The misogynist concept of sexual “reciprocity”

6 min read

Our American culture privileges male sexual pleasure, with female sexual pleasure often no more than a sidebar discussion. Girls are conditioned to expect and tolerate discomfort in many domains: in clothing necessary to adhere to dress codes, in conversational interruptions, in our paychecks and career opportunities, in access to the means of reproductive choice, in engaging in normal-but-risky activities like walking home at night, drinking at a bar, and vacationing alone…and in sex. Female sexual pleasure is a sincere concern only for a subset of enlightened men for whom women are to feel obsequiously grateful when we run into them. Joyful, gratifying, equitable sexual encounters with men are the exception for most of us. Some truths from formal studies:

  • Most women report having some pain during intercourse some of the time. Most never tell their partner. Why do women tolerate uncomfortable sex – and for that matter, uncomfortable touching or unwanted advances? First, we are rewarded for self-negation in the service of social accord. Second, sometimes we’re paralyzed by the wide-ranging potential adverse consequences of saying no. “No” is well-documented as the point at which men can snap. Many of us have “chosen” non-consensual sexual activity over the volatile unknown of a fight. Thus, the same root cause not only drives women to grit their teeth behind a poker face during bad sex but also explains how women can fail to extricate themselves early enough from social situations that end in sexual assault.
  • Most women report having faked many orgasms. We do this to shorten discomfort time and to comply with men’s false expectations of how female bodies work. Among men, almost none report believing that any female partner has ever faked an orgasm. Objectively, therefore, they are in large numbers mistaken. Male disconnection from and disinterest in female pleasure is widespread.
  • Most women have never had vaginal stimulation in a manner, and for a long enough duration, that produces a vaginal orgasm (with or without squirting or female ejaculation). In contrast to clitoral orgasms, vaginal orgasms produce a sense of depletion and completeness that is comparable to what men routinely experience upon ejaculation.
  • Most men report defining sex as being over based on when they ejaculate. The majority admit they don’t know whether their female partner had an orgasm, and don’t consider it a determinant of successful sex. Women habitually accept this male-centric definition. Many of us furtively finish by hand when the guy obliviously goes into the bathroom to clean himself up.
  • Study after study after study shows that pornography reinforces the centrality of male pleasure and promotes misunderstanding of female physiology. Boys learn erroneously from porn how women’s bodies are supposed to react, and they report being frustrated when they can’t replicate what they’ve seen on screen. Girls docilely try to accommodate porn-miseducated boys, to avoid being blamed as the problem.

The risk of sex is asymmetric. A woman is statistically more likely to contract a disease from a man than a man is from a woman. Women can get pregnant. Women can be roughed up or assaulted. Women can be socially stigmatized by men. “Bad sex” for men refers to a boring experience that ends in the satisfaction of their orgasm. It’s forgettable and quickly forgotten. “Bad sex” for women is a painful or dehumanizing experience without an orgasm. It causes physical and psychological discomfort that lingers for days or weeks. So, the gender risk gap in sex is big. Denying that reality is idiotic. Failing to acknowledge that reality is a counter-productive exertion of male privilege. [For an exposition of how ignoring that asymmetric risk is counter-productive to getting laid, see “Game Theory of Hookups”]

Equality of actions does not translate into equality of experience. One orgasm for the man and one orgasm for the woman does not yield equal chemical and physical effects in their bodies. One minute of foreplay doesn’t yield the same intensity of sensation in women and men. One minute of intercourse is well known to not be as satisfying to a woman as it may be to a man. Similarly, cunnilingus and fellatio do not feel the same to men and women – that the two acts both involve a mouth is a ludicrous basis to equate them. Consider that receiving anal sex has different associations for women than for straight men. Must every man who fingers a woman anally concede that he has thereby consented to being pegged with a strap-on dildo? Should a woman reciprocate breast fondling and nipple suckling on a man, just because he has gynecomastic breasts and vestigial nipples? None of these superficially parallel actions are equivalent, i.e., they don’t have equal physical, psychological, and emotional valence for both parties. Good journalists take care to avoid false balance in reporting, wherein they give equal weight to positions that are unequal in prevalence, coherence, or factual support. Good sex partners should exercise at least as much thoughtfulness, given the stakes. Symmetry is not necessarily equity.

Generally speaking, American men love performing oral sex on women and typically beg to be “allowed” to do it. Most don’t consider it terribly intimate and are happy to engage in it with near strangers. A significant reported reason for male infidelity is feeling that their wives don’t love receiving oral enough. Plenty of men seek out no-strings-attached relationships that are limited to cunnilingus or other “one-sided” sex acts. 

In contrast, women voluntarily perform blowjobs out of duty or love, but usually not authentic desire. We experience the act as more intimate than intercourse. In erotic escalation, most women feel comfortable receiving oral sex before they feel comfortable having intercourse; and they feel comfortable having intercourse before they feel comfortable performing oral sex. Characterizing a blowjob as “reciprocation” for cunnilingus is a sexist power play. The word cleverly re-frames a potentially undesired sex act as an expression of politeness, which women are socially indoctrinated to embody. If we decline to “reciprocate” this asymmetric act, we may be characterized as ill-mannered, unkind, frigid, or lesbian. This sly Orwellian framing disregards that female desire is different, or that it matters at all. The all-too-common tactic of pushing a woman’s head toward a groin is a dehumanizing, coercive manifestation of male sexual entitlement. In such a scenario, the woman is left with little practical choice but to capitulate, while the man self-deludes that she is consenting to it or enjoying it.

Some contemporary cultures (such as ours in America) view women as having lower desire for sex than men have. Such views are the exception, both today and across human history. More often than not, society decides that women have to be sequestered, covered, socially constrained, legally regulated, or surgically disfigured to manage our dangerously voracious sexual appetites. Empirical science suggests that women are indeed somewhat more libidinous than men (and that the genders have overlapping bell curve distributions of individual desire level, which changes greatly over hours, weeks, and years). 

The contemporary American male’s counterfactual fantasy of female frigidity is self-serving. It enables abdication of responsibility for female pleasure (if we can’t experience much pleasure, then men can be selfish in bed). It justifies male aggression (if they don’t coerce us, we’ll never say yes). And, it provides a comforting rationalization for sexual failure (if a man isn’t getting laid, it’s not because he’s unattractive, unkind, or unskilled). In the United States, when women demand an equitable sexual experience and articulate what constitutes “good sex” for us, we risk cold rejection, heated arguments, dismissive ridicule, vicious name-calling, and physical assault. Each of these outcomes has certainly happened to me — and, the perpetrators were men who didn’t at first seem like players or cretins.

If men acknowledged the physiological, biological, psychological, emotional, and social realities of sex with women, they would approach sex differently than what is the norm today. What does equitable sex look like?:

  1. Both parties recognize that the risks they each face are asymmetric.
    • Imagine two people at a restaurant. Person A has a peanut allergy that triggers anaphylactic shock. Person B doesn’t particularly like peanuts. Person B loves Pad Thai and suggests ordering it and asking the kitchen to remove the peanuts. Person B lazily sees this as an equal arrangement, as they both will get a plate of food without peanuts.
    • However, this is not an equitable arrangement: Person A stands to be vastly more harmed than Person B if the kitchen overlooks even one peanut. Even though it’s a low-probability that will happen, the consequences for Person A would be extreme. Meanwhile, Person B’s worst case scenario is just mild annoyance if one peanut makes it into the dish. An equitable arrangement would be to order a dish that doesn’t contain peanuts at all. Person B will be sad he doesn’t get to eat his favorite Pad Thai, but that is a trivial consideration relative to mitigating the existential risk Person A faces.
    • Ordering a non-peanut dish strikes all readers as the only conceivable choice in this scenario. If Person B were to insist on Pad Thai, we’d all agree he’s a callous narcissist – someone Person A shouldn’t dine with.
    • However, in male-female sexual interactions, men insist on ordering Pad Thai all the time. They trivialize the risks women face and prioritize their desires over the peace of mind of their female partner. A more equitable and productive perspective begins with explicitly, verbally acknowledging the differential risks, and taking actions to offset them.
  2. Both the woman and the man know each other well enough to offset the risks each faces. Per #1, women face higher risks from sex. Women, therefore, need to know and care more about the man to justify taking on those risks, than men need to know or care about the woman. To rationally consent to sex, a woman must believe that the man cares enough about her as an individual to provide her equitable pleasure and safety. That means: No intercourse until the woman feels that the intensity of emotional connection and likelihood of her genuine physical pleasure offsets the inherent risks. It is grossly unethical for a man to pressure a woman to violate rationality and enter into a situation that for her would be high-risk and low-reward.
  3. Both parties know the other’s identity. Men often expect to go to a date’s residence for sex, at which point they thus know everything about her identity. Yet they bristle at being asked their last name – much less to share an image of their driver’s license to confirm their identity. If a woman allows a guy from an online dating site into her house without knowing more than his username, she will have limited legal recourse if he hurts her. But she also knows that if she demands to know his identity, he’s liable to ridicule her, get angry, and leave. After a day of slogging upstream in gender-biased workplaces, sometimes women just want to keep the peace and hope for the best. We shouldn’t ever have to assume such high risk to find sex.
  4. Use a condom. The only exception is a monogamous relationship where both parties were tested for diseases. The value of male sensation is not commensurate with the value of avoiding unplanned pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections (which can cause more lasting harm to women’s bodies than to men’s).
  5. Foreplay is not bartering. The Burning Man festival is famously militant about distinguishing its gifting economy from a less-enlightened bartering economy – and for good reason, as bartering is a reciprocal transaction that forces false equivalence, delivering an inequitable outcome to the less powerful party. Similarly, the notion of reciprocity has no place in sexual interactions.
  6. Fingering is not a means to an end. Fingering is not a means prime her for your penis, taunt her into acquiescing to “the real thing”, or test if she seems wet enough (which is not an assessment anyone other than the woman herself is entitled to make). Furthermore, consent to fingering does not in any way constitute consent to intercourse. It’s legitimate and reasonable to stop there. Consider that, for many women, fingers feel better than a penis. After all, they are harder, smarter, and more locationally precise. For many men and women, fingering is an end unto itself. Men familiar with tantra find yoni massage valuable to a harmonious relationship wherein the woman is truly sexually satisfied, though it doesn’t involve any stimulation or ego-validation of the man at all.
  7. Intercourse occurs only if and when both parties proactively affirm they want it. A man may never put part of his body inside a woman’s body until and unless she affirmatively invites him to do so. Period. What kind of person enjoys intercourse with a partner who isn’t enthusiastic, whom they had to wear down with tiresome advances, or on whom they pulled a bait-and-switch while her eyes were trustingly closed?
  8. Sex is only over when both the woman and man feel it’s over. Imagine how you would feel if, at a restaurant dinner, the other person called for the check when they finished scarfing their meal, even though you were still working on a half-full plate. We all agree that person is selfish and rude. Similarly, for sexual interactions, the proper endpoint is not determined unilaterally by when the man ejaculates, but by when both parties have gotten their fill, even if one takes longer than the other. For a woman’s body to get to the point of feeling that delicious post-orgasmic drowsiness that men know so well, it may take hours of foreplay and intercourse. That is the biological reality that you sign up for — presumably enthusiastically — as a heterosexual male. Men who are good at sex keep going, post-ejaculation, in order to ensure an equitable outcome effect for their female partner.
  9. Neither the woman nor the man suffers social damage. Women can’t do much damage to a man for announcing that he had sex with her. But, men can do serious harm by slut-shaming female partners in public – causing painful social ostracism and making her a target for assault by other men who hear about her alleged reputation. The unfounded, yet persistent American male fantasy of female frigidity rears its head here. Many men routinely criticize women for having given them precisely the thing they wanted: “I asked you for sex. You said yes. I’m grateful because it was fun. But I also hate you for having said yes.” If men resolve their psychological drama about female sexuality, we all stand to gain by enthusiastically enjoying more and better sex together.

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