Inside Frances’ mind was a to-do list. On it was a small pile of laundry, an almost-due lab worksheet, and an internship deck still missing its final touches. Also a dentist appointment she had yet to schedule, an inbox she hadn’t checked since this morning, and did she ever respond to her little brother’s text? Had she run out of tampons? She rearranged the list in the folds of her brain, the undone laundry taunting her like a low-hanging fruit. Until finally—a groan, then a moan, soft then loud then louder then again and again. Her eyes rolled and her body retracted. Her boyfriend—pale-skinned, curly-haired, sweaty—removed his rigid fingers from deep inside her, the desperation and slight annoyance in his face washed over by relief. Frances gave him a peck on the cheek, got dressed, then walked out of the room with the hamper.
“I just wanted it to be done,” Frances confessed with a laugh. We were in my too-small twin bed, recounting all the times she’d faked orgasms. She was the older, cooler cousin I clung to like my own sister; I ate up her every word. “It was like [my boyfriend] was just another task I needed to tick off, and I still had other things to do. If I waited to actually come, I’d have nothing else done.”
In theory, faking orgasms is counterproductive. Isn’t the point of sex to climax, to reach the grand finale after all the anticipation and buildup? While there’s truth in that, sex can also be painful, hopelessly boring, or coercive, and feigning an orgasm is something both men and women do to quickly put an end to it. Women often take the lead in orgasm fraud due to a great number of factors—one of which is the orgasm gap, which suggests that women with male sexual partners are least likely to come during sex. The explosive final destination is simply not a guarantee that many women have come to expect, at least not as much as their male partners.
I found Frances’ stories hilarious, but I was quick to retort. “If you didn’t like it, why didn’t you just say so?” I asked with all the power vested in me by the eyeliner-so-sharp-it-could-kill-a-man, gaslight-gatekeep-girlboss brand of feminism I had just learned on the internet. I was 17 then—Frances was already a junior in college—and it wasn’t until I was asking myself this same question three years later that I understood Frances’ slow shrug, her nose scrunch.
About 30% of women report experiencing pain during vaginal sex, while 72% report pain during anal sex—yet the vast majority don’t open up to their partners about it. Dyspareunia, or recurring pain during sexual intercourse, is more common among women; one scientific article found that women with this condition “are inclined to continue with coitus, if necessary, with their teeth tightly clenched.” Again, this isn’t a surprise. Among the first things people learn about sex as kids is that when a person with a vagina loses their virginity, they bleed and hurt, and the pain will never cease as long as penile penetration occurs. Of course, this functions more as a celibacy-grounded scare tactic than a sexually healthy tip, but it’s undeniable how much this belief—that sex for women is normally painful—affects how we view heterosexual sex.
On the other side of this coin is the precedence male pleasure takes over female comfort. The amount of research on erectile dysfunction easily trumps research on dyspareunia, and Viagra, as the medical intervention for the former, has long enjoyed its place in mainstream medical knowledge. Bad sex, for most men, is characterized by the absence of orgasm—something they are socialized to be entitled to, their seminal precipitation often signaling intercourse’s conclusion. But because not coming is seen as normal for women, their definition of bad sex includes not only physical pain, but also coercion and emotional distress.
In 2018, just a few months after Hollywood’s first reckoning with its sexual assault epidemic, Babe.net published an article on the sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari. A woman going by “Grace” said she felt pressured by a persistent Ansari; while she did manage to leave before things turned for the absolute worst, she spent an hour averting his “gross, forceful kisses” and agreeing to do things despite her discomfort.
At the time, discussions of consent were the Band-Aid placed over the gaping wound of #MeToo. “No means no” rhetoric found its way back to newsfeeds, and its rules—consent can be retracted, it cannot be given by someone intoxicated, etc.—were rehashed as if a simple “no” was a magic word that could paralyze rapists. The Babe.net story exposed the inherent weakness of our reverence for consent: someone’s “yes” is not always based solely on their sexual desire, especially within the uneven power dynamics of heterosexual sex. “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time, and to ignore their discomfort. This is so baked into our society I feel like we forget it’s there,” writes Lili Loofbourow for The Week. Author Melissa Febos, in her new book Girlhood, talks about empty consent and how women are “mostly socialized not to reject the hands of others” as early as childhood. It’s relatively easier to condemn men whose sexual offenses are recognizably criminal, but how do we reconcile this with the grayness of what happened to Grace, who only agreed to oral sex because she feared something worse?
“‘Bad sex’ doesn’t have to be assault for it to be frightening, shame-inducing, upsetting,” Katherine Angel writes in her new book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. “‘Bad sex’ is miserable, unpleasant, humiliating, painful,” even when it is consensual. The response to Grace’s story was understandably mixed, with many well-meaning women proclaiming that it was simply a bad date, not sexual misconduct. It’s concerning that when we hear about coercive and discomforting dates, our first instinct is to insist that it’s actually common and normal. We rarely question the structures that make these “bad dates” or instances of “bad sex” possible in the first place. How many people—especially women—have experienced something like it; how many more are unaware that it doesn’t have to be treated like an inevitability?
In a way, fake orgasms and empty consent have similar functions: they’re protective measures meant to cushion men’s ego, subsequently guarding women from the hostility to which they may otherwise be subjected. Insulating male partners’ emotions is not exclusive to the bedroom, either. Men are continuously taught, in one way or another, to look down on vulnerability and shut down any and all emotion. This often results in their female partners carrying the burden of their stifled emotional growth.
An incapacity for interpersonal skills and emotional intimacy can explain why many adult men have no close friends, or at least ones in whom they can regularly confide. This supersizes the responsibility of the women they date. “Modern relationships continue to put pressure on ‘the one’ to be the Only One,” Melanie Hamlett writes for Harper’s Bazaar. “Men cast their wives and girlfriends to play best friend, lover, career advisor, stylist, social secretary, emotional cheerleader, mom—to him, their future kids, or both—and eventually, on-call therapist minus the $200/hour fee.” This persists, in part, because women are also expected to take on all these roles. Countless tropes, from allegedly having innate “maternal instincts” to young women “fixing” broken men, all cultivate this caring female savior archetype, which many women subsequently internalize. This internalization has gotten to the point where some women in heterosexual relationships learn to “outsource their pleasure,” to make synonymous what they enjoy and what their partners enjoy. Their partner’s orgasm means they did well in bed; their worth as a partner is measured by their willingness to “[be] a man’s crutch.”
However, in the same way that women are socialized into gritting their teeth through painful sex or consenting to touch they don’t want, men are taught to believe that their masculine identity conflicts with many of the emotions they feel. “Men are taught the remedy to heartbreak is to get drunk with your buddies, objectify women, and go out and get laid; to basically distance yourself from your feelings and channel them into an aggressive outlet,” Scott Shepherd, who started a men’s group with some of his friends, told Hamlett. This proves that falling prey to performative masculinity harms not just women but men—male suicide rates have been disproportionately higher since the 19th century, and despite therapy and seeking mental health help becoming more mainstream, men are less likely to pursue it. When they do, they are less likely to stay.
Of course, mental health help is not always accessible, especially to people of color, the working class, and people of marginalized genders. But “while so much of the world is designed for the comfort and benefit of men,” writes Philip Eil for VICE, “the world of psychotherapy is not.” After all, psychotherapy was created largely by men to treat women. The common structure of therapy can’t always thaw the stoicism men think is expected of them, and naturally they will benefit from it less if they are not as receptive to it.
That said, therapy is not the be-all and end-all of mental health. Eil posits that “simply becoming more aware of how [men] engage with societal expectations of masculinity might be a step toward improved mental health.” Heterosexual men are often in service of a patriarchal chokehold both carried and enforced by other men (and women)—a feudal-capitalist, white-supremacist patriarchy that polices both men and women’s behavior while benefiting only a select few.
However, relationships with bi men and between gay men aren’t exactly utopias built on equality. Gay men are not exempt from hegemonic masculinity, which can result in difficulty expressing emotions and affection, even with their partners. They can also feel pressure to be traditionally masculine—not only to be accepted by wider society, but to be seen as attractive by other gay men. Reverence for “masc” men and hostility toward more effeminate men are still prevalent in the gay community. This aversion to effeminacy, while complex, can be partly rooted in misogyny: Patrick Strudwick, for The Guardian, wrote, “Many gay men individuate their identity from straight men by exaggerating their sexual lack of interest in women,” which can teeter on misogyny and ambivalent sexism.
Bi men can exhibit the same behaviors regardless of their partner’s gender. After all, queerness does not make someone incapable of prejudices like misogyny or internalized homophobia. Conversely, some studies have revealed that straight women see bi men as less sexually and romantically attractive and less masculine than straight men. It’s clear that gay and bi men’s same-sex attraction frames them as inherently less masculine in the eyes of both men and women. It then makes sense that some queer men would feel compelled to subscribe to rigid masculine ideals—it’s essentially an act of self-preservation in a deeply patriarchal society.
For women who did date bi men, they reported that their partners were not only better in bed, but also more caring in long-term relationships, including parenthood. Dr. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli writes in her book Women in Relationships with Bisexual Men that this is partly due to bi men having spent considerable time understanding their sexuality and questioning masculinity, particularly its more aggressive characteristics. She explains that this makes bi men more willing to establish equitable relationships, and more likely to explore less heteronormative sexual acts.
It’s important to acknowledge that a man’s bisexuality does not a guarantee a healthier relationship, nor is it the only determinant responsible for good sex and good dates. But the reason they seem to make better partners—through questioning masculinity—points to a possibility that is, quite frankly, very exciting. It is possible to divorce maleness from distorted definitions of masculinity, and it works, at least to some extent. Once this begins, the undoing of the current (heterosexual) sexual culture will follow. Angel argues that consent is insufficient in guaranteeing women’s safety, comfort, and pleasure during sex; in fact, she suggests we steer away from the black-and-white yes-no of consent and strive for a culture wherein we can go into sex uncertain of what we want (since realistically, this is most often the case), placing radical trust in our partner not to abuse. This cultural shift entails unsubscribing from the idea that women’s discomfort is warranted; that pleasure must only be in supplement to their male partners’, which we perceive as men’s biological right; and that being needed does not always mean being loved. While not all instances of bad sex, bad dates, and bad relationships are abusive, we must not discount the fact that even these “smaller” cases show how the failures of our current systems trickle down to our most intimate moments.
By Andrea Panaligan
Illustration by Sam Taylor for Vice