Sex + Love

You’ve Got the Power

Taking charge of your sexual experience.

Illustration by Cynthia

One Friday night years ago, I was sitting in a stall in the ladies’ room at the ad agency I worked at, and I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between two girls who were glamming themselves up in front of the mirror before heading out. One asked how the other’s relationship was going. She responded, “Well, you know, early on it was all really exciting, and I was really keen, and he had the upper hand. Now we’ve kind of settled into it, and it’s all good, and I’ve got the upper hand.” There was a pause, and then she said wistfully, “I wish we could both have the upper hand at the same time.”

The French have a saying: “In every relationship, there is one who kisses, and one who turns the cheek.” If you look at the relationships around you, at every age and at every stage, you might think that’s true. But power dynamics in relationships are funny things. You might think you know which partner kisses and which one turns the cheek—and you could be completely wrong. They might both be kissing.

And you might not even be sure of this in your own relationship. Sometimes you might feel like you’re the dependent one, and therefore most vulnerable, because you see your partner as secure and in control, and maybe as the one who could more easily walk away. Other times, that secure person might be you, and your partner could be feeling more needy. Guess what? It doesn’t always matter. In fact, one of the fun things about relationships is that power is often a matter of balance—it can shift all the time, tilting back and forth between you. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back, relax, and let someone else call the shots. Sometimes it’s preferable to be the one deciding what to do and making it happen. The important thing is that both of you are happy.

And that’s particularly important when it comes to sex. Because sex is amazing and terrifying and wonderful and unnerving and strange and fabulous and powerful, it’s very easy to feel powerless—to follow your partner’s lead, abandon what you really want, and lose sight of your own fulfillment, whether out of laziness or insecurity. But here are four ways to prevent that from happening:

1. Know you’re desired—and enjoy it.

Knowing that you’re sexually desired by someone whom you desire equally is one of the most fantastic feelings in the world. There’s a power that you get from realizing that another person wants you, badly, and also knowing that you can decide what you want to offer them and what you want to withhold. And you can take your time about it.

I happen to date younger men, and so you might think that as the older, more confident half of the equation, I would be the first to initiate something physical. Nope. Never. That’s because I enjoy the whole process of knowing someone else is dying to make their move but not sure how best to, and then observing how they do it. The gradual inching closer on the couch, the often charming/gallant/adorable verbal approach—it’s all enormous fun.

Now, of course, that’s just me. The point is, there is tremendous titillation in being lusted after and being given the opportunity to fulfill someone else’s desire, should you want and choose to do so. Revel in it.

2. Make them feel as good as you do.

I find that feeling the power of my own desirability makes me feel confident enough to celebrate my partner’s, but letting someone else know that you desire them, and how much you desire them, can be scary. It can feel like surrendering too much, because now you’re giving them power over YOU. But when you leave your own insecurities behind and focus on making your partner feel really, really great, it makes for an even better experience for both of you. You know how awesome it is when you find someone the perfect gift, or do something really nice for them, or pay them a compliment they’re thrilled to receive? You feel personally rewarded, happy to see them satisfied. The same goes for sex. Obviously, this can be a more complex exchange, which brings me to…

3. Draw your own lines.

We all have our boundaries, especially when it comes to sex. There are things that we have no curiosity about and absolutely no desire to try, no matter what other people say or suggest or want. These boundaries aren’t necessarily fixed. They can move over time. As you get older, or as you become more at ease with sex and your own sexuality, or as you discover things about yourself and what you enjoy, or when you meet someone you trust and who really turns you on, you might suddenly find your interests change—or not!

The bottom line is, anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or makes you feel bad about yourself or unpleasantly pains you is a line. Draw it. Out loud. Firmly. A partner who doesn’t respect that is a partner you DON’T want to be with. Great sex is about communication. Whether your intimacy is brand new or years old, it can be hard to speak up for different reasons—you want to please your partner, or you don’t want to hurt their feelings by telling them that they haven’t been pleasing you. But in life, generally, you have to speak up to get what you want. Your teacher won’t always give you the grade you thought you deserved, your parents won’t always give you the privileges you think you’ve earned. As my grandmother always said, “Them as doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” And I’m sure she’d be thrilled to see me applying this advice here.

Say what you like, say what you don’t like, say what you want to do, say what you don’t want to do, say what you love about your partner, say how great they make you feel. Say anything, but say it. Discuss. Negotiate. Yes, it can feel awkward and embarrassing the first time you start talking about what you want in bed, but if you’re with the right kind of person, they’ll welcome it, and you’ll find that the more you talk, the easier it gets, and the better the sex gets. I promise.

4. Reciprocity is a beautiful thing.

Great sex is inherently both selfish and selfless. Looking out for yourself is rewarding for your partner, because you’re making sure YOU have the good time that THEY have the pleasure of knowing they’ve given you. Back in the 18th century, the poet William Blake wrote:

“What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.”

Blake was obviously being heteronormative, but you can substitute the genders and the same point stands: great sex is about reciprocity, with both of you making sure that you’re having a good time. In the bigger picture, nothing about sex should ever feel one-sided or uneven. Just as in the relationship as a whole, you might surrender control on occasion, but then be sure to take it back. And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with keeping score! Make sure there’s an equal number of orgasms being racked up on both sides. I play out your fantasy, you play out mine. Because that girl in the restroom was right. There’s nothing better than having the upper hand at the same time. ♦


  • Caden May 17th, 2012 12:00 AM

    This is really great advice. So often girls’ magazines are all about “what he wants” and “how to please a man”. Thank you for stating that women need to feel desired, comfortable and pleasured too!

    Caden x

    • Cherries May 17th, 2012 4:17 AM

      I agree caden =)

      I googleed something to do with MAKE UP! A summer look. It took me to the cosmo website, but in the column to the side bar was “looks he likes, bikinis to drive him crazy, moves to blow his mind in bed…” articles advertising womens swimwear, make up, clothes, all about what some guy they asks wants. How can they be so behind the times!?

      It takes two to tango. Not neccessarily the two they’re thinking of.

  • Susann May 17th, 2012 2:11 AM

    This article was just great – very mature and wise at the same time!

  • lylsoy May 17th, 2012 3:17 AM

    aww :) love it. Have lately been thinking about it a lot! Hmmm.. I was actually planning to talk to him about some things pretty soon! Thanks for encouraging me! ROOKIE IS THE BEST

  • Hannnah May 17th, 2012 1:13 PM

    That’s interesting advice, about keeping score, but I feel really bad for secretly tallying things up and feeling like I haven’t had my fair share of lovin’. This feels spookily like an article written by my big sister or something though, because now I feel like reluctantly saying “fiiiiine, I’ll talk to her about it…” haha, so thankyou!

  • mangachic May 17th, 2012 1:28 PM

    You mentioned/put in the disclaimer that he was being heteronormative, rookiemag is perfect.

  • shjaron May 18th, 2012 5:46 PM

    This was… amazing.

  • bam-cha-wham-olivia May 19th, 2012 6:46 PM

    exactly what i needed, exactly when i needed it. how does rookie continually invade the minds of teenage girls throughout the world? it’s literally the best thing ever.

  • Selle May 20th, 2012 10:10 AM

    This is great! It is kinda tricky verbalizing your wants in bed at first, but it does get easier. I think keeping it kind of playful while asking makes your partner a much more keen listener and learner :).

    There is one thing I kinda disagree on though, about the equal number of orgasms line. Not everyone defines a great sexual experience through the number of orgams achieved, personally its the quality of them I find much more important :P

  • unefillecommetoi May 20th, 2012 7:07 PM

    thanks so much for this article! I haven’t really had many sex partners and so far I feel like I’ve been neglecting my own sexual needs a little either due to lack of communication, insecurities or just not really knowing how to make it pleasurable for both sides. this was just really good to read :)

  • Morris May 22nd, 2012 12:50 PM

    I feel like this hole article was about anal sex.

    The idea that 2 people can have the upper hand is wrong. The reason the girl in the stall said that frase of dual upperhandness was that she was hanging with her friend.. in a “friendship” both people can have the upper hand actualy many friendships among young people i beleave are 2 people with the upper hand.

    sex is completely different.

    Sexual power is completely based on acts as you mention in this article..

    The problem i think is that we have a world of dissatisfied people who know very well that to get satisfied any more than they already are will require them to “screw people over” … if you want a good sexual relationship… dont go out torching the souls of boys like you say you do. And find satisfaction from a less fetishistic act like say.. living life outside of romance .. not just a dramatic event that dies off.

    But yer beside my rant what i monstly wanted to say is if you want two people with the upper hand.. thats not sex thats friends doing some thing they shouldnt. There is good reason people make jokes about 69… its a lame sexual arrangement

  • katemcl July 29th, 2012 3:29 AM

    I was honestly so giddy whilst reading this because the advice in this article is incredibly refreshing. The lessons of consent, communication, and reciprocity are unbelievably important—I can’t express my gratitude toward the author of this article and the article itself enough. It’s high time so-called women’s magazines adopt these attitudes and philosophies about sex if they truly wish to cater to women’s health and wellness (rather than heteronormatively attempt to teach women how to gratify men).

  • keithmoonfan16 August 4th, 2012 5:32 AM

    I’ve been having problems with the whole “everyone’s bodies are beautiful except mine!” issue for a while now, thank you for helping me to realize that it’s totally ok to be conflicted like that. I LOVE ROOKIE BECAUSE IT REMINDS ME THAT I’M HUMAN AND THAT’S AN OK THING TO BE.