In my fantasies, the thoughts running through my head during sex are all about how sexy my partner is and how much I want them and how unbelievably amazing I feel.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always live up to these expectations.
Instead, the broken record inside my head often sounds like “Do I look weird?” “Do I sound weird?” “AM I DOING THIS ALL WRONG?” And what I hoped would be pure pleasure and enjoyment quickly turns to panic.
A lot of women can relate to this – because internalized misogyny has a lot to do with it.
Internalized misogyny is essentially sexism directed toward yourself. And in this case, what’s internalized is the belief that women are first and foremost sexual objects who exist to please other people.
Another thing women and femmes frequently internalize about sex is that they’re defined by how much they do it, how they do it, and who they do it with.
Put this all together, and that passionate hookup where your mind is free from all thoughts outside the present moment becomes a pipe dream.
However, with awareness of where these thoughts come from, willingness to forgive myself for having them, and self-love to counter them, I’ve gained more control over whether I listen to them or not.
Here are a few of the misogynistic thoughts I’ve dealt with during sex and how I’ve dealt with them.
1. ‘How Do I Look?’
Let me start you off with a statistic. 32 percent of women in Cosmo’s female orgasm survey said one of the biggest obstacles to orgasming for them was being too in their heads or focused on how they look.
Now, let me tell you a story that illustrates this statistic. For a long time, I wasn’t able to orgasm with a partner, even though I had no trouble alone.
So, I went to a hypnotist (one of the perks of being a sex and relationships writer is that you get to do stuff like this for free), and he brought me into a state of trance while he talked to me about my issue.
And in this hypnotic state, I saw a vivid, dream-like vision of myself having sex… and for the first time, I thought I looked okay.
I believe the hypnosis reversed a thought pattern I was undergoing without realizing it: I had been picturing myself negatively during sex.
In fact, I started to notice self-evaluative thoughts even before sex. As my partner put his hand on my stomach while we were kissing, for example, I found myself panicking that my stomach was too big. Which is a shame, because being touched on my lower stomach feels really good for me if I’m actually present to experience it.
But I don’t think the answer to this problem is just to reverse it and think about how hot you look. Picturing myself at all, positive or negative, has served to take me out of the moment. Even thinking “ooh yay, my stomach looks flat in this position” (which I’ve unfortunately learned to aspire to even though those standards are BS) feels like a form of self-objectification.
What’s helped me with this is to let myself be a little selfish. The reason women and femmes feel pressure to look sexy during sex is that we learn we’re always supposed to please others, even when we’re the ones being pleased. Let’s stop and think about how ridiculous that is.
Getting fired up about the “how do I look?” thoughts running through my head during sex has helped me combat them. I’ll sometimes even use my male partners as a reference point. “Do you think he’s worried about how his thighs look right now?” I’ll ask myself. “Then you shouldn’t have to either, dammit. This is your time.”
(And now I can easily orgasm with a partner and it’s so freaking exciting and I won’t shut up about it. Sorry.)
2. ‘How Do I Sound?’
This is one I’m pretty positive I owe to porn. When I look at porn, it is very, very rare for me to come across women whose sounds I can relate to. Because they’re all way, way noisier than I am naturally (the only noise I make without trying is usually heavy breathing).
There’s nothing wrong with moaning or screaming or making whatever noises come out of your mouth during sex, but when you don’t and everyone like you in porn does, you start to feel like you need to change.
And you start to feel like your partners, who have also probably watched porn and seen the same things, will expect you to be noisy and doubt their sexual prowess if you’re not.
So, you start throwing in the occasional groan or sigh here and there just to give them some feedback.
Then, you become so focused on modulating your voice in response to sexual pleasure that you don’t even experience that pleasure.
It may seem like no big deal to exaggerate a bit for the sake of communication, but it really takes me out of the moment – and also disconnects both me and my partners from what I’m actually feeling.
Eventually, I decided to stop doing this because I really wanted an honest connection with my partners. It took a lot of trust and vulnerability to let them into my authentic process, even when it wasn’t particularly suited for the camera.
And, again, I reminded myself that men aren’t expected to put on a show in this way, so I shouldn’t be either. If it’s not awkward when my male partners are quiet, it shouldn’t be awkward when I am.
As far as feedback goes, I’ve taken to verbally expressing myself. It feels a lot more authentic than trying to manipulate my voice to convey feelings I could name explicitly. (Plus, it’s pretty fun to whisper “I’m coming” into someone’s ear. Just saying. Sorry, I warned you I wouldn’t shut up about it.)
It’s a huge relief to finally be clear and honest, and it also feels like a kind thing to do for my partners. This way, they know that whatever I portray in my voice or facial expression is real, and they’re not left guessing.
The way I express myself now may not be as hot as a porn star, but it fosters an emotional connection, and that is hot.
3. ‘Does This Make Me Slutty?’
When I was on vacation one night, I started dancing with someone at a club, and we made a mutual decision to go back to his hotel together.
And on the cab ride there, I was thinking, “He must think I’m pretty wild.”
Then I realized that he was a participant in this too, and I actually thought he seemed very nice and responsible. And nobody else would probably consider him “wild” either.
So why was I “wild” for doing this? Because I was taught that if I had sex outside the context of a committed relationship, that would make me “wild,” “slutty,” or some other term that would never be used against men.
In that moment, I tried to invert my judgment of him and apply it to myself: “He seems nice and responsible and the fact that he’s here does not take away from that. It shouldn’t for me either.”
I felt the need to add those last two words because in my mind, openly enjoying sex made me feel like an object without a brain or a career.
Women and femmes are taught that if we have sex, it’s just for our partners, and therefore, we’re just focused on pleasing other people and don’t have minds of our own.
And the conclusion of this is that if we have sex, we are then below our partners because we’re “giving them what they want.”
Sometimes, it helps me to literally rewrite this narrative in my head. My own, self-authored narrative might sound something like: “I am strong and empowered. I have sex because I want to, despite social norms telling me to not do it or to only do it for other people. I know what I want and believe I deserve pleasure, and my partners like that about me. My sexual decision say nothing about my kindness, intelligence, or worth as a person.”
It seems comical to be going through these thoughts while I’m making out with someone in their hotel room, but it really helps me counter the other, slut-shaming thoughts I’m having and be my full self.
4. ‘I Don’t Deserve This’
Back to my orgasming-with-a-partner issue (sorry, warned you). The last thing that really needed to go for me to be able to do that was the thought that I was taking too long.
And I’d start having this thought after, like, two minutes. Pretty much the moment someone would start pleasuring me, I’d start to brainstorm how I could either fake it or transition to an activity more focused on them. In other words – notice a theme here – how I could please my partner.
There’s a huge double standard for how we view men’s and women’s pleasure. Studies have found that oral sex, for example, is performed more often on men (at least in college hookups) and viewed as a bigger deal and more difficult when it’s performed on women.
I didn’t really think I’d internalized this idea that men are entitled to pleasure while women are imposing on their partners if they take up time. But then I took an online course on orgasms, and I learned that the instructor recommends each student’s partner spends at least 20 minutes pleasuring her with no distractions.
20 minutes! It seemed like forever to me, especially since I anticipated spending that time modulating my face and voice to come off sexy.
But the first time I orgasmed with a partner, I decided to give myself that 20 minutes (realizing I’d spent 20 minutes on others before and that never bothered me – hello, double standards), and I didn’t need it! I only needed five or 10 of them, and I’d never even given myself that! I’d start worrying about how to wrap things up before my body stood a chance.
I should say that while I happen to be going through a stage in my life where I’m very enthusiastic about and frankly kind of obsessed with orgasms, that shouldn’t be the goal of sex for everyone, and I enjoyed sex before it was a goal for me.
This is less about orgasms themselves than the gender disparities that the orgasm gap reflects. Men have three orgasms for every one a woman has, and that’s largely because we teach women and femmes to put others before themselves – in sex and in all areas of life.
By giving myself a designated time frame when I was allowed to focus on my own pleasure, I was able to overcome some of this pressure to get my partner off at all costs while neglecting myself.
The goal of allowing yourself that time frame doesn’t have to be an orgasm; it can just be to give yourself uninterrupted pleasure and assert that you are worth the time.
I thought for the longest time that sexism hadn’t affected my sex life. I am one of the most liberal, sexually open, feminist people you’ll meet, after all.
But once I started really observing myself, I saw there were a whole lot of misogynistic ideas I’d brought into my bedroom, and for me, they had a very tangible, physical effect.
While working through these thoughts can have a lot of benefits for both ourselves and our partners, we should not blame ourselves for having them. It is very, very understandable. Misogyny is powerful, ya’ll.
But as it turns out, so is feminism. It may sound hokey, but a lot of the sexual problems people have are due to negative thought processes, and by interrupting these processes, we can transform our sex lives.
Take it from me, because all I can say is that feminism has been very, very good to my vagina.
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.