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.