was partially because we would sleep over in each others’ dorm rooms a lot and go to bed early, cutting into hours he would have previously used to create.

It was really painful to hear that he felt pressure to have sex, even if he said that pressure wasn’t coming from me so much as from society. I still worry that he did feel pressure from me. Maybe, as I discuss below, he just couldn’t tell me he was uncomfortable.

We did break up shortly after this revelation, which came at a complicated time in our relationship for other reasons. I’m not sure how we would have dealt with our mismatched sex drives given more time. Thankfully, we still have a good relationship as friends. And I think that’s in large part due to the fact that we did have honest conversations about our sex life before the break-up.

Men’s experiences: the same, but different

This episode also deepened my thinking on the Beautiful / Anonymous episode I shared earlier this week, where a man called in to talk about how he was sexually assaulted three times in his life, twice by women. I had a moment at work today to discuss it with my colleague who recommended the episode. One of our big takeaways was that it was amazing how familiar the caller’s description of his doubt, shame, and struggle sounded.

Most women have heard female friends’ stories of sexual assault or experienced it themselves. Through most stories, there are common threads: feeling unable to react fast enough or strongly enough, doubting whether we truly couldn’t have done anything, wondering if the other person genuinely thought it was okay and just missed our signals, whether the signals we sent were strong enough. All of that self-doubt I have heard expressed by numerous women – it was a revelation to hear a man share the same doubts.

Anyone can have their bodily autonomy and safety violated. Even if you know that in your brain, hearing this man’s story makes it stick in your soul in a new way. I think all of us still carry with us ingrained messaging about men’s relationship to intimacy, sex, and violence. Those narratives lead us to make assumptions that can really hurt other people; this podcast invites us (women) to examine our part in perpetuating these assumptions about gender and sex.

It’s hard to think about, because it really complicates narratives that are easier to keep clean cut. Women are victims, men are violent, sex-driven animals. We (feminists) know it’s a gross simplification, but it’s still so tempting when the statistics are that most victims of sexual violence are women, and most perpetrators are men. That narrative can even be comforting/validating on some level for women who are violated in that way – you’re not alone, this happened to us too, we’re here for you, it’s not your fault.

While the male caller shared these same doubts and feelings of shame and guilt as so many women, the way he expressed the doubts was also telling. My colleague and I both marked that he was bewildered by those feelings and without a narrative to put them into that accounted for both his masculinity and his vulnerability.

My female friends and I, on the other hand, can see how our own experiences fit into the larger societal phenomenon of violence against women. Each of our experiences is intensely personal and can feel isolating. Yet when we’ve been able to talk to each other about those experiences, we can wryly see it as part of “womanhood” in our culture. A terrible yet shared burden. We all contribute a piece to the larger narrative. And, we can also share in the new narratives that are rising about self-care, how to survive & thrive after sexual violence, how to find sisterhood in this massive, horrifying phenomenon.

It is both to men’s privilege and to the caller’s disadvantage that he is not part of this narrative. This podcast called me to think about ways in which I perpetuate bad myths about gender, sex and violence, and ways in which I can bring non-female survivors of sexual assault into the sisterhood component of the narrative I hold.

 

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Hannah Blackburn

Hannah Blackburn is an associate at IDinsight in Nairobi, Kenya. IDinsight is a non-profit organization that uses a variety of data-driven research methods to help decision makers in the development field maximize their social impact.

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