Ask Emma: On my evolving relationship with sex and my sexuality.
Before I get into it—
In the first anonymous submission to the Ask Emma column, I was asked a series of questions about sex and my sexuality. It’s been a long time since I’ve really contemplated where my relationship to these subjects began. As an adult, I feel that I introduced myself to sex too young. Which leaves me to question: what was my relationship to my sexuality as a young girl, and what is my sexuality as an adult?
First I want to preface the obvious, which is that I identify as a white, heterosexual woman. My personal experience with sex and intersecting subjects is limited to that perspective, which is why I don’t intend to use this platform to give advice, so much as share my thoughts as accumulated through experience and conversations with others. For ideas that I can’t personally attest to, particularly those asked through a queer lens, I’ll be interviewing identities who feel comfortable sharing their respective experiences.
Understanding my sexuality as a young girl
For as long as I can personally remember my impression of sex, it was a performative act. It was how I showed boys that I liked them, and got them to like me. The first time I experienced a sexual act that made me uncomfortable was when my boyfriend of two years in the 8th grade fingered me.
I remember looking over his shoulder, making breathless imitations, wondering when it would stop. And yet at the same time, he was standing so close to me that I never wanted him to move away. My pursuit of sex as a young girl was the misdirected pursuit of intimacy. For a long time my attitude towards sex and my own sexuality was intrinsically associated with male approval. Unfortunately, this seems commonplace through the heterosexual lens of sex. I didn’t think that I had to perform like that to get women to like me, so I took those relationships for granted.
How my attitude towards sex and sexuality has changed over the years
In my teen years, penetrative sex started to feel like a merit badge that me and all my peers were working towards. It was assumed that you would earn it before you emerged into adulthood. I romanticized adulthood, fantasizing constantly about my older self and all the things that she would do better. Sex seemed like an avenue to achieving that.
Did I feel pressured to have sex?
Yes and no. I felt a pressure from myself to be a certain kind of person. To me that meant being attractive to my opposite sex. My high school boyfriend and I “lost our virginities” to each other, but I felt no pressure from that relationship. I just thought that I needed to get sex out of the way and it made it easier that I thought we were in love. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing (‘getting it out of the way’), but I may have pushed myself before I was really ready.
My high school boyfriend was emotionally distant for his own personal and respectively valid reasons, but I found myself spiralling with insecurity in absence of his affection. I began to use sex as a means to experience intimacy with him, passively. Once again, I was split between the discomfort of the act and the knowledge that the act was exactly what made him want to be close to me. It was like I was offering up my body, rather than participating in a mutual exchange.
How I confronted internalized misogyny in sex
Should I have asked myself as a teenager, what is my sexuality? I’m not sure that I’d have an answer. I didn’t feel that I had a right to claim pleasure from sex, so it didn’t feel like something that could be mine. I discovered quickly that the only way I allowed myself to enjoy sexual acts were if I felt that I was being being subjected to them.
I have a distinct memory of being in my partner’s small family home, age 17, and him (TW) holding me against the wall of his bedroom and penetrating me from behind. He covered my mouth and proceeded to say things like “you want them to hear you?”.
I was a passive participant in this act, and it allowed me to take pleasure from it without feeling embarrassed. In my mind I wasn’t supposed to be experiencing pleasure, but he was making me and I was relenting. For him, I imagine that the visual inspiration came from porn. This was a media which I hadn’t really consumed but was experiencing the second hand effects of.
In seeking answers to questions like what is my sexuality?, something that I’m only now endeavouring to answer, pornographic media related an insular visual.
This acquiescent attitude towards sex followed me well into adulthood. I still struggle against it, partially because I associate a certain comfort with it. That part of me wants to give up power to the extreme, assuring my partner that I am entirely at their whim.
As seen from that angle, the whole point of sex is to feel wanted, not to want. It’s a performance.
Fortunately, this is no longer the only way that I experience sex. Over the years I’ve learned to dismantle certain insecurities through laughter. I learned that sex didn’t have to be taken so seriously; that I was allowed to have fun too.
Implementing comfort into sex and my sexuality
Despite making strides in my comfort levels, I often feel that I’m not as sexually adapted as I should be. I lack confidence because I’m afraid to try things that might make me appear unattractive to my partner. In an effort to overcome this I’ve begun sharing this thought with partners, explaining that I’m trying to open myself up to a more liberal experience but have a lot of hesitancy and reservations that may take time to surpass.
I’ve been generally fortunate in recent years to have sexual partners who accommodate this, though occasionally someone will do something out of my level of comfort without asking. The first time that I slept with my last boyfriend, he had been on top of me and spun around wordlessly to begin ’69ing’. This was the first time I had ever done this particular act, and I was overwhelmed by the embarrassment of not knowing what to do or how to do it comfortably. Was there a lack of consent in that interaction? Yes.
Ongoing and enthusiastic consent
I think it’s ineffective to assume that ongoing/ enthusiastic consent is an obvious, because a lot of people forget to do it. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of partners, and a number of them did not understand why someone would have to ask for consent more than once during sex. So to reiterate: a person can consent to sex and still not consent to every component of sex that their partner is comfortable with. Everyone has different perspectives and levels of experience, which is why having candid conversations about what is comfortable is so important! Including but not limited to which boundaries you would like to mutually push (if any).
Have you found your sexuality has shifted into something you didn’t expect?
Has my sexuality shifted into something my younger self did not foresee? Yes. More and more, my sexuality is becoming an expression of self, rather than a token in exchange for male attention. When I express that self during sex, I feel playful, vulnerable, feminine, and strong. Those were not characteristics that I associated with my sexuality as a young girl/ teenager.
How did that shift happen?
When I consider how my sexuality has shifted as I’ve gotten older, I notice foremost that I’ve broadened my understanding of what produces intimacy. Note that intimacy was the first thing I ever associated with sex (at the time it was associated exclusively with proximity and attention).
Well as I got older, I started to find intimacy in other aspects of sex: most notably through laughter, verbal communication, fantasy, and consensual boundary pushing. It requires a certain degree of trust, humility and vulnerability to do anything for the first time.
You’re bound to make a mistake, or feel a bit silly; maybe you won’t even like it, but hopefully your partner (s) can hold space for you to experience any and all of that without judgment. That’s beautiful and sexy! And you don’t necessarily have to know a person well for that to happen. You do have to trust them and communicate.