Penetration as sex, and other myths

[Content warning: This article contains material related to sexual activity and gender violence.]

We didn’t have sex, so I felt obligated to go down on him. He affirmed this by shooing my head down to the real star of the show. I had just met this guy, but I went along with it. What else was I gonna do? These are the moments of careful yet automatic decision-making, avoiding a walk on eggshells, a badge of Party Pooper or, depending on who you’re dealing with, the threat of violence.

– Claire, 20 

I heard too many of these kinds of stories as I talked to young people about their sex lives. After listening to dozens of cisgender, heterosexual women and men in their early 20s, I began to understand that our limited cultural script of sex isn’t working for anyone. (Note: for brevity, I will from now on refer to cishet men and women as “men” and “women” to analyze this particular dynamic, acknowledging that these are not representative labels for the wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities).

Growing up in a large public school system in Texas, my health class had just about three things on the menu: a birthing video from the 1980s, a take-home baby doll with an eerie skill for sensing teenage REM cycles and powerpoints of estranged genitalia with all-capped words like “syphilis” in a bulging, bright-red font.

“In sex ed, you’re taught that sex starts when a man puts a condom on, and it ends when a man has an orgasm,” Grace Wetzel, a Ph.D. student at Rutgers who did a TED Talk on the pleasure gap, says. 

Rather than serve as a learning space to cultivate healthy, mutually pleasurable intimacy, most sex education in the U.S. opts for a fear-based approach. Disconnecting young people from our bodies, effectively placing blinders over our eyes, we find a common exit strategy in anxiety-induced sexual autopilot.

Without a chance to shamelessly explore our bodies, and without the critical knowledge that individuals aren’t, in fact, interchangeable, but have different pleasure needs (which porn and popular media won’t teach us), we’re stuck fumbling within the harmful patriarchal structures until we choose to take the blinders off. No wonder we stick to the script. 

The pleasure gap begins to make sense when most people, men and women alike, have such limited knowledge of how women’s bodies actually work. The male body is overrepresented in sex ed and comparatively more straightforward; women’s bodies require more time and intentionality yet rarely make it on the curriculum past the warnings of pregnancy. We end up knowing a whole lot about how men orgasm and how women bear the consequences. How can we expect a level ground of sexual pleasure when so many key details are missing? 

Sex therapist and author of the book “Becoming Cliterate” Dr. Laurie Mintz emphasizes how our everyday language fuels a singular cultural script of sex.

“We call everything that comes before penetration ‘foreplay,’ implying that it’s just a lead up to the main and most important event.”

The phallocentric definition of sex we take for granted holds penetration above all else. This narrative encourages cishet men to single-mindedly pursue intercourse and cishet women to go along with it, ignoring their bodies in the process. 

In her book, Dr. Mintz explains that 95% of women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm—most women physically cannot orgasm through penetration alone. 

“Because we linguistically erase the clitoris by referring to our entire genitals as ‘vagina,’ women get stuck in the pleasure gap,” she said. “If we bring ‘vulva’ into our vocabulary, we can begin to focus more on the outer area that includes the clitoris.”

Compared to the 8,000 nerve endings on the clitoris, “the vagina doesn’t even have many pleasurable cells,” Jessica Chambers notes in her article, “Why you need to introduce 'outercourse' into your sex life, immediately.”

Not understanding women’s bodies has consequences beyond the orgasm gap. Research shows that about one in three women experiences pain during sex. The same study found that men mostly use the presence of their own orgasm as a metric for “good sex,” while for women it’s often the absence of pain.

Sex is technically defined as intercourse, as the thing we do to procreate. But why, if much of the sex we have is recreational, do we confine ourselves to this antiquated definition? When there are endless possibilities for mutual pleasure outside the linear trajectory towards penetration, why must we keep spinning our wheels? 

Women have so acutely internalized our role in the penetration episode, carrying its weight as our own, that it can feel impossible to exist even remotely outside of it. It can be difficult to claim the pleasure we deserve when women have been socialized to prioritize men’s comfort over our own right to physical and emotional wellbeing. 

Consistently, the most common reason women don’t speak up for their needs is from fear of upsetting their partner. Either from experience or out of assumption, women are often afraid their partner will take it as a personal rejection rather than an attempt at setting boundaries and getting needs met. After all, since humans aren’t carbon copies of society’s imaginary gender blueprints, there is no way one can understand how to best pleasure their partner if it has not been communicated. 

Not only do men feel a pressure to perform a certain way, women feel it too, sensing their partner’s insecurity when things aren’t going “as planned.” Culture has instilled in us that men shouldn’t finish quick but women should, leaving men afraid of finishing “too fast” and women feeling pressured to finish in ten seconds. One of the reasons why 70% of women fake orgasms is from carrying the burden to preserve the unspoken script and his feelings. 

When it’s painful, I just get really stuck in my head. I can imagine that it would be received well if I said something, but I have no idea how to say the words, so sometimes it’s easier to just wait for him to come. - Maya, 19

Lindsey Parker, who works to promote sexual health at the Duke Wellness Center, said that the most common reasons why men stick to the sexual script is for fear of coming across as weak or inexperienced, not necessarily for lack of care for their partner. 

“I want to be careful not to vilify all men, because there are some men who are open to these conversations. From what I’ve seen, men have a hard time confronting these topics even if they care about their partner’s pleasure. A lot of times they have a fear of being vulnerable. I see that with Duke students in general. They’re so used to being great at everything they do from the very beginning, the first time, and they can’t tolerate that they might not be great at it. They can be unwilling to address that maybe there’s more they could do to make [sex] more pleasurable for their partner.”

As long as intimacy is goal-oriented, both people are almost destined to “fail” somehow. If we’re constantly worried about creating a picture-perfect orgasm fest, the pleasure may be lost along the way. Along with sex ed, gender conditioning upheld by the porn and media industries tells men they need to mechanically perform Sex God—to accomplish this feat, you must get erect, penetrate your partner to orgasm and finish every time. And women are expected to follow along, without anything but positive feedback, lest they threaten the machine-like precision of the formula. Pretending consent is possible within this paradigm is delusory and harmful. 

I don't want vaginal penetration to have to be the expectation for a sexual encounter with my partner, and I should probably voice this with them. I also want to be able to stop having vaginal sex at any time when it stops being pleasurable for me and not have to "wait for" my partner to orgasm. –Olivia, 21

It’s liberating to realize that this sexual script is based on nothing more than fossils of gender conditioning and pop culture. It’s even more liberating to realize that none of us have to take part in it. Men don’t need to prove anything and aren’t entitled to penetration. Women shouldn’t be expected to ignore natural bodily responses to fit a mold and coddle their partner. We all deserve pleasure.

Ditching the goal-oriented, performance mindset offers more freedom and relaxation for both partners. It allows intimacy to be playful and exploratory without the pressure of a linear path or ending.

The point should be pleasure, not necessarily orgasm, as Katharine Smyth wrote about in “The Tyranny of the Female-Orgasm Industrial Complex.” Closing the pleasure gap does not mean adding even more pressure for women to orgasm, especially considering that it is more difficult or impossible for some people. It’s not about men having a nifty new way to score woke points for every unfaked orgasm. It’s about starting with respect and communication—whether it’s a hookup or relationship—to understand how each person’s body works and what brings them pleasure. 

The nonbinary and LGBTQ+ communities, especially Black queer feminists like Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Nenna Joiner, Britteney Black Rose Kapri and Sesali Bowen (to name just a few) have led the way in reimagining sex as a fluid experience where mutual pleasure is the only signpost.  

Decentering penetration is necessary to even begin creating sex equity between men and women. Some people may continue to enjoy penetration, but with the knowledge of how women’s bodies work, it should not be the main fixture. Conversations on sexuality are expanding, and there is no shortage of resources on the untapped abyss of non-penetrative sex. Ultimately, it should be about having fun, not “getting it right.” If we can listen and learn from each other, maybe we can finally grow out of the tired sex-as-penetration monolith, for everyone’s sake.

Miranda Gershoni is a Trinity senior. 


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