The Bodies: Owning Sensuality, In and Out of Intimate Relationships
I grew up in a sex-positive house.
My father was a women’s gynecologist, and his firm belief was that we should know everything there
was to know about our bodies, the good and the bad, so we could make our own informed decisions
when the time came. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of cereal in our apartment on a Sunday morning in late winter, ten years old, happily identifying various Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s) on a wide array of body parts. Dad used sing off the parts of the vagina in the car to the tune of Old McDonald. He taught sex ed to my middle school friends over bowls of ice cream in the kitchen while we painted our nails. In college, I followed him around to quite a few women’s marches and protests, where he spoke about consent, abortion rights, and the spectrum of sexuality.
Even though I was raised in a home that openly discussed sex and sexuality, I also grew into sexual maturity weighted down with damaging ideals of what sex and sensuality should look like. I, like many girls and women I knew, saw my sexuality as part of a bargaining chip in relationships. I believed in the dichotomy of: If I give it away too soon, they’ll think I’m something I’m not. If I wait, I’m a prude. In conversation I was sexually liberated, with apparently no shame. But in my college dorm room with the light off and music playing to cover the noise, I’d dive under the covers and keep myself as clothed as possible. Despite what could only be described as a bawdy mouth, when it came time to do the deed I was shy, nervous, and conservative. I regularly accepted sex that was not pleasurable, or even painful, because I was too afraid to speak up. It was frustrating and scary to feel powerless in what should have been moments of power and safety.
A few years ago, I dated a guy for a few years who would have sex “in his sleep” with me. I’d wake up and we’d be doing it. At first, I thought it was surprising and kind of sexy. I was into it. He was so into me he literally couldn’t even sleep without wanting to get it on. The more into our relationship we got, however, the more these nighttime episodes felt like unwanted intrusions. I started to not like it, but I didn’t say anything. I felt like because it was something we’d done before, I couldn’t stop it without sounding like I was making drama. One night, I reacted violently. After that, sex became something I actively avoided in that relationship, until we broke up. For a while, I blamed myself for the relationship’s end. I couldn’t understand how we’d gone from the heat of passion to the moment when I dreaded his touch.
I was sitting with a friend a few months after the break up, talking about getting back in the dating
scene. “Well,” she asked, “what are you looking for?” I didn’t know the details, but I wanted it to be fun. Pleasurable. Something I had not been good a seeking before. I had to begin the long process of claiming my sexuality, in all its nuances. I had to know what made me feel pleasure, and excitement, and safety, before I could bring another person into the equation.
It began with exploring what I liked. When the breakup happened, I couldn’t tell you what “worked”
with me sexually or otherwise. I believed that pleasure was built for my partner, and I could feel good
but did not need an orgasm. I believed instead that what I got from sex was a connection. I still hold this to be an important function of sex, but I also learned about how fundamentally important pleasure is.
On a recommendation from a friend and sex-positive badass, I began to follow Zoe Ligon (@thongria), a sex educator, artist, CEO, “Dildo Dutchess” and owner of Spectrum Boutique, a sex-positive e-toy store that does amazing work on empowering people to claim their own versions of sexuality. I began to, in the biblical sense of the words, ~ know myself ~ . When I learned about something that worked with my body, that brought me pleasure, I wrote it down in a journal. I created lists of things I liked, both sexually and platonically. I created hard no lists – things I’d never do, ever – and soft lists, or things I could see myself open to doing in the right situation.
I decided after a few months alone that I was ready to bring others into my life, in small steps. The first few times I kissed somebody after I started my writing practices, I placed their hands on my body.
Whenever they moved their hands, I’d stop them. Eventually, they’d get the hint. If they couldn’t understand – or wouldn’t – I’d stop what we were doing.
Eventually, I was able to start talking to my partners. I was able to say “I liked that,” or, “That was nice.” I kept to general, small praises – something that wouldn’t make me or my partner feel awkward or like I was narrating a sex tape. It progressed from there in slow steps to where I could talk about my own pleasure to a partner. And holy moly, do I mean slow. I’m a direct person with all my clothes on. I like to think I tell it how it is and cut straight to the point, but even I needed a lot of time and practice to start vocalizing my needs in intimate settings. Sometimes I’d fail, and try to rely on silent signals to let a partner know what was working and what wasn’t. This was a relic of my past, and while I believe our partners are responsible for reading our body language and checking in, it’s not a fail-safe system by any means. I taught my partners how to check for consent by modelling how I wanted to be talked to and having frank discussions after the intimacy of the moment passed. Body language is a tricky thing to read, and I have found that a check for consent, from “how does this feel?” or, “do you like this?” has proven thousands of times more successful.
I believe that claiming and owning sexuality begins wherever it is you are when you choose to begin – whether that’s as someone who has practiced sex and consent, with your very own “sexual conversation style,” or as a complete virgin. Wherever, or whenever, it begins, I do believe it is important to have a goal in mind: what is that that you want from sexual relationships? For me, it is about mutual pleasure and what author Jaclyn Friedman of “What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety” calls enthusiastic consent. I don’t want to just feel ok. I want to feel amazing, and I want my partner to feel the same. As with acquiring any new skill or trying something for the first time, intimacy at any stage in a relationship requires communication and should welcome feedback and revision.
In the thick of my practice with owning my sexuality, my partner and I would have what felt like full-on conversations during sex. We were constantly affirming that the other partner was present, fulfilling our needs, and the act was consensual. If something didn’t feel right, we’d be able to identify it and fix it. It created a base for us that, years later, we rely on. Our ability to talk about what our needs are and problem-solve together has stemmed from our open and honest discussions of what many of our friends find to be the most challenging topic: sex. From picking what’s for dinner to trying out a new position, our communication style has evolved, but our goals have stayed the same: enthusiastic consent.
Even though my life has gotten infinitely busier, I also make time to regularly practice exploring my own sensuality. My needs change as I age, or if I am sad, or if my medications are increased. Taking time out of the relationship to check in with my body, my heart, and my sensual needs is critical for me. In claiming my own sexuality, I also have to remind myself of the responsibility I have towards owning it daily: I try to understand what my patterns are and communicate them to my partner. Sometimes I’m a confused mess, and sometimes I understand my needs and communicate them effectively. It’s still a gamble, but one I’m willing and eager to take, because it has made a huge difference in terms of my overall health and well-being.