This piece is the first installment of a new column titled Femintimacy. Columnist Sienna Brancato will explore sex— and the many topics that word encapsulates— from a young feminist’s angle. She doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but will be talking about how culture and society have impacted sex and intimacy for young women, figuring it out with you.
As we exited the taxi, towing suitcases and sagging under the weight of overstuffed backpacks, we saw it. A big, red and white sex shop right next to our hotel. Signs brazenly proclaimed, “Sexshop,” “Lingerie,” and “Erotika.”
Elaboration: this is the hotel I stayed in with my 18-year-old brother on our first ever sibling trip.
We couldn't help but laugh.
The sex shop was located on a main thoroughfare, with probably hundreds or thousands of people walking past and into it every day, in a not-particularly-seedy neighborhood. It wasn’t dark or hidden, and it didn’t have any “shady characters” gathered outside its doors. In short, it defied all expectations of what I was brought up to believe about sex shops.
Of course, we never went inside. I was with my 18-year-old brother, for goodness sakes! (*cue the “oh dear me" Southern grandma expression*) But this sex shop really got me thinking. Not necessarily about sex itself (okay, maybe a little bit about sex), but more about my relationship with sex as a concept.
I consider myself a sex-positive feminist. I support all consensual sexual decisions, particularly those of women who have long felt repressed and are now coming into their own understanding, defying societal standards and embracing their sexuality in whatever form that takes.
So why, then, did this sex shop make me so strangely uncomfortable?
It was loud and proud, professing exactly what it was with no smoke and mirrors, no euphemisms to hide behind. It was everything I profess to believe in embodied in a simple shop.
It was confident, it was bold, it was unafraid. So, why wasn't I?
Maybe it was partially because I was with my brother. Of course, talking about sex with family members, particularly teenage ones who are close to your own age, is uncomfortable for most people.
But, more deeply, maybe it was so awkward because I'm still not fully comfortable with my sexuality.
I lost my virginity when I was 19 to my boyfriend of about a month. We loved each other, and it's a memory I look back on fondly. It wasn't a particularly remarkable experience for its sexual pleasure, but I will never forget those feelings of safety and comfort. It didn't feel particularly good or bad, after the initial discomfort, and I remember thinking after, "Okay. So I guess that's what that is."
I'd like to say that throughout our relationship the sex improved. In some ways, it did. He was so concerned with me, about making me feel good, so unselfish.
But I had no idea what I liked sexually. I had never masturbated before, so I couldn't articulate what would make me feel good because I genuinely didn't know. Even once I had, I still felt uncomfortable communicating.
I had faked and enhanced my reactions to pleasure for so long, for his benefit, so that he felt like he was receiving some reward or compensation in return for the effort he put in, that I didn't feel like I could go back on it now. I couldn't reveal my deception.
And, yet, he just tried harder and harder. I had created this endless loop that I felt trapped in.
This is not to say that we never had a good sexual experience. I found his devotion to me to be incredibly sexy. We had so much physical chemistry when kissing and doing everything leading up to penetrative sex.
But I never orgasmed once while I was with him.
And I still haven't.
For someone who has recently taken to writing about sex so much, that may seem kind of surprising. But I think maybe that’s why it’s a topic that interests me so much. I’m slowly realizing how much my societal upbringing has shaped my relationship with sex today.
My next sexual partner wasn't really concerned with my pleasure. I describe him as kind of like a jackhammer, just pounding away determinedly. He had all the necessary component parts, but just didn’t seem to realize that the wheels might have needed a bit more grease, if you know what I mean?
My third sexual partner only wanted to please me, and believed that he could predict my body and its complexities. When he told me I was coming, I knew I wasn't, but I just faked it anyway. He believed me.
There is power in faking, but there is also submission. There is an inherent capitulation, actively deciding not to demand or insist upon your own pleasure in equal measure to your partner's.
And I see this dynamic so frequently in heterosexual partnerships. We are socialized to prioritize the man's pleasure, to mark the end of a sexual experience by a man's climax.
A life-changing moment for me came when my now ex-boyfriend turned over to face me for the first time after sex and said "okay, now it's your turn." I had previously just contented myself with the experience ending at that point, but he taught me the value of reciprocity.
I'm talking in heteronormative terms here because I'm pretty sure I'm heterosexual, so I'd be interested to find out if a similar dynamic exists in same-sex relationships.
But the essential part about faking orgasms is that it will always leave you unsatisfied and a little bit confused (partially because of the slight feelings of relief but also the annoyance at your own inability to really understand and get in touch with your own body). Faking orgasms benefits neither partner and is simply a placeholder for a lack of self-knowledge.
I think I’m a self-proclaimed serial orgasm faker because I’m a little bit afraid of my vagina. I’m afraid of its power and capacity for pleasure. I’m afraid of the intimidating dark cavity that I was barely ever taught about in high school. I was taught a lot about what it looked like internally, showed many diagrams that looked like alien brains, but I was never taught about its external appearance, and never about pleasure.
I don't use tampons because I'm not comfortable enough with my own anatomy to put something inside myself. I’ve never orgasmed while masturbating because I think I’m a little afraid of the release, of that unknown, of letting go.
Confronting this sex shop head on has taught me that my relationship with sex is evolving, growing, and maturing as I am. It has made me face head on what I still need to explore about my sexuality (and not just chasing the elusive orgasm, because pressure to climax just makes me more self-conscious than before). And I'm hopefully starting to define it on my own terms.
I support all women wherever they are on their journey to discovering and embracing their sexualities, so I need to cut myself a little slack and realize that the journey is exactly that: a journey.
If I've been socialized my entire life to be uncomfortable with sex and my own anatomy, that's not just going to magically change overnight, or even in a year, or two years, and so forth.
Embracing sex in all its awkwardness and awesomeness takes work. And that's work I'm fully okay with doing.