It came as quite the surprise to me when, several months into a happy, enjoyable relationship with a fellow college student, I called a time-out in the middle of sex as I found myself on the verge of tears. My partner at the time wasn’t too thrilled either.
As the tears pricked at my eyes and I fought to control my shallow, panicked breathing, my mind was racing: ‘what on earth is going on here? What’s happening right now that’s activated my fight-or-flight response? I’m not in physical pain and I’m not fatigued, and I’m definitely not riding the emotional high of an orgasm, why am I freaking out?!’
Although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, with hindsight the answer became blindingly obvious: the sex I had been having then and there was doing absolutely nothing for me. I wasn’t having fun, it wasn’t making me feel particularly good, I was participating for the sake of my partner – I was exhibiting some version of performative sex.
“Performative sex” is one of those phrases that’s bandied about in discussions of the pornography industry, and might also call to mind images of long-suffering wives and women addressing the needs of men in the bedroom without ever experiencing sexual pleasure themselves. For me, “performative sex” conjures up the popular crowd in school engaging in fumbling, unsatisfying sexual acts for the sake of talking about it during form class the following day.
Understanding what works for me
In reality, however, I have found that performative sex – the act of engaging in sexual behaviour for the benefit of a partner with little to no connection with one’s own body – was a much less obvious experience for me than any of these contexts suggest. You could say it happened by accident – everything started out well, we were going through the motions and doing our usual when seemingly out of nowhere my body started responding in ways that genuinely unnerved me. The pending waterworks, the constricted feeling in my chest, the rising panic, nothing about this was even remotely pleasurable to me! As I retrospectively analysed this encounter, I reached a crucial understanding of my personal relationship with sex.
Connection and communication are key
First and foremost, communication is key (surprise surprise). Every article ever written about having fun and healthy sex trumpets the importance of good communication, and they’re not wrong! However, there’s a certain subtlety to good communication, which had previously escaped my notice. A quiet, intrinsic component that, for me, underlies all my best sexual encounters to date: connection. For me, a lack of connection was the pitfall that saw me stumbling into performative sex with my partner.
When I think back to the moments before my body started betraying me during that particular sexual encounter, I remember my mind wandering away from the present moment despite the physical exertion I was putting in; I remember spiralling into feelings of insecurity and loneliness though I was engaging in an activity I generally consider enjoyable and intimate; I remember struggling to emotionally connect with my partner, a person I cared deeply for and around whom I generally felt perfectly safe and comfortable. I had begun to frantically search for something to anchor me back into the moment – their gaze on mine or their hand to caress me or their voice to comfort me – but I continued to flounder and was overcome in a wash of stress and anxiety.
Tackling performative sex
I realised later that the disconnection between my mind and my body resulted from a lack of pleasure on my side (immediate sexual pleasure rarely leaves room for idle daydreaming). However, the real source of distress for me in the situation above was the disconnection between myself and my partner. All I needed to do to avert the strange emotional turmoil that built up within me was speak up and let my partner know I wasn’t enjoying myself.
I could have suggested an alternative position that would work for both of us, or I could have proposed a different act altogether and kick-started some turn-based sexual pleasure – generally speaking, devoting yourself to pleasuring your partner with your hands, mouth and/or toys not only makes them feel good, it allows you to have fun revelling in their reactions (and in the anticipation of how they’ll repay you on their turn). I had been so caught up in keeping up appearances and not ruining the moment for them that I completely lost sight of the fact that a) sex is meant to be fun for all parties involved, and b) my partner cared more about me and my welfare than a transient dopamine rush.
The benefits of being “selfish”
Disturbing as it was at the time, this experience helped me understand how to avoid accidental performative sex in the future. Rather than immediately looking outwards for reassurance and expecting my partner to read my mind, I must first check in with myself. I must be a little more selfish with my pleasure.
Is there anything I can do here to have a bit more fun? Be it engaging in dirty talk, proposing a different position, or simply holding eye contact? Sex should always be a give-and-take affair. The key to this for me from here on out will be finding the balance that allows both myself and my partner to have a good time.