Boring in bed: on sex, desire & vulnerability

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I know someone who does not kiss on a first date. It’s a shameless and transparent ploy, because he tells the woman at the start of the evening that he doesn’t kiss on a first date, effectively setting up a challenge. I assume he has to play this game to concoct the frisson that other people conjure using their personality and wit.

Boring in bed, he said. I suppose he’s never been alone in a room with someone who could, if they wanted to, kill him, with just the determined application of their bodyweight and maybe a hand round his throat.

My approach – when going on dates is, you know, something we’re allowed to do – is the opposite: kiss, and kiss early. Gather your data. Snogging on a first date has led me to some useful decisions, one of which being: not booking a second date with a musician who looked like Damian Lewis and talked about linguistics for at least three drinks, but had a tongue like a slug trying to start a fight. Which didn’t bode especially well. I’ve had my fair share of false positives, of course – the initially-perfectly-adequate kisser who later snuffled in my ear like an excited retriever. It’s hard to feel aroused when your train of thought turns to, “please don’t dislodge an earring, I hate losing one earring, I’d honestly rather lose a pair.” Snog with abandon: you’re gathering data.

But something I’ve noticed – and that comparing notes with female friends has confirmed – is a kind of ‘desire gap’ that appears with surprising regularity. Specifically: finding yourself more than happy to kiss someone in the corner of the pub (remember those days?) or on the walk home, but knowing somehow, without even really having to think about it, that’s as far as you want to go. The kissing may be perfectly lovely, but there’s nothing in it making you want more.

Most of this gap can be explained simply by chemistry. Why does kissing this person – handsome and clever and funny though they are – make something under your skin shrink and retreat? Leave you praying to the gods of Hinge that you can go home alone? And why does kissing that person, also handsome and clever and funny, crack something inside you wide open? Reduce your train of thought to nothing but “oh God, yes please”? As I said: mostly chemistry. Or, to steal a couple of my own lines from elsewhere: some decisions are made in the body before it’s even occurred to the mind that there’s a decision to be made. Sometimes, your body knows what you’ll do before you do.

But I think for women who sleep with men, there’s usually an extra bit of emotional work to do: we have to feel safe. And not just in the literal sense – although obviously that is a concern when you’re dating casually. No, this is more about feeling safe enough to be vulnerable. Which is why not kissing on a first date feels, to me, like a bad call. Your body, for the most part, can’t lie. Writer Garth Greenwell puts it better than I ever could, in a piece he wrote for The Guardian that I think about roughly once every 48 hours:

“Sex is an experience of intense vulnerability, and it is also where we are at our most performative, and so it’s at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come. Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another.”

So it’s the “intense vulnerability” Greenwell describes that requires the extra work, the calculation of risk. I’m not saying men don’t have to do this too, but historically, women have not been encouraged to pursue sexual confidence – and indeed pleasure – in the way men have. To be led by desire is to take a step towards profound vulnerability, and society has a strange relationship with women’s vulnerability. It hungers for it, but also hungers to punish us for it.

And what’s more, if the proper definition of gaslighting is to make someone feel that reality is different to how they’re perceiving it, then patriarchal societies have been gaslighting women about their bodies for centuries. We have been sworn to so much secrecy, and we are only now learning to break the silence and shrug off the shame.

To reiterate: I would never claim that men who sleep with women have nothing to worry about or fret over – but at least male desire has a long history of being celebrated to the point of glorification. In the funny, squirm-inducing and surprisingly touching Pen15, one of the teenage girl protagonists discovers masturbation. At one point, she looks down at her fingers and the viewer sees clearly that they’re wet. I watched it with a friend, and at that moment, we both squealed, “I’ve never seen that on screen before!” For comparison, There’s Something About Mary and its infamous semen-as-hair-gel scene came out 22 years ago. I’m not necessarily arguing for more bodily fluids onscreen, I just think that when most of the depictions of sexual arousal you see in pop culture involve men, it tells you that we are still much more comfortable with male desire than female desire.

And pop culture is one way in which a society normalises and demystifies the hitherto unshown. We can only be what we can see, and if we can’t see it, we must test-drive it in our fiction. This is why that scene in Pen15 felt so radical. As did the period sex incident in I May Destroy You. Ditto the whole episode of I Hate Suzie given over to the title character trying to masturbate. I keep thinking of a line in that episode, actually – Suzie’s friend and agent appears unbidden in a fantasy, asking Suzie: “where are you in this?” Is this your desire, truly yours, or is it what you’ve been taught you should want?

Now, sex education may well have improved since the late nineties, but when I was at school, the boys were taken to one classroom, the girls to another, and neither group knew what the other was being told. Picture the scene a few years later: a girl and a boy are in his bedroom. She doesn’t know if he’s had girlfriends before, she doesn’t know if he’s close with his mother or sisters. The last time she can be sure he was told something true about sex and female biology (if indeed he was taught anything about female biology) was years ago.

It’s not that I don’t trust you, of course it’s not. Try and embrace a thing when everything you first learnt about it was intended to put you off it. Try and embrace a thing it took years to find out you were allowed to enjoy. Tell me, where would you start?

It is not automatically safe for us to assume we can be vulnerable. We have to feel our way slowly.

So yes, boring in bed. Not compatible: I understand. But boring? Boring is, ironically, a fascinating critique. How you can find sex boring when you can see and feel the other person enjoying themselves, feel them enjoying touching you, is remarkable. What part of the way a pursuit of personal pleasure collides with a sense of performance do you not find utterly compelling? What about that strange psychological space – in which we are our most instinctive animal selves while also being intensely aware of someone else’s experience – is eluding you? What is it about that astonishing leap of vulnerability you find so tedious?

I’m also not presuming to speak for all women who have sex with men. Lots of them have been able to shake off any shame placed upon them, or have at least refused to let that shame become the loudest voice in their heads, and are sexually confident and adventurous in ways I wholeheartedly and enviously applaud. Some of that confidence perhaps comes with age, and with the acceptance that life is short so we should fuck who we want how we want so long as all parties consent. But broadly speaking, I think it’s harder for pretty much anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white man to fully explore and embrace their sexual preferences. Men have myriad pressures of their own to deal with but they’re also not short of material that both reflects them and caters to them. Female lust has been permitted a late entry. We’re still catching up.

With my body, I thee worship. It comes into my head unasked, a complete thought. I understand it now more than I ever did; isn’t desire a little like religion? A belief in something not-quite-real, choosing to see beauty and magic in the mundane? Spend enough time loving someone and they become God-like: benevolent, your sense of home, greater than the sum of their skin and blood and bones. And even when it’s lust, not love, it’s still a kind of alchemy.

Boring in bed. Are you bored, or are you just not paying attention? I think we have to conclude that the oldest clichés are correct: only the unimaginative get bored.

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