What's Good?

Writing about sex sounds a lot more exciting than the actual process has proven to be. It’s full of weird pitfalls, self-conscious qualifications and awkward generalisations. ‘Good sex’ is even worse – take a subject that is deeply personal, where your preferences are largely unconscious, and introduce the deeply problematic concept of ‘good’. It doesn’t take long for the thought to occur, for instance, that Michael Hutchence’s idea of good sex might have differed substantially from my own. So if ‘good sex’ is just sex that’s good, why is it ever bad?

The male (consensual) sexual experience seems to exist along a relatively short physical spectrum. Compared to the female equivalent, it’s truncated on both ends. At one end you have the bad sex – shouldn’t-have-bothered, uncomfortable, deeply dissatisfying sex. On the female spectrum this keeps going well past dissatisfying and, unfortunately, into serious anhedonia and discomfort. The reverse is also true though, heading north from the female zero gets you to the entry-level orgasm, then great sex, excellent sex, and finally, on to the spine-tingling, multi-everything sex that seems to mainline directly into the darkest, most reptilian parts of the Limbic system. For men, however, the spectrum ends abruptly somewhere after excellent sex, where the biological fuse-breaker that is the only thing between us and total Dopamine exhaustion kicks in and leaves us limp dick in hand until the batteries are recharged.

Perhaps it’s partly this difference – alongside, no doubt, other social forces that minimise female sexual pleasure – that accounts for the orgasm gap. This ratio, of about 1:3 orgasms, might suggest that good male sex is like the water in the joke about the fish: we can’t see it because we’re swimming in it. Here, though, we’re struck by one of those moments where sex-logic is deeply counter-intuitive – if orgasms make sex ‘good’ (for men), then how can they be ‘premature’, and dysfunctional?

Maybe part of it is that sex is not totally about the self. When men are evaluating their sex lives (against the standard of ‘good sex’), one of the metrics they’re tacitly applying is the quality of their performance. And it’s that metric that explains why men are having three times as many orgasms as women, and still having bad sex. The idea is not a new one – the philosopher Judith Butler first used the term performativity to talk about sex and gender in the 80’s – but I think it explains a lot about sex, and what makes it good and what keeps it from being good. It also explains why the standard Mind Blowing Sex-listicle is so inadequate. Communicating well, respecting each other and foreplay are all necessary for great sex, but they’re not sufficient. For men (and probably everyone), sex is also the process of acting out some very diffuse concepts about masculinity/femininity in a forum (your partner’s body) that makes both performer and observer vulnerable.

So how does knowing this help us have better sex? None of this changes the universal physical requirements – 1. Know what feels good, 2. Do that. If you don’t know, in the most epistemologically thorough way, that you’re incredible at foreplay then you can get better. The best way to do this is covered pretty well by the internet, but it doesn’t get much more complicated than asking your partner. Approach anything involving teeth with caution. During whatever passes for ‘actual sex’ for your chosen combination of people, be an active partner etc. etc. For men, this seems to be a straightforward process – there are very few places for the male anatomy to hide. As Seth Rogen says in Zack and Miri Make a Porno: “I’m a Guy. Give me two Popsicle sticks and a rubber band and I’ll find a way to fuck it”.

Addressing the performative aspects of sex as the partner seems more complicated, and I’m not really sure that a neat listicle would do the subject justice. The closest you can get to an ‘answer’ is the broader social project of de-coupling problematic ideas about male-ness/female-ness from sex and sexuality. More useful advice might just be to try and remain conscious of this dynamic, and of your own participation in it. For most of the men I’ve talked to, Good Sex requires both physical satisfaction and a sense of having in some way performed their role correctly. In one sense this is an internal process, but it’s an internal process that’s focused on the experience of the other. Great partners were partners who made them feel like better performers – in a genuine, non-porno kind of way.

None of this is meant to imply a ‘role’ for anyone who has sex with men. It’s not about pushing your voice up an octave and moaning like Meg Ryan in Katz’s Deli. But neither is great sex about just hitting the right buttons, getting to the Money Shot and calling it a day. When something feels great, tell them. Make as much noise as is situationally appropriate. Be conscious of your partner’s insecurities and uncertainties. All of these things contribute to better sex, and eventually, with practice and luck, to Good Sex. We should all be aiming higher than two Popsicle sticks and a rubber band.