Sex + Love

Guilty Pleasure

Feminism almost ruined my sex life—till I figured out what it meant to me.

Illustration by Emma D.

Illustration by Emma D.

I was 17 the first time I touched a penis. It was a warm spring night, and I went over to Matt’s* house in my coolest extra-tight boot-cut jeans and a flowy white hippie shirt. I was excited and nervous. I had already felt Matt’s hard penis rubbing against me when we made out on his bedroom couch up in the attic, and we had gone a little farther each time I came over, first making out, then grinding against each other, then sort of humping. This time, I swore to myself, I wanted to actually touch it (i.e., his penis).

I didn’t want to “go all the way”—heck no. I was Mormon, after all, and making out like Matt and I had been was totally forbidden already. I was definitely not going to have sex with him. Sex—as in penis-in-vagina straight-people intercourse—was for marriage. Making out with Matt, however, was fascinating and new, and I got so turned on when I felt his boner pressing against me. It made me feel incredibly sexy, like here is proof of how much he wants me and how desirable I am, and I wanted to see how far I could go with him without going “all the way.” As long as I didn’t actually have intercourse, I told myself, I could just repent later in my prayers and I’d be fine with God.

Matt didn’t go to my high school. I had met him at the coffee shop I went to nearly every night in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he was a barista. He was tall and thin, with gigantic brown eyes, beautiful long hair, and thin, delicate fingers, and he had already recorded his own CD of guitar and mandolin songs. Matt’s parents were rarely home, and whenever I went to his house, we went right up to the attic. We would sit on the floor and Matt would pull out his guitar to play me a song he’d been working on. I’d pretend to listen, but my mind would be on the couch behind us and how to transition into being on it, doing stuff.

That spring day the transition went like this: Matt finished playing his song, looked at my face, took my hand, and pulled me onto the couch. We started kissing, and he eased his way on top of me. I felt him get hard and pressed my body up against his. He started rubbing on my jeans, and I snuck my hands up his shirt to feel his warm skin. His hand grazed my breast tentatively, and I grabbed it and put it up my shirt. We kissed like that for a long time, and then I pushed him off of me and sat on top of him, still kissing. Then I put my hand on the lump I saw in his jeans. Matt went still. I slid my hand between his jeans and his boxers. He looked at me. I slid my hand under the elastic of his boxers. There it was.

It felt warm and interesting. It was hard but not like rock-hard—it still felt like skin, but stretched over something stiff. You could put your hand around it, and I did. He had hair down there, which shocked me. I had never even seen a boy naked, and I didn’t know they had pubic hair—although when I thought about it for a second, of course they had hair; why hadn’t I figured that out? I liked holding his penis in my hand, rubbing it gently, and seeing the look of absolute desperation in his eyes. He wanted me. He needed me. I could help him, if I wanted to.

“What do you want to do?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” I said. But I did know—I was doing it. All I’d wanted to do was touch a penis; I had no interest in doing anything with it (yet). We made out for a while more, then I went home.

Over the next few months our activity progressed to my giving him hand jobs, which I actually loved doing. It was all about power for me. I loved seeing him vulnerable, needing something from me. I never went any further than that with Matt, even though I kind of wanted to give him a blow job—I just wasn’t ready.

We broke up, amicably, a few months later—we didn’t actually have much in common aside from our attraction to each other—and I didn’t have a serious boyfriend again until my first year of college. During the time between Matt and my next boyfriend, a lot happened. A lot. I went off to the University of Minnesota. I discovered I liked kissing girls as well as boys. I took my first few feminist-theory classes, left the Mormon church, and was suddenly reading tons of books about women, about feminism, about power and privilege and the patriarchy and gender roles. In these classes I learned that men dominated everything in this world, from almost 100 percent of the “classic literature” I was being assigned in other courses to most of the positions of power at my school. Men seemed to dominate everything, pretty much. Why had I never noticed this before?

This was my first introduction to any of these ideas, and I pretty much immediately became a proud feminist. I also became extremely angry at men, at the way I’d been raised in a heavily patriarchal church, at the way society treated and valued men and women differently. I saw injustice everywhere, as if I’d been sleeping my entire life and my eyes had just snapped open.

I started seeing Will* in the middle of my freshman year. He was five years older than me, a graduate student, and really cute. After we’d dated for a short while, I was ready and eager to do more than just hand jobs. I was ready to try giving blow jobs! Will knew I had never done that before, and he cheerfully volunteered to be my teacher. (How nice of him!)

For my inaugural lesson, we went to his room, where he sat on the edge of the bed with his jeans off. He pulled his dick out of his boxers, and I got down on my knees and put my mouth on it. He told me what to do and how to do it, and I complied. I felt respected and safe with him. And you know, I liked it! It was fine! (I had been worried, because so many of my friends had told me how much they hated giving blow jobs.) I paused in the middle of the fun to look up and tell him I was really enjoying this. He was leaning over me, his hand on the back of my head, guiding me where he wanted me to go.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I heard something: a shrieking, panicky, judgy voice in my head going, Look at you—on your knees for a man, bowing down before the phallus, performing an act that is designed solely for a man’s pleasure. Don’t men get enough pleasure? They already have everything, they get to put it in our mouths, too?

This was a pretty startling turn of events. There I was giving my boyfriend my very first blow job—and enjoying it—when I was suddenly being watched and judged and scolded. I had thought I was doing something I wanted to do (it had been my idea), and it felt warm and loving and exciting; but when I stepped back and saw what it looked like from the outside, from the point of view of this disembodied voice, I saw myself kneeling in front of a guy who towered over me with his hand on the back of my head, like I was totally submissive to him and he was controlling me. I was horrified.

What the fuck, I thought. I was having fun a second ago. I tried to tune out the judgy voice, but it was determined to ruin my good time (and apparently my sex life). I wanted to successfully complete this milestone act, and I did, and it was fine, but I was severely weirded out by the whole experience.

After that, I never had a sexual encounter with Will, ever, that was not a threesome with that voice, whom I’ll call Freaking-Out-Feminist-Krista. Every time we got down to business, FOFK reminded me that I was betraying my feminist values as well as every other woman in the world. I felt like I was carrying the weight of thousands of years of female oppression into each sexual rendezvous. A blow job was no longer something a boy and I did for pleasure: It was a manifestation of women’s oppression by men. If he held my head, he was controlling me rather than guiding me. If he leaned back without touching me during the act, he clearly felt entitled to be sexually serviced by me, like I was only there for his pleasure.

We broke up.

After Will, FFOK followed me into every relationship I had with men, poisoning what could have been intimate and lovely times. Later, when I was having P-in-V sex with dudes, if my partner wanted me to face away from him, I’d hear her immediately: He doesn’t want to see your face when you have sex because it doesn’t matter who you are—you’re just a body to him, a warm hole, really. You could be anyone. If he wanted to be on top, she would sneer, He just wants to dominate a submissive woman. If he came before I did, she’d go, Cool, wow, I guess sex stops after he comes, whether or not you have. No matter what we were doing, FOFK was always there in the bedroom with us, relentless, watchful, nagging. Her voice haunted every potential sexyfuntime, guaranteeing it would never get too sexy or too fun.

Keep in mind: I was not dating assholes. Pretty much across the board, my boyfriends were sweet and friendly guys who were anxious to please me in life and in bed. They asked what they could do to help me come during sex. They asked what they could do for me in general. But they couldn’t do anything about this problem I was having. It wasn’t them; it was me, and it was her.

Meanwhile I was also sleeping with women, which I found I vastly preferred to sleeping with men, but good ol’ FOFK crept in there, too. Most of the girls I was attracted to at the time were butch—meaning they exhibited what are traditionally seen as “masculine” styles and behaviors—and I transferred my panic about sexism and heteronormative gender roles onto them. I couldn’t let go of the idea that they were trying to dominate me, too, since I have always presented myself more on the femme side of things. I started to question why I was attracted to these particular women: Was it because I secretly wanted to be with a dude but couldn’t handle the head-trip? So now I was a bad straight person and a bad queer! And THE SHAME SPIRAL KEPT RIGHT ON SPIRALLING. I found it impossible to let go and enjoy myself with anyone of any gender; I over-thought every motion during sex, analyzed each position, and assessed who had the power at any given moment. If someone penetrated my vagina with a penis or their fingers or a toy, I felt guilty about enjoying my clearly powerless, submissive position. If I was the one doing the penetrating, I felt guilty about taking the role of the evil, dominating man. I couldn’t bone without wondering if whatever I was doing was fair: fair to me, fair to my partner, fair to women, fair to feminism.

(FOFK would also pipe up when I was just flirting with girls. If I caught myself glancing at a girl’s cleavage while talking to her, I went into a tizzy of self-flagellation. OH MY GOD, I would think, I AM JUST LIKE AN EVIL HETEROSEXUAL MAN. Basically, I was driving myself mad.)

I started having trouble having sex at all. It just took too much mental energy. I had not relaxed and just enjoyed being physical with someone since I first touched Matt’s penis when I was 17, when it was all relatively simple: just a boy I liked and me, two people who wanted to have sex. I wanted to get back there, but I didn’t really know where to begin.

So I started small: I’d try making out with the person I was dating without analyzing who was holding whom where, and whose tongue was more aggressive. If FOFK’s voice tried to invade my thoughts, I’d just think “NO” and refocus on how holding this person felt. I’d practice being mentally present during sex, telling myself stuff like, This feels nice. I like her. She is hot. I like that. Over time, I graduated to being able to shut down FOFK’s nagging voice pretty quickly when she started whining about gender roles and power during sex, and replace it with my own positive thoughts, such as: It doesn’t matter who’s taking on the “masculine role”—in fact, there is no masculine role; we are just doing what turns us on. We are just two people who want to have sex, that’s all.

It took about a year of dedicated effort to be able to shut Freaking-Out-Feminist-Krista up entirely, but I have, and I’m so much happier now. These days I allow myself to be a sexual person who enjoys having sexual relations—it turns out that giving myself permission was the key all along. That means acknowledging that I am a sexual creature who wants and enjoys physical pleasure, and that that is OK! I know it sounds obvious, but it took me forever to totally believe that. It’s all right to want sex. Most humans want sex. Some people want heterosexual sex and some people want queer sex and some people want both and some want something entirely different, and all of those things are just fine. We are not doomed to wander the earth, fighting the patriarchy with our own personal sex lives.

If reconciling your feminist values with your sexual preferences is something you’re struggling with, don’t panic. But try to believe what I’m about to tell you, because it’s true: It’s healthy to want and seek pleasure. It’s generous and kind to want to make your sexual partner(s) feel good. You should do stuff with someone because you want to, not because they expect or feel entitled to it, and the same should be true for them. Whatever you do during sexytimes is between you and your partner—not you, your partner, and feminism, and not you, your partner, and the Gender Roles Police Force. Everything doesn’t always have to be equal—unless you want it to be. The only things that matter are that everyone’s having fun, and everyone’s feeling respected by and respectful of their partners the whole time you’re doing whatever it is that you get up to. Because in the end, that’s all that sex is: Two people who want to have sex, alone in a room. No judgy voices allowed. ♦

38 Comments

  • moonchild October 16th, 2013 3:54 PM

    what a fantastic article ♥
    I have a question… if I submitted something and didn’t get a “thank you for your submission” conformation email, does that mean it didn’t send properly? should I resend it?
    thanks a million ♥
    Gwen

    • Anaheed October 16th, 2013 3:57 PM

      No, it just means that only one of our mailboxes is sending that message the way it is supposed to! Thank you for submitting something!

  • TessAnnesley October 16th, 2013 4:20 PM

    Holy SHIT do I have a “freaking-out-feminist” voice in my head… other than Krista’s fantastic there-is-nothing-more-feminist-than-doing-whatever-you-like reasoning, sexuality is one of the ways to show boys how huge a myth it is that (heterosexual) feminists “hate men”. Of course, he shouldn’t think that to start with, and frankly they should be convinced intellectually (that’s a whole other issue) but if there’s a cute one who doesn’t buy it and you still want to ‘do things’, then you could take the opportunity to ‘educate him’ (innappropriate laughter).

    Besides that myth being totally queerphobic, it’s just the greatest load of bullshit ever. If some boy says “oh, you’re a feminist, does that mean you hate men?” you can be like “oh yeah, dude, look how much I hate you,” and fuck him (if you want to of course) and he’d be like “ok, well that myth is a crock of shit,” and everyone’s happy.

    • julalondon October 17th, 2013 12:55 AM

      “If some boy says “oh, you’re a feminist, does that mean you hate men?” you can be like “oh yeah, dude, look how much I hate you,” and fuck him (if you want to of course)”.
      Haha i laughed so hard THIS IS SO SO SO SO TRUE and SO GOOD!!!

  • doesmybreathsmell October 16th, 2013 4:29 PM

    thank you so much for this article krista!! this was pretty much my experience as well, especially the whole thing where i realised i liked girls and then felt awful about objectifying them or whatever. it’s super overwhelming when you first learn about feminism and you start questioning every single thing.

  • Blythe October 16th, 2013 4:33 PM

    You know what’s really fun when it comes to feminism interfering with your sexuality? When you’re asexual! I had someone tell me the other day that I should consider myself an ally and not a true feminist since I’m ~not actually sex positive~.

    • sophiethewitch October 16th, 2013 7:42 PM

      That’s such bullshit. I’m sorry someone said that to you. Ugh. I’m sorry society sucks.

    • TessAnnesley October 17th, 2013 5:13 AM

      ew omg. i’m s sorry you have to put up with that bullshit.

  • kaylafay October 16th, 2013 4:56 PM

    This is literally me right now. I like boys and girls, but have only been with boys sexually. Anyways, I am really working on getting rid of my “freaking out feminist” voice, but i worry that if what turns me on sexually is sometimes submissive, my partner will make the leap that i will be submissive outside of the bedroom.

    • poetess October 17th, 2013 3:20 PM

      I know how you’re feeling. My advice (as someone who also does not like to be bossed around outside of the bedroom) is that all you need is the right person. I worried about the same thing, and then I found my boyfriend (also a feminist) and now its basically a non-issue. :)

  • spudzine October 16th, 2013 5:12 PM

    OMG I seriously thought I was the only one who had the ‘freaking-out-feminist’ voice in my head, since it’s in my head A LOT. It used to be a lot more frequent, and I thought that was a good thing, but that voice in my head was mentally and emotionally exhausting. So I decided to focus on what makes me happy instead. This shift can be a process, so it’s okay if it doesn’t happen right away.

    Also, in the sentence, ‘That means acknowledging that I am a sexual creature who wants and enjoys physical pleasure, and that that is OK!,’ there are two ‘thats’, so I thought that might be an error.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • stranger-strangest October 16th, 2013 5:41 PM

    this is so relevant, and so helpful! thank you!!

  • hellosascha October 16th, 2013 6:24 PM

    Awesome article, made me laugh out loud :)

  • Terra October 16th, 2013 7:48 PM

    One thing I think worth mentioning, too, is that being penetrated is not necessarily indicative of being in the “submissive” role during sex. We know how powerful women and the female form are in pretty much all aspects of life, so taking on the role of ~penetratee~ as opposed to ~penetrator~ should be empowering!

  • Abby October 16th, 2013 8:05 PM

    This is awesome… thank you. I haven’t had sex but for a while I had a FOFA (freaking out feminist Abby) voice telling me that I shouldn’t be turned on by the thought of being submissive because it wasn’t feminist. I eventually got over it, but for a while it really stressed me, and I wasn’t even actually having sex! When people say you can’t be a submissive and a feminist, call them out on their bullshit, because they’re being sex negative.

    • AnnieA October 16th, 2013 11:42 PM

      I totally agree! Even though I’m not… well, experienced in that area I had such conflicting thoughts about feminism and sex. This really clears things up though.

    • callie October 17th, 2013 11:01 AM

      being sex negative is kind of a blanket term used by people who oppose it, but just wanna say the position of not thinking about sex as existing in a political vacuum isnt pure evil. THATS NOT TO SAY you cant be a submissive + a feminist!
      but
      it is to say we shouldnt jst take politics out of thinking about sexual intercourse, not even in an abstract way. and how its problematic that so much of sex and what turns us on is based on power imbalances.
      but anyway, enjoy ur sexytimes all of yall

  • shvaugn October 16th, 2013 8:36 PM

    Thank you for this. I currently don’t have a feminist freak out voice and hope to never have one. What saddens me though is when my boyfriend is sometimes surprised by the things I like or when I receive the message from the culture around me that I should not enjoy sex, or that I should only enjoy it in various positions and/or activities, as if there’s a magic line where all women suddenly go between a sexual participant and a sexual object. That I can be degraded by doing an activity I like and that feels good for me with someone I love and trust. For this view offers me no agency as a person and assumes a blanket statement of women’s and men’s sexuality.

    Because I knew a long time before I stated having sex that it was possible to be submissive, masochistic and a feminist, probably why I didn’t freak out when I became sexually active. For by then I was ready, had had enough time to think about my desires and what would probably work for me. Plus I really wanted to.

    And in the end, I don’t want to analyze it, whether I’m a bad feminist, a dirty slut, a good girl, a supporter of porn culture or whatever. Because ultimately, I’m everything that other people will label me. And they will get it wrong, maybe sometimes they will get it right. I’m now happy enough with myself as a person that I don’t question my sexuality much these days. If I like it, I like it and I tell him so. If I don’t, I tell him and we communicate about it. Then we continue on.

    For at the end of the day, I want to be the girl who’s having great sex. And I am.

  • onewithahippiesmile October 16th, 2013 9:40 PM

    omg i can totally relate to your article, Krista! but happily i could shut my annoying voice as well, i had a similar journey, but it was less complicated since it took its place before i had ever had sex, and was deciding if and how i should do it.

    i really love all your articles, i surprisingly relate to all of them, i think we’re maybe soulmates or something lol. they all have helped a lot through my teenage issues, and they’re maybe my favourites here on rookie. thanks for making it easier and always giving me the comfort of knowing that it isnt just me. love ya xx

  • Abby in the Sky with Diamonds October 16th, 2013 9:53 PM

    I loved this article!!! And today’s background :-)

  • thelilacparadox October 16th, 2013 10:51 PM

    I totally relate to this. Thank God I’m not a weirdo like I think I am.

    http://paradoxicalmusingsofme.blogspot.com

  • julalondon October 17th, 2013 12:59 AM

    Also, the Collage is really cool!!=)

  • Antionette October 17th, 2013 1:42 AM

    This is so so so good! I also didn’t like giving blowjobs for the longest time not because I didn’t enjoy giving them, but because I felt internally misogynistic and horrible when I gave them. Thankfully, now I am with someone who has made me feel respected no matter what we do, and I have rationalized within myself that if I enjoy something that THAT IS OKAY.

    It’s taken a while not to shame myself for liking what I like, whether in sex, clothing, food, or activities. But, my life is so much better for it.

    Life is too short to be criticizing yourself all the time.

  • elliecp October 17th, 2013 7:15 AM

    this is such an interesting article. I never really thought about sex in that way…but I totally see the point. Everything in life feels a little sexist, I think.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • silvermist October 17th, 2013 7:17 AM

    have to say I got distracted with the tumblrs you linked, Krista ;)

  • Nova October 17th, 2013 8:45 AM

    My Feminist gaze is also ever-present and I got to a point of stressing over sex and what the relations [really] meant according to gender, power relations but eventually decided to just make sure that the person and I are respectful towards each other. If that was fulfilled then everything in the bedroom pretty much got the go ahead.

    Your article is a reminder that as committed to gender politics as we may be, it’s also important to have a healthy balance between our pleasure and our politics. Because life is more delicious that way. Thank you! Really enjoyed reading this, Krista!

  • soviet_kitsch October 17th, 2013 10:19 AM

    wonderful article. there can definitely be messed up power dynamics with straight sex but i feel like it’s worth mentioning that as a disabled woman, it would be WAY easier on my joints and nerves to have the guy be on top/behind. that’s what bothers me when i hear talk of how guy on top is “boring” or “degrading”–it’s a lot easier for some disabled people. any good partner will respect your comfort, abilities, needs, and concerns. again, awesome article. xoxo

  • Pocket Cow October 17th, 2013 11:46 AM

    I was actually starting to think I was the only one who enjoyed giving blow jobs… Now I know I’m normal!

  • mariasnow October 17th, 2013 12:09 PM

    I think there is certainly nothing unfeminist about joyfully having orgasms whichever way one chooses to have them.

    As for feeling bad for objectifying women when you are a woman, I think it’s just different if you’re a woman too. It’s doubtful that you, as a woman, are going to lose sight of the fact that these women you’re ogling also have their own unique desires and dreams and are real people who don’t owe you anything. Honestly, I always found it empowering to appreciate the beauty of other women especially if they are like me. Oddly, I have always been critical of my body whilst simultaneously being attracted to that same body type. I see women with big hips and thick thighs walking around being beautiful and I think, “go on girl! look at you!” especially if they seem confident or at least more confident than myself. I know they’re more than just their bodies and it’s feminist to appreciate actual real women on your own in real life who have not been photoshopped or used to sell you something.

  • rockslita October 17th, 2013 9:47 PM

    So well written! loved it. You describe everything so clearly. xx

  • 3yoosh October 18th, 2013 11:13 AM

    This was amazing. I mean, i’ve only ever kissed a guy, but because i’m not sure of my sexuality, and i’ve never been in a relationship, i’ve always wondered whether my feminist views make me less “sexually open” from other people’s point of view, because I have a fear that i’ll have my own FOFK if I ever do go far with anyone. I mean i’m very sexually open, and I don’t have a fear talking about it, but I’m scared I’ll have those same thoughts.

  • bridge the smidge October 18th, 2013 8:40 PM

    This article is so 100% what I needed. Thank you!!

  • IndianaDiffiance October 19th, 2013 11:04 AM

    This is exactly what I was looking for! This speaks such truth! I’ve always been a fairly sexual person, but I felt that I couldn’t exactly do all the things I’ve wanted to do because it was degrading to myself, but honestly it’s not all about the guy (if you choose a guy that isn’t a dirtbag). It’s about pure passion and lust and love, and sometimes you kinda crave it, and it’s pleasurable for the girl as well! It’s about giving and receiving.

  • Yani October 20th, 2013 6:36 AM

    ‘it still felt like skin’
    totally feel that line. this triggered a lot of memories just now, from first times to the last few. one guy i dated didn’t watch porn thought once he came that was the end of sex. what happened to communication? holding someone’s head or directing it around seems like another form of communication. though holding it there or pushing it down isn’t always a positive sex experience and can be traumatic that this interaction you have and may be enjoying or liking that person, is instantly crushed. erh. sex love. when will we figure it out

  • Coco October 20th, 2013 7:41 AM

    A few months ago I overheard some girls at my school saying bitchy thing about me behind my back, such as “if she’s a feminist, how can she have a boyfriend?” and I was like lol assholes

    I really enjoyed this article :) Sometimes I question the things I do with my bf in terms of my feminism, but then I realise it’s totally ok to do the things my body likes and wants, because the person I’m doing them with respects me 110%

  • notascoolaskimdeal October 23rd, 2013 3:30 PM

    Thank you thank you thank you for this. This has been my situation for about two years now and i’m in a serious relationship. It has spurred endless anxiety around sex. It’s caused me to question my relationship and how genuine or real it is given all my questioning. So comforting to know that I haven’t been alone. I mean… really a serious realization. You’re right. Being a feminist does not mean it should take away pleasure in ANY sexual relation. THANK YOU.