People have sex (from kissing to intercourse) for all sorts of reasons.
Ideally, there is mutual desire and the experience is pleasurable. But sex can be unwanted, one-sided, or transactional, even in long-term, loving relationships.
Conversely, others may have desire, and pursue and find pleasure, in casual sexual activity, ranging from one-night stands to longer-term arrangements, such as friends with benefits, booty calls, or sex with an ex-partner.
Navigating these murky waters of intimacy can be complex, confusing, and at times contradictory, especially with in light of evolving norms, attitudes, and behaviours toward sex and relationships in recent years.
But what happens, for example, when you say ‘yes’ to sex without actually wanting it?
#MeToo has brought critical attention to the right of all people, especially girls, women and those marginalized by social injustice, to control their bodies, wishes, and experiences in relation to sexuality.
Consent has been a central focus of discussion.
But what happens, for example, when you say ‘yes’ to sex without actually wanting it? Or when sex is consensual but painful or unenjoyable? Are we ignoring our own satisfaction, well-being, or happiness in these circumstances? And at what costs?
While such experiences aren’t coerced, they are nonetheless imbued with the same underlying features: the power dynamics people bring to sexual activities and refusals.
So, what is desire, wanting, and consent?
Consent refers to how people go about initiating, refusing, and agreeing to sexual activity. Asking for and providing a verbal ‘yes’ to each sexual act, without coercion, intimidation, intoxication, or threat, is considered the clearest form of sexual consent.
In reality, however, research has found that people communicate interest and willingness to engage in sex through various verbal and non-verbal cues.
Studies have highlighted an important distinction between agreeing to participate in sex and wanting to participate in sex.
To make matters more intricate, other studies have highlighted an important distinction between agreeing to participate in sex and wanting to participate in sex.
Closely related to this is the concept of sexual desire, or interest in sex.
Traditionally, society has depicted men as having high sexual interest, as compared with women, often reducing this to biological explanations. Though age, mental health, and relationship factors (e.g., not feeling emotionally close to a partner, difficulty in talking about sex, and, for women, relationship duration) play a much bigger role.
These historical tropes, however, can play into some both men and women’s motivations for engaging in unwanted sexual intercourse.
For example, some studies on the topic suggest that about one-half of women and one-third of men have at least once said yes to sex although they did not want to have it.
Dr. Laina Bay-Cheng, a Professor in the School of Social Work at University at Buffalo, has been exploring and unpacking the complexities of this relatively commonplace experience for years, particularly among young women.
She said, over email: “So often, we only think about consent and wanted-ness in terms of sex itself (arousal, desire, attraction, curiosity, pleasure, etc.). But there are a lot of women who consent to sexual experiences for reasons that have nothing to do with sex at all.”
As one example: In a qualitative study she recently conducted with girls in foster care, an adolescent woman agreed to a lot of sexual experiences she didn’t enjoy because her partner was her only lifeline—emotionally and materially.
“It was strategic,” Bay-Cheng said. “She didn’t want sex. What she wanted—and had no other means of obtaining—was security and stability.”
This example is not one-off. Similar findings have been gleaned among well-educated women.
Other motivations include having sex to please a partner, avoid an argument, or maintain the relationship, highlighting how gender expectations continue to pervade some women’s sexual choices.
One huge problem is that women, in our culture, have been educated to believe that their sexual desire and pleasure is secondary to men’s.
Lack of reciprocity in sexual practices (at least heterosexual ones) is also evident when it comes to pleasure: 95% of straight men always orgasm during sex, compared with 89% of gay men, 86% of lesbian women, and 65% of straight women (a figure that drops to 40% in hook-ups).
While the reasons underlying these phenomena are many, one huge problem is that women, in our culture, have been educated to believe that their sexual desire and pleasure is secondary to men’s. Beyond the bedroom, they also lack gender balance in wealth and other aspects of life.
I asked Bay-Cheng what she would like men and women to know about deliberately chosen and mutually enjoyable sex. She had this to say:
“My hope is that we start to talk about sex in ways that connect women’s experiences to the larger circumstances of their lives and that we start to include in our conversations about sex women who are often left out (i.e., those marginalized by social injustice). Until we reckon with other forms of social injustice (economic, racial, age-based, ableist, and on…), we won’t be able to make real progress toward ensuring women’s sexual rights and integrity.”
This article was originally published on Find Your Pleasure.