Let's get one thing straight. Just because I write about sex doesn't mean I'm good in bed.
That probably seems like a strange thing to admit. It also seems like a potentially disastrous PR move given I've just launched a newsletter in which I am positioning myself as someone who Knows About Sex™. And I like to think that it may come as a surprise to anyone who's actually had sex with me.
So let me clarify. I'm not saying I'm not good in bed. I'm saying that knowing about sex does not automatically make someone good at doing it. If and when I have good sex, it's not because of some special skill or expertise I possess, but because of what my partner and I have BOTH contributed.
See, sex is not a thing that one person does to another. Sex is a collaboration. As such, one person cannot be held solely responsible for bringing the party.
Actually, organising parties is something I enjoy. As I write this I'm expecting a few friends over for dinner this evening. I'm looking forward to it like mad but the reason it will be good is not down to what I cook (although ngl, it will be delicious) or how much I plump up the cushions on the sofa and adjust the lighting (although these are nice touches), but down to the fact that I know my friends will bring their own contributions. Whether that's in the shape of wine and snacks, or just in terms of of the energy, conversation, anecdotes and questions, they are every bit as responsible as I am for whether or not we all have a good time.
In the same way, I would argue, one person cannot be objectively "good in bed." The awesomeness of sex is always, always, down to what people do together.
In 2007 journalist and broadcaster Dan Savage coined the phrase “good, giving, and game” (often abbreviated to GGG) to describe the ideal sexual partner. He explained that one should always strive to be good in bed, giving "equal time and equal pleasure" to one's partner, and game "for anything – within reason".
There are things I like about this and things I don’t. For instance, the notion of being “game” sits a little bit uncomfortably with me. I’ve written before about how the pressure to be seen as “sex positive” can put people into situations where they feel like they have to say yes to things they’re not sure about. I also think it can quickly turn into one-upmanship, with people subtly competing to see who’s the most adventurous or subversive. To me, “game” smacks of judgement about where people draw their boundaries.
And there is still this vague notion of “good in bed”. Now, we could interpret it as meaning skilled in bed but what kinds of skills are we talking about? It’s so subjective. Someone might give me the most incredible head of my life but leave you feeling like your bits had merely a once-over with a soggy dishcloth.
That's obviously an exaggeration. But going into a sexual encounter assuming you know how to please someone because that thing pleased someone else, is not a fast track to a five star review.
The inevitable next question then, I suppose, is: Can someone be objectively "bad" in bed?
I think this one is a bit easier to answer. A quick poll of friends and acquaintances asking what made someone "bad in bed" suggested that for most people it comes down to one of two things: The person "didn't know what they were doing" and/or the person was selfish.
The latter I understand completely. It comes back to everything I was saying above about viewing sex as a collaboration. It also chimes with Savage’s “giving” of equal time and pleasure. So, yeah, I think on the whole I’m OK with describing someone who doesn’t do this as “bad in bed”. But saying someone “didn’t know what they were doing” feels a little bit unfair. I mean… we all have to start somewhere!
Plus, it simply isn't true that not knowing how to do things means they won't be fun or hot. You can have a wild time doing things for the first time! Sometimes the very appeal is in the experimenting, the discovery (and this goes for new partners as well as new activities). What matters then, in my opinion, is not so much the aptitude but the attitude.
Writing this, I’m reminded that I had this debate with Rob, my husband and erstwhile co-host of my podcast The Second Circle, back in 2018 when we were recording a response to a listener question.
“More often than not,” I started by saying, “when someone is bad in bed it’s not because the things they’re doing are inherently bad, it’s because they’re not paying attention to whether their partner is actually enjoying it.”
“Nah, but some people just have bad sex moves,” he said.
“There are no bad sex moves, there are only bad sex attitudes!” I countered. I was so proud of this line at the time that I later tweeted it. I’m still pretty proud of it tbh which is clearly why I’m reiterating now, for you! Objectively no “sex move” is either good or bad because we all enjoy (and are put off by) such different things. What makes a sexual activity “bad” is when it is initiated not with an attitude of collaboration but one of presumption or entitlement.
So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say there are things we can do to be better in bed. There are things we can do to avoid being actively “bad”. But “good”? I’m not so sure.
What do you think? What makes someone “good” or “bad” in bed? If you have thoughts on the subject, feel free to hit reply on this email or head over to our discussion thread HERE.
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What’s on my mind this month…
I’m currently reading journalist Peggy Orenstein’s new book Boys & Sex. It’s not out in the UK yet but I got a digital copy from the publisher as I am currently working on a piece about young men and consent. It’s fascinating but feels especially poignant for me as the mum of a little boy. This line in particular is heartbreaking: “Preschool boys retain a keen understanding of feelings and desire for close relationships. But by midway through kindergarten—that’s age five or six—they’ve learnt from their peers to knock that stuff off, at least in public: to disconnect from feelings, shun intimacy, and become more hierarchical in their behaviour.” I really, truly hope I can find a way to help him navigate this as he gets older.
As part of my research for the same piece, I also met up recently with sex educator Justin Hancock to talk about consent education for boys and we ended up chatting for an hour, veering wildly off-topic. You'll be able to read his comments in my forthcoming feature and we're hoping to be able to share the full chat at some point too. I'll keep you posted.
I realised recently that my period tracker app, Clue, only has one option for logging your sex drive (For those who don’t use them, menstrual cycle trackers let you log all kinds of things from moods to energy levels, symptoms, appetite, ability to concentrate, so you can get to know your body better. For example, I try to schedule most of my networking appointments in the week when I’m ovulating as I tend to have more energy and generally feel more extroverted.) Anyway, it seems to me that being able to track the fluctuations in my sex drive, as well as what activities/dynamics I’m more or less interested in at different times of the month, would be fascinating. But alas I don’t know of an app that allows this yet. Startup pitch, anyone?
This feature in The Guardian about polyamorous parenting really spoke to me as a married, polyamorous mum-of-one. It examined how people’s judgements of polyamory (and other non-monogamous relationships structures), tough enough to deal with when you’re childless, take on a whole new level when you have kids. The most common concern is that you are somehow going to fuck up your children because you have relationships with people other than your co-parent (never mind that this has always been the case with friendships and family relationships, or that it’s obviously, and without detriment, the case for single parents). While, intellectually, I strongly believe that to be bullshit, the anxiety about people’s judgement and how that judgement will impact on my son remains. So this line really resonated with me: “I don’t believe in sublimating all my own needs merely because I’ve become a parent. I think that doing so can lead to greater problems, and I want to show him that it is possible to get most of one’s own needs met openly and responsibly, while also loving someone else – including one’s child.”
Finally, I’m speaking on the panel at TENGA Talks’ “Touching on taboos” event this week so I’ve been thinking a lot about masturbation, the role it plays in our lives (whether single or in a relationship), why it remains such a taboo for so many people, whether and why that matters, and what we can do to change that.
A couple more things to (over)think about…
There’s a new report into teenagers porn-viewing habits. The most interesting finding, imo, is the important role porn plays for LGBTQ+ teens getting to grips with their sexuality and/or gender identity.
The Church of England put out guidance saying sex was only for married, heterosexual couples. I’m all for religious freedom but stories like this make me want to deplatform the lot of ‘em.
A judge in Utah refused to overturn the appeal of a woman who was convincted of lewdness after doing a bit of topless DIY in… wait for it… her own home. This despite the fact that her husband was also topless. The war against the female nipple continues, then.
My friend sent me this brilliant article about “tenderqueers” aka “the Softboi of the queer community” and I’m afraid to say I snort-laughed in recognition the whole way through it. If you hang out much in millennial/Gen Z queer spaces, trust me when I say you will know a few of these!
This Polish design student has come up with a sexy way to try home-insemination. Yes, I’m linking to my own article. No, I do not have any shame.
Rates of new HIV infections have fallen by 71% since 2012, largely due to the use of PrEP. This is so mega. If you’d like a primer on HIV treatment and prevention in 2020, may I suggest Season 3 Episode 2 of my podcast, The Second Circle, “Sex… with HIV”.
This piece on sex in midlife was a joy to read, and I’m so happy that, thanks to changing attitudes and access to info, people are getting to have the experiences in their 40s/50s/60s that they maybe missed out on when they were younger.
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The Overthinkers Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.
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