Warning: spoilers and content some readers may find triggering.
“In recent years, two requirements have emerged for good sex; consent and self-knowledge,” writes Katherine Angel in her recent book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again*. When it comes to self-knowledge (we’ll get to consent shortly), it’s not always easy to know what turns us on and what experiences we’d like to explore. And it’s a whole different ball-game to be able to communicate this with our partner and for them to listen.
When sex is bad, in whose interest is it to fuck better? The person who perceives the sex to be bad or the partner with whom we’re having bad sex? If “good sex” is subjective and is so uniquely personal, does it really matter?
Yes, because we live in a time when we accept bad sex (beyond awkward teenage fumbles) as a guaranteed experience. Not only is bad sex commonplace, but we so easily bat it off. All women (who have heterosexual sex) will have said to their friends at one point or another, “Oh, it was alright. He lasted a while and he came.” Or, “It wasn’t too bad. He came, I faked it a few times and we’re all good.” Or maybe even, “Yeah, it was fine – it didn’t hurt and he came.”
Only recently are we beginning to notice our male-centric view of what constitutes “good sex” and porn producers such as Erika Lust and founder of Make Love Not Porn, Cindy Gallop, are working hard to combat the unrealistic portrayal of sex through porn’s male lens. Contrary to what porn might have you believe (and what we, as women, know to be true), “good sex” encompasses more than a man ejaculating and a woman zealously moaning. And whilst I’m not totally against faking it (fake it for you, not for them), I do believe it serves very little good. But am I a hypocrite? I’ve noticed I fake it a lot. I’m perfectly capable of having solo and partnered orgasms so why am I faking it at the age of 29?
To protect the male ego. Christ, what a fragile thing it is.
Recently, a man and I were post-coital and he boastfully told me, “You know, I’ve made a woman orgasm just by sucking me off. Completely hands-free, she just came.” Now, I know this is possible and I envy any woman who can use her mind to stimulate her clit but I couldn’t help but think this was utter rubbish. What’s more, before our meeting he sent me sequential text messages:
Naturally, I had high hopes for this night. The boasting was almost obscene but perhaps it was my high expectations that left me a little deflated by the end of the night and my feminine nature was cautious to not allow him to feel deflated, too. (Or maybe it was my ego – we can’t have him going back to his mates saying it took forever for me to come, albeit because his brain was in his cock and my pleasure was ignored.)
After an episode of bad sex, I’m curious whether both parties involved recognise a bad shag as such or whether women are more critical when it comes to good versus bad sex – after all, 95% of heterosexual men orgasm each time they have sex and I wonder if this precludes their judgement.
If knowing what we want (and communicating this) is a prerequisite for good sex, is bad sex somewhat women’s fault if we were unable to define and verbalise our desires? Moreover, could we avoid non-consensual sex if we just spoke up and said what we damn well want and don’t want? As Angel points out, putting the onus on women is dangerous. It ignores the inequalities inherent in sex (in general, men are stronger; there’s a difference between being penetrated versus penetrating; thousands of years of the patriarchy) and assumes that violence against women is avoidable if a woman asserts her desires. And if good communication is a means of mitigating poor sex, how do I understand my recent night of bad sex? As a sex writer in many guises, I’m more than capable of confidently asking for what I want and requesting my partner avoids what I don’t like. (I’m aware many women are not in such a fortunate position.)
It seems self-knowledge is not the crux of good sex.
So what of consent?
For too many women, sex is good when it’s consensual and doesn’t hurt. Throw orgasms out of the window! Disregard loving caresses! Forget about passion, connection and emotion! For some women, “good sex” occurs beyond the realms of enthusiasm and a partner who’s GGG (Good, Giving and Game). And for too many women, “bad sex” means sex they didn’t want, sex they felt coerced into having, sex they felt frightened to say “no” to, sex that caused them pain or sex that made them feel upset. “Good sex” is not just about having your pleasure acknowledged and “bad sex” encompasses more than not achieving orgasm. When the bar for “good sex” is so low for it to sit alongside “mutually consensual” and “no pain”, we know there is a long way to go for sex to be good again.
In an episode of I May Destroy You, the lead character’s best friend, Terry, has a threesome with two guys. As they leave the apartment, Terry looks out the window and notices the men seem very pally with one another despite pretending they didn’t know one another the night before. We sense Terry feels duped – we feel duped for her. Does this trickery reduce the pleasure she experienced the previous night; does it somehow undo the consensual nature of their hook-up?
The scriptwriting in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, explores the myriad ways men coerce women. From casually walking his date back to his place (“This is a weird coincidence; I think – no, yes – this is my apartment”) to feeding women white lies in the hopes she’ll relent and sleep with him (“It’s okay, you’re safe”), the way men use their words to trick a woman into bed sits uncomfortably with the force they exert to achieve similar ends.
Released this year, Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie; a med-school drop-out who’s seeking revenge following the rape of her best friend in college. When we meet Cassie, it’s been seven years since the incident and her best friend, Nina, is dead (whilst never explained, it’s presumed she committed suicide). We quickly learn that Cassie has developed a unique way to conquer her grief; to morph it into revenge by frequenting bars and pretending to be extremely drunk, often flopping around and flashing her knickers. She hopes some guy will catch the bait. Sadly, some guy always does.
During the opening scene, my housemates and I watched the screen with our T-shirts almost covering our faces, our bums shifting in our seats and our eyes fixed to the screen in abject horror. This visceral reaction occurs when an experience gets under your skin and inside your body – all of us related to this scene on an embodied level; perhaps some of us had flashbacks of men imposing their will upon our bodies. In an updated report published in March 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS, UK) reported that, in the year ending March 2020, “more than one in 20 women had experienced rape** (including attempts) since the age of 16.” The reality is this number is much higher because many women do not report attempted (or actual) rape and some women don’t realise they’ve been raped (such as having non-consensual sex with a partner with whom they’ve previously consented to have sex). Released just last month, the Victim Focus report surveyed 22,000 women of different ages, races, gender identities, classes and religions and found that 99.3% of women have suffered sexual violence since birth. Ninety-nine per cent, not one in twenty.
A film that, on the surface, tackles misogyny, assault and revenge, Promising Young Woman also tackles the subtleties of societal blame, responsibility and lasting ramifications. Yet an over-arching theme in this film is the male ego; for it is inextricably linked to sexual assault and rape. Consider ‘incels’ – a (predominantly male) subculture fuelled by misogyny and tethered by a sense of entitlement to sex. An incel’s ego is burnished, his frustrations channelled into a community that validates his feelings and ultimately encourages catfishing, harassment of women and violence against women who are sexually active.
Within the first three minutes of the film, Fennell shines a spotlight on this connection between ego and sexual assault. Three men stand at a bar watching an attractive (and seemingly drunk) Cassie loll around on a sofa. The men toss remarks between them, “That’s just asking for it”; “You’d think you’d learn by that age…” One man takes the bait: “It sounds like a challenge”. As he heads over, his pals cajole and cheer him; “Go for it, Big Fella – we’re pulling for ya!” A little later in the film, Cassie entraps a second man. He, too, is wrapped up in his ego; he’s writing a novel about “What it’s like to be a guy right now”.
In that short line, Fennell urges her audience to note what it’s like to be a woman right now. When asked about her film, Fennell noted, “I don’t think it’s a polemic against men, but it’s a polemic against the culture that we all grew up in which tends to side with men more than it does with women.” And whilst it could be deemed to be bringing all men’s worst behaviours against women (cat-calling arguably being the least offensive to murder being the worst), this screenplay neatly navigates the many subtleties of assault and harassment – from the men cat-calling Cassie in the street to the many men who repeatedly tell Cassie, “You’re so pretty” and admire her body before claiming her pretty face and impressive body for their own. Throughout, a quote from an episode of the Guilty Feminist podcast continued to pop into my head, “men are so used to helping themselves, they cannot help themselves”. These Promising Young Men spot a woman practically “asking for it” and they cannot help themselves.
As Caetlin Benson-Allott argues for The Washington Post, Cassie’s vengeance on behalf of her friend “suggests sexual violence is a societal issue, that its ripple effects injure all women.” Indeed, rape does affect all women; while there are cultural differences in rape rates, “there are no known cultures where rape is entirely absent” (Buss, The Evolution of Desire).
Perhaps we shouldn’t admonish these men so harshly – after all, these men revere themselves to be “nice guys”. And yet, despite the compliments on Cassie’s appearance being plentiful, even before her assaults, these niceties are undercut with critical remarks – like when one of Cassie’s targets tells her she looks beautiful but swiftly says she’s wearing too much make-up. This serves as a reminder that many women have been negged at the hands of a man and perhaps acts as a lesson for men watching. A backhanded compliment is not a compliment and lavishing compliments onto your victim doesn’t soften the blow of assault.
The challenge, then, is to convey the message to abusive “nice guys” that, perhaps, they aren’t “nice guys” after all. How do we urge men to check their behaviour, to remember that women’s bodies aren’t for their sole enjoyment? How do we encourage these men to reflect and learn from past mistakes? Moreover, how do we communicate this without being called pushy feminists? It’s hard to believe important films like this reach everyone they need to, such as the misogynists by the bar, the predatory men loitering in the shadows and the rapists drugging women in clubs. The likelihood is this type of film won’t appeal to this type of man and if (by some sheer fluke) he does watch it, he’ll probably bat it off as man-hating bullshit.
But what Promising Young Woman shows us is that victims of sexual assault are not just victims of the perpetrator. The systems in place do not serve the victim; from the rape culture on campus (which leaves Cassie’s friend reluctant to believe her because “these things happen all the time”) to the university Dean who reminds Cassie how drunk her friend was and gives the ambitious young men the “benefit of the doubt”, to the lawyer who receives hefty bonuses for manipulating the women into rescinding their accusations.
Fortunately, we are making progress and the message has evolved from “don’t get raped” to “don’t rape”. But this progress is slow. The lines of consent can become blurred when alcohol is involved, although it’s not just about the woman being drunk, is it? When an alleged assault comes under (public or lawful) scrutiny, questions are asked of the woman. Does she have a history of an active sex life with multiple partners? Did she lead the man on? Did she dress provocatively? In one recent horrifying case in Ireland, the defendant’s lawyer held up the rape complainant’s underwear, telling the jury, “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front” (BBC, 2018) as though wearing underwear like this is a substitute for consent. Perhaps most of us have worn attractive underwear on a night we’re hoping to get lucky, some of us will have fretted by being “caught short” and had a Bridget Jones moment of wearing horrendous pants as we embark on a night of passion. But wearing lacy underwear – or no underwear at all – does not mean we consent to sex.
Whilst Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You address rape at the hands of a stranger, in The Evolution of Desire, prominent evolutionary psychologist, David Buss reports that “stranger rape is rare, accounting for 10-20 percent of all rapes, compared with acquaintance-rape, which is far more common, roughly 80-90 percent”. Whilst this is no comfort for the victims of stranger rape (and of course I don’t intend for it to be!) it reminds us that boundaries of consensual sex within an intimate relationship can feel muddled. (Let’s not forget that it wasn’t until 1991 that a husband having non-consensual sex with his wife was considered a criminal offence.) As I noted above, the instances of rape are likely much higher than reported because some women may not realise they’ve been raped. When consent is granted once some people take this to be blanket consent and feelings of obligation and duty to one’s partner can also cause confusion. In Why Women Have Sex, Meston and Buss write “There is often a fine line between agreeing to have sex in order to keep a persistent partner quiet and being verbally pressured into having sex against one’s will.”
So if we’re seeking good sex (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) the requirements of consent and self-knowledge are more complex than first seems. Consent should be enthusiastic, sure, but this ignores the times when one partner is a little too tired for sex but relents to keep their partner happy. What’s more is enthusiasm can be feigned (see: pornographic moans). Some women have sex because they feel frightened of what might happen if they don’t have sex and this is where consent becomes more complex: “a woman can still leave a sexual encounter justifiably feeling mistreated, while he feels safe in the knowledge he ‘acquired’ consent,” Angel explains.
And knowledge of what we like can change; life stressors impact everyone’s desire and sexual proclivities evolve over time and across partners. Relying on clear self-knowledge for good sex is fallible; we should lean towards a model of communication: candid talking and receptive and responsive listening.
When we better learn to hear each other, sex will be good again.
*After writing and editing this article, I found that Hettie O’Brien used the same quote to open her Guardian review of Angel’s book. Sheer coincidence but it highlights the power of Angel’s observation.
**I take issue with the term “experienced rape”; I’d prefer to call it what is it: been raped, because women don’t experience rape the same way they experience Turkish food or canoeing down the Thames. Rape is done by someone to someone; there is no scope for a positive outcome and no ticking “rape” off the bucket list.
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