Why are so many of us having bad sex?

I feel let down by the lack of conversation about bad sex that existed during my teens and early 20s. I pursued sex believing that being sexually active was part of being an empowered and liberated young person, and in the hopes that sex would be the exciting, sensual and passionate experience that popular culture and sex-positive feminism had led me to believe it should be. In reality, my experiences (which were mostly with men) were often bad or mediocre, and even when they were good, they were typically less pleasurable for me than whoever I was sleeping with.

The fact that I wasn’t having incredible sex felt like a personal failing, and I worried endlessly about what was wrong with me. There was little discussion of the fact that sometimes sex is unexceptional, boring, awkward, uncomfortable or even painful or upsetting – particularly for young people – so there was nothing to normalise or validate my experiences.

At some point during my time at university, I stumbled across an article by writer Alana Massey in which she criticises contemporary culture for pushing women into being enthusiastically open to and empowered by sex without confronting the barriers that mean heterosexual sex is all too often a substandard experience for them.

The UK today has a booming sexual wellness industry and a media landscape saturated by tips for spicing up your sex life, along with ads for the latest products you can buy to make this happen. And yet, many people still struggle (often in silence) to have pleasurable and fulfilling sexual experience

This piece went a small way towards reassuring me that I wasn’t broken and gave me the confidence to keep searching for what I wanted. I found it so refreshing to hear someone admit that consensual sex can be bad that it left me buzzing with excitement for the rest of the day. It is for this reason that I was so thrilled to see that the fourth series of journalist Franki Cookney’s The Second Circle – ‘the podcast that takes sex seriously’ – would be simply titled ‘BAD SEX’.

“We are living in arguably the most sex positive era in living memory, so why are so many of us still having bad sex?” Cookney asks in the opening to BAD SEX’s first episode. The UK today has a booming sexual wellness industry and a media landscape saturated by tips for spicing up your sex life, along with ads for the latest products you can buy to make this happen. And yet, many people still struggle (often in silence) to have pleasurable and fulfilling sexual experiences. BAD SEX sets out to be an anti-quick-fix, anti hot-tip exploration of why, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The six episodes are enriched by conversations with a range of writers, academics and podcast hosts (some of whom are mentioned in our ‘books on sex’ round up from earlier in the week!). To mention a few of these exchanges, Cookney talks about cultural conflict and sexual shame, with Egyptian-born, London-raised writer and podcast host Alya Mooro; hook-up culture and herpes, with sex and culture critic Ella Dawson; and how mindfulness and emotional connection can enhance sexual pleasure, with queer therapeutic writer Meg-John Barker. This makes BAD SEX a wonderful gateway into thinking critically about sex and filling your bookshelf, podcasts library and newsfeeds with excellent content from a vibrant and diverse group of thinkers.

75% of cisgender women do not reliably orgasm through penetration, and there are a whole host of disabilities, dysfunctions and preferences that prevent penetration from being pleasurable or even possible

A thread that runs throughout the series is a criticism of the messages about sex our culture presents us with. Cookney and her guests frequently reference how the cultural ‘scripts’ we have for sex need to be disrupted, and they are particularly disparaging about the overemphasis on penetration and orgasm. Viewing all other sexual activities as simply a build up to “the main event” of penetration is not inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, but, as Cookney states, “it also doesn’t serve straight people that well”. It is also the case that 75% of cisgender women do not reliably orgasm through penetration, and there are a whole host of disabilities, dysfunctions and preferences that prevent penetration from being pleasurable or even possible.

Cookney’s LGBTQ+ and disabled guests provide valuable insight into how adapting your expectations about sex can make the sex you have better. “When we look at sex through a disability lens […] it actually expands our definition of sex”, explains online content creator and author Hannah Witton, who suffers from ulcerative colitis and lives with a stoma bag. “We need to let go of penis in vagina being the holy grail of sex acts […and] of orgasm being the goal, and instead open ourselves up to all sorts of kinds of pleasure”. Trans podcast host Dan Griffiths tells Cookney that, in his experience, queer people are “immensely better” at communicating during sex, asking questions about how their partner likes to be touched and talked to rather than simply assuming they already know.

“When you have sex that is already outside of the box of what you’ve been taught sex […] you have to adopt this open-ended approach out of necessity” Cookney reflects, “but wouldn’t it be cool if we all did this? […] There [are] so many different ways to have sex, and actually if you’re having bad sex by trying to fit in with one version, maybe the answer is to think outside the box.”

Modern day sex positivity risks convincing us that we’ve got to be constantly in pursuit of more, we’ve got to have more partners, we’ve got to try more things, acquire more experiences [and] be more up for it

Cookney also critiques the particular brand of sex positivity that currently dominates our mainstream media. Citing headlines such as ‘Are you having copy and paste sex? Say bye-bye to that bedroom rut’ (Cosmopolitan) and ‘The new sexual milestones: have you hit them yet?’ (Glamour), she observes that “modern day sex positivity risks convincing us that we’ve got to be constantly in pursuit of more, we’ve got to have more partners, we’ve got to try more things, acquire more experiences [and] be more up for it.” We are pressured to have an uncomplicated relationship with sex and told that not having sex is bad, that sex is what makes us liberated and that we should be confident: going after what we want and being vocal about it. But, with the below-par, pleasure-erasing sex education most of us receive, we’re not equipped with the tools to learn what we like or to navigate our feelings around sex. This also makes it harder for us to negotiate our sexual encounters in a way that makes them enjoyable.

I am particularly impressed by how sensitively Cookney handles the potential sexual trauma her listeners might be grappling with. Each episode is prefaced with a heads up that, while the sexual experiences discussed are consensual, some of them were not enjoyable and could make for distressing listening. On the one occasion that the ‘consensual sex only’ rule is broken, the listener is told exactly when to skip to if they’d prefer not to listen. The story that follows is told by Elle – a non-monogamous woman in her 30s who, after struggling with reaching orgasm for years, has finally started to heal from a non-consensual experience in her teens with the help of a therapist. There are no gratuitous descriptions of Elle’s experience, and her reflections on her mixed emotions and coping strategies make for thought-provoking listening for anyone who feels able to do so.

Overall, BAD SEX is a fantastic series that makes it obvious how inadequate our educations and mainstream media are for helping us to explore and understand the complexities of sex. It spotlights many inspiring experts and content creators who are working to remedy this, and I can see this podcast paving the way for many of its listeners to start questioning what they really want from sex and what they enjoy. It’s not feminist to act as though consensual sex is always pleasurable and empowering, but it is feminist to be open about the many challenges people face within the sexual realm and to interrogate what we can do to improve things.

Image description: A wooden, double bed with a grey duvet, white sheets and grey and white pillows stands against a grey wall. One half of the duvet is pushed back as if someone recently left the bed. To the right of the bed is a bedside table with a angle-poise lamp, stack of books and a pair of reading glasses on it.

Picture credit: Annie Spratt, free to use under the Unsplash license