Why is it that when people, often women, talk about their *first time* doing pretty much anything sexual, it's like a horror story? Is it all bad? Is it bad for guys, too?
For too many of us, our first sexual encounters are memories we wish to store in a cognitive vault. Or we hold them with us and laugh about them later to ease the thought we might’ve been taken advantage of, violated or made to feel uncomfortable.
“One time, I called a friend losing my mind over an encounter with a guy, and she was just like, ‘Honey, it's okay. This is how it works. Part of womanhood is having terrible sexual experiences,’” the reader said in their question.
Somewhere down the line, women conflated having these terrible sexual experiences as part of the social contract. They endure bad or uncomfortable sex in the hope sex will get better with the right partner or more experience.
Consent has become the standard at which all sexual encounters must be judged as good or bad — moral or immoral. But we shouldn’t brush aside bad sex because it technically falls under the legal category of consent.
“Much sex that is consented to, even affirmatively consented to, is bad: miserable, unpleasant, humiliating, one-sided, painful,” Katherine Angel said in their book “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent.” “‘Bad sex’ doesn’t have to be assault in order for it to be frightening, shame-inducing, upsetting.”
A 2019 study led by IU professor and sex researcher Debby Herbenick asked participants to share their experiences feeling scared during sex with questions such as, “Thinking about your whole life, how many times have you felt like someone did something during sex that made you feel scared?”
The study found women were substantially more likely to report someone had done something scary during sex — 23.9% of adult women compared to 10% of adult men. Participants’ experiences fell under the themes of rape and sexual assault, incest, lack of consent and inability to stop, sex toys and BDSM, being held down, threats, aggression, positions and novelty.
To help prevent such experiences, campuses have widely adopted affirmative-consent policies that are meant to distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual sex in hopes of reducing the alarming rates of campus sexual misconduct and assault.
IU’s Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct policy defines consent as an “agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.”
“Consent can be withdrawn at any time, as long as it is clearly communicated,” the policy continues. “Consent cannot be coerced or compelled by force, threat, deception or intimidation. Consent cannot be given by someone who is incapacitated. Consent cannot be assumed based on silence, the absence of ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ the existence of a prior or current relationship, or prior sexual activity.”
Policies such as IU’s require women to know exactly what they want in bed and to have the ability to express it. They require consent to be affirmative or voluntary, but women may agree to sex they would otherwise not have out of fear of repercussion or because they feel they didn’t have the option to refuse.
“Any model of consent can prove itself worthless if a man is not open to his sexual partner’s no, or her changing desires, and if he responds to either of these with a rage borne of humiliation,” Angel wrote. “A woman can still leave a sexual encounter justifiably feeling mistreated, while the man feels safe in the knowledge he ‘acquired’ consent.”
Absolutely the wants, needs and boundaries of all parties should be respected during sex. There should be a standard at which we can hold each other accountable when they are not.
We should not, however, reduce our first, often terrible, experiences as first-time misadventures because they were technically consensual. They instill in us bad sex is an inevitable part of life.
The safety of sex relies on consent, but we must question its limits when it comes to unequal power dynamics in the bedroom.
Speaking of Sex will be an affirming, nonjudgmental space exploring a myriad of topics related to gender and sexuality such as bodily normalization, pleasure-focused sex, healthy boundaries, consent and alternative relationships. You can submit questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or anonymously in this form.
Editor’s note: Advice offered is intended for informational use and may not be applicable to everyone. This column is not intended to replace professional advice.
Peyton Jeffers (she/they) is a senior studying human development, family studies and human sexuality.