Society's Obsession with Penetrative Sex is Messing with Our Orgasms
Sex has a myriad of configurations–that’s part of what makes it so endlessly entertaining, right? The frustrating fact, though, is that one form of sex is privileged, centered, and deified as the ‘authentic’ form of sexual expression. Namely, good old penetration.
But not just any penetration–fingering doesn’t quite cut it in the hierarchy of widely accepted narratives of what constitutes the act of sex. Many of us believe that sex is initiated when a penis enters a vagina (thanks patriarchy!). Obviously, this is wholly not the case. Sex is whatever you make of it, to be honest. Whenever you’re wondering if what you’re doing is sex you can refer to Autostraddle’s foolproof flowchart for clarification.
Narratives surrounding “virginity” perfectly encapsulate our societal preoccupation with penetration. Being penetrated by a man’s penis is supposedly so powerful, it creates an irrevocable change in a woman’s social status and represents a move from innocence to womanhood. (See: every film or TV show about a girl losing her virginity, ever.)
As a teenager I was desperate, just like countless women before and after me, to lose my virginity. And to me, that meant one thing: a P in the V. I was sexually active in my teens but I didn’t think any of what I was up to truly counted as sex. If I engaged in the same activities now, I would definitely count them as sex! This meant that as a teen I could never appreciate the sexual acts as good enough, as I was always lamenting the fact that I wasn’t getting dicked down.
Well, as it turned out, I’m a lesbian! Therefore, to date I have never ended up “losing my virginity” in the traditional sense (i.e. within the heteronormative, patriarchal perspective**). The fact that I regarded my pre-coming out sexual activity as simple precursors to the “real deal” of penetrative penis-in-vagina sex meant that I was never invested in making it as good as it could have been. After all, what was the point if it wasn’t real sex? Who cares if it wasn’t perfect? It wasn’t meant to be! In my mind, thanks to a steady diet of, frankly, misogynistic and unrealistic sex scenes on TV, proper pleasure was not to be found in the curve of someone’s fingers or the tip of their tongue…only the dick would do!
Sex is more than just dicks-in-vaginas!
Focusing on penetration as the ultimate sex act is harmful and restrictive. As long as everything else that one can do in bed is seen as “foreplay” to the phallus-shaped star of the show, then we’re in trouble. Centering on PiV sex is ultimately centering (the majority of) men’s sexual pleasure over women’s, as most women with vaginas cannot orgasm from penetration alone, whereas penetration generally leads to orgasm for the lucky person with the dick.
Furthermore, while penetrative sex can be satisfying (with or without orgasm) some people just can’t get off on penetration or find it actively uncomfortable or impossible. For instance, people with gender dysphoria around their genitals often find penetration mentally discomfiting and people with vaginismus physically cannot engage in penetrative sex.
Sex talk that prioritizes penetration over everything explicitly sidelines people who can’t, won’t, or don’t engage in such acts. It also contributes to a sexual climate in which advocating for a personal sex life that doesn’t involve penetration is extremely difficult.
Luckily, queers are here to save the day! When the sex that you have as two women already breaks society’s parameters of normal, there is far less pressure to absorb and internalize penetration-centric narratives. Sex, when loosened from common definitions becomes a full-body experience. It’s not just about getting in and getting off. The focus can be on nipples, toes, the soft skin in the crook of your arm, the dips of your waist. Paying attention to how your whole body feels against the whole of your partner. Furthermore, if you’re someone who really enjoys penetration, having sex without it for as long as you can bear can really heighten the sensations that you experience when you finally get to it.
Telling a partner you’re not into it
Once, when I was a baby dyke (i.e. fresh out the closet) I went home with someone who disappeared midway through us fucking and reappeared with a massive bag of dildos. My heart fell out of my chest and lingered somewhere near my feet. I was terrified! Because I had never had PiV sex before, the sight of the dizzying array of rather large dildos put the fear right in me. Instead of just soldiering through, I expressed that I wasn’t comfortable using them yet.
My date reassured me that I didn’t have to do anything that I didn’t want to do and then promptly went down on me. A little communication goes a long way. Just because penetration might have been on the cards for your sexual partner’s previous lovers, doesn’t mean that you have to do it, too.
Consider this: what if “foreplay” (i.e. non-penetrative activity) was thought of as the main event of sex, and PiV sex was thought of as “post-play?”
When we let go of assumptions about what is or isn’t a real or expected part of sex, we open ourselves up to a world of possibility. We open ourselves up to ways of having sex that isn’t molded by phallocentrism and the norm. And that’s good news for all of us women, regardless of sexual orientation.
*This is probably a good juncture to point out that some lesbians will experience a form of ‘traditional’ penis in vagina aka PiV sex if they sleep with transgender women who choose to use their genitals in that way.
*If you feel like the meaning of “patriarchy” continues to elude you, check out this article for a few quotes that might help you out. It’s an important concept that affects all of us, regardless of your identity!
About the Author: Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer. She has a degree in Sociology and is working on a Master's in Gender Studies. Her work focuses on issues of sex, sexuality, race, and gender. Tweet her @KesienaBoom.
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