Am I kinky? And is this a problem?

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-07-38Due to media stereotyping, unhelpful labelling with words like ‘paraphilia’ and ‘perversion’, and the assumption of mental illness or pathology – if you identify as kinky (or feel you may be) you sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with you.

You may have felt unable to share your feelings with anyone else. And you may also have avoided going to therapy, even for something entirely unrelated to your identity or lifestyle, because you fear either being treated as ‘sick’, or having to spend many hours justifying yourself.

For a start, kinky does not equal bad or weird

For some people, being drawn to BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) dates from their oldest waking thought or memory. Others discover it later in life. We live in a time when what you might call identity essentialism (‘If you weren’t born this way it’s fake’) is being questioned. Identities and orientations can evolve over time:

  • For example, from a young age you might have found yourself wishing to be restrained, or were aroused by certain scenes on television or in books, or took a specific dominant or submissive role during play with others. You may have put these thoughts and feelings away for years.
  • Or perhaps, as you grew up, you never felt right doing what everyone else seemed to be doing sexually, but weren’t sure how to articulate it, and just carried on doing things that didn’t really do much for you. Or stepped away from intimacy altogether. 
  • Or later in life you felt exciting changes coming on and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, you tumbled into a whole new world that you never wanted to come back from.

Secondly, it’s far more common than you think

And, even more importantly, studies (see the links at the end of the article) suggest that the kink identity correlates with a number of positive attributes.

A spectrum rather than a binary

I find it preferable to open up the definition rather than narrow it. Do you find greater release in giving or receiving extreme sensation? Do you experience something deeper when you give yourself over to another person, or take power over them? Do these experiences make you feel more fully you?

There are an almost infinite number of ways to express your kink

You do not have to join a particular community, or love leather or rubber, or spend your evenings in underground play spaces. For some it may be about handcuffs and a blindfold, for others total enclosure, for others extreme sensation. For others it could have nothing to do with physical sensations and everything to do with psychology. It could be about taking control, or giving up control, with no pain or restraint at all. 

For one person, it may be spending thousands on rubber clothing and dungeon furniture. For another, a simple phrase sent in a text message and a 24/7 household setup that others would have to guess at. It might involve going out to events, like clubs or munches, with others who share the same interests. For some people, no act, however apparently extreme, counts as kinky unless there is an exchange of power. 

It could be mild and playful, or it could be extreme and unusual, or combinations of all the above.

Does it have to be ‘all about sex’?

For some kink is inextricably linked with genital sex. Other people very clearly separate the two, and others are fluid in their approach. So however you feel, however you see yourself, there is no ‘one true way’.

Our society has a very poor record on acceptance of sexual diversity and many remain closeted just to feel safe

Perhaps you feel shame when reflecting on your fantasies or activities, and have never told anyone about them. You may also be struggling because:

  • What you like may have a more extreme taboo edge or safety element to it.
  • You may fear that you might hurt someone non-consensually.
  • You are happy for it to remain in fantasy, but want to be sure you are okay.
  • You have been paying for kink services and are wondering if this is okay.
  • You fear you are doing it too much, or thinking about it too much, and need reassurance that you are sane and not an ‘addict’.

If any of this troubles you, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist

Psychotherapy can help you look at the emotions underlying your current situation, and help you with any difficult feelings you may be experiencing.

It’s worth choosing carefully, however. There has been a tendency in traditional therapeutic schools of thought that any activity that is not 100% heterosexual, monogamous or vanilla (ie non-kinky) must stem from a pathology, or possible early-years damage. I have gone further into the problems with this viewpoint in a piece for Lancet Psychiatry: BDSM, Psychotherapy’s Grey Area.

I never discount the idea that this could for some people be the case, that a response to a past difficulty has evolved into a kink or fetish. And people do sometimes eroticise past experiences. But past experience may have meaning here or it may not. Be very wary if someone wishes to turn detective and start ‘uprooting’ your kink or trying to convert you.

You are not sick – you may just need to be heard. Rest assured you are not alone.

Where to find a kink friendly therapist

Further reading and research

On the subject of orientation and identity, there is an interesting discussion around this post by Clarisse Thorn: BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

These two studies may also be of interest:

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Sex work and the transactional nature of human relationships

Sonnenschirm_rot_redNew essay in Lancet Psychiatry

My latest piece is called Sex work – society’s transactional blind spot.

In the article I explore the transactional nature of human relationships and how we are encouraged to bargain with others, from a very young age, for social and emotional survival. I have focused on sex work because it is a significant cultural issue that polarises opinion and inspires much clichéd and harmful representation in art and media.

Sex workers also report poor experiences in therapy and within the mental health system as a whole.

The opinions and experience of those who actually do it are often ignored or marginalised

Even if you cannot imagine doing sex work yourself, or think you don’t know anyone who does it, it’s worth reflecting on it as an issue of labour rights, self-determination and consent.

Political support for change

Just after the piece was published, the UK Home Affairs Select Committee declared in a report that there was a very strong case for decriminalisation. Amnesty International reached a similar conclusion in 2015 which has now become policy. This move has also been supported by the Lancet.

If you are affected by any of the issues here and would like to explore them further in therapy, please get in touch.

[The image above is by Usien and can be found at commons.wikimedia.org]


Infidelity – deception is even more exciting than sex

beach 3Cheating – why do people do it?

Actually, perhaps the word ‘cheating’ sounds a little bit old fashioned, so let me put it another way: Why do people go behind the back of a negotiated relationship? Even if the relationship involves multiple partners and freedom to explore sexually?

And why do people do this even when the secret sex isn’t that good – and even when there may be no sex going on at all?

As a relationship therapist, I reflect often about what makes people seek something beyond the current boundary of their romantic partnership(s).

A popular subject for study

There are many theories about nonconsensual non-monogamy. This 2010 paper, Infidelity – When, Where Why? is a thorough roundup of a number of studies on the subject, covering everything from improving the gene pool; poaching a ‘better’ partner; unhappiness in the current pairing, whether due to insufficient sex, care or support; attachment style; boredom; dissatisfaction; and entitlement. There are also a large number of self-help books that attempt to address the issue.

This piece covers one aspect that has been on my mind for a while.

I suspect that, for many people, the urge to secrecy is even stronger than the sexual drive

This may not sound very logical on the surface. We are all supposed to be obsessed with sex, worrying about it all the time, chewing over about who is ‘getting’ more than we are. We spend loads of money on our appearances and fall easily into what I call ‘sex toy capitalism’, the endlessly evolving supply of slightly variant and increasingly expensive tools, of somewhat varying efficacy, which are sold as ways to enhance sexual pleasure. (This mirrors the encyclopaedic numbers of barely distinguishable (or pointlessly athletic) positions used to fluff out magazine articles, eg ‘The Wheelbarrow.’)

Sex is supposed to be the most important thing ever. Only money has more significance in terms of taking our attention and symbolising our social success to others.

So who would care about secrecy?

Ok, think about all the times you have been lied to. Well, there will have been so many of them that you won’t be able to. And then think about all the times you have lied to someone else. Much of the time people claim to hate the idea of lying, (and children are frequently warned against it) but when someone comes along and states the truth to you very brutally, you may well wish the untruths had continued.

So most of us have a shifting wall of defence available to us at the drop of a hat, when social needs arise. How many times have you told a person you were fine when you were not? Secrecy, of which this relatively innocuous exchange is an aspect, protects us from others and protects others from our real selves.

The excitement of a double life

It is very easy to fall into ways of living that do not feel fulfilling or exciting. We can easily forget the importance of excitement and fulfilment when we only have one life to live and we have been told over and over that we must live it in a certain way – through getting a job and a mortgage, and being married to one person, and having children. We may have had very good reasons for doing these things, and they can be very fulfilling in themselves. But perhaps we gradually stop testing ourselves, stretching our capabilities, until we have no idea what we are capable of. In that light, secret sex is a very quick way to reassert a lost, and intoxicating, sense of risk. And our suddenly dull-seeming partner, still stuck in their pyjamas, is unaware of our adventures, and momentarily we become more alive.

Secrecy is power

Secrecy is also control. Doing a thing that another person doesn’t know you’re doing gives you space. It gives you a chance at another identity, even for a few brief hours. It gives you space where you are less known and fewer assumptions can be made about you.

Secrecy is a form of individuation

If we are in any way unsure about who we are, no amount of sex will give us a solid sense of ourselves as individuals. If we find the presence of others encroaching despite our urge to bond with another; if being very close to another person risks us being truly known by them, we may seek to find outlets where we feel we can breathe, away from the main figure in our lives. Lies are like oxygen when the space you occupy with another person is overwhelming.

Response to a parent?

I could take this further and say it is an intrusive parent that we escape from when we do something secretively behind a partner’s back. An intimate partner can become an all-seeing eye – our instinctive response is to rebel.

Secrecy – not all bad

A person may have good reasons to have secret sex – perhaps they are caring for a partner who is incapacitated. They are not going to abandon them, but would like a sexual outlet.

I float this idea as a way of interpreting something I see very often. It is, of course, open to discussion. If anything in this post is relevant to what’s going on in your life and you would like to explore it, please contact me.


Are you stuck on the Sex Escalator?

tg-1-27Today I’m talking about the repetitive sexual conveyer belt that we can find ourselves on if we pay too much attention to cultural influences and not enough to our own needs.

I’m calling it the Sex Escalator because you can sit on it and it will take you somewhere that feels vaguely elevated over and over again – and you need not think about it, ever.

Remember the ‘Relationship Escalator’?

You may well have heard of the ‘relationship escalator’, an idea that originated in non-monogamy research circles and promoted in excellent article about polyamory that I have linked to before. It’s about how relationships are culturally encouraged to follow a tried and tested formula – essentially meeting, dating, becoming a (preferably heterosexual) couple, becoming exclusive and monogamous, moving in together, getting married, buying property and having children.

This model suits many people for many reasons – but it also has a purpose, namely to uphold social cohesion and provide a foundation for a very specific way of having a family. It does not deserve to be rejected outright, but it does deserve examination because many people fall into it before realising it is not what they want or need at all. And this is when relationships can become damaging.

As with relationships, so with sex

Discussing this with friends and colleagues (and working in communities where we talk about these issues a lot), even highly creative sexual adventurers will admit to having sat on the escalator at some point in life. The process goes something like this:

  1. Kissing
  2. Manual stimulation
  3. Oral sex 
  4. Penetration (preferably PIV)
  5. Peak genital orgasm
  6. The End (someone falls asleep)

People base entire marriages around this paradigm. Any deviations from this become treats, exceptions or outliers, or simply never thought of.

And of course, parts of this sequence may be missing altogether because they were never there in the first place.

This is not to judge anyone or criticise this as a way of having a good time together. Over time you may have discovered the most efficient way to orgasm with one person – and after all it’s pleasure and connection you’re after. You may be frequently tired and you may be busy and you may have family to take care of.

The problems start when you’re increasingly unhappy – but you’re not doing anything about it.

Communication as taboo

The problems start when communication ends. For many people, unaccustomed to stating even the simplest needs, useful communication will stop as soon as mutual liking is discovered. For many people this may even come as a relief. In the UK we have a popular trope of two people getting drunk together on a date, waking up in a relationship, and then being delighted that it need never be mentioned again, perhaps for several years.

As with emotions, so with sex.

A package deal of conditioned behaviours and expectations

On the Sex Escalator:

  • Anything else doesn’t really count as sex, or is weird.
  • It’s vital to have a goal, and that goal is ‘full sex’ because the rest is just ‘foreplay’.
  • If you miss out the genital penetration, the sex is incomplete and has failed.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you should keep quiet about it so as not to create disruption.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you may need to seek outside help, because the problem is your fault.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse your partner that much, you should tell them to seek help, because the problem is their fault.
  • Obviously the penis owner will have an orgasm, because they definitely enjoy penetration. (Go here for a longer discussion on why a number of people actually aren’t into penis-in-vagina sex. Go here for a rather more brutal takedown of this sexual trope from a feminist perspective.)
  • The vagina owner really ought to have an orgasm because otherwise they must be dysfunctional and the penis owner won’t like them any more due to their imperfect functioning. 
  • You dare not discuss any of this with your partner in case they are offended or think you are about to criticise them.
  • Deviating from this pattern in any way is terribly adventurous and needs masses of preparation and expense.

I would like to think that the generations that have grown up with the internet will have found a better way, but looking at what young people seem to be learning, I am not so sure. And although this feels like a strictly heterosexual/cis model, any pairing of genders and sexualities could technically enact this. 

I also have a suspicion that this conveniently boxed scenario keeps people more heterosexually confined than they would ideally wish to be.

If the Sex Escalator isn’t working for you

If you keep on ending up having sex like this, and you’re not enjoying it, or you feel that there’s something missing – ask yourself some questions. If you have a partner, ask each other some questions.

  • Am I or my partner truly consenting to any of this?
  • Have we actually ever discussed it?
  • Do either of us really want it?

And if you’ve said to yourself and/or each other: ‘Well, this is okay enough, and if we don’t do these things it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually had sex – ‘

STOP!

If you want something different, here are some things to remind yourself about:

  • Sex does not need either a goal or a destination.

  • Genital sensation does not need to have primacy.

  • Specific activities do not have to have primacy over others.

  • There are no rules about which parts of the body should be included or left out.

  • Orgasms are nice but they are not obligatory.

  • Communicating your needs is vital. 

  • Focusing on breathing can add a whole layer of experience.
  • There is a whole world of sensation waiting for you in many areas of your body that you may not have considered.

  • Have you talked about your fantasies? Have you even thought about them?

What if you went right back to the start and asked yourself – or asked each other – what do I/we really want?

Am I overstating this? Judging by the responses I encounter when someone (or two people in a relationship) realises there is another world of sexual connection out there I am, if anything, understating it.

In a future post I’ll go into more detail about ways to expand your sexual experience.

If you’re concerned about anything I’ve raised in this post and would like to explore this aspect of your life in more detail, you can contact me here.


Chemsex – film review

Chemsex - A Peccadillo Pictures release Review in the Lancet
There’s a new documentary out, Chemsex, about the cultural phenomenon of sex and drug parties on London’s gay scene. It was previewed at the London Film Festival this autumn, and my review of it appears in this week’s Lancet.

You can find the film’s trailer here. I also saw the play Five Guys Chillin at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, which is a verbatim drama about a chemsex party constructed from many hours of interviews.

In my review I looked closely at the film itself and highlighted the public health aspects of the story – the potential for the spread of STIs through having unprotected sex while intoxicated, sharing needles when injecting, or sharing toys and lube. Also the fact that it is particularly easy to overdose on GBL.

I’ve also been reflecting on the film more globally and what else it brought up for me.

Double standards
First of all, it’s very easy to sensationalise what some might see as niche or small community behaviours, but which are in fact only more specific or extreme examples of activities that many people do on a regular basis. Plenty of heterosexual people, for example, stay up for two or more days taking drugs recreationally and having sex.

I’m also aware that a film like this could potentially encourage homophobia in those already disposed that way – just as the many documentaries about excessive public alcohol use in town centres (and the consequent taking up of A&E time) has the potential to encourage a form of classism. This despite the universality of drinking culture in the UK.

Fear of sexual agency
Secondly, our culture is obsessed with sex, but simultaneously fights to create rules about who is allowed to be having it, and how. People who actively pursue their sexual desires are very often seen as a threat, or ‘addicted’. (See my recent post on sex addiction and the concerning number of activities/behaviours which are erroneously named as symptoms of it.)

The challenge of sober sex
Finally, it’s very clear that sober sex is very difficult to accept when you’ve been used to the chemically enhanced version. A film can’t cover everything, but this is something that needs to be addressed societally, and not just in the gay community. I intend to cover this topic soon.

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Am I A Sex Addict?

Silhouette of person watching stripper in club

Sex Addiction – what it isn’t

A lot of people worry about whether they are sex addicts or not, and you may be reading this because the headline rang a bell for you. You may be doing things, looking at things – or even just thinking things – that you feel you cannot share with anyone else because you’re not sure of their reaction. Such is our society’s shame-based confusion around sexual behaviour that many people fear that they may be somehow abnormal. One of the quickest ways to contain your sense of perceived abnormality is by calling yourself an addict.

The Addiction Industry

‘Sex And Love Addiction’ has become a global concept. The media loves it because it feels on-trend, has an air of danger, and pushes buttons deep in us all. And the idea of attending 12-step meetings as the only way to fix ourselves has become a powerful meme. To be ‘needy’ is to be stigmatised out there in the world, the story goes – but in the safety of a meeting you will find a community where you can express your true self. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to a group of people that share a common issue. But by accepting a label you are also paying a price, and in saying ‘it’s not me, it’s my illness’ there is always a risk of remaining in a state of helplessness that is increasingly hard to come back from.

The Addict as Anti-Hero

It is also tempting to identify with the addict as a kind of maverick or renaissance person. There is a strong subconscious (and cultural) narrative in which the addicted person (whether to drugs or anything else) is a prodigal child who is too creative for this earth, fundamentally different from others, and even a shaman. This kind of identification is an effective way of feeling in control of needs that may be making you feel guilty, whether they are in fact doing harm in your life or not.

20 Things that are not Sex Addiction

Such is the push-pull between obsession and denial that almost any behaviour connected to sex whatsoever can be enlisted in support of the sex addiction model. I’ve seen a concerning number of activities and behaviours named as possible symptoms all over the internet and in other media. Here is a roundup:

(1) Thinking about sex a lot

(2) Having sexual fantasies

(3) Having a lot of partner sex

Societal codes dictate all sorts of highly unrealistic attitudes about numbers of previous partners. Numbers do not make you an addict.

(4) Having group sex

Ditto.

(5) Frequent masturbation

How frequent is frequent? This would be my first question.

(6) Being a particular gender and liking sex a lot

A woman is expected to have very few sex partners before her character is called into question and she may be labelled a ‘nymphomaniac.’ She is liable to be labelled an addict by others before a man is, or encouraged to label herself as one. A man may be more likely to self-diagnose as an addict as this self-label may help with fears of helplessness which are seen as insufficiently masculine.

(7) Infidelity

You entered into a relationship without first reflecting on your or your partner’s needs, and you find you cannot stay within the agreed terms of it (if there even were any). It does not make you an addict. The social primacy of the closed couple may simply not be for you.

(8) Being LGBTQ+

Othering of people who are not heterosexual or cisgender often involves a critique of presumed sexual behaviours. This particularly applies to bisexual people, for being ‘greedy’. Trans people are sometimes accused of something similar.

(9) Being polyamorous or in an open relationship

Non-monogamists are sometimes thought to be sex addicts because there must be only one reason for having more than one partner, and that is to have more sex.

(10) Having a fetish

Having an erotic focus on a particular object, form of dress, or experience is fairly common and does not make you a sex addict.

(11) Cross-dressing

Wearing clothes commonly associated with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth does not make you a sex addict.

(12) Being into kink/BDSM

Negotiating boundaries and consent before having intimate contact is not addiction, and neither is giving or receiving extreme sensation or enjoying power exchange. People into kink may be labelled addicts because they actually talk about the sex and intimate contact they are about to have before doing it. One of the rules of normative sex is that you do not talk about it, thereby denying all responsibility for your feelings about it.

(13) Using porn

Porn use can become problematic, but one of the main reasons is our abysmal record on sex and relationships education for children and young people. It is shame based rather than pleasure based. Hand in hand with this is the denial that puts the porn industry in the shadows. There is nothing wrong with wanting to watch people having sex. At best, porn can also be educational and an aid to solo or partner sex.

Plus, don’t forget how many people skip work and partner/family time to watch or listen to sport. No one calls them a ‘sport addict’ and packs them off to a meeting (although I suspect there will be a clinic for it somewhere).

(14) Voyeurism

Enjoyment of looking at people being sexual is not sex addiction.

(15) Exhibitionism

Enjoyment of being looked at while being sexual is not sex addiction.

(16) Visiting sex shops and websites

Where else do you obtain sex toys and other sex-related material?

(17) Visiting (or working in) lapdance/strip clubs

Being involved in, or enjoying, sex-based entertainment does not make you an addict.

(18) Attending (or running) swinging/kink/fetish parties

Hosting, or attending, sex or kink-focused gatherings does not make you an addict.

(19) Paying for sex or kink

Paying for sex does not make you an addict.

(20) Receiving money for sex or kink

And neither does receiving money for it.

Lest I labour the point even further, none of these things in themselves are indicators that someone has a problem that needs fixing.

‘But my sexual behaviour is causing me a lot of problems, so I must be an addict. Are you saying my feelings are wrong?’

Your feelings are not wrong. As a therapist I would be failing at my job if I did not acknowledge someone’s own account of their situation. There is an increasing movement towards self-definition, of sexuality and of gender – so why not this too? My issue here is that sexual behaviour is too individualised to be labelled an addiction. In this model, we are very few steps from labelling some sexual behaviours an illness and even a pathology. Overall, too often (as my list above illustrates) this is no more than ill-founded moral judgement. In fact, sexual self-expression can go to all sorts of extremes and still be completely healthy and non-damaging.

When someone does feel out of control, it’s important to look at the reasons that may be underlying this rather than stick a label on them.

If you have stopped taking responsibility for yourself, and are harming others, this may be a warning sign, along with:

  • Regularly missing work or appointments
  • Neglecting those closest to you
  • Behaving non-consensually
  • Draining your or someone else’s finances
  • Putting your or someone else’s health in danger

However, the problem is as much to do with any other aspect of you as it is about sex. It may be to do with numerous other aspects of your life, or past events that you have not fully integrated. [Of course there is a red flag in here – it does not automatically follow that a person who has a lot of sex, or participates in non-normative practices, has been abused.]

If we compulsively return to a behaviour that is not serving us (whether sexual or not), it may be because nothing else in our lives is satisfying us or making us feel held.

Repeatedly doing something that takes pain away, even when the positive feelings are very short lived, may well be a sign of underlying unease. Examining harmful patterns with deep roots that we feel helpless to change is one of the main reasons people come for therapy. It does not make anyone an addict – or otherwise we are all emotion addicts.

Am I saying sex addiction can’t exist at all, ever? No, but I find that the term is being misused to the point where it is unhelpful.

Self-Help

Seeing a therapist can help you gain some clarity about what’s going on for you. You may, for example, have grown up with the message that you were ‘too much’ as a child. That you took up too much of everyone’s space and time, and that everything you do is wrong. It may also have left you with the sense that you are doing ‘too much’ of something – therapy may help clarify whose version of ‘too much’ that is.

Also, there is nothing wrong with questioning an aspect of your sexual life, identity or practice, that is starting to feel intrusive or ‘not you’ any more, and taking it to therapy. Please bear in mind, however, that conversion therapies are increasingly outlawed and no reputable therapist will suggest them.

  • To find out how I work, and what areas I specialise in, go here.
  • You can find more of my published writing, in the Lancet and elsewhere, here.

So you don’t enjoy penis-in-vagina sex? You’re not alone

Shop dummies

Penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex – not everyone loves it

In my personal and professional life I’m hearing an increasing number of people saying that PIV sex is ‘fine but not their main thing’, or that they don’t bother to seek it out, or that they actively dislike it. (This isn’t just about orgasms, but the whole experience of penetration.) For sure, many people absolutely love it – but many, it seems, do not. While you don’t have to be heterosexual to practise it, PIV is a mainstay of heterosexual culture.

In this article I’m exploring the cultural aspects of PIV sex, and offer a number of reasons why some people don’t enjoy it or wish to have it.

A note on terminology

Penis-in-vagina sex is often referred to as ‘penetrative sex’. This is confusing because there are actually a large number of ways one body can penetrate another that do not involve a penis or a vagina. (I will cover these in a future article.) However, where I use the word ‘penetration’ in this post, it refers solely to PIV.

Traditions and beliefs about PIV sex

Here are some ingrained ideas about PIV (and sex in general) that are foisted on us from an early age:

  • It’s ‘the one true way’.
  • PIV is ‘full sex’ – other kinds are merely ‘foreplay’.
  • It’s about being a heterosexual man and woman together.
  • PIV is the only way for two people to be fully intimate and anything else is not sufficient.
  • It’s about couples and being in a couple is something to aspire to.
  • It makes babies so it is special. (To be fair, before science intervened several decades ago, PIV was the primary way to conceive.)
  • ‘Taking’ a woman’s virginity involves putting a penis inside her. No other form of sex counts as loss of virginity. (This is a powerful tradition, as if having a penis inside her creates the woman as an adult, and nothing else can do this.)
  • There must and will be orgasms from penetration alone or something is wrong.
  • Penetration must occur via the genitals or sex didn’t happen.
  • In fact, if there isn’t a penis in the room, it isn’t possible for sex to happen.

Unfortunately, the increased awareness that we are all supposed to have gained via the internet does not seem to have affected the Sex and Relationships Education agenda very much. It still tends to be focused around fear rather than pleasure.

And people often confuse PIV sex not working well with sex as a whole not working well. This causes some people to sideline sex altogether. However, showing people the almost limitless amount of sexual choice available to them beyond PIV can be very challenging. It becomes easier to just hide in the ‘sex isn’t working’ bubble and do nothing about it, rather than really talk about what you want. (See also BISH UK on Why Penis in Vagina Sex can be Meh.)

I have heard BDSM practitioners refer to PIV as ‘just another kink among many’, and this seems far healthier. There can be huge personal cost to going along with what everyone else seems to be doing, in other words trying to be normal. There are as many different body types as there are sexual responses, and that includes inside the body as well as outside. The reality is that some people’s bodies work in some ways and some in others.

There are of course a large number of gendered aspects to this

As I said above, PIV is a cultural mainstay of heterosexual life. There is still pressure on a vagina-owner to ‘submit’ to being penetrated (showing that they like it but not too much and not having opinions about what the sex should be), and that they must be entered only after protracted negotiation (if they give it up too easily they are a slut).  Actually, the majority of people with vaginas don’t orgasm through penetration, but this myth continues to be perpetrated everywhere and it damages everyone, as it encourages false expectations. This creates not only an entitlement culture but a blame culture about who has an orgasm and who doesn’t, and whose fault it was. For more on this, please see my post ‘Some Myths and Half Truths about Orgasm.’ See also this piece on vibrators, which outlines the issues very well.

There is still pressure on someone with a penis to be manly and thrusty and penetrate things because that is what they are obliged to do in order to fulfil some sort of masculinity contract, and this after all is what genitals were designed for. Effectively, penises must chase vaginas for sex, as many as possible, (and possibly impregnate the owner too where possible) and if they don’t, then the very concept of masculinity is in question.

Eight reasons some people don’t like or want penis-in-vagina sex

As you can see, this list ranges from the preferential to the situational to the medical. All have the potential to be pathologised in a culture that values PIV above all else. This list does not pretend to be exhaustive (particularly the health-related content) and I welcome additional suggestions.

(1) You just don’t like it very much.

Or you don’t orgasm from it and prefer sexual activities that are more reliable. Or you prefer other forms of sexual connection anyway.

(2) Sexual orientation

The cultural primacy of PIV sex sidelines and erases non-heterosexual identities. While queer sexuality embraces a multitude of ways of connecting sexually, those who do not do PIV because of their orientation or lifestyle are seen in heterosexual culture as ‘not doing it properly’ and may be quizzed in detail about what it is they actually do.

(3) Varying intimacy tolerance

Intimacy is often stated as something desirable above all else, and if you don’t have ‘enough’ of it, there is something wrong with you. For sure, having your body penetrated by another, (in whatever way), is a very intimate act, both for giver and receiver. But if someone doesn’t want this, it means therefore that they have a problem that needs fixing, medically or therapeutically.

I reject this traditional framing of intimacy because it does not take into account individual experience. For example, one person’s attempt to remove the emotional boundaries between them and another person might be another’s profoundly destabilising intrusion. And in fact many childhood experiences create a bedrock of feeling where physical intimacy is profoundly unsafe, (and this does not need to have come from sexual abuse). People commence their emotional and sexual lives at different levels. It is not an equal playing field. Culturally, individual experience is persistently and ongoingly sacrificed to the benefit of an outdated agenda.

 (4) Performance anxiety

PIV sex demands a certain level of performance from the bodies of both parties. Both sets of genitals have to do certain things to make it happen. Of course there are tools that can help the process – lube, pumps, pills, porn – but there can often be a psychological disconnect between how a person is feeling and what their genitals appear to be experiencing. This is heightened by Sex Olympics Confusion about who has the biggest penis and who is the longest lasting, or who has either the tightest pussy or can take the biggest size, whether of penis or object, or who can ejaculate the most prolifically. Lack of lubrication is also an issue, because everyone’s body and expression of desire is different, and this is not always due to a health/medical issue. ‘Long lasting’ penetrative sex can cause discomfort, but it’s still A Thing that some feel they must aspire to.

In our highly visual culture of competition, it is possible to feel very inadequate. In cases of ‘dysfunction’ (and the whole concept of dysfunction is problematic) the body may be speaking where the mind cannot.

(5) Partner incompatibility 

Genital mismatch, sex drive mismatch, or intimacy tolerance mismatch. Sometimes people put up with these things for years in order to remain in a relationship. Such is the power of couple culture. Some suffer in silence and some end up avoiding sex altogether, simply because it is easier to do this than ask for what you want and negotiate.

(6) Fear/shame

Fear of getting a Sexually Transmitted Infection – HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhoea, etc. Many fear herpes because, while not life threatening and asymptomatic for many, it seems to have more shame attached to it than some other more serious conditions. Also, the shame around having an STI can also make sex a less desirable activity.

Fear of pregnancy or getting someone pregnant. (Also, if you have recently given birth, you may want to be sexual without being penetrated.)

Fear of engulfment inside another person. (Sometimes expressed by the myth of the vagina dentata.)

(7) Pain/discomfort

‘Honeymoon cystitis’ – In the early days of a relationship, PIV sex can put the body into an illness cycle – vigorous penetration can cause cystitis, which is then treated with antibiotics, which then cause thrush, which is treated with messy insertables. This cycle can persist, and needs to be caught and treated to avoid the condition travelling to the kidneys.

Vaginismus – the vaginal muscles clench so that penetration becomes difficult and painful, or impossible. Given the pressures on us all to conform to specific appearances and body types, I am amazed that more people don’t experience this – plus the number of people who have their physical boundaries crossed when they are too young to protest and for whom penetration has deeper and more stressful significance. One of the advised ‘cures’ for vaginismus is dilation with increasingly sized ‘vaginal trainers’, as if the lack of desire for penetration must be fixed at all costs.

Muscle tension – there is often confusion about vaginal musculature. Often there is a rush to do kegels (PC squeezes) because ‘loose’ vaginal muscles are seen as the worst thing in the world. In fact, although the exercises can be helpful, the underlying problem can be excessive muscular contraction rather than ‘looseness’. Biofeedback (which is also used to help urinary incontinence) can help show what is going on in the vagina. Sexological bodywork or intimate massage can help. A person if they are lucky could be sent to a woman’s physio at a hospital. Pelvic tension is an issue for both sexes, but is rarely mentioned by doctors.

Phimosis – the foreskin won’t retract properly and makes sex painful. This is a source of shame and embarrassment and many people even in middle age don’t feel comfortable seeing a doctor about it and continue to put up with painful sex, or none. There is an opposite disorder (paraphimosis) where it becomes stuck in the retracted position.

Pain syndromes such as dyspareunia and vestibulodynia. Also Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) relating to shame.

Internal conditions such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Tilted or retroverted uterus, which can make deeper penetration painful. Internal scarring/adhesions (either sex). Prostate issues.

External skin conditions which can make genital touch or friction painful – eczema/psoriasis, lichen planus/sclerosus, and thrush (in fact thrush has traditionally been used as a catch-all diagnosis where something else is the problem) – and/or whose appearance may cause the person to feel self conscious.

You might have read the list of health conditions above and thought to yourself, ‘Why not go to the doctor and get it sorted out?’ Unfortunately, many of these conditions are not so easily fixed. Sometimes a person has to learn to live with them and negotiate their sex life around them.

(8) None of the above – you just don’t like it.

 

Conclusion

Our culture currently privileges one way of being at a cost to the rest. We would save a lot of money public health if we improved sex education around this and people felt able to express their true sexual selves without feeling inadequate.

The more people speak out about this, and promote other ways of being sexual, the happier many people will be.