In the spring of the year I turned 25, I started sleeping with my friend Nick. We’d been mates for a while, occupying the same circles, going to the same bars and gigs and clubs. Friendship turned to flirtation which turned to dirty messages pinging between our phones. Eventually we managed to engineer it so that we left an evening’s socialising at the same time, took the tube together, me diverting my route only slightly - not in a way that would be obvious - to pass his stop and secure myself an invitation back to his for a cup of tea.
We did, in all fairness, drink tea. Fragrant jasmine dragon pearls that unfurled like tiny sea monsters in my mug. He invited me to crash. He said I may as well sleep in his bed. I agreed, affecting nonchalance. Despite the booze we’d consumed, the endorphins of our night out we stuck to that tried and tested British seduction technique of pretending you are absolutely not going to have sex right up until the moment you’re actually having sex. Or, maybe the moment just before. It can be hard to tell, sometimes, the exact moment when you go from not having sex to having sex. The edge of it is blurred by arousal and expectation and careful words and touches and intakes of breath.
We did this a few times over a few months: went out with our friends, left at the same time, slyly made our way back to one or other of our flats without ever admitting that’s what we were doing, either to our mates or each other. Once, he texted me and said his flatmate was away. He said I could come round for a drink, if I wanted to. That was the closest we ever came to acknowledging we were fucking.
We never spoke about our sex outside of the time we spent together in bed. Truth is, we rarely spoke about it in bed either. Decisions were made about what to do with simple statements, suggestions and demands: “Let’s 69,” “Bite my nipples,” “I want to fuck you now.” Consent was clearly established, if not verbalised. Nobody was doing anything they didn’t want to be doing. And yet. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good sex. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was bad sex.
The reason it was bad sex wasn’t because I didn’t come, although I didn’t. Partnered sex, for me, would not involve orgasm until several months later when I met the man I would eventually marry. Obviously, I did not marry him for that reason. But it is true to say that our shared approach and attitude to sex was one of the foundations on which we built our partnership.
Very early on in my relationship with my now-husband he told me that talking about sex was really important to him, and something clicked into place; some cog in my brain took purchase, some valve was loosened. This new energy allowed me to move into the space he had created for me, for my sexuality. It meant our relationship could grow in a way that no relationship I’d been in had ever been able to before. It meant we had something absolutely fundamental in common.
It took me a long time to work out why the sex I’d had with Nick was so bad. At the time I couldn’t quite articulate it. It felt like having sex with someone who didn’t actually like sex, I remember saying to a friend. But that was surely nonsense. It wasn’t plausible. I could countenance the possibility that he didn’t like me but no one would have sex if they didn’t actually like sex, would they?
I now know that an awful lot of people have sex even though they don’t like sex. Even more people have sex even though the sex they are having is not how they’d like sex to be. And an awful lot of people have sex they don’t really enjoy because they believe that’s how sex should be and to ask for, or even want, something else denotes sluttiness or neediness or brokenness or deviance or too much interest, or too little interest, or an excess of feelings, or a lack of chill.
It wasn’t until I read Peggy Orenstein’s book, Boys & Sex at the start of 2020 - a cool decade after the events themselves - that I was able to put words to my experience. One of Orenstein’s many interviewees described his encounters with straight hookup culture and it rang so true for me that I stopped what I was doing and wrote it down.
"The sex can feel like two people having two very distinct experiences,” he told her. “There's not much eye contact. Sometimes you don't even say anything. And it's weird to be so open with a stranger. It's like you’re acting vulnerable, but not actually being vulnerable with someone you don't know and don't care very much about. It's not a problem for me. It's just odd. Odd and not even really fun."
This is how I felt with Nick. What I wanted from sex, I now realise, was a connection. Not necessarily a romantic connection but certainly an erotic one. I wanted sex to feel collaborative, like something we’d actively chosen to do together because of the specific things we found arousing about each other. And I wanted to be able to acknowledge that, openly, instead of pretending the sex we were having was some sort of logistical accident that we went along with, dispassionately, because there was nothing better to do.
All of this is fundamental to how I approach sex now but back then I was only beginning to work it out. Through this experience, I started to realise and acknowledge to myself that I wanted more from sex; more than just two bodies in the same space, more than just a bunch of activities done sequentially. I wanted my sex life to expand outside the parameters of the moment in which the physical parts took place. I wanted to experience the wholeness of my sexuality and I wanted to be with people who wanted that experience too - both of me and of themselves.
The bad sex I had with Nick was not the only bad sex I’ve ever had but it was the best bad sex because it marked a turning point away from what external influences told me sex should be, and towards what I wanted sex to be.
Needless to say, this is only one account of how and why sex can be bad. There are many other ways sex can be bad and many other factors and influences feeding into bad sex. Which is why I am excited to introduce you, formally, to The Second Circle Series Four: BAD SEX.
CLICK HERE TO GO STRAIGHT TO THE CROWDFUNDER!
We spend a lot of time in the media talking about how to make sex better – usually with “hot tips” and lists of products to “spice things up” – but we don’t spend any time examining why we need those tips in the first place.
We have a global sexual wellness industry worth almost £35bn. We have education, information, and sexual health services in the palms of our hands. We have CBD lube, audio porn, and air suction vibrators. Prospective partners are a mere swipe away. And yet…
Data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL 3) shows around half of people in the UK report some type of sexual problem, whether it’s a struggle to orgasm or concerns about their libido. I want to find out why.
Over the course of six episodes I will delve into some of the most common issues people face in their sex lives, from dissatisfying hookups, to sexual dysfunction, body image issues, and shame. I’ll piece together the cultural, social, and even economic factors that contribute to sex being bad, hear first-hand stories of “bad sex,” talk to the experts and find out what we can really do about it.
But in order to do all this, I need your help. I need to raise £5,000 to get this podcast series off the ground and into your headphones. That’s why I’ve launched this crowdfunder.
READ MORE ABOUT HOW I’LL BE SPENDING THIS MONEY!
By pledging to Series 4 of The Second Circle, not only will you be bringing much-needed discussion, research and investigation into sex and relationships to the mainstream but you’ll get to be the first to hear it! All supporters will receive early access to the finished podcast. You will also get to come with me along the way, hear updates, get exclusive access to behind-the-scenes clips and conversations, and get your hands on some cute BAD SEX merch. Keen supporters can even get their name on the podcast itself.
So I’m counting on you to pledge, share the crowdfunder, and tell all your friends about BAD SEX.
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What’s on my mind this week…
Have you dabbled in kink but find you always come back to the classics. Maybe you jumped on the 50 Shades bandwagon before realising that getting tied up every time was actually a bit of a faff. Have you got handcuffs gathering dust underneath your bed? I’m writing about the glory of vanilla sex and looking to hear from people who are all about that sweet sweet vanilla! If this sounds like you, hit reply on this email and let’s chat!
Personally I bloody love vanilla - both the sex AND the spice. In fact as I write this I am wearing a perfume that I bought in the first lockdown to cheer myself up and one of its key base notes is Mexican vanilla and it is truly one of the sexiest things I have ever smelled.
A couple more things to (over)think about…
I really liked this article by Huma Qureshi, particularly this passage about love: “It is a choice to be made every single day, sometimes without realising it. It takes effort, even if it feels effortless. I also used to believe that love had to sweep you right off your feet, just like in the movies, but now I think it’s quieter and a lot less dramatic than that. It feels like coming home.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner has put together a thread on all the times sex and/or dating have been illegal over the last year. It’s quite a ride.
The Guardian have done a feature on people breaking lockdown for sex which raises some good points.
And the BBC have an article asking whether virtual sex can really fulfil our needs. Going to be honest, I’m a bit over this conversation but I like what this feature says about the low-stakes feeling of safety that accompanies virtual experiences.
I was delighted, when I clicked on this article in Autostraddle about being a “transmasculine slut”, to discover it was written by my pal (and Overthinker’s reader!) Quinn Rhodes. Super interesting insights here.
This piece in HuffPost about overfamiliarity with your partner when you’re in lockdown together is relatable. A lot has been written about the impact of absence on relationships but not so much on the impact of constantly being together so that got me thinking.
February is LGBTQ+ history month so I’ve been reading a lot of stuff around this. This piece in The Conversation is a good starting point.
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