Bad Sex: A Feminist Discussion

There’s a very interesting article over at feministe about bad sex. The author, EG, reflects on some extremely negative experiences of sex which were nevertheless consensual. She notes a tendency in sex-positive discourses to presume an exhaustive dichotomy between rape, on the one hand, and enjoyable sex, on the other. This implies that if sex was bad, it must have been rape – which is belied by the author’s experiences (and no doubt by the experiences of many others), as she says:

So why did I keep saying yes?  I didn’t want him to stop liking me (fat chance).  I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t cool.  Nobody else had ever found me attractive.  And while I knew I was smart–I had all kinds of support and validation for that–the idea that somebody thought I was pretty?  Attractive?  Beautiful?  It was powerful.  It was important.  I really, really needed it.  But understand: he never said anything like that.  He never put any pressure on me.  But I still ended up doing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t enjoy.  My decisions were no doubt the result of a misogynist culture that taught me to value myself and my sexuality poorly; they were no doubt the result of rape culture that taught me to prioritize his experiences over my own.  But they were mine.  I was of age.  I consented, repeatedly.  This wasn’t rape.

The author invites feminists to consider this kind of experience. Is it gendered? (Note that it could be gendered without being an experience that is exclusive to women; for example, the bad sex experiences of women and men might have different features or consequences, or be differentially common.) Is it systematic? How does it intersect with issues of race, disability, and trans identity, among other axes of oppression? What power dynamics are or might be at play here, what philosophical tools can we bring to analysing them, and, most importantly, how can they be resisted?

4 thoughts on “Bad Sex: A Feminist Discussion

  1. Well…these are certainly interesting cases worthy of a lot of discussion. But if one’s looking to make the point that there’s a wide range of cases of “bad sex” that also aren’t rape, there are other types of cases that make the point in a way that’s 100% uncontroversial. I’m thinking here of the case of a couple that’s been together for a long time and has regular, uneventful, boring sex that is mutually consensual but enjoyed by neither party. This sort of case in particular, I think, shows that a lot of “sex-positive” (a term that is used more often by critics than by people who actually hold the views, I think) discourse is meant to be *aspirational*. I guess I read much of that discourse as claiming not that sex has to be good/positive/enthusiastic to be consensual, but that sex would ideally be good/positive/enthusiastic and that this is a goal worth striving for and instilling in young people discovering sex.

    None of this is to take away, of course, from the other issues the article raises (e.g., whether those particular experiences of bad sex are gendered, raced, et al.).

  2. That seems true to me, Matt. So then perhaps the specific question the author is posing would be better stated in terms of ‘sex that is deeply unpleasant and harmful (possibly in a long-term way), whilst not being rape’ rather than simply in terms of ‘bad sex that isn’t rape’.

  3. Yes, I think that’s the right framing for the question. And the author is right that approaches to sex that emphasize only consent aren’t able to capture the sorts of experiences she has had. I find the standard BDSM approach far more helpful, where consent is only one of three criterion for sex (the others being safety – i.e., no serious harm and sanity – i.e., being in the right frame of mind). A lot of what I’m hearing from this author is that cultural expectations about sex, sexual interest, and sexual availability are causing harms to women (or are messing with their frame of mind in ways) that either aren’t being articulated or are being ignored.

  4. I agree with Matt.

    Sex takes two (or more) and it’s very difficult (outside of the movies) for two people, even two people who love each other, to have exactly the same need for sex at exactly the same moment and so one of them often has a not entirely satisfactory sexual experience. I’m not so sure what’s wrong with that if it’s within the context of what we might call “a give and take relationship”, where in general, both give and take according to their needs and capacities.

    As for sex with strangers, even if carried out in good faith and with full consent, people who look like they’ll be great in bed, don’t always turn out to be so and well, we live and learn, don’t we?

    Sex is so complicated and sexual attraction involves so many factors, besides pure physical desire (if that exists), including affection for the other person, including social factors (such as the musician’s political views in the original post), including
    their style of dressing (people look different without their clothes of course), including
    whether the other is cool or not, including intellectual affinity (which has little to do with how good the other is in bed), that it’s a wonder that any sex turns out good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s