The other day, I was at a cafe with my friend Sarah when we started trading R-rated stories, which is my personal favorite way to get to know people. We mostly kept to generalities, but eventually, the talk turned to the ways small, tightly knit communities can become incestuous, often to the point of discomfort for everyone involved.
"I try not to have sex with anyone my friends have," I said. "I'd get too worried that I'd be a worse lay than my friend was."
Sarah gave me a weird look. "Explain," she said.
"Well, I'm like, really competitive," I said. "And, you know, I'm not great at sex. So I wouldn't want to get shown up, you know?"
"Wait," she said. "Why don't you think you're good at sex?"
"I don't know," I said. Call it clitoral intuition. "I just suspect that I am not. Not with dudes, anyway."
The thing is, as I explained to Sarah, my puberty hit basically in the sweet spot after the Internet had become fairly widely available but before most parents had figured out how to block R-rated literature from the family modem. At the same time, I also went to an all-girls' high school and wore my contempt (and a retainer) for the majority of the students at our brother school like a blanket. So as a lot of my peers were engaging in prime over-the-pants heterogender palm-smear action in the backs of their parents' minivans, I was busy watching "Cowboy Bebop" with my ladyfriends in the basement and reading erotic fanfiction until my eyeballs fell out.
Though I did do my fair share of awkward fumblings (including, but not limited to, "practicing ear kissing" and "tickling each other's backs," because that's a super-platonic bro thing to do at a slumber party), they were all with other young cis women. When it comes to cis guys, I didn't even see a dick in person until I was 17 and at college -- and at that point, all I could think to do was give it a friendly pat to acknowledge its presence.
Though I did eventually get familiar enough with dicks to move to slightly more advanced techniques, I've never really been truly comfortable with my skills in that arena. Part of it is definitely the whole "clumsy" situation: I grew up with enough "Three Stooges" re-runs to seriously overestimate the fragility of male genitalia, and the very real prospect of accidentally elbowing someone in their junk still makes me approach any sort of under-the-boxers action with the care of Sir David Attenborough contemplating a kakapo.
There's also the unfamiliarity factor. It's been almost a year since I last slept with a cis dude on a long-term basis, and I don't think I've ever reached a level of easy intimacy with a guy that would allow me to be silly and experiment and fail at being sexy. Riding a penis is, as it turns out, nothing like riding a bicycle -- muscle memory only goes so far.
And finally, there's the whole "erotica" thing. I know people love to fret about the effect porn will have on young teens' perceptions of bodies, but I would like to posit that the real danger here comes from allowing your tween to read thousands upon thousands of pulsating, thrumming, arching, gasping words of Internet literature before they've ever even seen someone naked in a sexy way.
According to a lot of fanfic, penises have some magic spot that is the key to turning hand jobs from "awkward" to "awesome"; dudes always come during oral sex, no matter what; and everyone is sure to give everyone else a lot of constructive feedback in the form of "Yes, right theres" and cut-off fricatives. Thus, I have internalized the belief that if a young man isn't frantically patting me on the head and accidentally dropping "I love you"-bombs, I am doing something wrong.
For the record, I am not the only one I know who feels this way. I think there's a certain population factor of overachieving young women who have been told their whole lives that the only way to succeed at something is to be the best at it, no matter the activity. Hence why I received a message, apropos of nothing, the same day I had that conversation with Sarah:
The thing is, I am not a shy person about sex. I like having it, I like talking about it, I like it when other people tell me about it. But because of the "virgin/whore" trope that most women are still slotted into, I find that girls who talk a lot about sex are often presumed to be the best at sex; there's no middle ground of experimentation or uncertainty. And while I'd love to be the partner people still dish to their friends about months later, there's no way I can live up to even a fraction of that presumption.
That said, I also recognize that confidence in bed can go along way to appearing at least semi-competent, and I also know that I'm a pretty neurotic person at the best of times. I've been trying my best to convince my brain that I'm probably nowhere near as bad as I think I am -- which is why this new study from psychologist Erin Wallis makes me want to never touch a human being again ever.
"Results indicated that both men and women tended to be accurate in perceiving their partners’ levels of sexual satisfaction," the report said. In fact, it continued, "One sample t-tests indicated that men’s perceptions of their partners’ sexual satisfaction were biased such that they slightly underestimated their partners’ levels of sexual satisfaction whereas women neither over- nor underestimated their partners’ sexual satisfaction."
Admittedly, this happens within the bounds of committed heterosexual relationships, which means these partners have probably learned which noises mean "I like this" and which ones mean "I would rather be watching Brooklyn Nine-nine." But still, I've had relationships with guys that lasted quite a while, and I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong.
As io9 points out, the main takeaway from this is "communication is key," which, duh. But it seems like the best way to establish such a communicative rapport is to endure six-odd months of being vaguely afraid that one's sex partner is just lying back and thinking of Kate Upton.
Or asking them to fill out an evaluation form post-beej. If only.
Kate is worrying on Twitter: @katchatters.