By Shambhavi Saxena:
Sex has to be consensual. Otherwise, it’s rape. Just to clear this up at the outset. But here’s something further for us to chew on – the domain of sexual pleasure within the economy of sex. Who is responsible for an individual’s sexual pleasure? The answer cannot be a simple one, because of how complicated the sexuality-morality-power nexus is, but it’s a question worth asking.
Regardless of your sexual identity and orientation, without a partner who acknowledges your needs, preferences, and boundaries, the chances of bad or uncomfortable sex are much higher. Let’s not even get into sexual acts that are debasing or overpowering for one party. So, then, your partner(s) is responsible for your sexual pleasure, or lack of it.
We’re not saying fork over the job to your partner(s), and be an unwitting rag-doll, but partners certainly share an important responsibility when it comes to sexual pleasure. The founder of FBomb Julia Z writes: “The truth, however, is that because the patriarchy is still alive and well, even when women have consensual sex, they’re still having sex that focuses on male pleasure and face sexist double standards before, after and while they do.”
Supporting this is Elisabeth Lloyd’s book, The Case of the Female Orgasm, finds that “Only one-quarter of women reliably experience orgasm during intercourse.” A Psychology Today article which refers to Lloyd also mentions that women’s best chance of orgasm is through clitoral stimulation, which is sidelined by exclusively penetrative sex.
Oral and non-penetrative sex (which is absolutely a thing don’t you know?) have been pushed into the lesbian corner of the sex spectrum. YouTube Vlogger Arielle Scarcella suggests that “social constructions” prevent heterosexual women from receiving oral or non-penetrative sex, pointing to the reluctance women have in demanding to be sexually pleased. Your partner(s) should be responsive. And, as Scarcella stresses, you should be vocal about what you like.
So are both you and your partner(s) responsible? Yes. And there should be no doubt about it. Sexual pleasure is as much about giving as it is about receiving. Sexual intercourse is not a level playing field. It can, and often does, become a ground for hierarchies to be re-asserted. Heterosexual males may prioritize their own orgasm over their female partner(s). And it’s not just a misogynist socialization of sex that causes this. Tops may do the same with bottoms, and same-sex partners too may try to selfishly dominate the experience. It is necessary to reconfigure power dynamics within intimate heterosexual relationships – like questioning social stereotypes about men ‘taking charge’ and women simply ‘taking it’. Same-sex partners and non-binary individuals too need to be wary of reproducing deeply patriarchal, heteronormative dynamics. The walls of the bedroom are more permeable than we think, and cannot be de-linked from social politics, as unsexy as that may sound!
Now that we’ve gone over intercourse, let’s talk about sexual pleasure outside of it. Are you yourself responsible for your own sexual pleasure, especially in the absence of a partner? When author of Sexual Politics Kate Millet was interviewed by Mark Blasius, she said, “[women are] more sexually repressed than men, having been given a much more strict puritanical code of behaviour than men ever have.” Not only do they minimise their sexuality and desire during intercourse with another, but they seem to altogether eliminate that part of their being when they’re alone.
Masturbation is still a taboo subject. And it’s not just women who aren’t ‘supposed to’ be pleasuring themselves, it’s pretty much everyone. The idea that you require a relationship or even a partner to be a sexually active and fulfilled individual doesn’t quite compute, because sexual pleasure can also be a very personal engagement. And often, the only comforting follow-up to some really bad sex can come in the form of a good wank. As they say, you do you.
Shaming people for masturbating is connected with a strong moralizing that envisions sex exclusively as a reproductive tool cordoned off from pleasure. It is also a way to restrict individuals, especially women, from experiencing their own sexual potential and power without a ‘capable’ partner.
So, back to the question, who is responsible for your sexual pleasure – your partner(s), yourself, or both? The answer is this: yes, yes and yes!