It’s funny how you can entrench yourself so firmly in positivity and still get sucked into the vortex of shame from time to time.
I’m a sex-positive person. I live and work and socialize with almost exclusively other sex-positive people. So I know that having sexual desires is normal and acceptable.
And yet it only took a few weeks of constant sexual rejection to send me back to square one: profound embarrassment about being a sexual person.
Let me explain. I dated someone recently who was way, way lower on the sexual-desire-o-meter than I am. In fact, he seemed to conceptualize sex in a totally different way than I do. He talked about it as if it were a favor he did for me, that gave him no direct pleasure except in the way that it’s satisfying to give a loved one a backrub or make them dinner.
In my lifelong path of learning about relationships, one trick I’ve picked up is that it’s usually a bad idea to use “blame language.” It would be fallacious of me to say that this man “made me feel bad about myself,” since he wasn’t actively, maliciously choosing to do that. He was just living his truth – which happened to involve a far lower libido than what exists in my truth – and that took an emotional toll on me. I certainly don’t blame people with low desire levels for being that way. I just think that folks should be paired up with partners whose frequency and content of desire is roughly equivalent to their own.
When my relationship actually started to make me feel ugly and unsexy, that’s when my friends drew the line. “You have to break up with him,” they all told me, one after the next, when I shared my story privately on coffee dates or nights out at the bar. They saw my situation with the clarity and objectivity that I could not. I kept making excuses: “I like him so much, other than this one little thing!” “I think I can get him to come around!” “We’re non-monogamous, so I can always get sex elsewhere!”
I see now that part of me believed it’s not okay to break up with someone over sex. That it’s too small a reason, too unimportant a factor. That “the actual relationship” should be weighted more heavily in your decision than the sex ever would.
That is such bullshit, though. Sex is part of “the actual relationship.” Because it’s a fucking huge factor – for some people. And if sex is important to even just one person in a relationship, it matters in the grand scheme of things. Don’t let anyone tell you sex “isn’t a big deal” or “shouldn’t be that important” if it is to you. Only you get to decide the role and significance of sex in your life, and in your relationships.
The language my boyfriend used about sex started to creep into the way I thought about it, too. His go-to initiation (the rare times he did initiate) was, “I think we should get you off tonight.” The way he phrased it, it was like he didn’t view sex as a shared experience, a mutual delight, a bonding tool; it was merely a means to an end, and the end was my orgasm. Basically so that I would be satisfied, shut up about sex and quit bugging him for it. Or at least, that’s the feeling I got from him.
There’s nothing wrong with giving orgasms, or with wanting them. But this paradigm started to make me feel like it was selfish for me to want sex, because the only end result of our sex together was my pleasure. Viewed in that light, it seemed ridiculous for me to end the relationship in search of greater sexual compatibility. Did I just want to get my rocks off wherever I could? Was my nymphomaniacal hunger so great that I would throw away an otherwise good relationship to get that need met?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how wrong this view is. For me, sex with a partner isn’t just about getting off – if it were, I’d simply masturbate instead, since that’s a more reliable way to make that happen. No, sex is one of the main ways I connect with partners, express my affection, and feel that affection mirrored back at me. It is absolutely crucial to my experience of romantic intimacy. Without it, I just don’t feel that I’m truly giving love, or receiving it. You can flood me with attention in all four of the other love languages, but without sex, it feels to me like a portrait that’s missing its subject. All of the pleasant peripheral details, with no central focus to hold the image together.
Viewed this way, it seems obvious that my relationship needed to end. Our problem was more than a fixable breakdown in communication; it was a full-on, hard-wired mismatch in the way we communicate. If we stayed together, “giving me” sex would continue to make him feel resentful and awkward, and being chronically denied sex would continue to make me feel rejected and unattractive. A pairing like that is destined to shatter. No one can or should suppress the ways they express and experience love; they should just seek out other people who express and experience it in similar ways.
Through this whole process, no one ever actually said to me, “Sex isn’t a good enough reason to break up with him.” In fact, my friends continually pointed out that sex is a good enough reason, even if there were no other reasons (and there were). It was just the slut-shamey voice inside my own head that parroted this sentiment at me – and, to a lesser extent, the words of my boyfriend, when he said judgmental things like “It seems like sex is the most important thing in a relationship for you” and “I wish you wouldn’t make everything about sex all the time.”
Since I’m conventionally unattractive (i.e. chubby and kinda weird-looking), there is a part of me that believes I should “take what I can get.” That a good-enough relationship is good enough. That I shouldn’t push for all the things I want in a partner, because there’s no way I’ll get them. That I should feel blessed when any man is attracted to me, even if our relationship is a daily trainwreck.
It was only once I surfaced from this shitty relationship, and looked at my life with fresh eyes again, that I remembered: Oh yeah. Lots of people are attracted to me. Many of whom are pretty damn compatible with me, including in the way we think about sex. And I do deserve good sex. And it is okay to make that a priority. And that doesn’t mean I’m a pathological perv – it just means I’m a human with a sex drive.
If you’re thinking about breaking up with a partner because the sex is bad, infrequent, or otherwise unsatisfying, I hereby give you permission to do so. Consider it carefully – because, as my slightly shamey ex-boyfriend told me repeatedly, there are other factors to consider besides sex – but also consider that a bad sexual connection can be the bad apple that spoils the barrel. If sex is a baseline need for you, you’re not going to be truly, fully happy in a relationship where the sex doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean you’re selfish or fucked-up or have a one-track mind, so don’t let anyone tell you it does.
You are allowed to want sex. You are allowed to want a partner who wants the same kinds of sex that you do. You are allowed to pursue that kind of partner, even if it means making a radical shift in your life. Like Oprah says: live your best life now.