Twenty-five eager and anxious undergrads follow my every move as I lay out the foundation of my human sexuality course. I query the group, “What is sex?” Someone proudly offers up the expected, “When a penis penetrates a vagina.” I quickly counter with, “So lesbians don’t have sex?” A smattering of murmurs and head nods signal that some students get it while others remain quizzical. Too early in the semester to complicate their brains with the added fact that some lesbians do have penises, we continue on with a working definition of sex that includes all genders and orientations. In our culture’s baseball metaphor for sex, lesbians, apparently, are shit out of luck when it comes to hitting a home run.1 But is it really lesbians who are unlucky or is it the rest of us who are missing out?
Like most of my students, I grew up with no understanding of sex beyond penetration and even that was distorted. My childhood logic yielded the belief that females, aka, the ones whose penises were removed at birth, became pregnant by having a penis urinate into their anus. Where’s the sex ed when you really need it? Graduating from my childhood understanding of sex, I, like others, adopted the incomplete definition of sex ingrained in our culture, a religiously rooted definition of sex. Man. Woman. Love. Marriage. Penis. Vagina. Baby. Nowadays internet porn fills in the gaps left by our culture’s uneven and mostly vacuous sex education. As a society, we’ve gone from ignoring children’s needs for sexual information to having fantasy-inspired sexual scripts dominate our bedrooms. From not enough to too much, all the while maintaining a skewed and insufficient representation of the diversity of human sexual experience.
Even before the machinations of penetrative sex became clear, its significance was not lost on me. The concept of virginity furthered not just the cultural but also the emotional salience of penetration as the prime objective. As a youth, I and other boys yearned for the loss of our rookie cards while the fear and shame that ruled the girls was supported by purity rings and purity balls, topped off with pledges to maintain faithfulness to their fathers. The very backbone of our cultural sexual values promote dual, gendered and opposing paths informally labeled “lose your virginity” or “become a man,” both centered on penetration. In exchange for our first penetrative experience, we’re assigned a genital based reputation: high fives and an invitation to join the Future Men of America club, or a metaphorical scarlet letter S tattooed on your forehead as you’re sent directly down the hall of shame to the detention room for sluts. Disparate treatment for no reason other than being on the wrong end of genital pleasure. Becoming versus Losing.
But this is not solely a personal history or diatribe against virginity. This is a commentary on the ways in which our culture promotes sexual dissatisfaction in individuals and relationships by socializing individuals to prioritize penetration as the only “real” sex. In addition to the double standard for “virginity,” other evidence for penetration as the primary yet maladaptive objective includes the overemphasis on erections, the acceptance of painful sex, the internalization of heteronormative definitions of sex by non-heterosexuals, the disparate prevalence in orgasms between sexes, and lost opportunities for maintaining relational intimacy.
With penetrative sex as the focus, too much pressure and too many expectations are heaped on to the necessity of erections. Penises don’t come to life like a Disney animation just because you’re able to free them from their confines. Health problems, fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, work and interpersonal conflicts all mitigate against the fantasized dildo dick experience. Binary expectations of “erect” or “not erect” close off opportunities for couples by shutting the door on alternative pathways to a broader and more satisfying sexual repertoire, independent of penetration. Erection equals penetration equals sex. No erection equals what then? Sleep? Frustration? Anger? Humiliation? For a more detailed discussion of mythical penile expectations, check out my blog, Penis Myths: The Truth About Dick.
Mutually enjoyable penetration not only requires erections (or dildos) but also pain free reception from vaginas and anuses. Pain often gets suppressed by those who feel dutiful or obligated to offer their bodies for penetration. Coupled with the misguided but prevalent belief that penetration should yield vaginal orgasms, it’s easy to understand how frustration may ensue in heterosexuals emphasizing mutual penetration-based orgasms. Culturally, anal and vaginal pain have been glossed over and fed to the masses as inevitable. Tell me, who does such a belief system benefit? I’ll give you a clue, it’s not vaginas and anuses. If you were masturbating with a dildo and it was painful, would you just continue without changing ANYTHING? It’s a sad day when just being a willing receptacle becomes more important than sexual health and mutual sexual satisfaction, all in the name of prioritizing penis pleasure.
Even in the absence of a vagina, heteronormative sexual scripts condition many cisgender gay men to adopt a penetrative focus. In my practice I too frequently encounter gay men frozen with shame fearing that a meaningful relationship will elude them because they have no interest in topping or bottoming.2 Just as heterosexuals default to penis in vagina, people of all orientations generally assume anal sex to be mandatory for gay relationships. I mean, if you’re gay and having sex, and sex equals penetration, it only stands to reason that “gay sex” equals anal penetration. Fortunately “gay sex” is ultimately not defined by heteronormative standards but by the individual interests of sexual partners, regardless of gender or orientation. The fact that anybody thinks that any type of sex is mandatory to be in any kind of relationship further exposes our narrow and dysfunctional views of sexuality.
Overemphasizing penetration tilts the orgasm scale out of balance for heterosexuals. Bad news for vaginas. While vaginas and anuses can certainly experience pleasure from being penetrated, the duration of pleasure generally lasts only as long as the penis. While that’s not always undesired, most of the time what IS desired instead goes unattended, because “sex” is over! The vagina or anus becomes the ultimate hand in a masturbatory frenzy towards the grand prize of penile ejaculation. The prioritization of penetration means little or no emphasis on clitoral stimulation, which means half the heterosexual population’s opportunity to orgasm has been withheld from the cultural scripts on having sex. For lesbians supposedly not being able to hit a home run, it’s ironic that they don’t experience an orgasm gap like that of the heterosexual clitoris.
Despite there not being an orgasm gap, like young gay men, young lesbians may internalize culture’s traditional sexual scripts to the point where penetration may become either overemphasized or over-rejected. The heteronormative narrative dictates that lesbians not born with penises must fool around with a strap-on for it to count as sex. The double ended dildo popular in so called “lesbian” porn typifies and reinforces this distortion. Conversely, the rejection of penetration due to its association with heterosexuality removes a perfectly viable, if somewhat overemphasized, option for sexual activity. Penetration may not be the only defining characteristic of sex but dismissing it without consideration seems premature at best. Lesbians, like all of us, could benefit from taking an intentional look at the meanings and associations that we have with penetrative sex, examining, understanding and integrating our earliest teachings with our most current attitudes.
People have many reasons for not desiring penetrative sex; e.g. stress, fatigue, anxiety about erections, it’s just not that enjoyable. Tragically, many of us condition ourselves to avoid all physical connection due to the singular belief that any intimacy will always lead to penetrative sex. If I’m too tired for the full sexual experience, including penetration, I may unknowingly avoid a simple make out session believing that my partner expects the full course meal. If I regularly avoid make out sessions, I may avoid burdensome penetrative sex but I miss out on eating yummy appetizers that I enjoy and need as much, if not more than, the main course. In fact, research has found that across the world, couples in long term relationships consistently miss the yummy appetizers more than the decline in penetrative frequency. Making out passionately serves other important functions besides being a prelude to penetration. Putting off non-penetrative sexual activities in order to avoid penetration ultimately ends up perpetuating feelings of disconnection and missed opportunities to maintain intimacy over the long haul.
There’s an inverse relationship between long term sexual satisfaction and an emphasis on penetration. The more that penetration is your primary goal, the more likely you’ll be dissatisfied with your long term sexual relationship, if not now, then eventually. Conversely, there’s a positive relationship between expanding your sexual repertoire and long term sexual satisfaction. The more varied and flexible your options for sexual activity, the more adaptive you can be when discomfort, pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, or health problems force their way into the bedroom and strip your precious penetration from the menu. Penetrative exclusivity restrains an important factor for enjoyable sex in a long term relationship: novelty. I spend too much time in sex therapy discussing the idea that if you’re at all interested in having mutually enjoyable sex throughout the entirety of your relationship, not just at the beginning and not just to make babies, then exploring sex beyond penetration is mandatory.
Pleasure and connection contribute heavily to the reasons people have sex beyond reproduction. Pleasure and connection are facilitated by physical contact, sensual touch and sexual touch. Notice three whole categories targeting intimacy needs independent of penetration. Couples that are satisfied with their relationship maintain some amount of these on a weekly or more frequent basis. Busy schedules and drained bodies don’t often allow a penetrative focus beyond quickies. However, this doesn’t preclude developing rituals of connection less demanding than penetration to help fill the intimacy void (e.g. lingering hugs and six second kisses, and simmering3). Find ways to integrate your intimacy and connection needs into your stress reduction routine with your partner, not just without them.
So, tap your erotic imagination by expanding into new and different experiences that redefine your sexual activity with a broader perspective. Come together regularly with ideas and expectations beyond penetration. Indulge in mindful touch and massage purely for its own sake rather than as a prelude to “real sex.” Share fantasies, role play, explore kink and bdsm, integrate toys and clothing. Explore varied ways to be playful and engage physically (e.g. wrestling, tickling, nude tag). Expand your sexual repertoire, create novelty, and build in variety for satisfying long term sexual relationships. Penetration is only one version of facilitating this. If you still don’t understand how to have sex without penetration, whatever you do, please don’t ask a lesbian.
1 In case I’m dating myself with this reference, check out Al Vernacchio’s Ted Talk on the outdated baseball metaphor for sex. https://www.ted.com/talks/al_vernacchio_sex_needs_a_new_metaphor_here_s_one
2 My colleague, Joe Kort, PhD, coined the term “sides” to fill the void left by the designations of “top,” “bottom,” and “versatile” that refers to gay men not interested in penetrative sex. http://www.joekort.com/blog/2017/Gay-Men-and-Sex-Tops,-Bottoms-and-Sides
3 I like this description of “simmering” provided by my sex therapist colleague, Stephen Snyder, MD:: “A two minute technique for nourishing the erotic bond between partners. Useful for modern couples for whom the idea of leisure time is a quaint memory, but who’d like to stay in touch.” Read more here: https://www.sexualityresource.com/blog/sexual-arousal-for-its-own-sake