You know how the story goes. Two characters have a something, the heat in their eyes when they look at each other, the occasional flick of the gaze toward the other’s mouth. Eventually, they give into their desires and fall in bed together, and we get the movie’s climactic sex scene.
Note that the characters don’t really talk before or during the sex scene. They just exchange a heated look and they know the time has finally come for sex.
Contrast this typical sex scene from movies, TV shows, books, video games, etc., to the passage below, from the short story “Make Tonight a Show” by Rose Serrano*:
“Simon,” she says, very seriously. “You might not be interested in the kind of things I want.”
“What, like Fifty Shades type stuff?” He tries for a laugh; she catches his eyes and pins him with her gaze. He drops his voice and leans in. “Look, I’m kinky.” He’s probably a lot kinkier than her, to be honest. “I’m almost definitely into whatever you’re into.”
She matches him beat for beat, mimicking his posture until she’s in his personal space, her lips just inches away from his. “I’m almost definitely into being on top.”
“Well, I’m almost definitely into being hurt,” he whispers, and closes the gap. It’s a light kiss, nearly chaste, but Leila grabs his hand and digs her nails in – yeah, just as good as he imagined, better than any kiss could be.
What’s the difference?
Both scenes are consensual. The sex is very much desired by everyone involved (though in the first scene the consent is implicit in their body language, because no one actually says “yes.”) But the first scene has these young women, Megan and Graham, coming together wordlessly. Even though they clearly both want to have sex, they don’t discuss what they want from the sex, what they like, what their boundaries are, or what kind of relationship they want with each other. The sex just… happens. An experience that comes along and sweeps them up in its intensity.
Sex can definitely be like that in real life, especially in an established sexual relationship. You can read your partner(s)’ cues, you can tell they’re as hot and bothered as you are, you know what’s going to get each other off, and you just go for it.
But realistically, especially if you’re having sex with someone for the first time, sex isn’t just something that happens. It’s something you create intentionally with your partner(s). After all, saying yes is just the beginning. Maybe you want to have sex, but for completely different reasons. Maybe you’d like to feel powerful during sex, while your partner would like to feel tender. Hopefully, you can find a way to have sex that lets everyone have the experience they want. This is what makes sex between every two (or three, or more) people unique.
No matter how much you love each other, you can’t know your partner’s feelings and intentions about the sex you’re going to have unless you talk about it. Without that conversation, you could end up with all kinds of misunderstandings. Take Simon and Leila from the passage above. Simon thinks at first that he’s a lot kinkier than Leila. When he talks to her, it turns out he’s wrong. Think what would have happened if they’d just fallen into bed together without discussing what they like first. Both of them would have missed out on the kinky sex they really wanted to have.
It’s that conversation about feelings and intent before sex that makes more spontaneous sex between established partners possible. You already know what your partner typically wants from sex, so you can have it on a whim and feel confident you’ll give them an experience they’ll like.
Even so, people who’ve been together a long time can still benefit from sharing their feelings or intentions before sex. When I’m with a partner, I like to say things like, “I’m feeling tired today, so I’d rather do something that’s a bit lower-energy,” or “I really could use some stress relief. Can we think of ways for me to blow off steam when we’re in bed?” so my partner knows what to expect.
So if intentional sex is so important and beneficial to a healthy sexual relationship, why do we never see it? Why doesn’t anyone seem to talk about it?
I included the sex scene from But I’m a Cheerleader because for me it really highlights this contradiction. But I’m a Cheerleader is a movie from the 1990s about young queer people at a “pray the gay away” camp discovering their identities and sexualities in an environment that tries to brutally erase them. The movie is very much about false, forced sexuality as opposed to good, authentic sexuality. In the scenes where Megan and Graham are forced to act straight, their wants, desires, and consent don’t matter. In this sex scene, their consent is present and clear. But their specific wants and desires are still unspoken and invisible. And for two young lesbians having sex for the first time after years of repressing themselves, clearly communicating their desires would seem to be especially important.
The best I can figure is that there’s a cultural assumption that good sex, proper sex, should be such an easy and natural experience that no words are necessary. The lovers should just know, through the power and purity of their love, exactly how to please each other.
But in the real world, there’s no way to intuitively know what your partner wants in bed, no matter how strong a bond you have. Even if you think you just know, it may turn out that you don’t, and you’re missing out on better sex and a better understanding of a person you care about.
On the rare occasions you do see intentional sex in the media, it’s in situations where sex falls outside of cultural definitions of “good” and “normal” sexuality†. My example from “Make Tonight a Show” is about a couple having kinky sex. In Lois Bujold’s novel Beguilement, the main characters have a deep discussion of boundaries and capabilities before sex because one of them is disabled and the other is a survivor of attempted rape: disability and survivor status introduce “problems” to otherwise normative straight sex, which the characters resolve in conversation. In Star Trek: Voyager, B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris only explicitly discuss their feelings about sex when B’Elanna is in a Klingon blood rage (clearly an obstacle to right proper sex).
None of this is to say that it isn’t great to see representations of intentional sex, as rare as they are. But the thing is, straight able-bodied cis vanilla people can benefit from intentional sex just as much as anyone else. Good sex isn’t just something that arises naturally from doing sex the “right” way with the “right” kind of partner. It’s something that you and your partner(s) build together, by finding the ways your unique likes, dislikes, and passions intersect.
What I’d really like to see is people modeling in-depth discussion of sex, before you get down and do it, as an important part of normal, healthy sexuality, not just a way to fix problematic sexuality. Then we can all learn more about how to have sex on purpose.
Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist (a guide to how to be emotionally as well as physically ready for sex with a new partner)