Against the “flow”: Why sex is better with a few interruptions
You wanna grab a cup of tea? Fine by me.
Picture the scene: You’re naked in bed with your partner, the heat of their body against yours, your lips and fingers caressing each other’s skin. Relaxed and warm, your arousal is building when suddenly from the next door bedroom you hear a little voice shouting.
“Mummy! MUMMYYYYY! I’ve done a poo!”
If you don’t have kids then I’ll concede this is a fairly unlikely scenario. For me, however, it’s a very real part of my sex life. And while having to halt sex to go and change my toddler’s pooey nappy was a definite low point, it was by no means the first time my husband and I have had to pause proceedings to deal with some child-related incident. We go, we soothe, we cuddle, we change the nappy, we address whatever concern our tiny human has and we settle him back to sleep. And then we endeavour to pick up where we left off (after washing our hands thoroughly, of course!)
To be honest I’ve never really understood the whole "ruin the moment" thing, a complaint that’s commonly levelled at condoms (frankly, if you go off each other in the time it takes to put a condom on then maybe you shouldn’t be fucking in the first place?). I can’t think of any other activity we would expect to just flow without pause, so why do we see sex this way? What if I want to have a sip of my wine or tea or water (and believe me, I nearly always do)? I might want to plug in my wand vibrator, or find my favourite butt plug, or decide I want more lube.
And then, what if the cord on my wand has got knotted up and needs untangling? What if I discover my CBD massage oil has leaked all over my butt plug which now needs cleaning? What if, while popping to the bathroom cabinet to get a fresh bottle of lube, I realise I need a wee? I’m not saying I’ve been in these exact situations, but put it this way, it wasn’t very hard to think of examples.
The idea that sex has to be in perpetual motion in a single direction comes from a very cisheteronormative point of view where sex equals “foreplay,” followed by penis-in-vagina intercourse, followed by orgasm (usually the man’s), and then that’s The End. Goal of sex achieved. In this situation "flow" is less about enjoying the chemistry as it is about getting across a finish line. This is something I’ve written about before (see HERE) and quite apart from being a very boring approach to sex, it also fails to take into account that a lot of people just don’t fuck like that. This idea of “flow” excludes people with disabilities, or conditions such as erectile dysfunction and vaginismus, people with sexual trauma, and a hell of a lot of queer folks.
Last year I went on a date with an awesome woman. After making out on her sofa for a while we’d segued to her bedroom and after playing for a while things just naturally came to a bit of a pause. I went to refill my wine glass and as we sat on the bed drinking wine naked and chatting I had this moment of thinking "I am having SUCH a lovely time!” Sure enough, a bit later we got back into it again. Then she had to go to the loo and then I did and as I got up I checked the time and realised I needed to go home. So I called an Uber and then we ended up having a really hot and heavy final 15 mins or so while we waited for it to arrive.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to think a proper session had to be all action. But I now recognise that where there is flow, there are also ebbs and these ebbs can feel really good. Plus, without pauses there's no space for new ideas. There’s no room to be inspired, to bounce off each other, to switch things up. There’s also no space to just take a break. Either if things get too intense or if what you’re doing just isn’t really working for you. And that’s important. You see, the idea that sex has to flow non-stop is also bad for consent.
When we hold that sex must “flow,” we fail to make adequate room for hesitation, for questions, objections, and alternative suggestions. I spoke to sex educator Nathaniel Cole this month and he told me about how difficult the boys and young men he works with find the idea of checking in with their partner during sex. This isn’t because they don’t care, it’s because they’re taught that sex should come naturally to them.
“It’s not just about it being awkward, it’s about the fact that they see being awkward as making them less desirable,” Cole said. “They think it’s going to make them seem as if they don’t know what they’re doing.”
In this context, anyone who has to stop and ask is seen as less manly, less sexy. Getting past the idea that sex is supposed to “flow” is a key part of having a more consensual - and pleasurable! - time.
Look, no one wants sex to feel awkward, I get that. And when it comes to getting into and staying in the zone, I’m totally with you. I’m not saying that we should be able to pick up or put down sex at any time, with no effort or mood-setting. You’ll not find me advocating for dispassionate fucking here, friends! I’m just saying that “flow” doesn’t have to equal non-stop action. Things can heat up and cool down and energy levels can fluctuate even in the course of one session. A pause is not necessarily a sign that something’s gone wrong. It’s just a chance to catch your breath... before you plunge right back in again.
What do you think? Have you had sex where the ebbs were as good as the flows? Do pauses make you feel awkward? Or do you appreciate the chance to check in? If you have thoughts on the subject, feel free to hit reply on this email or you can now comment directly below this post.
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What's on my mind this month…
I’m reading Sara Pascoe’s book, Sex Power Money, which is great, and very funny but I also disagree with parts of it. She sets a lot of store by the evolutionary arguments for sexual behaviour and, while I think that certainly offers an insight, I don’t think it paints the whole picture. Still, her writing is very engaging and I really enjoy how succinctly she makes her points. Talking about everyday sexism and the barrage of low-key sexual harrassment women experience on an extremely constant basis, she writes: “I know it’s not ‘all men’ who do this, but it only takes a few busy men to mean it happens on a daily/weekly basis to ‘all women.’” It’s is the kind of sentence that makes you go “Fuck. YES. This.” out loud on public transport.
I wrote a piece for Bumble this month on dating when you have kids which was - ahem! - rather on point for me. One thing I find tricky as a parent is friends and partners assuming I’m unavailable. Obviously I am busy, I have zero spontaneity, and my free time comes with fairly strict parameters but on the plus side, I turn up on time, I rarely (if ever) flake out on plans, and I really appreciate my opportunities to go out and have fun!
I mentioned last month that I’d been working on a feature about consent so when Harvey Weinstein’s defence lawyer Donna Rotunno said in an interview that if she were a man she’d make women “sign consent forms” before sex, it really sparked my rage. It also got me thinking about what an uphill struggle it is to get people to see sex as a complete human experience (collaborative, communicative, empathetic!) as opposed to a thing one person does to another. I almost thought about making it the theme of this newslatter but then sex blogger Girl On The Net wrote this absolutely brilliant piece and pretty much summed up how I was feeling anyway!
What would happen to desire if we got rid of all taboos? This is a question I come back to fairly regularly but it was sparked this month by a story I pitched on a related but slightly different subject. As a sex writer, I obviously spend a lot of time trying to normalise kink and fantasy and promote shame-free messages about sex but the truth is that sometimes being told (or feeling like) you’re dirty and disgusting or irresponsible or shameful is part of the turn on, right? So what would happen to desire if we really did erase all stigma? We tend to think of things that are edgy or dangerous as being “taboo” but in my experience, anything that falls outside the boundaries of being “allowed” can start to take on an erotic sheen. My theory is that we’d always find new things to feel guilty and aroused by, but that it wouldn’t necessarily follow the pattern of getting more and more hardcore. In fact it could go the other way. As kinky sex becomes more and more accepted and expected, does wanting vanilla sex start to become a source of shame instead? Would we end up cracking one out to fantasies about cishet PiV? What do you think?
Finally, The Mirror managed to rope me into trying out Elle MacPherson’s latest snake oil… ah, I mean libido-boosting supplement. I don’t believe in aphrodisiacs but I do think paying a bit more attention to your horn levels, making time to talk about desire, and doing a silly, sexy thing together can be good for your sexual relationship. Anyway you can read about it HERE.
A couple more things to (over)think about…
Convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein is awaiting sentencing. I’m hesitant to call this a “turning point” because he was acquitted of the more serious charges but I can’t deny it feels good to write those words. He was found guilty of criminal sexual assault and rape.
Ben Arogundade’s essay (extracted from his new book) on dating again in his 50s is a poignant and eye-opening look at being a black man navigating love and sex post-divorce.
Jameela Jamil came out as queer (we’re not sure quite what she meant by that but seeing as she has a male partner I think we can assume she’s bi or pansexual). But her timing caused a lot of backlash.
Speaking of coming out, Love Is Blind’s Carlton Morton pissed people off when he framed his bisexuality as a dark secret which he was ready to move on from. He did slightly better in this interview though.
A Manchester school got slammed for giving out “101 things you can do other than have sex” leaflets. While I’m definitely against abstinence-only education, the kink-shaming, sniggering faux-outrage of this story fucked me right off.
E4’s The Sex Clinic is back on telly. Two episodes of Season 2 have aired so far covering premature ejaculation, vaginal dryness and a guy who can’t come from penetration.
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The Overthinkers Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.
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