No More Gold Stars – Chapter 12: Let’s talk about sex!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to sit down and write something for my blog – and no, it’s not because I’ve been on a sex odyssey! But I did go on a psychosexual therapy course which took up a lot of the time I might use for writing – and as I’m much less committed to achievement than I was, I’ve been spending a lot more time sleeping and enjoying trips away with my partner and my dogs in my dinky caravan.

Strangely, the psychosexual course fed into my thinking about achievement addiction, sometimes in horrifying ways. It’s well established now that young people are having less sex than they used to be – the big question is, why? Why is something that is free, can be a huge fun and a special way to bond with another person, being rejected, especially now that conception can be avoided, there is much more acceptance of different sexualities and risk can be mitigated?

One reason might be that, yet again, the whole process has become contaminated by concerns about achievement. What if my body isn’t good enough? What if my partner doesn’t think I’m any good at it and tells other people? What if I don’t stay hard for long enough? What if I take too long to come? And so on.

I guess it doesn’t help that, these days, there’s no guarantee that your partner will be someone who truly loves you and won’t actually care how ‘good’ you are at this game. In a world of hook ups and recreational sex, one can see how you might feel you’re in some sort of bizarre competition – that sex has become performative.

Photo by Alexander McFeron on Unsplash

This, I think, is aggravated by the common assumption that  sex is linear especially but not exclusively for heterosexual couples. It starts with foreplay, it builds up and finishes with penetration and, it’s to be hoped, orgasm – a three-act play. If that doesn’t happen – whether it’s lack of orgasm, premature ejaculation, loss of erection or whatever – it’s a failure. For many women, that means ‘failure’ an awful lot of the time – because whereas most men having partnered heterosexual sex experience orgasms 95% of the time, the stats for straight women are a dismaying 65%. It’s better for lesbian women (86%) but for bisexual women, it’s still only 66%. Gay men and bisexual men fair better at 89% and 88% respectively.

And who do women tend to blame for this ‘failure’? Themselves. ‘There must be something wrong with me.’ There are some great Ted Talks challenging this misconception (by Emily Nagoski and Karen Gurney, for example.

I urge you to listen to them so I’m not going to attempt to summarise here. My interest is in how this will affect our desire to have sex at all. It seems to me that we are in a double bind – we are driven by media messages to do all we can to look and be sexy – to ‘achieve’ sexiness – but what’s actually happening is not a lot of fun and often fraught with anxiety – especially for women. So why would anyone prioritise it?

What are we prioritising instead? Work? The gym? Making money? The big promotion? Being very, very busy indeed? Having amazing experiences?

I was much struck by the loss of the ‘Titan’ submarine and of those on board. How very, very terrifying and sad. It reminded me of the appalling photographs of the queue to get to the top of Everest which went viral some while ago and the reports that mountaineers clamber over dead bodies, loo paper and shit to get to the summit. Presumably, you get a feeling of achievement just by being alive at this point! What on earth, I ask myself, are we doing, if this is where our satisfaction lies? These things are not achievements, they are gross mis-directions of our time, energy and resources, psychological, moral and physical.

Instead of experiencing ecstasy with a beloved partner and even, some would argue, transcendence or union with the divine, we are driving ourselves to bigger and better ‘achievements’ whether in the gym and the workplace or up the mountains and deep in the ocean. In a world where we are also concerned about climate change and running out of resources, it is beyond bonkers.

Maybe you think I’m talking up sex too much here. ‘Yeh, right, Meg – but my sex life is hardly transcendent!’ Maybe not – and I’m not suggesting we’re going to have a peak (Everest?) experience every time – but if our energy and priorities are all about public achievement then there won’t even be time for sex. My clients often explain that sex is not happening and it’s usually been squeezed out by all the other demands, including prioritising children who are busy learning to be addicted to achievement. If every evening is devoted to whizzing children from one after school activity to another so they can ‘achieve their potential’, every parent is completely wiped out by bedtime. Parenting itself appears to have become focused on achievement. It seems rare now for parents to employ a teenage baby-sitter – the teenagers are too busy doing their after school activities and parents seem to think that if their child is being cared for by someone other than themselves, it has to be in an educational capacity! Gone are the days of the lovely teenage boy who bought temporary hair dye to entertain my daughters whilst he babysat! If the only baby-sitting gets done by hard-pressed grandparents or peers, there’s a dearth of time for parents to relax together, let alone have sex.

Let’s come back to the linear model of sex. If we’re always going to assume that the hallmark of ‘successful’ sex involves penetration, then many of us are going to feel like failures, quite a lot of the time. ‘A quick shag’ may not allow a woman time to become aroused, let alone orgasmic. If success is the man ‘getting his end away’, it’s not surprising that so many women feel it’s been great for him and rubbish for them. If a man’s erection being a bit bendy constitutes failure, then it’s hardly surprising that many men nowadays bring performance anxiety to the bedroom. And – this is something I find particularly upsetting in an age when one would hope for more equality in the bedroom – many young women are giving one-sided oral sex in order to avoid penetrative sex, because there is an expectation from young men that in a sexual encounter with a woman, they will get, are even entitled to, an orgasm one way or another

There are lots of ways we express ourselves sexually with the people we love, all enjoyable and all helpful for bonding and affirmation. Once we allow ourselves to be brainwashed into thinking there are ways that are ‘better’ or ‘what you are supposed to do/entitled to get’, then something that can be fun, relaxing and hugely beneficial for our mental and physical health, is twisted into yet another arena for winning or losing gold stars.

It isn’t only, of course, about what we do, it’s about how we look. Why are young women giving and not receiving oral sex? Partly because they are ashamed of their genitals. There has been a massive rise in the number of women shaving off their pubic hair and, even more alarming, seeking labioplasty, the surgical alteration of labia which are perceived to be unacceptable in some way. When I was a young woman, it was all about the boobs! That was bad enough. It took me a long time to realise that my small breasts were sexy and beautiful and nothing to be ashamed of. How warped have we become if young women are having their genitals carved up in order to ‘look better’? The most popular look is called ‘The Barbie’ – she who has no genitals at all! How ironic that we have laws against forcible FGM whilst some young women are mutilating themselves by choice. Make no mistake, some of this surgery damages nerves in the clitoris (which is far, far bigger than the ‘bud’ a lot of us think it is) and therefore interferes with sexual pleasure.

More on this depressing topic can be heard here:

It’s stating the obvious to mention pornography so let’s get it over with quickly. Pornography is performative, it’s not real. Even more toxic to our ideas of actual relationships than the romances I read as a teenager, it gives us something to compare ourselves with and to distort our sense of reality. If we think we have to match up to a porn star or that our partner should, we are doomed. Some people find porn a source of inspiration and a turn on: good for them – I just hope they are seeking out ethical porn. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into the politics and morality of porn. My gripe is the pressure to perform with one’s partner, rather than simply to relax and enjoy what can be one of nature’s greatest and most joyous gifts.

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Patrissia Cuberos

    Meg, this is so brave, interesting and real! A deep exploration. I’d like to have such bravery. I have so many thoughts, experiences and ideas about sex, but my catholic upbringing weighs still so heavily on me… I have put some of those experiences in two of my novels, but I would find it very difficult to refer to my personal ones. Bravo! I love also the way in which you have connected all these to the gold stars.

    1. Meg Harper

      Thanks so much, Patissia. I’ve only touched very lightly on my own experience! I think that bringing difficult matters into fiction is a really helpful way of raising issues – more oblique and therefore often more palatable. Go you!

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