Feminism

My Pleasure is My Own

I’m sure you all have heard this sentence before: “I want to make my partner feel good sexually.” At its surface this is a lovely sentiment. Of COURSE you should want your partner to feel good, it would be fairly disturbing if you didn’t. In fact, it’s so integral to the point of sex that it should just be assumed and there should be no reason to even mention it. So when someone mentions this as something that they enjoy in sex, I start to get suspicious. Perhaps it’s because of past experiences, but far too often I see female pleasure as only important insofar as it enhances male pleasure, and when someone feels the need to qualify that they really prefer it when their partner is having a good time, my flags go up.

In a recent post at Joy, Love, Feminism, Libby Anne looks at the constructs of female pleasure in fundamentalist contexts. I’m going to quote a few pieces of her posts because I think they’re relevant to many more places than simply fundamentalist Christianity. As a note, the Debi she refers to is Debi Pearl and are in response to Debi’s thoughts in Created to Be His Help Meet:

“Apparently, if a husband’s “need” or “desire” is to pleasure his wife, she needs to be sure to meet that need. Because, yes, female sexual pleasure matters to Debi only insomuch as it enhances male sexual pleasure. Seriously, this would have been a perfect place for Debi to have finally addressed female pleasure.”

“This letter isn’t from a woman who wanted her husband to give her sexual pleasure even as he refused, but rather about a man who wanted to give his wife sexual pleasure even as she refused. In other words . . . if  your husband  wants to give you sexual pleasure, you better accept it whether you want it or not.”

“You know, this is the first time female pleasure has come up, and somehow Debi makes female pleasure all about men. Women, you better feel pleasure during sex, because if you don’t your man won’t feel like a real man! Really? Is that, like, the whole point of female pleasure? Seriously, what?”

At this point in history, most people understand that they’re not supposed to have sex with an unwilling partner. Feminism has at least come far enough that people understand that sex should be something both people enjoy. So if a partner appears unenthusiastic, or as if they are not having a good time, the other party understands that something is wrong. Oftentimes they feel guilty, or they are unable to enjoy themselves because they understand that things aren’t quite right. If your partner is not having a good time and isn’t feeling good during your sexual activities, it’s going to ruin the sex. In my opinion this is a good thing, because it’s a very clear sign that you should stop. However as the above quotes indicate, many people don’t see it that way.

These quotes illustrate that for some people, their partner’s pleasure isn’t really about wanting their partner to feel good, but is rather about enhancing their own pleasure. As an example, it’s the difference between wanting your partner to orgasm because orgasms are fun and feel good versus wanting your partner to orgasm because it makes your orgasm better. These are two very different things, and one of them is wholly inappropriate because it implies that your partner owes you pleasure or that their experience is really all about you.

I’ve also seen this type of attitude toward’s a partner’s pleasure in the types of things that people say when their partner is not enthusiastic. Many people see it as a sign that their partner is trying to make them feel guilty, is ruining sex for them, doesn’t love them, wants to punish them, or are withholding something. I have in fact had the experience of having someone pressure me into sex and then get pissed at me because I was not enthusiastic enough and they couldn’t get their jollies off when I was hesitant or unresponsive. Female pleasure in particular seems to only be important insofar as men need it to get into the act.

There is something entirely sick about telling your partner that they need to be enthusiastic. I think this bind happens more often than people are willing to admit. One partner is more interested sex, but makes it clear they aren’t interested in having sex with an unresponsive partner. This implies that if the couple is ever going to have sex that will satisfy, someone will have to fake it. I’m sick of the idea that a woman owes a man her pleasure (and yes I understand that this can and does happen in non-binary ways and to men as well, but more often than not it’s women who are put in this situation and so I’m going to refer to it as such). It’s more than simply controlling a woman’s body, it’s taking it a step further and trying to control a woman’s feelings and thoughts. Women don’t feel pleasure only to make men feel manlier, powerful, or confirmed in their actions. When a woman doesn’t feel pleasure it’s not punishing the man, it’s not guilting them, and it’s not trying to take sex away from them. When a woman doesn’t feel pleasure, it is not her responsibility to make herself feel pleasure to make her man feel better. It is in fact both people’s responsibility to communicate about what’s happening and stop if one person isn’t enjoying their experience.

The dialogue about pleasure needs to become more complex. As it stands now, pleasure=good, so everyone must feel pleasure or they’re doing it wrong. There’s more to it than that, and we need to talk about the ways that the idea of pleasure can be used to manipulate people. We need to talk about the fact that nobody owes you their pleasure or their enthusiasm, just as no one owes you their body. If someone has given you the gift of sex because they want to do something that feels nice to you, they don’t owe you the addition of acting like it’s great. We need to talk about the fact that if someone isn’t feeling pleasure, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, it’s about them.

If your partner is not feeling pleasure, you shouldn’t stop because they’re “ruining” something for you. You should stop because you’re doing something to another person’s body that is making them uncomfortable, unhappy, or even just bored. There are situations where one partner has a higher sex drive than the other person. In these cases, one partner may agree to have sex even if they’re not really that excited about it. That’s their own choice, but in those cases their partner must recognize that they’re already being given a huge gift. Demanding that their partner acts as though the experience is pleasurable asks them to deny their experience, to stifle their true feelings, and to pretend they want something that they may only be doing to placate you. Don’t do it.

Olivia

Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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19 Comments

  1. “it’s the difference between wanting your partner to orgasm because orgasms are fun and feel good versus wanting your partner to orgasm because it makes your orgasm better. These are two very different things, and one of them is wholly inappropriate because it implies that your partner owes you pleasure or that their experience is really all about you.”

    They don’t HAVE to be two very different things. I was in a relationship where climaxing together was wildly better for both of us. The better her orgasm was the better mine was and vice versa. It was crazy and wonderful.

    But, yes, that wasn’t about feeling “manly” or “accomplishing” something. It was about going somewhere together.

    1. I think it’s important to note that they are very different things, but what you’re saying is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. When the latter is the *only* reason you want your partner to experience pleasure, there’s problems. However the former or a combination of both is much healthier.

    2. Also, to pick another nit, it really should be about “wanting your partner to orgasm because your partner wants to orgasm.” Mileage actually varies on how fun orgasms are and how good they feel for different people, and for some people the amount of work and focus it takes to get there isn’t worth it all the time. (And some men prefer not to orgasm every encounter, to intensify the times when they do.) Give your partner the fun and good-feeling sexual experience *they* want to have, not the one you’ve internalized as the be-all and end-all of sexual experience.

  2. This was a great article right up until the final paragraph: “There are situations where one partner has a higher sex drive than the other person. In these cases, one partner may agree to have sex even if they’re not really that excited about it. That’s their own choice, but in those cases their partner must recognize that they’re already being given a huge gift.” This conflicts with the overall sentiment of the article encapsulated here: “Feminism has at least come far enough that people understand that sex should be something both people enjoy. So if a partner appears unenthusiastic, or as if they are not having a good time, the other party understands that something is wrong. Oftentimes they feel guilty, or they are unable to enjoy themselves because they understand that things aren’t quite right. If your partner is not having a good time and isn’t feeling good during your sexual activities, it’s going to ruin the sex. In my opinion this is a good thing, because it’s a very clear sign that you should stop.” You advocate eloquently for enthusiastic consent throughout the article, then turn the principle of EC on its head at the very end by labeling compliance, the very thing you’ve been arguing against, as a “gift”.

    I see this sort of cognitive dissonance occur with regularity whenever feminists discuss sex, and I think it’s symptomatic of how deeply entrenched patriarchal sexual ideology is (i.e., male sexual primacy/female compliance) that we frequently mislabel NON-enthusiastic consent as enthusiastic consent. If you aren’t in the mood, you aren’t enthused about having sex, and if you aren’t enthused about having sex, you aren’t enthusiastically consenting to sexual relations. Maybe we should call it “enthusiastic compliance”. I just don’t see how compliance and authentic sexual agency can co-exist for the reasons you’ve stated above: It *is* wrong to want to continue having sex when a partner isn’t into it; an unenthusiastic partner should ruin all the funz; both parties having a good time should be the baseline for sexual encounters (both parties having a spectacular time would be the ideal!).

    1. If you aren’t in the mood, you aren’t enthused about having sex, and if you aren’t enthused about having sex, you aren’t enthusiastically consenting to sexual relations. Maybe we should call it “enthusiastic compliance”.

      Urgh.

      You’re really missing the point. The point is that lack of enthusiasm is a clue that consent might not exist. If there is other, strong evidence that consent exists, it’s reasonable to assume that consent exists without enthusiasm.

      You’re trying to say that if enthusiastic consent doesn’t exist, then consent doesn’t exist and we must label this enthusiastic compliance. That’s so ridiculous it’s not even wrong: you’re relying on the lack of enthusiasm to label a situation…enthusiastic?

      No. Enthusiasm can be evidence for consent. When a person is saying “Yes, please!” gyrating wildly, and squirting copiously, formal consent, the body language of enthusiasm, and the physiology of orgasm are all communicating the same basic message – so it would be unreasonable to assume that consent doesn’t actually exist. However, when someone says, “Yeah, sure,” strips casually, and fails to jet juicily, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for consent to exist.

      Do you get it? It’s about whether or not consent exists, not whether or not consent is enthusiastic.

      Still, this whole post is shot through with the problems of confusing consent and enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent is useful because it takes away grey areas – it makes consent clear – but consent can become clear in other ways.

      i think you really might want to read: https://needleprovocateur.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/on-consent/
      before you go farther with this enthusiastic consent thing.

    2. I have consented without being totally enthusiastic before, mostly because, at least for me, once things get going, I will usually become enthusiastic. I usually let my partner know that I may stop if I’m not feeling it. There are certain things that can be done during that time, too, that I’ll totally consent to (BACK RUBS!) that will likely get me in the mood.

      But not everyone is like that. Communication is key, and not while you’re horny and ready to go, but BEFORE, when you’re doing something else totally unrelated and not stressful.

    3. I agree that enthusiastic consent is a lovely thing, but you can consent without enthusiasm. If you look at your partner and say “I’m not super in the mood right now, but I know you really want it, so let’s go for it!”, that is also consent. Those were the types of situations I was trying to cover, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that.

      What I was trying to get at was not about questions of consent necessarily, it was about the demands of some partners that their partners FAKE the enthusiasm. If someone has consented and isn’t that enthusiastic, that’s ok. That’s their choice. But you don’t have to force them to pretend they’re enjoying it.

      1. Oh, I got that, Olivia. It’s Wishfulthinker that didn’t b/c they got hung up on the idea that if you lack the enthusiasm of enthusiast consent you have enthusiastic compliance and not just plain ol’ consent.

        Frankly, I don’t even get the logic:
        Enthusiasm + Consent – Enthusiasm = Enthusiasm + Compliance

        Huh? I would have thought:
        Enthusiasm + Consent – Enthusiasm = Consent

        I do understand why people find enthusiastic consent useful as a teaching tool, but as the determining criterion on the existence of consent it just doesn’t work.

        1. I can think of lots of situations where you might not just agree to sex, but ask for it, yet not be “enthusiastic.” Wanting reassurance. Wanting to feel a connection. Wanting to do something that feels good for a change. Needing to get into the mood. Wanting sex but having anxiety about it. I’ve also heard of women who say that sex eases their menstrual cramps. There are as many reasons to want it as there are people and moods (think: the product of the two sets { people } x { moods } )

          I’m someone who has a hard time expressing or feeling my sexual desires, and I also take a long time to figure out what I’m feeling, so this one-size-fits-all demand that both participants have to be “enthusiastic” (and know what they want, whatever _that_ is) before they’re allowed to have sex pretty much says I can’t have sex.

          1. That;s a good comment. I also take a long time to figure out what I’m feeling and I can relate to “(and know what they want, whatever _that_ is) ”
            But I was going to ask, how many of us have NOT fallen asleep during sex (despite starting out “enthusiastic)?

      2. The super fucked up thing? Debi isn’t demanding that partners (specifically married women) fake enthusiasm at all. Nope. She is demanding that they feel genuine enthusiasm even if that goes against their own will. Fake enthusiasm wouldn’t be good enough. Yes, the logical conclusion of that demand, should someone attempt to comply, is going to be faking it at best, but Debi doesn’t make that leap. She is demanding that wives always feel genuine enthusiasm for sex with their husbands on command. Even if sex is the furthest thing from your mind, you must allow yourself to be raped by your husband and you must love it and want more or you are a bad, ungodly wife.

  3. This stuff is just the tip of the ice^H^H^Hsh*tberg. If you look at the other articles at Joy, Love, Feminism, you’ll see that this is actually one of the less awful things that Debi Pearl and her husband (Michael) write and teach. For example, Lydia Schatz (see “Death of Lydia Schatz” in Wikipedia) died as a direct result of her (adoptive) parents following Michael Pearl’s child-rearing advice.

    Every time I think I’ve seen the worst that human beings can do, I find something like this. The word “evil” was made to describe stuff like this.

  4. Olivia, I too thought to begin with that the final paragraph was at odds with the general thrust of the article. The notion of sex as a gift seems icky until you remember the German meaning of the word!

    Seriously though, I would put it this way. Libido varies from person to person and over time (especially over decades) due to hormones, stress, illness, age etc. The initially more enthusiastic partner may become the more reluctant one. This crossover may occur many times. If you are in a relationship you need to come to terms with that and find ways to handle it on an equal basis and to the satisfaction of both partners. How to do that is a very individual choice, but I agree that good communication is the key. .

  5. The last paragraph did make me laugh. There is so much happening in this one post it would make a book. From my sheltered reading… There are partners that like the enthusiasm. There are partners that want them to shut up and lie still. There are partners that want to hear struggle. There are partners that are just happy you showed up. There are partners that fantasize about some one or thing else. There are partners that ______ Sexual selection is the most complicated aspect of humanity I think. Whatever you are, assuming relationship sex, you probably want someone who is similar enough to be comfortable and different enough to be adventurous.

    Surveys have shown the most important thing partners look for in sex is enthusiasm, whatever the hell that means. They say the same thing for job interviews. Kind of like the old faking orgasms crap. But do it anyway.

    Beware of those bearing gifts… They are either looking for reciprocation, plotting for revenge, told (believe in) to be charitable, faking it as entertainment, resolving guilt, satisfying sadism or masochism, kind as duty, chameleon, or hoping pleasure is infectious.

  6. This may just be semantics, but to my understanding, “enthusiastic consent” is a term generally used as a counterpoint to the non-no of “begrudging/passive consent”, as in “Would you like to have sex?” “Why yes, I really would!”, an answer which is clearly more proactive than a sigh, eye rolls, giving in after a half hour of cajoling, coercion, or the loathsome “well, she didn’t say no”. While the non-no may in fact still be consent, one would hope that a potential partner might pick up the clues and think, hmm, this person doesn’t exactly sound thrilled about this. I don’t think the author is trying to equate this with the performative “enthusiasm” within a sex session.

  7. Wouldn’t it be great if it were just about consent? But we’re not talking macro-politics here. Partnership should transcend literal consent–am I dreaming? Those of us who actually seek both satisfying ourselves and our partners and doing it together seek a delicate dance of desire. I mean the differences of intensity, frequency, timing etc require a kind of detente that if copied, successfully met, would create world peace–OK so I exaggerate. Aside from rampant weirdness who wouldn’t want a partner who’s happy to be there? Anything else smacks of BS and is, assuming comfortable-in-relationship (CIR), an eros killer. Yet, sometimes either person is not, can not, be so into it but is still somehow happy to be there, but maybe for other reasons worth exploring and meeting in their own way. If not, get the f–k out and go check out some book, mag, video, mental scenario or other means of satisfying yourself and wait, work towards better times. That’s my anecdotal 2 cents. Your exchange rate may vary.

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