We’re starting to talk more about giving equal weight to women’s pleasure in man/woman sexual encounters, and that’s awesome.
As a woman, you’d think I’d be all for focusing more on women’s pleasure in sex. And I am – mostly.
Sometimes, though, I’ll hear a hetero guy talking about how important women’s pleasure is, and it leaves me cringing. Worse yet, sometimes I’ve had sex with men who said they were all about my pleasure – and in a sense, they were – yet I still ended up feeling like their feelings and needs were more important than my actual experiences.
In this article, I’ll be discussing three ways “I love giving a woman pleasure!” can still be all about the male partner. I’ll also talk about what to do if you experience this or think you might be doing it.
Two quick notes before we get into it, though.
First, in my experience, this is very much a gendered phenomenon in a heterocentric culture: It has its roots in toxic masculinity and expectations about how men and women relate to each other. I just haven’t experienced the same thing in queer relationships, or heard it talked about.
For that reason, I’m going to be using binary and heterocentric language through most of this piece. (However, “woman” and “man” are absolutely meant to include trans women and trans men who experience these things.) If you have thoughts about similar dynamics in queer relationships, we’d love to hear about them!
Second, a note for hetero men reading this: You’re likely to feel some anxiety and defensiveness as you go through this – if you haven’t already. And that’s okay. I’m going to have more to say to you at the end. Just stick with me!
Nothing that I’m about to say is a mark of a terrible person. It’s just a mark of the ways toxic masculinity impacts all areas of our lives, including sexuality.
So, here are three ways that “I love giving a woman pleasure!” can actually be not-so-great for the woman.
1. The Focus Is Still On His Achievement
Toxic masculinity says that a man is only as good as what he can accomplish.
When it comes to sex, this can often mean “To be a man, I have to achieve orgasm/ejaculation” or “I have to win as many sex partners as I can.”
These days, it can also mean “I have to give my partner the most intense pleasure possible.” Because if she has a body-shaking orgasm, it’s a mark of his skill and prowess. And if she doesn’t have an orgasm at all, it feels like a personal failure to him.
For the female partner, this can turn into yet another way she has to perform emotional labor. When her experience of pleasure becomes tied to his ego, then she often feels pressure to have a big, showy orgasm for him… even if that’s not how her body works.
Instead of genuinely connecting with her body and experiencing the pleasure that’s there for her in the moment, she can become anxious about whether she’s satisfying him with her show of pleasure.
This whole dynamic makes it hard to connect in true intimacy in the moment. Instead, sex becomes a performance for both parties.
Sometimes it becomes literally a performance, when the woman fakes more pleasure than she feels (up to and including orgasm) so that her partner won’t get upset.
In addition to the pressure it puts on both parties, the “her pleasure is his accomplishment” attitude has an ugly power side to it, wherein the woman’s body becomes something for the man to manipulate.
A statement like “I love making a woman [scream, come, writhe, whatever]” carries an implication that sexual pleasure is something that he does to her, rather than a gift from her own body which he helps draw out.
2. He’s Still Primarily Focused On His Own Enjoyment
This is another way in which a female partner’s pleasure can become more about what it does for the man.
Rather than being about feeding his sense of accomplishment, though, it’s about giving him visual enjoyment. The woman may feel pressure to perform pleasure visibly – making more noises, moving more intensely – because he likes looking at it.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with finding it hot when your partner is clearly gripped by ecstasy – of course not! But sometimes the erotic enjoyment of the other person becomes more of a focus than the pleasure you’re actually experiencing.
This is especially a danger for women, who are socialized to prioritize “looking good to male eyes” over their own experiences and comfort.
Male partners may be completely unaware of how, if they talk a lot about how much they enjoy seeing a woman orgasm, how hot a particular noise or movement she makes in pleasure is, and so on, they may be setting up a sense of “do this for my pleasure” in their female partner.
3. He’s Looking for a Gold Star
When I told a friend I was writing this article, she mentioned how some men will brag about how much they looove performing cunnilingus. And I laughed – because I knew just what she was talking about.
There’s a special attitude, that I’ve heard often, where a man talks about enjoying a sex act where the woman’s pleasure is the focus.
Someone can say “I like being spanked” and just be telling you some information about themselves. But when a man says “I like going down on a woman,” there’s very often a subtext of “Doesn’t that make me awesome?”
Even while talking positively about women’s pleasure, this reinforces the idea that giving a woman pleasure is above and beyond the norm.
I want my partners to desire and appreciate my pleasure. I want my enjoyment to be rewarding for them, just as their enjoyment is rewarding for me.
But when my pleasure gets treated as something they deserve extra credit for, all the positive feelings are erased. I start to feel like I’m supposed to be grateful for the fact that they actually care if I’m having a good time.
So let me be clear about this: I deserve pleasure from my sexual encounters. So does every woman, and every non-binary person (and, of course, every man – but in our culture, that’s usually taken for granted).
Having a partner who cares whether I’m having a good time is not a treat, and it’s not something to be grateful for. It’s baseline.
Important note: This does not mean that a partner of mine, of any gender, has to do things that they don’t like or feel uncomfortable with to please me. Their comfort and satisfaction is just as important as mine, and full consent comes before pleasure on all sides.
The point, in all of these cases, is that when we emphasize women’s pleasure, we need to really be emphasizing women’s pleasure – not ways that women’s pleasure makes men feel great or look great.
Advice for Women Thinking, ‘Yes! I Know That Feeling!’
First of all, your experiences are valid.
We’re so used to a world that tells us our pleasure is unimportant or wrong, that it can feel really ungrateful to think, “I appreciate that you’re so invested in my orgasm, but that actually isn’t what I want, and your insistence is making me feel crappy.”
You don’t have to be grateful for someone’s good intentions if they’re ignoring what you actually want and need.
How to talk about it with your partner depends a lot on the closeness of the relationship and how you usually deal with tough conversations with them. But if they’re someone you plan on having sex with again, it’s probably worth bringing up.
If there’s a specific behavior, you could address that, with something like “I don’t actually need or want to orgasm every time we have sex” or “When you talk about how hot I look, it actually takes me out of myself and makes me self-conscious instead of being able to enjoy the moment.”
A great sexual relationship is born out of communication and giving and taking of feedback.
If it’s not one specific thing, but more a general feeling, you might try having a broader conversation about the ways masculinity and femininity impact sexual experience.
Talking about how women feel pressure to be and look sexy, while men feel pressure to perform and accomplish (and exploring to what extent those dynamics are true for each of you), could be an eye-opening conversation for both of you.
And of course, you don’t owe anybody sexual availability. You can put as much or as little effort into fixing this as feels worthwhile to you, and it’s fine to walk away from a sexual relationship that isn’t working for you.
Advice for Men Thinking, ‘Oh Shit – This Might Be Me!’
Remember, none of this is about whether you’re a good person or not. Our culture’s messages affect us all, and learning how to grow past them is a huge part of becoming our best selves.
When you feel anxious that you’re not “accomplishing” your partner’s pleasure well enough, remember that that’s toxic masculinity talking.
Your partner’s pleasure is for them first. Your most important job, when it comes to helping your partner enjoy sex, is to be attentive to what they want.
Sometimes an explosive orgasm is not what your partner wants. Sometimes they know that mild shudders of pleasure are the most their body has to offer that day. Whatever it is, work on learning how to quiet that ego and really listen to what your partner is expressing.
Take the pressure off yourself to be the perfect lover.
Sure, it’s nice to think of ourselves as providing an unforgettable sexual experience for our partners, being the best they’ve ever had. But despite what culture has probably been telling you, your worth is not determined by whether you’re the best lay (or the best anything).
The best sexual encounters, in my experience, happen when everybody involved comes as they are and gives open attention to what the other person is bringing.
It’s easier, in some ways, to play the roles and enact the tropes we’ve all been taught. But when you do the work to be authentic, vulnerable, and attentive, it’s so worth it.
Enjoy this piece?
… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.
It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.
Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.