It seems like everywhere I looked this year, I saw discussions of bad sex. From tweets to books to podcasts, people — mainly women — divulged that sex, lately, isn’t very sexy. 

This certainly wasn’t the first year the topic has been discussed, but the conversations grew louder in 2022. Given that we saw the end of Roe v. Wade and the rise of “tradwife” feminism, it’s not surprising that we’re further examining relationships and sex. 

As I sifted through this media, some of it no doubt struck a chord. Take the second season of The Second Circle podcast, which was all about bad sex. Through six episodes, journalist and host Franki Cookney dissected why good sex can be so unobtainable — reasons ranging from lack of sex education to fear of rejection.

A lot of talk about bad sex, however, missed the mark. One example is the book Rethinking Sex by Christine Emba, which argued that we should stop having casual sex in favor of doing the deed only when you’re in love. The book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry argues much of the same, with more anti-sex work and anti-trans rhetoric thrown in (“gender critical” UK writer Helen Joyce blurbed the book, if that’s any indication). In addition to neglecting the nuance of sexual relationships, both Rethinking and The Case also neglected any agency women have. 

Then there was Bad Sex by Nona Willis Aronowitz, which was more a feminist memoir of Aronowitz’s own experiences than an exploration of the phenomenon. 

What was missing from the dissections of bad sex was the acknowledgment that, at its core, bad sex is a systemic problem. We’re not educated about sex, and we’re shamed when we have it. It’s no wonder sex sucks. 

Stop ignoring sex education

In our discussions of bad sex, it means consensual sex that was unsatisfying. While not exclusive to casual encounters, it’s usually discussed as such. Bad sex doesn’t mean “unwanted sex,” which is sex one agreed to when they didn’t want to have it.

The dearth of sex education in the United States can’t be understated, especially when it comes to explaining bad sex. As of December 2022, only 28 states and Washington, D.C. mandate sex education according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization centered around sex and reproductive health and rights. Only 17 states require sex education to be medically accurate.

This is a disservice to all Americans, especially given the wide benefits of comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive sex ed covers the “physical, biological, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality,” according to Guttmacher, not just STI and pregnancy prevention. Decades of literature have proven that comprehensive sex education leads to healthier relationships, fewer sexual partners, and improves media (porn) literacy, to name only a few benefits.

There isn’t anything wrong with having lots of sexual partners, if that’s what you want to do. But there is incessant pearl-clutching about both casual sex and pornography — in Rethinking Sex and The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, among social media spaces — and about how those activities hurt women, that they completely ignore a “solution” to their concerns: Teach young people about sex, relationships, and pornography, and empower them to make their own decisions. 

Instead, these books decry porn and casual sex as evidence of the feminist movement gone wrong. One particular example Emba and Perry pointed to is nonconsensual choking during sex, which — given the absence of consent — is sexual assault. It’s true that such choking happens, and that pornography popularized and normalized activities like it. But that’s not the only thing going on here.

So, exactly why is this happening? To Emba and Perry, it’s because of porn itself. For so many young people, though, porn is their sexual education. They’re not getting comprehensive sex education at school — and even if they could, 35 states and D.C. allow parents to opt-out their children from such classes. 

As Mashable’s Features Editor Rachel Thompson wrote in Rough, a book about sexual violence, “Porn’s relationship to sexual violence has been extensively researched over the course of several decades since the 1970s, but academics have not reached a consensus. A 2020 meta-analysis of research found that evidence did not suggest that non-violent porn was associated with sexual aggression.”

Researchers have found an association between porn consumption and certain behaviors, but a casual link — causal effect — hasn’t been proven to exist. As sex educator Justin Hancock told Thompson, “People may have these attitudes in order to be drawn to watching porn, so there could be a change in attitudes as a result of watching porn, or it could be that there isn’t.” He continued, “Or someone who is interested in porn may have some of these attitudes in the first place.”

We live in a place where porn is someone’s introduction to sex, but they never get a full lesson on their own bodies or sexuality. They never learn about unwanted sex — when someone agrees to have sex when they don’t want it — nor how to communicate about it, or communicate what they actually do want.

What if young people learned porn literacy? What if they knew that porn is a performance, meant for entertainment, and doesn’t portray how sex happens in real life?

Many young people don’t learn about consent, nor receive helpful information about sex at all. “Research by the UK’s Sex Education Forum found that half of young people hadn’t learned about real-life scenarios concerning sexual consent, and over a third had been taught nothing at all regarding sexual consent,” Thompson wrote. In a 2021 U.S. research paper on the prevalence of young people using porn for information on how to have sex, 43 percent of adolescents and 45 percent of young adults said they haven’t received any helpful information about how to have sex from any source in the past year.

What if young people learned porn literacy? What if they knew that porn is a performance, meant for entertainment, and doesn’t portray how sex happens in real life (just like sex scenes in mainstream movies)? What if young people had the opportunity to learn about the emotional and social as well as physical components of sex before they were sexually active?

Misinformation abounds when entertainment (porn) is used as education. Take BDSM scenes: Porn often doesn’t show the negotiation and discussion of consent and boundaries that happens before a session, nor the safety protocols taken, nor the aftercare. All of these are essential in the BDSM community.

Erasing pornography and chastising people to only have sex if they “love” their partner won’t rid us of bad nor unwanted sex. Providing education, however, is a big step towards better sex.

Anti-porn tradfems

In The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, the author makes sweeping sex-negative generalizations about what (cis, heterosexual) men and women want. Men want lots of sex, women want a single loving partner. If women want casual sex, they’ve been brainwashed by our sex-crazed society, in the author’s view. With a whole chapter entitled, “Loveless sex is not empowering,” the author shoves that point down our gullets as if it’s gospel.

The author also conflates sex work with trafficking, which is absolutely false. The former is a choice to work in the sex trade, the latter is the illegal force into it. Meanwhile, actual sex workers call for rights, not rescue.

Breaking news: Women can make their own decisions, even if you don’t like them.

Breaking news: Women can make their own decisions, even if you don’t like them. Women can choose to become sex workers; to have loveless sex; to be choked during sex. They can even choose to watch porn: Twenty-nine percent of Pornhub viewers in the U.S. this year were women.

The anti-porn reaction to the agency question is that women have been manipulated by porn and, I don’t know, third-wave feminism. But this conservative insistence that they know better than women know themselves goes hand-in-hand with the tradwife trend

Tradwives and tradfeminists are people, usually white women, who believe in a “traditional” Christian view of womanhood. For tradwives, a woman is subservient to a man. Her place is to provide for her husband in terms of domestic and emotional labor and sexual gratification. 

Not only do tradwives and their supporters ignore the harsh realities for mid-century housewives, but they also ignore science: There aren’t inherent differences in gender that make women better at housework or childcare, but men do weaponize incompetence and act as if that’s true. Weaponized incompetence is when people, in this case men, claim to not know how to do something (or aren’t good at it) so that the burden of the task falls onto someone else.

In fact, weaponized incompetence is killing heterosexual women’s libidos. In a recent study, an unequal division of housework was associated with lower sexual desire in women partnered with men. Two factors researchers observed was perceiving their partner as dependent, and perceiving the labor division as unfair. 

Young people have less sex now than in years past.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable

Bad sex, or no sex?

The handwringing over casual sex is especially absurd considering that people, especially young adults, aren’t having much sex. Twenty-six percent of American adults didn’t have sex at all in 2021, as reported by the General Social Survey, an annual nationally representative survey. Recent research shows that this is an ongoing trend: Teens and young adults have sex less frequently now than in years past.

Anti-porn feminists will blame porn for this. While it may be true that the ease of finding immediately gratifying sexual images can lessen the urge to want sex in real life, it’s reductive to believe this is the sole reason behind the downward trend. A 2022 study on the frequency of penile-vaginal intercourse from 2009 to 2018 suggested numerous other reasons for this, including decreasing alcohol use, increased discussions around consent, and an increase in identification of non-heterosexual orientations, including asexuality.

Another explanation is that they don’t have the money to date or live on their own so they, like a quarter of young people, live with their parents. Maybe it’s because we’re still in a pandemic.

Or, in the case of knowledge around consent, they just don’t want to have sex. Look at Gen Z “puriteens” who reject casual sex not for morality reasons, but for the above reasons, and/or because they don’t find casual sex satisfying. (It’s almost as if they have their own agency, and can make their own decisions.) 

Is it that young people aren’t having sex because “internet,” or is it because we haven’t equipped them with the tools to have good, healthy, satisfying sex? Is it because they were born into a world full of disasters — economic inequality, climate change — and it’s no wonder they’re not horny?

Many of us older adults aren’t equipped, either. We didn’t get the sex education we deserved, we too treated porn as education as opposed to the stylized entertainment that it is, because we didn’t know any differently. 

Is it that young people aren’t having sex because “internet,” or is it because we haven’t equipped them with the tools to have good, healthy, satisfying sex? Is it because they were born into a world full of disasters — economic inequality, climate change — and it’s no wonder they’re not horny?

Shame spiral 

Another missing piece on much of the discussion about bad sex — apart from The Second Circle podcast — is shame. Shame is entrenched in our culture at large and especially around sex, even if people like Emba and Perry will have you believe that we’re in an “anything goes” society. 

When you try to erase sexuality, or — in the case of religious conservatives — confine it to marital, cishetero penis-in-vagina (P-in-V) sex, desires outside of that become dirty. (It’s no wonder that states in the Bible belt have higher frequencies of “porn” Google searches.) This shame compounds if you’re of a marginalized identity, say a queer person, who may have been shamed for who you are and what kind of sex you have. 

Shame makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us; it makes us want to hide. An essential component to good sex is communication, but it’s difficult to voice one’s desires when you’ve been told that they, and you, are wrong. 

Sex is meant to be pleasurable, and there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. Even with that knowledge, however, sexual shame difficult to eradicate. Education is one step, and another is talking about both shame and sex. If that’s especially difficult for you, reach out to a mental health professional. You can also read and watch the recommendations below.

How to have better sex

Bad sex is no doubt a problem, an emblem of society’s issues just like how one billionaire bought the “town square” social network and drove it into the ground. 

Like all of society’s ills, bad sex won’t be solved overnight — and it certainly won’t be solved by shaming people. So, how can we have better sex?

The first step, in my opinion, is to go inward. Investigate what kind of sex you want to have, and who you want to have it with. This can be beneficial to talk to a therapist about, especially if you’ve experienced trauma. Once you know what you do and don’t want — your desires and boundaries — talk about them with your partner.

In case it wasn’t already obvious: Expand your sexual education. Read books like Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski and Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It by Laurie Mintz.

If you’re more of a visual learner, there are several sites with NSFW yet educational sexual content. One example is Beducated, a platform with deep dives into a range of sexual topics, from cunnilingus to BDSM. For BDSM and kink-focused resources, check out Zipper Magazine.

Mashable’s sex positive weekly column Come Again has a range of guides covering everything from how to finger your partner, how to perform cunnilingus, how to give a blowjob, how to give a handjob, and comprehensive, accurate answers to questions about sexual health, sex toys, and beyond.

If you want to learn more about porn literacy — and help alleviate shame around it — there’s a free How to Watch Porn course by Lustery, a porn platform for real-life couples to share videos. 

Much of the “bad sex” discussion in 2022 didn’t drill down into the systemic factors of bad sex. Let’s hope for deeper conversations — and better sex — in 2023.

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