The female price of male pleasure
Let's talk about bad sex
The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears.
When Babe.net published a pseudonymous woman's account of a difficult encounter with Aziz Ansari that made her cry, the internet exploded with "takes" arguing that the #MeToo movement had finally gone too far. "Grace," the 23-year-old woman, was not an employee of Ansari's, meaning there were no workplace dynamics. Her repeated objections and pleas that they "slow down" were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex. Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.
Why didn't she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.
It's a rich question, and there are plenty of possible answers. But if you're asking in good faith, if you really want to think through why someone might have acted as she did, the most important one is this: Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.
This is so baked into our society I feel like we forget it's there. To steal from David Foster Wallace, this is the water we swim in.
The Aziz Ansari case hit a nerve because, as I've long feared, we're only comfortable with movements like #MeToo so long as the men in question are absolute monsters we can easily separate from the pack. Once we move past the "few bad apples" argument and start to suspect that this is more a trend than a blip, our instinct is to normalize. To insist that this is is just how men are, and how sex is.
This is what Andrew Sullivan basically proposed in his latest, startlingly unscientific column. #MeToo has gone too far, he argues, by refusing to confront the biological realities of maleness. Feminism, he says, has refused to give men their due and denied the role "nature" must play in these discussions. Ladies, he writes, if you keep denying biology, you'll watch men get defensive, react, and "fight back."
This is beyond vapid. Not only is Sullivan bafflingly confused about nature and its realities, as Colin Dickey notes in this instructive Twitter thread, he's being appallingly conventional. Sullivan claims he came to "understand the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman" thanks to a testosterone injection he received. That is to say, he imagines maleness can be isolated to an injectable hormone and doesn't bother to imagine femaleness at all. If you want an encapsulation of the habits of mind that made #MeToo necessary, there it is. Sullivan, that would-be contrarian, is utterly representative.
The real problem isn't that we — as a culture — don't sufficiently consider men's biological reality. The problem is rather that theirs is literally the only biological reality we ever bother to consider.
So let's actually talk bodies. Let's take bodies and the facts of sex seriously for a change. And let's allow some women back into the equation, shall we? Because if you're going to wax poetic about male pleasure, you had better be ready to talk about its secret, unpleasant, ubiquitous cousin: female pain.
Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and "large proportions" don't tell their partners when sex hurts.
That matters, because nowhere is our lack of practice at thinking about non-male biological realities more evident than when we talk about "bad sex." For all the calls for nuance in this discussion of what does and doesn't constitute harassment or assault, I've been dumbstruck by the flattening work of that phrase — specifically, the assumption that "bad sex" means the same thing to men who have sex with women as it does to women who have sex with men.
The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss "bad sex" suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. (Here's a very unscientific Twitter poll I did that found just that.) But when most women talk about "bad sex," they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. "When it comes to 'good sex,'" she told me, "women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms."
As for bad sex, University of Michigan Professor Sara McClelland, another one of the few scholars who has done rigorous work on this issue, discovered in the course of her research on how young men and women rate sexual satisfaction that "men and women imagined a very different low end of the sexual satisfaction scale."
While women imagined the low end to include the potential for extremely negative feelings and the potential for pain, men imagined the low end to represent the potential for less satisfying sexual outcomes, but they never imagined harmful or damaging outcomes for themselves. ["Intimate Justice: Sexual satisfaction in young adults"]
Once you've absorbed how horrifying this is, you might reasonably conclude that our "reckoning" over sexual assault and harassment has suffered because men and women have entirely different rating scales. An 8 on a man's Bad Sex scale is like a 1 on a woman's. This tendency for men and women to use the same term — bad sex — to describe experiences an objective observer would characterize as vastly different is the flip side of a known psychological phenomenon called "relative deprivation," by which disenfranchised groups, having been trained to expect little, tend paradoxically to report the same levels of satisfaction as their better-treated, more privileged peers.
This is one reason why Sullivan's attempt to naturalize the status quo is so damaging.
When a woman says "I'm uncomfortable" and leaves a sexual encounter in tears, then, maybe she's not being a fragile flower with no tolerance for discomfort. And maybe we could stand to think a little harder about the biological realities a lot of women deal with, because unfortunately, painful sex isn't the exceptional outlier we like to pretend it is. It's pretty damn common.
In considering Sullivan's proposal, we might also, provisionally, and just as a thought experiment, accept that biology — or "nature" — coexists with history and sometimes replicates the lopsided biases of its time.
This is certainly true of medicine. Back in the 17th century, the conventional wisdom was that women were the ones with the rampant, undisciplined sexual appetites. That things have changed doesn't mean they're necessarily better. These days, a man can walk out of his doctor's office with a prescription for Viagra based on little but a self-report, but it still takes a woman, on average, 9.28 years of suffering to be diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition caused by endometrial tissue growing outside the uterus. By that time, many find that not just sex but everyday existence has become a life-deforming challenge. That's a blunt biological reality if ever there was one.
Or, since sex is the subject here, what about how our society's scientific community has treated female dyspareunia — the severe physical pain some women experience during sex — vs. erectile dysfunction (which, while lamentable, is not painful)? PubMed has 393 clinical trials studying dyspareunia. Vaginismus? 10. Vulvodynia? 43.
Erectile dysfunction? 1,954.
That's right: PubMed has almost five times as many clinical trials on male sexual pleasure as it has on female sexual pain. And why? Because we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.
This bizarre sexual astigmatism structures so much in our culture that it's hard to gauge the extent to which our vision of things is skewed.
Take how our health system compensates doctors for male vs. female-only surgeries: As of 2015, male-specific surgeries were still reimbursed at rates 27.67 percent higher for male-specific procedures than female-specific ones. (Result: Guess who gets the fanciest doctors?) Or consider how routinely many women are condescended to and dismissed by their own physicians.
Yet here's a direct quote from a scientific article about how (contra their reputation for complaining and avoiding discomfort) women are worryingly tough: "Everyone who regularly encounters the complaint of dyspareunia knows that women are inclined to continue with coitus, if necessary, with their teeth tightly clenched."
If you asked yourself why "Grace" didn't leave Ansari's apartment as soon as she felt "uncomfortable," you should be asking the same question here. If sex hurt, why didn't she stop? Why is this happening? Why are women enduring excruciating pain to make sure men have orgasms?
The answer isn't separable from our current discussion about how women have been routinely harassed, abused, and dismissed because men wanted to have erections in the workplace. It boggles the mind that Sullivan thinks we don't sufficiently consider men's biological reality when our entire society has agreed to organize itself around the pursuit of the straight male orgasm. This quest has been granted total cultural centrality — with unfortunate consequences for our understanding of bodies, and pleasure, and pain.
Per Sullivan's request, I'm talking about biology. I'm speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually "viable." Have you looked at how women are "supposed" to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don't shorten their Achilles tendons. They don't need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as "conventionally" attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it's ludicrous to pretend they aren't.
The old implied social bargain between women and men (which Andrew Sullivan calls "natural") is that one side will endure a great deal of discomfort and pain for the other's pleasure and delight. And we've all agreed to act like that's normal, and just how the world works. This is why it was radical that Frances McDormand wore no makeup at the Golden Globes. This is why it was transformative when Jane Fonda posted a picture of herself looking exhausted next to one of her looking glammed up. This isn't just an exhausting way to live; it's also a mindset that's pretty hard to shake.
To be clear, I'm not even objecting to our absurd beauty standards right now. My only objective here is to explore how the training women receive can help us understand what "Grace" did and did not do.
Women are supposed to perform comfort and pleasure they do not feel under conditions that make genuine comfort almost impossible. Next time you see a woman breezily laughing in a complicated and revealing gown that requires her not to eat or drink for hours, know a) that you are witnessing the work of a consummate illusionist acting her heart out and b) that you have been trained to see that extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance as merely routine.
Now think about how that training might filter down to sexual contexts.
Why, men wonder, do women fake orgasms? It seems so counterproductive? This is true! It does. That means it's worth thinking very carefully about why so many people might do something that seems so completely contrary to their self-interest. Women get dressed up and go on dates in part because they have libidos and are hoping to get sexual pleasure. Why, when the moment finally arrives, would they give up and fake it?
The retrograde answer (the one that ignores that women have libidos) is that women trade sex positions they don't like for social positions they do. They don't care about pleasure.
There might be other reasons. Maybe, for example, women fake orgasms because they'd hoped for some pleasure themselves. If it looks like that's not happening, they default to their training. And they've been taught a) to tolerate discomfort and b) to somehow find pleasure in the other party's pleasure if the social conditions require it.
This is especially true where sex is concerned. Faking an orgasm achieves all kinds of things: It can encourage the man to finish, which means the pain (if you're having it) can finally stop. It makes him feel good and spares his feelings. If being a good lover means making the other person feel good, then you've excelled on that front too. Total win.
We're so blind to pain being the giant missing term in our sexual discussions that ABC News' epic 2004 "American Sex Survey," which includes an amazing 67 questions, never once mentions it. It doesn't even show up as a possible reason for orgasm-faking:
This is how bad our science and social science about sex has been. By refusing to see pain and discomfort as things women routinely endure in sexual contexts, even our studies end up narrating them as strange and arbitrary creatures who (for some reason) are "not in the mood" or stop sex because they "just wanted to."
But it's not just about sex. One of the compliments girls get most as kids is that they're pretty; they learn, accordingly, that a lot of their social value resides in how much others enjoy looking at them. They're taught to take pleasure in other people's pleasure in their looks. Indeed, this is the main way they're socially rewarded.
This is also how women are taught to be good hosts. To subordinate their desires to those of others. To avoid confrontation. At every turn, women are taught that how someone reacts to them does more to establish their goodness and worth than anything they themselves might feel.
One side effect of teaching one gender to outsource its pleasure to a third party (and endure a lot of discomfort in the process) is that they're going to be poor analysts of their own discomfort, which they have been persistently taught to ignore.
In a world where women are co-equal partners in sexual pleasure, of course it makes sense to expect that a woman would leave the moment something was done to her that she didn't like.
That is not the world we live in.
In the real world, the very first lesson the typical woman learns about what to expect from sex is that losing her virginity is going to hurt. She's supposed to grit her teeth and get through it. Think about how that initiation into sex might thwart your ability to recognize "discomfort" as something that's not supposed to happen. When sex keeps hurting long after virginity is lost, as it did for many of my friends, many a woman assumes she's the one with the problem. And, well, if you were supposed to grit your teeth and get through it the first time, why not the second? At what point does sex magically transform from enduring someone doing something to you that you don't like — but remember: everyone agrees you're supposed to tolerate it — to the mutually pleasurable experience everyone else seems to think it is?
We don't really have a language for that amazingly complicated transition because we don't think about the biological realities of sex from the woman's side.
Women have spent decades politely ignoring their own discomfort and pain to give men maximal pleasure. They've gamely pursued love and sexual fulfillment despite tearing and bleeding and other symptoms of "bad sex." They've worked in industries where their objectification and harassment was normalized, and chased love and sexual fulfillment despite painful conditions no one, especially not their doctors, took seriously. Meanwhile, the gender for whom bad sex sometimes means being a little bored during orgasm, the gender whose sexual needs the medical community rushes to fulfill, the gender that walks around in sartorial comfort, with an entire society ordered so as to maximize his aesthetic and sexual pleasure — that gender, reeling from the revelation that women don't always feel quite as good as they've been pressured to pretend they do, and would appreciate some checking in — is telling women they're hypersensitive and overreacting to discomfort? Men's biological realities are insufficiently appreciated?
I wish we lived in a world that encouraged women to attend to their bodies' pain signals instead of powering through like endurance champs. It would be grand if women (and men) were taught to consider a woman's pain abnormal; better still if we understood a woman's discomfort to be reason enough to cut a man's pleasure short.
But those aren't actually the lessons society teaches — no, not even to "entitled" millennials. Remember: Sex is always a step behind social progress in other areas because of its intimacy. Talking details is hard, and it's good we're finally starting to. But next time we're inclined to wonder why a woman didn't immediately register and fix her own discomfort, we might wonder why we spent the preceding decades instructing her to override the signals we now blame her for not recognizing.