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 email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.