Personal Statement: The Problem With Prescriptive Sex Advice

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 2:10pm

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Illustration by Elise Haadsma

 

I’m a very open person.

Most of my friends know there’s something wrong if I haven’t divulged every detail about my day. I’ll settle down in a dentist’s office waiting room, kibbitz over a deli counter, even dish in the bathroom at a gay bar about any avenue about my life.

Including sex.

So when I say I’ve never had an orgasm, a topic that naturally springs up at bachelorette parties, sleepovers and short subway rides, I don’t feel as though it’s an intimate detail that I’ve put into the public sphere. I consider it somewhat mechanically, as a bodily function that just hasn’t happened to me. I’ve never had my tonsils out either and I’ve made it this far in life without it being a problem.

As far as Cosmopolitan magazine is concerned, though, I’m a freak.

Our culture presents two options: right or wrong sex. Sex is either good or bad. If you have good sex, well done — you’re “normal.” If you have bad sex, the prognosis is dismal. Your partner is broken. Your mind is broken. You’re doing it wrong. You’re wrong.

The way we talk about our sex lives is similar to how we talk about our car engines. Whether or not it’s working properly, if it’s your car you have to fix it. Sometimes you work on it yourself and sometimes you have people work on it for you. And if you’re not obsessed with your car and how it runs, you’re in a weird minority. But it’s not as simple as that, and you’ll never be able to write a foolproof manual for everything that’s right, or wrong, about sex.

It doesn’t help that most sex advice circulating in self-help guides or scrawled in Sharpie on bathroom walls still has a gendered slant. In its October issue, Cosmo directly addressed situations like mine. In a No-BS Sex Q&A, a reader submitted a question about how she’s never had an orgasm. She wanted to know if she was defective.

The response was encouraging. Relax, it said, there’s nothing wrong with you. A statistic was bandied about that just 25 percent of women ages 18 to 25 crossed the finish line their last time and it’s totally fine to be outside that minority.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: The advice goes on about how to remedy the issue by — wait for it — faking it. Listen here, confused woman of the modern age: If you pretend that every second is pure ecstasy, rolling around with the guy who smiled at you over his Solo cup at 2 in the morning at a co-op party, it will feel like riding a mechanical bull on Molly after winning the Super Bowl. You know, if he’s properly motivated.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t consider the needs of the person you’re sleeping with. Remember the phrase it takes two to tango? But when prescribed sexual advice continues the trend — even today — of coming mostly from just one perspective, there is an unequal distribution of praise and the blame.

Take for instance, “The Women,” a 1939 black-and-white film revolutionary for being the first to star only female actors. Though not one man crosses the silver screen, powerhouse actresses Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer can talk about nothing else. The men in their lives, whether they are ensnaring, divorcing or earning them, are the driving force of the plot.

“It’s all about men!” the tagline reads, putting down men and women alike. The film makes the argument that men are helpless when it comes to what they want; they are prizes to be won by the women who fight over them. The film was remade in 2008, but, considering its 4.9/10 IMDb score, its male-centric plot fell short of pleasing contemporary audiences.

There is a history of media considering a man’s needs first, but there’s something cheap about when that representation is masquerading as advice for women, by women, in the 21st century.

That issue of Cosmo somehow brought the responsibility of a man’s failing to please back down on the woman. In 2016. Like a lightbulb, it clicked: That’s what I’m doing wrong. Just fake it till you make it. Or, in this case, till you can get someone else to make it.

I’m not trying to throw magazines like Cosmopolitan entirely under the bus here. There are plenty of others that insist on a constant barrage of sexual imagery to sell, well, pretty much anything. But sex is confusing enough without being presented as a pass-or-fail test, especially one where you’re making up the answers to get a good grade.

As a college student, I’ve always paid close attention to the required reading, but when the Cosmo syllabus presents essential knowledge under titles like “10 Common Blow Job Problems and How To Fix Them,” “9 Things Guys Secretly Hate About Blow Jobs” or “What Guys Hate Most About Every Sex Position,” I’m feeling the negative energy. Find out what he hates. Fix the problem.

I don’t really see where I fit when it comes to that kind of advice. Because movies, magazines, websites and advertisements are pumping us full of these glossy gymnastic expectations, sex has no space to be a human act. It’s supposedly performed by titans, sex gods and goddesses who are hairless, poreless and flawless fornicators. They always cross the finish line.

I distinctly remember 2011 as a year fraught with unnatural sex scenes. The premiere of films such as “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” continued the parade of unrealistic romps in the sack. Both films seem to be making the claim that sex necessarily leads to love. Additionally, sex seems to be a breeze so long as you’re airbrushed and athletic.

Now this isn’t to say I’m constantly broadcasting my situation. I’m not standing at the corner of North University and State wearing a sandwich board disclaiming that I’ve never climbed that holy mountain and seen the face of God — or rather, screamed his name over and over so it echoed down that same proverbial sex mountain.

But what gets me off about the whole thing is how uncomfortable, indignant or offended people become by this conversation. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about it like a car engine. You’ve got a problem, see a mechanic. Why discuss it outside of the auto shop?

Without leaving room for individual human responses to a very human action, we’re thrusting an incredibly intricate act into a basic format that allows only for praise or blame. Forcing a standardized method of experiencing pleasure, I feel, is a far greater crime than my inability to match it.

Some people think I’m punishing myself by not exploring my sexuality. I’m a prude, I’m limiting myself. That I haven’t met the right guy. That I need to handle it myself.

My roommate once said it’s similar to eating a cheesecake. If I hadn’t eaten a cheesecake before, I’m not just going to stumble upon it accidentally. I have to go out and get one for myself.

Prescriptive sex advice usually sucks. I will concede, however, that not all of it is terrible, but thoughtful answers to difficult questions rarely make headlines. Because suggesting people “talk it out” is not sexy sex advice. If X, try Y or Z is much easier to sell.

Whether it’s the media’s responsibility, school systems, parents or peers to educate on positive sexual awareness is another story. But not everyone can tell the fact from the fiction, and they’re looking for validation on topics of which they’re uncertain. If you’re in the market of dishing out advice, be conscious of how it's framed. Especially when your audience is thirsty for easy answers. If they expect their lives to change based on what you can write in 100 words or less, that’s a far more interesting comment on our society than I’m capable of making.

My best sex advice? Let me decide what’s working for my body. Maybe it’ll happen. Maybe it won’t. Meanwhile, I’ll be living my life exactly as I did before — whether Cosmopolitan approves or not.