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In Praise of Bad Sex

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.

15 Comments

  1. anya wrote:

    Way better than anything I’d read on the same subject in Cosmo.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Great post, Jaclyn.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  3. AlmostClever wrote:

    Brilliantly said!

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Sasha wrote:

    This post raises some interesting points. I have to point out, though, that in presuming not having sex is always a choice, you’ve erased a whole lot of people.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  5. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    Awesome post, very succinct! The conflation of rape and bad sex needs to be called out. I do have a question:

    ”…I won’t ever grin and bear it again just to save someone’s feelings.”

    How do we differentiate that kind of consensual sex from emotional manipulation?

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  6. effword wrote:

    Sex is like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  7. Kate wrote:

    This is so true.

    I’ve had my share of bad sex and I’m currently in a no sex point but I’ll be ready for good sex when the time comes. Great post.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Simon C. wrote:

    Sasha, I read “If you choose not to be sexual at all… You’re risking thinking this will keep you safe from sexual violence, which it won’t” as pretty much the opposite of what you’re suggesting.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Aloren wrote:

    {{JOEL How do we differentiate that kind of consensual sex from emotional manipulation?}}

    I dont know. =( I stuggle with this all the time as an asexual person who did not know the term for what I was or that there were others. So much “bad” sex I had because sex was what went with close relationships. or so I assumed by observing the world around me. Even now trying to “compromise” with my SO after finding and coming out as Asexual is extremely fraught with this question.

    We just had a thread on AVEN by a person who does speaking on the concept of enthusiastic consent and no one could really say asexuals, even the ones who “compromise” for relationships fit into that platform. Hard question indeed.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink
  10. lizzie wrote:

    simon, maybe sasha was referring to this language?
    “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.”

    in that case, i can understand why someone might think, well, it’s not a judgment call that I get to make.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  11. ambergris wrote:

    Yeah, the idea that not being sexual is always a choice erases a hell of a lot of people, and not just the asexual community either.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  12. Faye wrote:

    I agree with the previous statements, but I also want to thank you for this. I have (really, when I own up to them, pretty disablingly bad) anxiety issues and my missteps in bed have led me to just avoiding sex altogether in case “I don’t do it right”. As you might imagine, this isn’t particularly pleasant for me or my partner, but getting out of the headspace that I’m going to screw something up and then it might not be fun sexytimes for everyone at every moment is incredibly difficult.

    Anyway, my point is just that reorganizing my general view on things in terms of “if things go awry it shows me what i need to improve” instead of “I AM A HUGE FREAKISH FAILURE” may be a good start, haha. Obviously.

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  13. Spiffy McBang wrote:

    I like the fact the example is of a guy. Snaps back against the reaction some guys have to sentences like, “If you choose not to be sexual at all…” where they instantly think, “GUYS DON’T GET TO CHOOSE WAAAAH”.

    Monday, November 14, 2011 at 1:19 am | Permalink
  14. Rachel wrote:

    I hear you, but as someone who has engaged in 300+ partners over the years, the older I get (35 next year) the far more weary of having bad sex. I’ve already had so much “coulda hada V8″ sex, I’d really love to not have much more of it. I know what I want sexually, I don’t have pity sex, et al. Knowing is half the battle, but just because I know what I want doesn’t mean my partner is going to give it to me no matter how informed on the subject I make sure he is. Because of this, I’ve pretty much given up on the FWB situation and am considering dating again. Folks who care about you are much more interested in pleasing you as well as being pleased. Casual sex partners, not so much.

    Monday, November 14, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink
  15. Jenn wrote:

    On a related note, I think part of the reason bad sex gets a bad rap is that there’s an expectation that you enjoy sex all the time, in all situations, especially if you’re female (and of course, having sex with a dude, which is the only acceptable way to have sex according to the culture at large). Saying that the sex you had is bad — or that you don’t enjoy some sex or even all sex — is basically equivalent to confessing there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.

    I’m not asexual, I’ll say that. But I get uncomfortable when people talk about sex and kink with the idea that it’s always better to have more sex, kinkier sex, and not enjoying sex (even once!) means you’re a frigid and a religiously-indoctrinated cold fish (hilariously, I’m Atheist and wasn’t even raised Christian).

    What results is lots of people that get down to sexy time and are afraid to articulate what they want — and more importantly, what they DO NOT want. Which results in more bad sex than would otherwise occur, which is awesomely counter-productive.

    A huge void between bad sex and rape is occupied mostly by communication. I (personally) have no trouble separating non-consensual encounters I’ve had and simply bad or awkward sex through that divide — during bad sex, we kind of communicated about it, and in the best cases, laughed about accidentally kicking each other in the face or farting really boisterously.

    Rape, and related non-consensual activities, occurred when I was asleep, when I was too drunk to even speak, when I stayed silent and waited for it to be over.

    It’s all related to consensual enthusiasm: consent requires communication. And communication is discouraged by a culture that tells women that they shouldn’t want sex for themselves, only as a reflection of male desire, and never, ever complain during sexy times.

    Monday, November 14, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink