sexual agency

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.

On cultural scripts, and reframing ‘vulnerability’ in sex

A big part of a lot of anti-oppression work, as I see it, is wrapped up in reframing or recreating the models of human interaction. In so very many ways, the interactions we, as people, have with other people, are influenced by the normative cultural scripts surrounding those interactions.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having cultural scripts for handling various interactions. These scripts can serve many purposes, including making interactions run smoothly, especially when dealing with awkward or hard-to-handle emotional situations. Ozy Frantz recently wrote about the value of having scripts around the mourning process that illustrates some of the value of having this kind of normative script.

But, as with any (formal or informal) cultural (or institutional) process, these scripts can easily be embedded with unspoken (or spoken) cultural biases and oppression. We can see how this can happen in the example of a man in Florida who ran afoul of institutional processes (for assuming the name of one’s spouse) when, in fact, it was a cultural script (that wives take their husbands last name, and not the other way around) that he had broken.

The script I’d like to examine today is based around the idea of vulnerability in sexual contexts. In the (usually) unspoken cultural script for hetero sexual intercourse it is the woman who is framed as the vulnerable party. We see this concept played out in a variety of ways.

For starters, there is a cultural expectation that parents (and especially fathers) must “protect” their daughters from sexual activity. As a corollary, teenage boys in this script are framed as predatory. But this also plays out in the general language we use to talk about sexual activities. I talked about this to some extent in my post on why I love the word ‘valprehension’. The woman in hetero sexual activities is framed as passive, while the man ‘hammers’, ‘screws’, ‘nails’ (are we sensing a pattern) ‘pounds’, ‘reams’, or otherwise commits physically forceful and painful-sounding acts on her body. Woman are conquests (and thus men are victors?) in sex. Women “give it away” while men “get some”. All sexuality is framed as being for men, and for the male gaze

And this script has all kinds of profound implications about the notions for the broader framing of women’s sexual agency and desire, but as those other smart people have covered that pretty well covered, it’s not quite what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about how limiting this framing can be to our actual expressions of sexual joy, to sexual exploration and to genuine, creative consensual sexual interactions.

Before I say that, though, I want to be very clear that I am not saying that women (or valprehending partners generally) are never, ever vulnerable. Of course being penetrated can be an intensely vulnerable experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very important to point out and acknowledge the vulnerability that many people can and do experience when they are being penetrated.

One of the things that Dan Savage has started pointing out in some of his columns and podcasts in more recent years is the idea that part of the reason straight men seem to have more trouble getting laid when they’d like is the traditional hetero script, which includes the assumption of penetration. Dan intelligently points out that for many people, being horny or wanting sexual satisfaction does not automatically imply that a person’s body (or mind) can handle penetration, especially from a relative stranger.

And the thing is that, yes, penetrative sex is a thing that happens inside the body of the receptive partner. I’m going to say that again. It happens inside our bodies. It’s a very intimate (and often vulnerable) thing, this letting part of another human being inside your body business. If you’re talking about vaginal or anal penetration, the very core of person’s body is involved in the act. And I don’t think that this should be discounted.

What I’ve been working on reframing in my own head lately is the flip-side of this narrative. Because the implication of Dan’s advice here is that sexual activity is not experienced in as intimate or as vulnerable a way by the penetrating partner. And I do think this is true to some extent, (as reflected in our cultural scripts around sex.) In a penetrative sex act, the penetrating partner’s most involved body part is an appendage (whatever appendage you prefer, though usually in the mainstream hetero script, this will be a penis). The penetrating partner has the privilege(?) of having a certain physical distance (up to the full length of the appendage in question :P) from the act relative to the valprehending partner. And in reality, (fears of vagina dentata aside) there is generally less risk of injury to a penetrating partner. And all of this adds up to much less intimacy and vulnerability for penetrating partner.

But here’s the thing. If you really think about it, if someone is putting their appendage inside my body, that is a great show of trust that I will take care said appendage. Allowing part of oneself to be valprehended by another person can be an extremely vulnerable act of giving part of yourself to that person, in a far more literal way than such giving happens in the cultural script of women “giving it away”. Penetrating partners literally give their appendage to the body of their partner for a time. And valprehending partners can have a degree of control over that part while it is inside of them. And when the body part in question is the oh-so-highly-valued (and, let’s face it, physically vulnerable) phallus, this is a truly awe-inspiring act of trust and intimacy, don’t you think?

The thing is that both of these scripts are accurate and true. And neither of them are. It’s all in how you choose to put forth, talk about, experience, and interpret your own sexual interactions with others. I know that for me, suddenly seeing my own valprehensive experiences from this perspective was really enlightening and empowering! It can certainly be fun to play with what various sexual acts mean in the contexts of individual couples/groups of sexual partners and the way they experience their dynamics.