Lili Loofbourow’s piece on bad sex in The Week a few days ago set off a chain of exchanges with various friends about, well, bad sex. If you haven’t read the piece, I highly recommend it. It’s well thought through, careful in its assertions and insightful. And upsetting. I couldn’t read it in one go.
It’s always tricky ground commenting on pieces aimed at women, clearly focused on cisgender women, yet include me on a personal level. Reading Loofbourow’s article was, for me, that classic scene where someone who’s suffered some kind of harm or abuse and has the revelation, ‘This is me.’ Yes, I was taught different things. Yes, I had a different set of expectations. Yes, this is me. My reaction to those things I was taught and the emotional harm caused by trying to meet that expectation created the exact same formula: I was conditioned to accept upsetting, painful experiences as normal. And I didn’t say they were painful or upsetting. I just suffered.
Before I was out, this confused my partners. Encounters would end in tears, they didn’t understand why. Sometimes it was OK. Not all the sex I had was bad; most folks do end up being able to have good sex even when they’re prepared for and accept bad experiences as normal. That doesn’t mean the scale isn’t messed up or the baseline feelings are acceptable - we just think they are.
"DESPITE MY VERY STRONG FEMALE ROLE MODELS GROWING UP, I WAS STILL TAUGHT TO NOT CARE ABOUT MY PARTNERS’ DISCOMFORT."
Despite my very strong female role models growing up, I was still taught to not care about my partners’ discomfort. Not really care. I mean, of course we’re supposed to care, but we also just accept that sex is uncomfortable so it’s OK. This idea was never acceptable to me, but even my partners were accepting of it. In a strange way, my discomfort and emotional upset with the situation was less acceptable to them than their own.
I had one partner tell me they never had anyone just stop in the middle because it clearly wasn’t working for her. She was concerned for my experience, even though it was obvious she was in pain. Sex was unnatural enough for me without seeing my partner in pain. I was struggling with the whole thing as it was, and she was there, in pain, worried about my experience when it was absolutely clear that hers was less than stellar.
And then there are the bits I’m ashamed of, the times when I was in such deep denial that I just hurt people because that’s how it was supposed to be. Even in those phases of my life, I found it deeply disturbing. I just didn’t say anything. I suppose if I had to choose a regret, it would be those moments where I buried myself so I could cause someone harm.
Sex before transition, for me, was essentially a bit of theatre: I was taught to go along with a bunch of things that didn’t make sense. Things that were unacceptable to me but I was told to set that aside. This was normal, don’t worry about that. I was taught these things by partners, not peers. Not parents. The people who were suffering were telling me it was OK to suffer. Eventually, I did what I could to get it over with; I made a show of enjoying myself because that's what they expected. I made a fuss about wanting. I hated myself for it.
I don’t think there’s a woman on the planet that doesn’t have this experience. The dynamic may be slightly different, but the end result is the same. My conviction on this point was reinforced in a conversation with a group of cisgender women about Loofbourow’s article where I went ahead and outlined my fundamental experience of sex before transition: the faces at the table became ashen. Some didn’t look up. The upset was palpable: they all understood exactly what I meant. It was a powerful moment of silent sharing, that table of haunted eyes.
"IT GOES TO SHOW THAT WE HAVE MORE IN COMMON WITH CISGENDER PEOPLE THAN EITHER GROUP MIGHT BELIEVE."
It goes to show that we have more in common with cisgender people than either group might believe. Our context is different, but everyone’s context is different. There is no common transhood any more than cishood is a thing, but there are things we can all relate to. Body configuration does not stop us from having these moments of sharing
That sharing extended to pressures of womanhood in general: childbirth, ageism when having children, the choice to not have children drawing unwanted attention, the want for children without them drawing equally unwanted attention, how the medical profession is towards us as a group - that particular conversation ranged widely across topics naturally. Body configuration didn’t stop us from having that conversation.
That I could then go on to talk about the female experience of sex and sexuality with other cisgender friends - you tell someone you’re writing about bad sex, that’s what happens - in a personal context without a distancing shows me that this is not just some mercy on their part. Granted, these are my friends and they wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t accept me as I am. There are plenty that would take the time to exclude me. One did stop to consider physiology, but in the end conceded that my emotional and social wiring prevented me from really having a ‘male experience’ in this regard. The sympathy and genuine upset from my youngest brother when hearing a frank outline of my experience of sex tells me that I never had a male experience. I don’t know what that is.
The TERF notion of an inability to share in these kinds of conversations is, to me, empirically false. My experience of sharing denies their assertion. My visceral reaction to Loofbourow’s article and my ability to connect with women over it makes the TERF notion of shared experience a farce. The more I share, the more belonging I have. This is me, bad sex and all.