When I first started having sex, it was nerve-wracking. I was so used to pleasuring myself alone, I had no idea how to translate that to an interaction with another person. The moaning and dirty talk and ecstatic faces of porn stars seemed like a performance I was not equipped to put on.
Even into my 20s, I enjoyed sex, but I found it awkward. The task of pleasuring my partner, giving feedback, making it clear I was enjoying myself, and trying to actually enjoy myself all at once felt like a juggling act. I still felt this way in a relationship of over two years. I wanted to keep things exciting for my partner and let him know how much I appreciated his attentiveness, but when I did, it would feel like I was putting on a show. I’d think carefully about what noises and faces I could make to turn him on, even during moments when I wasn’t feeling much.
That might sound vain, but it’s actually the opposite: it's insecure and self-objectifying. It’s how women are taught to approach sex — as a show for our partners, especially if our partners are men. Even our pleasure is often depicted as a means toward male pleasure.
In mainstream heterosexual porn, for example, who do you see more of, and who is typically louder? You don’t need me to answer that question. Typically, you see little of the man aside from his penis and hear nothing at all, while the woman moans and screams as the camera closes in on her face and body.
Many women have internalized this convention. In one University of Central Lancashire study, women reported that they orgasmed the most during foreplay (a word I dislike, but I digress) yet moaned the most during intercourse, particularly right before their partners orgasmed. Why did they do this? 66 percent said they were trying to help their partners climax, and 87 percent said they wanted their partners to feel good about themselves.
It’s clear from findings like these that women face pressure to put on a show for their partners in bed, which could be one reason straight women have fewer orgasms than any other group. It’s kind of hard to feel what’s happening in your own body when you’re on the outside, looking in, focused on someone else’s pleasure.
On top of that pressure I was feeling, intercourse physically didn’t do that much for me. This is actually common. Often, I would moan as a fake-it-til-you-make-it thing, covering up the fact that I was feeling little pleasure or even some discomfort. I felt an obligation to behave as if I enjoyed it; I’d learned it was the “main event” and didn’t want to hurt my partner’s feelings.
Then, one Christmas, I visited my partner and his family at his childhood home, and we went upstairs to his old room after breakfast. We decided to take a nap, which instead led to sex. I automatically reverted to my usual deliberate moans. “Shh, we don’t want my parents to hear,” he whispered. Finally, I had an excuse not to think about how I sounded. The position we were in, with his upper body hovering tightly over mine, gave me freedom from thinking about my face as well. I could just focus on the sensation.
Since I hadn’t seen him or had any sexual interaction for a good while, it felt better to me than usual, and I actually kind of wanted to make noise! Instead, I expressed myself in ways that felt more natural to me. I let my breathing become quicker and heavier. I tilted my hips upward. I even bit his shoulder at one point. Instead of brainstorming what noise would best communicate how I felt, I just whispered, “That feels good.” Along with feeling more connected to my own body, I felt closer to my partner, because I was being genuine.
After that, I realized I didn’t need any dramatic facial expressions or vocalizations to assure my partner I was enjoying myself. The way I naturally responded was enough; he could read the subtleties. So, I played a little game with myself during sex: I challenged myself to refrain from making any noises or faces whenever possible.
Women shouldn’t have to perform the bulk of the emotional labor during sex. This expectation reflects a greater expectation for women to ensure other people have a good time, whether that’s within families, at social gatherings, or in the workplace. But in the process, we miss out on having a good time ourselves.
In sex, this expectation comes out in all sorts of ways, from sex position articles teaching us how to “give him a great view” to “how to please your man” guides to the disproportionate amount of sexy underwear designed for women compared to men.
But the truth is, we don’t need to do anything extra to be accepted by our partners — at least not by any partners who are worth our time. What partners who really care about us want is our genuine selves, whether that means being quiet or loud or enjoying ourselves or speaking up when we’re not. Anybody can imitate a porn star, but nobody else can be you.
So, ever since that Christmas, I’ve promised myself that during sex, I’ll be quiet unless compelled to say something, expressionless unless I’m actually feeling something, and honest about what I am or am not feeling, because a lack of sensation is just an opportunity to try something new. But the biggest game changer was, I decided I deserved a great sex life — and that a great sex life was possible. Even if it required some communication and adjustments, the chance to be my genuine self in bed was well worth it.