Sex is a collaboration

JULY 9, 2012 BY

I like sex.

I realize that this is the sort of declaration that ranks right up there in obviousness as “Hey, the sun rises in the east!” and “water’s a bit wet, i’nit?” but stick with me here, I have a point I’m getting to.

I’ve been reading Clarisse Thorne’s “Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser” lately and it’s been a thought-provoking read. Beyond being a fascinating and surprisingly even-handed look at PUA culture and techniques, it also has a lot of cross-over with sex positivity. Some of the attitudes expressed by members of the PUA community she interviews reminded of some of the ways I looked at the world not that long ago, especially with regards to sex and sexuality.

When I was younger and less experienced – back in the bad old days – I liked sex but didn’t really know much about it. Less of a case of not understanding the mechanics or only routine in my repertoire being “writing letters with my tongue” but about human sexuality. I had absorbed a lot of misinformation about sex and sexuality from the culture I grew up in, especially as a white, hetero, cisgendered male. As far as I knew, sex was something of a transaction: guys bargained, cajoled, argued, convinced, begged or otherwise persuaded women into performing some sex act – ideally some penis-in-vagina action – and women would give in. Sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with enthusiasm but rarely without some form of negotiation. The fact that men wanted sex was something of an inconvenience at best, something actually shamefulat worst. Being called a pervert – if, say, you were caught watching Porky’s, Embrace of the Vampire or the Phoebe Cates scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High – was among the worst things you could label a guy.

After losing my virginity, I was – I shit you not – shocked when my girlfriend was interested in having sex again… like, the very next day. Without my having to put on a production or anything! Oh, what brave new world that had such people in it!

Still, even after being introduced to a world where women actually -gasp- enjoyed sex, I still clung to the belief that men were the horny ones and women had to be persuaded – which is to say, turned on or seduced – into wanting sex in equal measure. This colored a lot of my interactions with women, especially with how I was going about trying to convince them to go out on a date (and then, ideally, come home) with me. I wasn’t seeing sex – or romance, for that matter – in terms of “here’s a fun thing we can both enjoy”, I was seeing it as “what do I have to do to get you to sleep with me.” It was an adversarial process – one encouraged by society at large – and one that simultaneously demonized and praised male sexuality while insisting that female sexuality was less important, if it existed at all.

Dating was a ritualized kabuki dance; while we both knew that sex was a possibility, I had to take care to not express any overt interest in it lest I look like a pervert who Only Wanted One Thing. I had to display enough value in order to make it worth her time to give me the opportunity to try to persuade her into sleeping with me. It was exhausting and it meant that I wasn’t treating her as a person but as a vault whose combination I had to learn in order to get inside.

And from talking to my friends… I was decidedly not the only one who felt that way. We all felt the annoyance that we had to pretend that we didn’t want what we so obviously did and the frustration that women just didn’t know what it was like for guys. Men and women were just too different.

It took quite a bit of effort to break out of the antagonistic view of sex and realize that a) women were sexual beings too and b) it was ok to want sex. The problem wasn’t the interest, the problem was the way that we were all taught to go about getting it.

The Paradox of Male Sexuality

The way our culture defines male sexuality is problematic to say the least. We’re constantly beset with conflicting messages about just how a man is supposed to be, sexually. Male sexuality is equally something to be scoffed at, ashamed of and celebrated… as long as you don’t deviate from the accepted norm.

On the one hand, male sexuality is portrayed as one of constant horniness. Men are supposed to get rock-hard erections at the merest hint of stimulus (such as, say, a stiff breeze…) and ready to go at the drop of a bra – we don’t need no silly “foreplay” or anything so silly as “setting the mood”. One common joke: “How do excite your man? Show up.” The other joke-but-not-really is that men are so horny and oversexed that they’d fuck  spongecake if it was warm enough.

For a man, according to the common message, sex is the alpha and omega of our lives. If you’re not interested in sex, you are not a man. We will do almost anything in the name of getting laid – travelling across the country on the hint that we might have sex (The Sure Thing, Euro Trip, Sex Drive), subject ourselves to any number of indignities (The Last American Virgin), lie about who we are (Wedding Crashers) or what we do (ditto) or make any number of promises we may or may not have intend to keep (Paradise By The Dashboard Light). Sex is a part of everything we do as men.

Men are expected to want to fuck as many women ((I mention women specifically because male sexuality is still predominately defined as heterosexual. Gay men are also frequently seen – and portrayed – as wildly promiscuous, but this is frequently held against them.)) as possible; restricting oneself to just a single woman is jokingly referred to being “tied down”. Any number of people will happily provide any number of reasons and explanations – ranging from evolutionary psychology to the effects of testosterone – as to why men should not be expected to be monogamous and should instead be free to spread their seed as far and wide as possible. Sleeping with as large a number of women as possible is something to be celebrated – certain celebrities (Wilt Chamberlain, Gene Simmons, Hugh Hefner, Warren Beatty) are known for their level of promiscuity as much as for their professional accomplishments. The higher the number… well, the more manly you are.

Of course, this glory only fits within specific standards. It doesn’t count if you’re sleeping with women who fall outside the conventional definition of beauty1. If your desires fall outside of the accepted stereotype – most commonly young and busty with a narrow waist and long tapered legs – well there’s something wrong with you. If you are attracted to, say, heavy women or older women… well, that’s fodder for comedy right there because real men aren’t into that.

And if you’re a virgin more than a few months past puberty… well shit son, something must be wrong with you, because a man is not a virgin! Men get laid.

At the same time, however, male sexuality is also seen as a joke or even something to be ashamed of. Ignoring more extreme ends of the spectrum such as Andrea Dworkin’sIntercourse, male sexuality is commonly portrayed as awkward, buffoonish or barely restrained animal instinct. In film, television and comics, sex makes people stupid. The womanizer characters are often also either the moron or the man-child. Men can’t hold a conversation with a woman without attempting to look down her shirt, can barely spit out two sentences to a woman who he finds attractive without making a Freudian reference to her breasts, vagina or having sex. The man who has lots of sex partners is shown to have something wrong with him, emotionally and needs a Good Woman to heal him and teach him the wonders of monogamy. Women were disturbed, even disgusted by any noticeable expression of sexual interest whether verbal or physical (inopportune erections, anyone) and yet the man simply can’t help himself.

Being told simultaneously that you were supposed to be a stud and that women found sex icky does not make for a well-balanced view of sex growing up.

Not, mind you, that women have it any easier.

What Do You Mean “Women Like Sex Too”??

You wouldn’t think it, but the idea that women are sexual beings, with wants, lusts and needs just like men, can be a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. We live in a society where we are taught that men and women are diametrically opposed by their very nature; men want sex, women want love. Men are logical, women are emotional, etc.

On it’s face you would think that this would be self-evident, but growing up I – and damn near everybody else – were implicitly taught that women were not sexual the way that men were. Men might crave sex but women… women, we are taught, tolerate it. Since the Victorian era, it has been axiomatic that “real” women were chaste and endured sex because it was her womanly duty. Hell, until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women liking, even wanting sex was considered to be a symptom of hysteria. Even with the Free Love era of the 60s and the Sexual Revolution of the 70s, female sexuality was still defined by a man’s needs first and foremost.

These days, women are subject to the same paradoxical treatment of sexuality that men are. Women are supposed to enjoy sex, but almost as a performance for men. They’re taught to walk a thin line: “be sexy… but in this very specific way.” Fashion and trends in clothing encourage a very particular body type and to decorate it and display it in pre-approved manners. Express your sexuality, but only in these particular ways. Fit yourself into this very narrow mold and you will be rewarded by men But for all that our culture says women are supposed to be sexy, they’re not supposed to be sexual. To be sexual is to like sex a little too much. Liking it too much means you’re giving it away too easily and we all know the label afforded to women who give up the goods too early or to readily…

Even now, the woman who craves sex, has more than one partner at a time or is interested in non-procreative sex (anal sex, fetishes or kink) is frequently shown in pop culture to be in equal turns untrustworthy, damaged or a figure to be laughed at.

And of course, there’s still that persistant voice in western culture that insists that sex is dirty and shameful and should only be shared with someone you love in the bonds of holy matrimony.

Considering the tightrope that society demands they walk, it’s small wonder that many women have a hard time coming to terms with their own sexuality. Even in this day and age, it’s still incredibly common for women to not know what makes them orgasm until their 20s or even 30s.

This schizoid view of female sexuality – that women should like sex, but only in specific ways following particular models – contributes to the fucked-upedness of our sex-negative culture and the antagonistic way that we see sexual relations. It’s one thing to be able to acknowledge, intellectually, that yes, women were sexual beings just like men were, that women liked sex, even wanted sex the same way that men did. It’s another to be able to internalize it.

The Commodity Market Of Sex

For me, 20+ years of conditioning was hard to shake off. I had bought into the commercial, antagonistic view of sexuality and it colored the way I approached women and sexual relationships.

The way that western culture approaches sex – even in this enlightened age, with vibrators for sale in your local Wal-Greens and where sex-tapes make people instant celebrities overnight – is to treat it as a commodity. Sex as goods. Women have it, men want it and the market sets the price. It’s a zero-sum game – the more a woman gives away, the less she’s worth, therefore she needs to hold sex in reserve in order to get the best price for it.

Women -so the cultural model goes – are expected to hold out to get as much as they can: financial security, romance, relationships, marriage and children. If they sell their goods – sex – too cheaply, too quickly or too often to too many people, the laws of supply and demand define her as being “devalued”; i.e. a slut.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to get as much as they possibly can for as low of an investment as possible. A man who pays too much for too little – someone who can’t “seal the deal” quickly or who don’t get sufficient levels of sex (either from one partner or many) in exchange for a relationship” – is seen as less of a man. A “pussy” even, because what could be more insulting for a man than to be compared to female genitalia?

Even the Nice Guys fall into the commodity frame of sex; they view sex (or, more euphemistically, a “relationship”) as something that is rightfully theirs as long as they collect enough Nice Guy tokens. Once they have enough, they can redeem their tokens in exchange for the sex that they’ve been working towards.

The commodification of sexuality is an inherently antagonistic system that treats men and women as fundamentally different and sets them in opposition – the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” model if you will. The idea that sex is a matter of winning and losing even permeates our language. When men have sex they “get some”, or “get lucky” or “seal the deal.” Women “give it up” or “give it away” or “surrender to him”. We talk about the “thrill of the chase”. Pickup artists refer to meeting and seducing as “The Game” – with it’s inherent implication that there is a winner and a loser and the loser is the one who gives in.

In addition, it by it’s very nature stipulates that sex is only valued due to it’s scarcity – which in turn means that a woman is only worth as much as the sex she doesn’t have. A woman in this model who “gives it up” too easily or too freely or too often is seen as worth less. Men are taught that a woman who is easily seduced is not a “high-value asset”; after all, if she gave it up her precious commodity so easily once, how many other times has she handed it out? At the same time, there is an expiration date; the goods are worth more the newer it is. Past a certain point… well, it’s hardly worth anything, now is it?

The commodity market model also doesn’t allow for anything other than a value-for-value exchange. It by it’s nature dismisses anything that falls outside of this frame. A woman who enjoys sex for it’s own sake are treated as shameful sluts and are worth less than “pristine” virgins. A man who might be monogamous by nature or might want greater levels of intimacy before sex is seen as a freak.

Sex As Collaboration

When I was starting to make my transformation, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the transaction frame that defined sex for me at the time; I was thinking about concepts that the PUA community would dub “Demonstrations of Higher Value”  – evidence that would convince women that I was “worthy” of being given sex… because it wasn’t like there were that many women who just liked sex for it’s own sake, right?

Changing the ways that I thought about sex took a lot of work. The first step – accepting that women liked sex too – was the hardest; I still had literal decades of cultural indoctrination to overcome. Part of what helped was a female friend of mine handing me a copy of My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, which compiled various women’s fantasies as an overview of female sexuality. From there it was a matter of education and a willingness to question a lot of what I thought I knew. I did a lot of reading about human sexuality and a lot of discussions with my partners… not just about what I did that convinced them to go to bed with me, but about how they felt about sex and how and when their attitudes developed or changed.

And it helped. A lot.

There’s an excellent essay by Thomas MacAullay Millar called “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” that sums up the idea of a collaborative model of sex brilliantly, using the metaphor of musical performance:

The commodity model assumes that when a woman has sex, she loses something of value. If she engages in too much sex, she will be left with nothing of value. It further assumes that sex earlier in her history is more valuable than sex later…. But a musician’s first halting notes at age thirteen in the basement are not something of particular value. Only an obsessive completist would want a recording of a young musician’s practice before she knew what she was doing… She gets better by learning, by playing a lot, by playing with different people that are better than she is. She reaches the height of her powers in the prime of her life, as an experienced musician, confident in her style and conversant in her material. Her experience and proven talent are precisely why she is valued.

Because it centers on collaboration, a performance model better fits the conventional feminist wisdom that consent is not the absence of “no,” but affirmative participation. Who picks up a guitar and jams with a bassist who just stands there? Who dances with a partner who is just standing and staring? In the absence of affirmative participation, there is no collaboration.

Like the commodity model the performance model implies a negotiation, but not an unequal or adversarial one… Musicians have to choose, explicitly or implicitly, what they are going to play: genre, song, key and interpretation. The palette available to them is their entire skill set… Two musicians steeped in delta blues will produce very different music from one musician with a love for soul and funk and another with roots in hip-hop or 80s hardcore. This process involves communication of likes and dislikes and preferences, not a series of proposals that meet with acceptance or rejection.

Not feeling that every sexual encounter was a negotiation made things more comfortable. I was able to relax and be my best self instead of putting on what we both inherently knew was a performance. I stopped looking at sex as a competition – what do I have to do to get you to sleep with me – and more of a collaboration.

Being willing to admit that I was interested in sex – and understanding that yes, women liked it as much as I did – made things go smoother. It was more honest – this is who I am, this is what I’m interested in, this is what I have to offer – than trying to pretend otherwise. It made it easier to make the negotiation of sex that communication of likes and dislikes that Millar talks about rather than a process of “this is what I am willing to offer, how much will this get me?” It meant that there were fewer miscommunications; I wasn’t indicating that maybe, maybe I’d be interested in a relationship when I really wasn’t.

Accepting that you’re allowed to have the desires you do (or don’t) have and being willing to be honest about them allows you to be more authentically yourself… and in doing so, relate to the people you want in a more honest, open and collaborative way.

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