In 1904 Dublin, James Joyce met and fell in love with his chambermaid at the Finn Hotel. Her name was Nora Barnacle. Their first romantic encounter was so noteworthy to him that the date (June 16, 1904) became the setting for Ulysses and is known as Bloomsday world-round.
Dig a little deeper and you might come across their love letters. “Love letters” is the wrong phrase. They fucked by mail. Details so fantastic, lush, and specific, you can practically smell them. Which he mentions. A lot.
We only have his letters. Nora’s have been lost. But you know by reading them that Nora Barnacle wrote the first one, and then fully, happily, and lustfully participated both in the deeds and in the reciprocal writing of those deeds. On June 16, 1904, James knew she was ready to get busy because Nora stuck her hand in his pants.
Despite scholarly guesses on her sexual aptitude (she was abused, she was a sex worker, etc.), it seems to me that Nora maybe just liked sex. She seemed to like it A LOT. Specifically it seems she liked to have sex with the man she happened to marry and love until they both died.
But, my point is she is not an outlier. Women like having sex. We like having sex just about as much as men do.
For months now (centuries really, but you know what I mean) we’ve been pummeled with news about rape, harassment, assault, predation, coercion, mixed signals, gray areas, and then a million takes on those stories. You’ve read as many pieces as I have lately on how we can find the bright line between rape and sex. For me, the most painful conversations have been between us women as we parse “shoulds” and try to define the edges of our agency while grappling with:
The practical realities of men and the risks that come when you are near them.
The expectation of a satisfying and abundant sex life, just like men.
When men try to define the role of women in stopping unwanted “sex,” we seem to agree they are asses who need to refocus on the dudes who overstep. It’s much harder when we question each other. Or ourselves. When – precisely – should a woman say she’s uncomfortable and walk out of a room before we decide she’s part of the problem?
I’m personally tired of defining what is ok in the negative.
We deserve satisfying, healthy sex lives. Sex you want to write about on actual paper with an actual pen. But talking about it comfortably is still a struggle for many of us. And asserting our sexual desires is even trickier. We do not have to abandon necessary conversations about consent and culpability to make room to advance the goal of good sex. In fact, I’m here to make the case that they are equally important.
We like all kinds of sex. Some of us like sex where we get spanked and slapped and called “terrible” names. Some of us like quiet, sweet, sunshine-dappled sex (probably Enya is playing or something?) Some of us have sex with women. Some of us have penises and have sex with women (as women). All of that is sex, and we *should* all know what makes good sex. We are listened to. We are comfortable (maybe in a riding harness – whatever). We can stop whenever we want. We have an orgasm or so.
We do not have to abandon necessary conversations about consent and culpability to make room to advance the goal of good sex.
We know what makes bad sex happen. Leg cramps. Unexpected gas. Someone with the best of intentions attacking your pussy like a piece of pizza. Cum in your eye (that shit stings). Maybe you don’t orgasm. All of this is still sex. You are still listened to. You are still comfortable (“here is a washcloth for your eye, so sorry”). You can still stop whenever you want.
I realize this sounds simplistic, but we still manage to screw it up with pretty serious consequences. Our puritanical objections to embracing sexuality make us stupid, dangerous, unhealthy, and BAD at sex. Other countries do this well, and sex is better, safer, and healthier because they do.
The transactional logistics of sex are important. When? How? Limits? There can be a delightful dance in that transaction. And it can also be the source of confusion. We tend to focus on whether someone asks if it’s ok, and then whether someone says yes. That’s obviously important, but so is setting expectations on pleasure, comfort, respect, and open communication as early and clearly as possible. Doing so increases your chances of having a great time while also resetting the goal post between good and bad sex instead of sex and violence.
Let’s take a break from debating the exact timing of a no or a yes in hypothetical situations and instead maybe consider putting “must eat pussy happily and often” front and center in your dating profile—and show up ready to advocate for it. Stop faking orgasms to soothe your partner’s ego. Explore new things with your husband. Write someone a shockingly sexy letter. Ask for, define, and expect gratification.
Your pleasure should become the target that beckons men who seek genuine, healthy connection. And the others? Fuck those guys. Actually, don’t. THEY are the real outliers.
By centering the conversation on your pleasure in its various lusty forms, we dismantle further the idea that women are puzzles to be worked, games to be played, or objects to be won. Eventually the line between sex and rape will become so bright it will be clear they were never connected in the first place.
Image courtesy Beth Cortez-Neavel