Columns, Opinions

Overall ’19: Wanting more than bad sex

Staff Columnist
Monday, February 12, 2018

In the past couple of months, a radical shift in American culture has unfolded. Women have been able to publicly identify and censor men who commit assault — and for the first time in American history, society seems to be listening. Yet, while the broader culture’s condemnations of serial abusers marks a new era in which men are held accountable for their behavior, this shift has simultaneously furthered the widely-held assumption that sex is either consensual or assault. But this dichotomy is deeply flawed, for it ignores the other ways in which gender dynamics and social norms manifest themselves in sexual interactions. As author Rebecca Traister presciently wrote in her 2015 article “The Game Is Rigged,” “a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — (goes) largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.” Beyond the welcome progress of the #MeToo movement, there remains the eerie reality of a vast gray area of “bad sex” — defined by writer Ella Dawson as the “the sex we have that we don’t want to have but consent to anyway.”

Without a doubt, sex doesn’t have to be assault to constitute a violation. Confronting the hidden scourge of “bad sex” — which, though not assault, perpetuates gendered power dynamics, normalizes antiquated social norms and results from miscommunication — is the next step in redefining our expectations of sex.

Kristen Roupenian in her New Yorker fiction piece, “Cat Person,” provides a stirring depiction of the lead up to bad sex and what it feels like through the perspective of a young woman. In her story, a 20-year-old college student, Margot, has sex with Robert, a much older man who she does not find particularly attractive. After a date one night, she chooses to go home with him. In the middle of their hookup, she feels a deep sense of disgust and wants to leave. But she doesn’t — she doesn’t want to come off as selfish or difficult. Afterwards, she tries to ignore Robert. Over text, he insults her character and slut-shames her.

What Roupenian describes is neither rape nor assault, but bad sex resulting from the intersection of gender and power — the product of many mens’ entitled approach to sex, and of womens’ efforts to manage men’s feelings. Roupenian’s “Cat Person” is a parable about how men and women are taught to negotiate sexual encounters differently. Men have been socialized to see the pursuit and completion of sex like the pursuit of money: the more sex is had, the more of a man they are. In contrast, women have been conditioned to minimize ourselves; take up as little space as possible, both physically and emotionally; and believe that self-assertion and objections to widely accepted masculine norms are turn-offs. In short, women are taught to expect and accept bad sex — to be malleable and non-combative at the hands of men.

In light of Roupenian’s short story, it is necessary to devote more attention to the kinds of sexual encounters — like presumptuous, uncommunicative and “bad” sex — that still hurt men and women, even though they too often escape our attention. It is true that separating sexual assault and the decidedly bad sex that Margot and Robert experience is extremely difficult. Still, as we combat assault, we must also work to address the cases that lie in the gray area. This argument does not seek to reduce the pain of emotionally violative and uncomfortable sexual experiences by not labeling these encounters as “assault.” But it is critical to acknowledge how uncomfortable sexual experiences and assault diverge and how gendered power dynamics can still govern hookups, hurt people and, as Traister notes, leave women feeling “fucked by fucking.”

Bad sex keeps happening, in part, because we don’t talk openly about what we want or what we’re comfortable with and instead defer to entrenched social norms. The absence of communication carries more weight and dictates the afterlife of a sexual encounter more than what is actually said. Young men and women alike are socialized to think that bad sex is normal and that going home with a stranger, waking up the next morning hungover and disillusioned and exchanging horror stories with friends at breakfast are all inevitable parts of the romantic experience. But this pervasive belief is wrong, and all genders have a role to play in resolving this dangerous dynamic. The power dynamics of gender must be confronted in the moments right before bad sex. Men must acknowledge, publicly and privately, the importance of unspoken cues during a sexual encounter and understand that consent is continual. And we, as women, can reject social norms that compel us to be passive in the face of uncomfortable situations and to brush aside of bad hookups as “something that just happened.”

In order to begin to resolve the “vast expanse” of bad sex that both Traister and Roupenian discuss, I believe we need to do a better job of teaching sexual partners to communicate — face-to-face, in the moment, no matter how awkward it may be — their boundaries and their expectations. It is easy to assert that the everyday conditioning and sex education of men and women need to be re-examined, and that sex needs to be placed within a new, female-driven framework centered on consent. But putting these solutions into practice is difficult, and at this moment, confronting “bad sex” through honest communication is the best way to stop it.

Sophia Overall ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. Man with Axe says:

    By this time everyone agrees that sexual assault is a crime. But what to to about what you call “bad sex?”

    I think where you, and the current generation, go wrong is in failing to look at relations between the sexes in a historical context, and only seeing it through the prism of the hookup culture in which young people find themselves immersed. Of course, you assume, men and women are going to have sex with random strangers who have no affection for them and no incentive to treat them well given that they never expect to see each other again. Or if they do, it’s only to have more sex without interpersonal connection.

    Why did the girl in “Cat Person” have sex with this guy she found unattractive in so many ways? Not because it was easier to just give in. Rather, it was because she didn’t know she didn’t want to have sex with him until they were already well into it. She liked him, but then she didn’t, she found him to be a terrible kisser, but that didn’t stop her. He was unattractive with his clothes off. She liked the idea that he found her to be so attractive with her clothes off. Why this scenario finds itself into a discussion about sexual assault is beyond me. This story is about an obnoxious young woman and an equally obnoxious older man, neither of whom liked the other enough to have a sexual relationship, neither of whom was very honest about their feelings or about their lives, but they went ahead anyway.

    The way that these people could avoid these situations is to delay the gratification of having sex until they have developed enough true affection for each other that they actually care what the other will think when the sex is over. People used to do this, and they were happier for it. They didn’t need so much mental health services while at university.

    By the way, if the feminists are correct that women and men are the same when it comes to wanting sex and being able to handle the emotions of sex, why is it only women who are complaining about having all this “bad sex” and wanting some authority to do something about it?

    • Man with Axe. Thanks for your contributions here. Your comments are consistently thoughtful and expertly written.

    • Woman with two Axes says:

      So far I just see you putting the Cat Woman story in the discussion about sexual assault.
      Your solution to “bad-sex” is to wait to develop enough true affection. Historically this does not necessarily tie into better sexual experiences for woman. This is also true once you look at societies nowadays in which this is still practiced.
      I also doubt that people were happier with it. Your connection with the use of mental health services is suggestive at best.

      How good sex is for women depends on their willingness to voice and demand in their sexual pleasures as well as for men to be invested in the sexual happiness of the person they are sleeping with. This should be at the center of the debate about bad-sex.

      • Man with Axe says:

        I think you are factually incorrect about the connection between true affection and better sexual experiences, in this regard: If by “better sexual experiences” you are talking about more and better orgasms, I can’t claim that there is a direct causal connection. But that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about the total sexual experience which includes the day after and the day after that. How many women have decided, days or even months later that they had a bad experience because they now feel emotionally damaged? A lot from what I’ve read. So, we are talking about different things.

        My mention of the increased use of mental health services is, of course, only conjecture on my part. But it makes sense that when so many students are miserable and lonely even as they are engaging in hookups all the time, there is something they are missing, and I think it is an emotional connection with another person who cares about them.

        • Woman with two Axes says:

          I think that you might have a reporting bias here. Woman who have positive hookups or positive sexual experiences do not necessarily write about these things as often as about the bad experiences.
          I think it is good that you have clarified this, but it is very difficult to argue about a persons subjective experience. Simply because this is not only a function of what actually happened but also of how morals and values relate to this. It might be for instance be the case that a housewife in the 50s was very satisfied with her sex-life even though she had little to know orgasms and had no saying over when to have sex. But morals and values prevalent in society back then told her that this is okay, which let her to not feel emotionally damaged.
          And this is exactly why the cat woman story is so important. It starts a discussion about the values within a society. I personally think in the right direction. I think it is good that woman demand more from sex in order to get “objectively” better sex.

          I would speculate that mental health services are used more often due to the high workload and stress students face in universities nowadays, but this is speculation.
          I agree with you that long term relationships can provide emotional support that hookups not necessarily can. But in reality it is the case that some of the students are in fact in commited relationships and some are not. I would like to live in a society in which none of the two decisions is frowned upon.

          • Man with Axe says:

            It’s not about being frowned upon. It’s about not being miserable. Students 20 and 40 years ago were just as full of academic stress at elite universities but used a fraction of the counseling services.

            The idea that 20 to 40 percent of college women are sexually assaulted didn’t come out of thin air. This rise corresponds to the rise in hookup culture.

            Maybe the women of that era had fewer orgasms, but they had someone who wanted to know them and to care about them.

  2. John H. Gleason says:

    The best approach, by far, is to refrain from sex until marriage. Many problems, including emotional upset, will be avoided.

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