Pleasure principle: separating performative sex from the real deal

As a teenager, Caroline West read glossy women’s magazines filled with tips about how to perform in bed. It took her years to learn that the recommended high jinks had little to do with true sexual satisfaction
Pleasure principle: separating performative sex from the real deal

Picture: iStock 

Growing up on a steady diet of women’s magazines and TV shows, it seemed as if the best way to have great sex was to look great, know how to pleasure your partner, and have as much sex as possible. The problem is that this turned out to be not that satisfying at all.

I used to sneak into my older sister's room to read her copies of Cosmopolitan and More magazine, the latter of which was notorious for its sex ‘position of the fortnight’ such as The Wheelbarrow. If I was to believe what I read in Cosmopolitan, I should be having sex in ways that hid my stomach or giving blowjobs with ice cubes and champagne. Teenage me spent a lot of time trying to figure out if I was a Carrie or a Samantha.

 Then came feminism- was it feminist to have lots of sex, or was it feminist to wear lipstick and high heels? Sex positivity was framed as being liberal enough to have sex with multiple people in wild ways, while sticking to monogamy and the missionary position was considered ‘vanilla’ and boring. Was I sex positive enough or too vanilla? Who got to decide?

All of this, combined with porn, religion, gender roles, shame, and stigma, resulted in a lot of confusion over what sex actually was, how I was meant to be having it, and who I was meant to be having it with. In this whirlwind mix of influences - accompanied by dreadfully inadequate sex education- there was no mention of the emotional side of sex or true pleasure. 

Beyond the physical guides of which bit goes where, there was no information on how to know when you feel ready to have sex, or how to figure out what pleasure really meant. In reality, female pleasure was not a big part of this media framing - the aim was to be sexy, rather than sexual. In these cases, sex was about giving good sex, not about receiving it or learning how to communicate honestly. 

As an adult having learnt the hard way, I realised that the kind of sex we read about in magazines or watched on our screens is performative sex. It is sex that doesn’t allow you to be present in the moment and to receive pleasure; it is sex that you act your way through or focus on giving pleasure rather than a mutal exchange of pleasure. 

Laurie Mintz, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, highlights how performative sex adds to the orgasm gap between men and women. In her recent study entitled 'Orgasm Equality: Scientific Findings and Societal Implications' (2020), Mintz found that when masturbating 95% of women have an orgasm. However, when women have sex with men, they only orgasm 7% of the time. When women have sex with other women, they have an orgasm 64% of the time. This, according to Mintz, is due to poor sex education, poor understanding of the clitoris, and cultural scripts for heterosexual sex that prioritises penetration.

Mindfulness in the bedroom 

Sex therapist Aoife Drury (drurytherapy.com) believes that to engage with authentic sex is to engage with our authentic selves. She describes this process as "being in the moment and allowing yourself to enjoy pleasure rather than fixating on thoughts or judgements".

She believes the practice of mindfulness needs to be brought into the bedroom: "Mindfulness is useful to bring yourself back into the moment and be present with your partner. When you feel that you are drifting out of your body and into your head, go back to basics. Draw on your senses, focus on your breathing, or shift/rock your body to bring you back to the focus of it. Equally, communication is important. Tell your partner/s what feels good and what you would like more or less of, allowing pleasure to become central".

Mindfulness and being present in the body are highly effective, according to researchers Jackson and Scott (2008). They outline how performative sex involves the body being objectified and used as a tool by the objectifier, but authentic sex involves the ‘experiencing body’, where the body is open to receiving all kinds of stimulation and sensory pleasure. 

They also challenge the idea that sex is a linear process that ends with orgasm. This idea that sex can take whatever form you want, not focus on orgasm as the sole goal, or not involve penetration, is becoming more accepted as we push back on what society tells us that sex looks like. 

Sex positivity doesn’t mean that you have to be swinging from the chandeliers every night at sex parties, but it does mean having an open mind. Chris Donaghue, author of Sex Outside the Lines, writes that "being sex positive means you’re open, flexible, and non-judgmental about your sexual preferences. It also means allowing your partners to feel the same way without shaming them." 

Focus on your pleasure 

Author Tracy Clary-Flory, who has just written a book titled Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire, outlines that this journey can take a while and involve a lot of unpacking of messages from society and media about what female sexuality should look like. She writes: "I spent time trying to figure out how to be desirable to men and how to be good at this sex thing, and that was the focus. For years, the focus was not on what I want; the focus was on what people want from me". 

In exploring our desire, the focus needs to be firmly and unapologetically on ourselves. What do we really want from sex? A huge question for some; a scary question for others. However, treating ourselves with compassion and slowly embracing our desires, our bodies, and our pleasure means that we can start this journey. 

Shawna Scott, owner of sexsiopa.ie, says the journey to authentic sex can be long, but very worthwhile: "Getting to the point of having really authentic sex can be a long journey for some people. It can take years to unlearn all that weird societal stuff about the ways we’re meant to do sex and advocate for our own pleasure." 

Ultimately, the starting point is this: accept that you are worthy of and deserving of pleasure. Take advantage of the wealth of decent sex education resources now available - even Cosmopolitan has much improved. You deserve good sex, however you define that for yourself.

  • Dr Caroline West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Find her at @carolinewest_IE or www.iamcarolinewest.com

More in this section

ieStyle Live 2021 Logo
ieStyle Live 2021 Logo

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Discover the great outdoors on Ireland's best walking trails

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up