If you’ve watched enough old movies, read old books, or talked to enough old people, you’ve likely heard some variation of, “just lay there and take it” or let him “do his business,” to borrow a phrase from The Color Purple. The sentiment was used as sex advice for women. Sex wasn’t for us. It was for procreation, for the maintenance of relationships, the pleasure of men and nothing more.
We hear that type of advice now and we scoff, snarl or sneer at the absurdity of it. It’s not ridiculous to assume that if two (or more) people are going to be involved in a sex act, then all parties should be enjoying themselves. It’s about reciprocity.
We hear that advice and know that it’s wrong, sexist and archaic. But we might not realize there are ways in which we’re still receiving that message. And sadly, most of us, at some point during our sexual development internalize it in one way or another.
After years of ignoring the wishes of my father, sister, and best friend I finally jumped on the bandwagon and decided to watch the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.” (The following is a spoiler but more along the lines of character development, rather than plot.) In the series, there are a group of warriors called the Unsullied. Aside from the fact that they have never been nurtured as children, the Unsullied were also castrated. From the way they describe things, they’re like a Ken doll down there. Just a mound of flesh.
Yet, as the series progresses, the leader of the Unsullied army, Grey Worm, develops a liking, a flirtation and eventually a relationship with a woman named Missandei. Missandei is a former slave turned interpreter and advisor whose sexual parts are still intact. As the interaction between Grey Worm and Missandei increased, I couldn’t help but wonder if their relationship was going to be an asexual one. I mean, how would Grey Worm get off with no penis?
But honey, these two did have sex. And it was one of the few times in which I saw a woman’s sexual pleasure prioritized in a televised sex scene--porn included. Grey Worm, after all, still had a mouth and he showed Missandei what it could do. She enjoyed herself. While I know such men exist in real life, this was the first time I saw a depiction of a man’s sexual satisfaction based solely on his woman’s pleasure.
When Queen Daenerys asked Missandei what they did, she told her “many things.”
All of it gave me pause and made me recognize the ways in which we’ve been so socialized to respect a man’s right to pleasure during sex that we either devalue ours or forsake it entirely. As a woman, I felt a little ashamed that I was so worried about Grey Worm getting off that I didn’t think of how Missandei would benefit from the experience.
Homegirl said they did “many things,” so I’m sure he was satisfied as well. But even if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world for a man to go without while a woman enjoys the lion’s share of the ecstasy. Women do this for their men all the time.
Women don’t tell each other to just lay there anymore. But women are told to break your man off, hook him up, give him some--even when you don’t feel like it. It’s potentially dangerous advice that not only decreases the autonomy a woman may feel over her own body but also diminishes her right to pleasure. I fully believe that you can be in service to someone when you’re having sex but you should be getting something in return.
And for far too many women, the only thing they’re getting is knowing that they’re satisfying a man. Earlier this week, Danyelle Thomas, founder of the Unfit Christian, shared a thread about this topic.
Danyelle’s thoughts are a little exclusionary, privileged, and orgasm-centered. (You shouldn’t have to wait to reach climax before the sex is pleasurable.) Still, her point about women qualifying a man’s sexual satisfaction as their sole pleasure is a valid one. And a woman on Twitter shared her experience.
I knew she wasn’t lying because this was not the first time I’d heard this. Comedian B. Simone, in a candid conversation with two of her friends, fellow comedians Ms. Pretty Vee and I Am Zoie, shared that she’d never had an orgasm and that she just focused on pleasing her man.
I used Danyelle’s tweets to ask NSNC’s Instagram followers: "Have you ever prioritized a man’s sexual pleasure over your own?"
I gave two options, “Sadly, yes” and “Not I.” My sample size of 36 people was small. But of that number, nearly 70 percent said yes.
My coworkers recently attended an event hosted by KY, the lubricant company and shared clips of the experience on their Instagram stories. At the event, KY plastered facts about women’s sexual experiences all over the walls of the venue. One that stuck out to me was the fact that 70 percent of women thought that pain and discomfort were a natural part of a normal sexual experience.
I can’t help but think that might have something to do with the language men use when they’re expressing their own desires. (i.e. “Ima beat it up.”) There’s a place for that but sex doesn’t have to hurt if you don’t want it to. And if there is discomfort or unpleasantness, you have the right to say it’s not working for you.
When I was answering my own question about prioritizing men during sex, I had to think for some time whether or not I’d done that. And after some thinking, I could say that the answer was no. But it wasn’t by accident. For one, I had a mother who was honest with me about the mechanics of sex, from an early age. Being that I wasn’t having sex for so long, I made a point to learn as much as I could about it in the interim. Cursory study will tell you that what we see depicted in movies, hear through music and even experience in our own personal relationships often aren’t healthy or mutually beneficial. Me being damn near 30 when I lost my virginity, I’d had enough experiences about the importance of not only having a voice-- but using it, repeatedly, if need be. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, because I’d spent so much time not having sex, I masturbated a lot. I knew and could tell someone else what worked for me. I gave myself my first orgasm-- with the help of my waterbed and Tank’s “Slowly.”
If I could do that by myself, I didn’t need someone else spoiling what had always been a pleasurable experience and exploration with pain, inattentiveness or an inability to help me get where we’re both trying to go.
I don’t say that to be judgmental to the women who have prioritized men or braggadocious about my own sexual experiences. There is more than enough of that going around--and it’s ugly and counterproductive. No one can tell you what enjoyable sex is to you. It's a personal journey. And judging ourselves against the benchmarks of others' is what's got us in the mess in the first place. I pinpoint the things that helped me: voice, masturbation, maturity, education etc, so when we ask this type of question again, more women will be able to say “I used to but don’t anymore.” And the next generation of women will be confounded by the fact that this type of self-sacrificial sex was ever a thing in the first place.