Bad sex has a bad reputation. It’s not hard to sort out why when it gets conflated with rape all the damn time. The idea that someone violating your body can be written off as “bad sex” has a lot of awful ramifications, many of which, as clever readers of this exceedingly fine blog, you’re probably familiar with. But one that we don’t talk about much is the way it confuses us about what bad sex really is, and what it’s for.
To be clear: “bad sex” isn’t when someone holds you down and forces your legs open, or penetrates your passed out body , or corners you in a hotel room. Just in the same way that shoving your hand up an employee’s skirt isn’t just shitty management technique, sexual violations have nothing to do with bad sex except that they both can be described using the word “bad.”
When I say “bad sex,” I mean: it was boring. You couldn’t find a rhythm or the right pressure. Your partner smelled funny, or finished in 1.3 minutes and didn’t care about your needs. You were really excited to try something (or someone) in bed, and it/they were a big disappointment. You willingly did something that you felt crappy about afterward. I mean: the kind of sexual interactions that leave you feeling like you should’ve just spent the time masturbating. Or reading a book.
Bad sex is awesome for one simple reason: if you pay attention to it, it leads to better sex. Just like a science experiement, every time you engage in a sexual experiment and get a negative or inconclusive result, you can find in that result a clue that will lead you closer to what you’re trying to find. As I wrote about in What You Really Really Want, one spectacularly bad experiment with pity sex has led me to conclude it’s bad for me. The result? More satisfaction for me when I do have sex, because I won’t ever grin and bear it again just to save someone’s feelings. When, my senior year in college, I finally had sex with the high school boyfriend I’d been pining after for three years since our breakup, I discovered our sexual chemistry just didn’t work, and the endless pining finally ended. And many inconclusive experiments with anal sex – quite a few of them less than stellar — have helped me discover the (fairly narrow) circumstances in which I actually do enjoy a little butt bumping.
The whole idea that there’s some risk-free way to be sexual is awfully popular, but also completely anathema to healthy sexuality. If you focus on attaining some mythical risk-free sexual state, you’re going to make yourself miserable, because you’re going to fail, and you’re going to miss out on a lot while you’re failing. Because newsflash: choosing not to do something is a choice, too, and it also comes with risks. If you choose not to be sexual at all, you’re still risking stuff. You’re risking missing out on pleasure and connection, for one. You’re risking thinking this will keep you safe from sexual violence, which it won’t. You’re risking not learning about what’s satisfies you sexually. You’re risking rejection by people you may want to be close to. These may all be worthwhile risks to you, balanced out by the potential rewards of deciding not to be sexual, and that’s fine. That’s a judgement call we each get to make. I know someone who realized after a particularly bad encounter with sexytimes that he was not getting what he wanted out of sex, and so he stopped having sex with other people altogether until he could sort out his relationship to his own sexuality. That was an awesome sexual experiment for him – it resulted in him being sex-free for a lot longer than he would have liked (which I bet he would agree was “bad”), but now he’s having way better sex than before, because it’s on his own terms. So go ahead – experiment with “no sex” if that appeals. But don’t imagine that choosing “no sex” is risk-free. Or that it can’t ever wind up being it’s own version of bad sex.
The people and institutions that want to control women through our sexuality often point to bad sex and say: see! Sex can be bad! You shouldn’t do it! You might have an unpleasant experience and be ruined for the rest of your life! There also those who tell male-identified folk that they should just “know” how to be a manly manly rockstar in bed at all times, and anything less is “failing.” These people and institutions are your enemy.
Because bad sex is only really bad when we’re passive about it. When you look a situation straight in the eye and think – yeah, shit could go wrong here, but it could also go really right and that possibility in this case is worth the risk – well, that, my friend, is what we call sexual experimentation. And it is what makes sex awesome. The delicious friction of curiosity and uncertainty, the intimacy of co-exploration, the satisfaction and surprise of discovery — good, bad, or in between — take ‘em away, and you’re left with the worst sex of all.
This post is a stop in Jaclyn’s blog tour about her new book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. Be sure to check out yesterday’s stop at The Thang Blog, and her next stop tomorrow at Radically Queer.