Many feminists have recently come to realize that women, particularly those who sleep with men, should make their own pleasure as much of a priority as their partners’.
For example, we’ve begun to call out orgasm inequity – the unequal distribution of orgasms between men and women, especially heterosexual cis women. Heterosexual women report orgasming during 62% of their sexual encounters, while heterosexual men do about 86% of the time – a dynamic that results from the societal privileging of men’s pleasure over women’s.
We’re conditioned to not even think about women’s enjoyment – and that’s messed up.
So, should we maintain a status quo where women’s satisfaction is considered optional while men’s is deemed mandatory, or should we demand the orgasms we’re entitled to? The answer may seem obvious, but I’m going to propose a third alternative.
We should consider women’s desires as important as men’s. However, some recent statements promoting such consideration have bordered on sexual entitlement.
“I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that,” Nicki Minaj told Cosmopolitan this May, eliciting praise throughout the feminist media.
“While the ability to climax during every sexual experience may not rank as urgently as other feminist issues, sexuality is a core part of the human experience. Why shouldn’t we demand equal orgasms for all?” feminist author Jessica Valenti responded in The Guardian.
However, there’s more than one feminist issue at play here. While we need to think about equality in our sexual interactions, we also need to think about consent. And equality that comes at the expense of consent is not true equality.
Closing the orgasm gap would mark a big step forward for feminism, but the proposed solution of demanding orgasm from our partners would also mark a step back for consent culture – because making “demands” of any sort in the bedroom does not involve getting a partner’s enthusiastic consent.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting partners to care about our pleasure and listen to our desires. In a healthy relationship, each person considers the other’s needs as important as their own. But when we imply that anybody has to do anything for us sexually, we start to disregard affirmative consent, which says we should only have sex with explicitly enthusiastic partners.
But Minaj’s interview was just one instance in which feminists have advocated for sexual equality with language that doesn’t consider the nuances of affirmative consent.
In July, Amy Schumer told Glamour that she’d advise women who sleep with men, “Make sure he knows that you’re entitled to an orgasm.”
And Huffington Post Executive Women’s Editor Emma Gray wrote in a review of Magic Mike XXL, “[Women] want to imagine ourselves in the starring role of a sexual fantasy that was crafted for us… We demand all of those things. We are entitled to all of those things.”
But what if men demanded orgasms from women? What if men said they were entitled to star in sexual fantasies that women crafted for them?
When the tables are turned, it becomes clearer how making demands and acting entitled can make one’s partner uncomfortable.
It has also become common for women to say they deserve oral sex, sex on their periods, and other types of sex that are often stigmatized for misogynistic reasons. “A woman should never do anything sexually for a man unless he goes down on her,” a friend once told me.
Again, it’s worth unlearning sexual norms that put men’s pleasure above women’s and stigmatize acts that aren’t inherently unappealing. But what if a man said he wouldn’t do anything sexually “for” a woman (a problematic construction to begin with because it’s unhealthy to do anything solely for another person without enjoying it also) unless she went down on him?
Many would find that unfair because some women don’t enjoy that particular act, and they still deserve attention from their partners.
Believe me, though – I’ve been there. I’ve gotten frustrated with people whose sexual preferences seemed to have sexist roots, and I’ve wanted to make them change.
I didn’t even realize how problematic it was to demand sexual pleasure as a means of empowerment until I found myself behaving according to this doctrine.
For example, through reading feminist publications and talking to other women about sexuality, I realized that our society stigmatizes menstruation and that some people’s squeamishness around menstrual blood stems from this form of sexism.
So, when a past partner told me he wasn’t sure if he wanted to sleep with me while I was on my period, I took it as an affront to vaginas. I didn’t think he had the right to turn down sex on those grounds.
But we always have the right to turn down sex – even if our reasons for turning it down are problematic.
After we talked about it, I realized that what grosses us out or makes us uncomfortable is largely out of our control. So, I could talk to him about the politics behind what our society considers gross, and I could try to get him to understand why that particular stigma is problematic, but understanding this intellectually would not necessarily change how he felt.
He was generally averse to bodily fluids, but even if his distaste for period sex stemmed from the societal notion that periods are gross and women are unclean, it would still be valid. Implying otherwise would pressure him into sex, and that’s never okay.
This distinction between critiquing the sources of someone’s desire not to do something and making them do it is lost in many narratives of women’s sexual empowerment – and understandably so. It’s a tricky line to walk.
How do we acknowledge it’s unfair that women have fewer orgasms than men without pressuring our partners to give us orgasms when they’re not up for it? How can we claim that women have as much of a right to oral sex as men without demanding our partners perform it?
We can still challenge the view that women’s pleasure is optional while men’s is mandatory and expect our partners to care about what we want without pressuring those who listen to our desires but don’t want to fulfill them at a given moment.
We can even reject misogynistic norms without pressuring partners who are unwilling to make our sexual relationships equal, though that may mean not sleeping with them.
Here are some suggestions for embracing sexual empowerment without the entitlement that sometimes accompanies calls for bedroom equality.
1. Talk About What You Both Like and Dislike Before You Even Get into Bed
Nobody is entitled to anything sexually, but one thing we are entitled to do regardless of gender is to express our desires. So, one big step toward making women’s pleasure as much of a priority as their partners’ is to listen to what women like and dislike.
During these discussions, people can clarify what they want from a sexual relationship so that both know what to expect.
For example, if you don’t want to give your partner oral sex if they don’t reciprocate it (which, again, should perhaps lead you to question whether you want to do it at all), it may help to find out in advance if they don’t want to give oral sex so that you don’t. If your desire for reciprocation comes up while you’re already in bed, your partner may sense your disappointment and feel pressured.
Or, if you learn a partner doesn’t like to do something you normally like, you can talk about other ways to make sure you’re equally satisfied or decide not to enter into that sexual relationship at all.
Sometimes women’s pleasure is ignored simply by default. By voicing that you want pleasure and telling your partner how to provide it, you are changing that dynamic.
These conversations are often better to have out of the heat of the moment, when both people can think rationally and express themselves clearly, and in advance so there are no surprises that could cause disappointment and tension.
2. Communicate Your Sexual Desires as Requests, Not Orders
Everyone has the right to voice what they like – as long as they make it clear the other person can say “no” without negative consequences.
For example, there’s a huge difference between saying “I really like when you touch me here” and “You have to touch me here” or between saying “Could you go down on me?” and “You have to go down on me.”
“I’ve noticed you sometimes stop after you come and I haven’t, and I’d really like it if you could help me finish” is also very different from “I need to come every time you do.” While you’re entitled to ask for what you want sexually, you’re not entitled to tell anyone what to do.
So then, what happens if you make a respectful request and your partner says “no?”
Their reasons may matter to you. For example, it may help to know that, even if someone doesn’t enjoy giving oral sex, they’re not opposed to pleasuring you in principle and would gladly do it in other ways. It may also be the case that they don’t have the time or energy to help you to orgasm at the moment, but would be happy to do so another time.
Whatever their reasons, even if you’re disappointed or your ego is wounded, make it clear that you’re glad they told you and don’t want them to do anything they’re not excited about.
If, on the other hand, your partner is habitually unwilling to reciprocate the pleasure you give, that might be a deal breaker for you. That’s okay.
Being sexually incompatible, or otherwise not having your sexual needs met, is a perfectly fine reason to end a relationship. But it would be coercive to try to change their mind.
Even if your partner has no reason for refusing to honor your requests other than wanting to get more pleasure out of the relationship than you, you can deem them selfish and unfair, but you can’t demand that they change.
Think of it this way: If a woman abstains from sex because she had been taught it would harm her purity and reflect poorly on her character, that belief is worth challenging, but everyone still must respect her decision.
Trying to change someone’s sexual behavior in the name of feminism creates a relationship where people make sexual decisions for reasons other than simply wanting to, and nobody should feel obliged to do anything they don’t want to, sexually or otherwise.
3. Have Nonjudgmental Conversations Examining the Sources of Your Preferences
Sexism and other forms of oppression play a huge role in shaping our sexual desires. But no matter how problematic our preferences are, we still get to have them, and we shouldn’t have to do anything we don’t enjoy just to be politically correct.
Take my ex, for instance. Even if his aversion to period sex were based on an irrational fear that he would get cooties from it, I wouldn’t want him to do it if he didn’t want to.
Instead, in this hypothetical scenario, we could talk about his reaction and how he learned it. Shifting the blame off of him and onto society could let me start that conversation without making him defensive. It might even lead him to see how problematic his preferences were, though I couldn’t expect that awareness to alter his visceral reactions.
In the same way, oppression can influence what we do like, and that’s okay, too.
One friend who prefers to be sexually submissive told me she thinks she developed that affinity through the stereotype that women are submissive. Because she and her partners acknowledge that this stereotype is problematic, but blame society and not her, they can still indulge her desires without contributing to the stereotypes they stem from.
If you and your partner give each other permission to have problematic sexual likes and dislikes, you could have some surprisingly honest and eye-opening conversations.
These discussions might not change anybody’s mind, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to understand what our partners prefer and the reasons behind these preferences without any judgment.
It’s not fair when women’s pleasure is neglected or when women are expected to give more than they receive. Everyone deserves the same consideration from their sexual partners, regardless of gender. At the same time, nobody is entitled to anything sexually from anyone else.
In order to reconcile fostering empowerment with avoiding entitlement, we need to develop sexual relationships based on communication, consent, and self-awareness, where it is never okay to demand anything but it is always okay to ask.
That way, we can challenge double-standards regarding sexual pleasure without challenging any individual’s boundaries.
After all, women’s sexual disempowerment is an issue larger than two people in bed together. Someone can simultaneously want to see women more empowered and not want to cater to a woman’s desires at any given moment.
We should apply the same standards for sexual enjoyment to everyone, but we should apply the same standards for consent to everybody as well – and this means both encouraging empowerment and eliminating entitlement.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.