I remember when my high school’s sex ed curriculum made the rhetorical shift from “no means no” to “yes means yes!” My very virgin self imagined kneeling in front of some non-specific penis and asking its proprietor, “May I?,” before he emphatically responds in the affirmative. I was a little confused — this wasn’t the way that I’d seen sex unfold on television, or even in my virgin imagination. I’d realize soon enough that, in reality, sexual consent is requested and received in all sorts of ways I couldn’t have even fathomed at the time.
College would quickly acquaint me with this reality. I’d soon make a habit of jumping into kinky sex (with familiar partners) without any sort of discussion prior or during. I would let a partner tape my mouth shut and tie me down so entirely that the only choice left for me to make is to “tap out” using my left foot. I would find myself roleplaying (what I can only now admit to myself was) a literal rape victim for the pleasure of some man who enjoys hearing me tell him to stop — but only after we agree on a safeword and exchange consent.
Sex-positivity and modern feminism collaboratively promote a certain hetero-female ideal — of a self-secure woman who fucks frequently and indifferently, refusing to tether herself to any man lest he get in the way of her career or her individuality. Key to this individualism is that she unabashedly engages in all the godless “unconventional” sex she desires. And if her desire is to be sexually dominated and degraded, then no matter how disempowering her crazy kinky sex might appear to the vanilla eye, her power actually abounds in the fact that she acknowledges her true wants and pursues them in the first place.
So as a man chokes me out and sabotages my self-esteem in bed — sometimes the only sort of thing that I manage to derive satisfaction from — I remind myself that he’s showing me no respect because I, the independent lady that I am, chose to have him treat me this way. I tell myself that I’m offering him some of my dignity only because I have too much. That I like when he restrains me because I’m so unrestrained outside the bedroom and simply lust for the novelty of it all. But — speaking only for myself and my own experience — some small and neglected part of my psyche has always known that this is not the whole truth.
Why you’re sexually turned on by the sorts of things that turn you on is in a sense not unlike why you feel drawn to certain sounds or smells, or why you’re repelled by certain personality traits or three-dimensional shapes, or really why you have any particular response to anything. It’s some dynamic confluence of countless interacting pieces — ever-evolving bits of nature and nurture, inheritance and experience, psychology and biology and culture and society and all that stuff mapping onto each other while constantly altering and informing one another. Sexual desire and arousal tend to be thought of as deeply animalistic experiences driven by deeply biological processes that are more or less uninfluenced by external forces. But there is increasing recognition of — and scientific investigation into — just how contingent one’s sexual inclinations and sources of satisfaction can be on a myriad of psychosocial and other underappreciated factors.
I, for one, can say with certainty that I get honest sexual stimulation and satisfaction — or at least as much as I ever get — from being subordinated in bed. I enter less certain terrain as I consider what all this might have to do with internalized forms of misogyny or patriarchal ideology, or some sort of self-hatred floating around in my subconscious, or what society suggests I ought to find hot or not hot, and on and on. Grappling with questions like these have me dwelling on just how complicated sexual stimulation and satisfaction can really be. But it also encourages me to try making some sense of feelings I’d found too confusing to bother confronting before — the sharp pangs of shame that sometimes strike me between times of stimulation, the looming sorrow (perhaps for my deteriorated dignity) that sometimes casts a shadow over my pleasure, the thread of sad guilt (for so readily giving up the strong sense of independence which I usually treasure in my personality) that often worms its way into my emotional state and, even if I’m turned on by the sex, leaves me feeling troubled about it too.
Despite what basic sex positivity might suggest, a sexual interaction need not be labeled as unproblematic and be left unquestioned just because it was sexually gratifying. Plenty of sexual satisfaction can be found amidst questionable ideas and practices, and the fact that the sex was good doesn’t mean that those questions shouldn’t be asked, nor does it mean that you should necessarily withhold yourself from having this not-quite-unproblematic sex again. In other words, this stuff is complicated.
Brat Baby is a student at Cornell University. Pillow Princess Diaries runs alternate Sex on Thursdays this semester. Sex on Thursday runs every Thursday this semester.