Sexual agency and bafflement

I had some weird, not-really-the-point reactions to a recent Captain Awkward letter (TL;DR is that the letter writer is in a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman who does not engage in any kind of penetrative sex, and is averse to semen generally. Their sex life involves him getting her off usually without reciprocation.) The actual advice and comments provided to the letter writer are great (she gets to have her boundaries, but you also get to leave if you’re not happy and that’s ok) and I have nothing to add.

But.

But the thing that really strikes me, hard, when reading this letter (and I have read things like this before and had a similar reaction) is how completely impossible it seems to me that anyone could ever possibly have the wherewithal to express the kinds of preferences and boundaries this person’s girlfriend has put in place. If it was me, I would have never felt like I had the right to expect these kinds of needs or preferences to be respected. I would have assumed that I was the problem and compromised the shit out of my boundaries and suffered quietly and tried to suck it up.

Because I was raised to believe that there are certain things you just have to do if you are going to date a man. Because I was raised to believe that if you dared to ask for a compromise or to slow down on those things, and if the man involved was gracious enough to grant you their patience, they were going above and beyond the call of duty, and you probably owed them one to be honest.

This is a key part of rape culture, for the record, and it is something I was very clearly and explicitly indoctrinated into.

I was fortunate, therefore, that my first sexual relationship was with a woman, because that messaging didn’t come into play for me there. I am sure that foundation is part of what prevented me from being sexually traumatized by my relationship with my first boyfriend, to be honest.

Because that, as I have written about before, was something else. With him, it was all about the explicit pressure. But to be honest, he didn’t need to work all that hard – a little hinting was all it took for me feel like I was being unfair or unreasonable or that I was over-stepping my rights to agency. So when we made out for the first time, and didn’t go an further, and he said “You can’t keep doing this to me” (the *first time* we made out!), I didn’t run away or tell him off or anything. I just let him go further than I was ready to next time.

And thus was our pattern established.

It’s been a long time since then, of course, and it’s been a *very* long time since I had a partner who had also internalized these toxic ideas about what is simply required in a sexual relationship. It is intuitively obvious to me now that people get to have and express whatever boundaries they want. And I’ve learned to set my own boundaries somewhat, though I’ve also just had partners who are caring and attentive and able to read me well enough that those things haven’t always needed to be explicit.

I do still sometimes have to fight an uphill battle against myself, and the fact that I still instinctively respond to my own awareness of my partners’ desires with an internal pressure to perform. It is sometimes difficult to pull apart my genuine drive and desire to please other people because I enjoy it a fuck of a lot from the more damaging drive to self-obliterate against other people’s desires. I have to remember to stay in tune with myself, and that is easier some days than others, but I am honestly really good at it now.

But still, reading something like this letter, from a person whose attitude is so naturally “well, is the person I’m with doesn’t want the thing, then we don’t do the thing” that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly stated, when that attitude is just the way he seems to live and breathe his approach to relating sexually to other people, it actually kind of blows my mind a little.

Because, of course, that should be obvious. But to so many people, it really, really isn’t.

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