I have permission from the interviewee to publish all the information in this interview.
So much of the sex advice that I read and listen to boils down to two things: articulate what it is that you need from a relationship with another person and communicate those needs to that person. “Nobody is a mind-reader!” say the experts, “how is he supposed to know what you want unless you tell him? How does she know that what she’s doing isn’t all right with you if you’re pretending that everything is normal?”. It seems simple and obvious. In practice, though, knowing what you want from sex and relationships and conjuring up the right words, not to mention the courage, to talk openly about it can be really really hard, even in a trusting, safe relationship.
Why is it hard for so many people to communicate to their partners about sex? One culprit is our societal/cultural structure in which men are raised and expected to ask “what pleases me and how can I get it?” and women to ask “what pleases others and how can I do that?”*: questioning and un-learning these behavior “rules” can be a long, difficult process. Examples from power dynamics in past relationships, non-relationships, or examples from other peoples’ relationships also color an individual’s approach to communication. Besides, everyone has a different level of comfort talking to other people even about mundane things.
Reader, blogger and all-around badass Rachel Alexander is down to talk to pretty much anyone about pretty much anything. I initially wanted to pick her brain because she reached out to me with a tantalizing tidbit about a theory she is in the process of forming which is something she off-handedly called the Unified Theory of Sexual Radicalism. She is quick to point out that she doesn’t have a large sample-size and she’s theorizing about male partners exclusively, though she has had experience with female partners. Basically, she thinks that people who actively question their own privilege might be better in bed than those people who, in her words, “say things like ‘the patriarchy is wrong and bad for women’ in class but aren’t actually interested in doing something about it”. I should note that Rachel attends a very progressive small liberal arts college in Washington state where privilege, the patriarchy and feminism are very mainstream topics.
What does she mean by “better in bed”? She says, “the people who understand feminist issues are… better at not being assholes. They are also better about ‘sex is not just about me sticking my penis in you and having an orgasm'”. In Rachel’s experience, the good partners have been partners who ask her questions about her body– and have listened when she has spoken up about what works and what doesn’t for her. The “sexiest sentence anyone has ever said” to her was “you’ll have to show me how you like to be touched”. Shivers! Another time, she asked for oral sex and the guy she was with had never done it before, so she said “not a problem! You can learn!”. She asked for what she wanted and was willing to provide the tools for her partner to give it to her. Unfortunately, that night ended with him following her home imploring her to not “be a bitch” because he’d told her that he wasn’t “going into that forest” and she’d taken that as her cue to get dressed and leave his house. Luckily, Rachel isn’t one to let rogue assholes sway her self-perception.
How does one get comfortable giving verbal directions for specific sex acts? Rachel says that she’s always had the belief that she is entitled to good sex, as well as the strong sense of self that she says is her defining characteristic. This is pretty rare for girls, and she knows that she’s lucky to have had the experience that even in her hardest times, “…it wasn’t that I didn’t like myself, it was that I couldn’t figure out how to fit myself into the world around me”. Her sex-positive parents definitely helped as well. I get the feeling that sex wasn’t a secretive or shameful subject in her household, and her relationship with her first boyfriend started off with a lot of open communication about what they were comfortable doing sexually. She had an open long-distance relationship in her first year college in which she and the guy talked about other sex partners and encouraged one another when something happened with someone else (“‘Why are you so happy?’ ‘My boyfriend slept with another girl!'” is a real exchange she had once). It’s admirable to me that she was so young and yet had the self-esteem, esteem for her partner, and trust that make this type of relationship a positive experience.
I asked her if the super awesome casual sex she’s currently having with a partner is what she’s looking for, and she’s very introspective and realistic about her needs: “I’m probably going to be single or alone for a while: I want to change the world, I’m kind of a crusader … taking care of me is a pretty full-time job, which is why I spread it out between many different friends”. She questions paradigms. She grins, if a little tongue-in-cheek, “I would really love to live in an anarchist commune full of radical queer people. I have a shortlist of people I would do that with”. She’s the type of person who refuses to change herself for a relationship, although she thinks that changing to fit a relationship is a personal choice that is reasonable to make under the right circumstances. When I ask her if she is afraid of being alone, she says “that’s definitely a concern for a lot of people. I don’t think I’ll die alone, but I might not die married to someone”.
After talking to Rachel it’s even clearer to me than it was before that it’s impossible to tell others what you want without knowing what you want yourself; that the process of becoming a better sex communicator is very linked to the process of questioning assumptions, confronting shame, and accepting unique individual differences when it comes to sex and sexual pleasure. Rachel is innately an assumptions-questioner and a self-affirmer: two qualities that many of us, myself included, are not necessarily born with; qualities that we instead have to consciously learn as “skills”.
There are SO many other things that Rachel and I talked about, and I’m sure some of them will sneak their way into other posts (I won’t reference her or her ideas without her permission, of course). I’m looking forward to talking with more of you, readers! The best way to contact me directly is via email. I’ll know you’re reading if you follow @shinysex on Twitter. In addition, sometime in the near future a page will appear near the About page of this blog that will ask for you to contact me if you think you might have things to say regarding a number of subjects, so keep an eye out for that! Thank you so much, Rachel, for the opportunity you gave me to pick your brain and share all of your great stories.
*Clearly this is a generalization. Some people were lucky enough not to have absorbed much of that crap or questioned it earlier on in life, etc.