One of the conversations I’ve been involved in on Twitter this morning has been about sex and ‘feedback’ – which everyone involved seems to agree is a terrible word for it. Basically, the question, as I understand it, is: should we be open to talking honestly with our partners about what does/doesn’t work for us in the bedroom?
On paper, I’d say yes, we should. But what works on paper doesn’t work for me in practice.
Let’s take a different example. Ever since a few months back, when Exhibit A wrote on sport, I’ve been meaning to blog my own thoughts on the matter. It seemed more sensible that commenting on the original post: I needed to work through my feelings on the matter and they’re so bloody complex I knew they’d probably run to longer than reasonable comment length.
On an intellectual level, I know that exercise isn’t something you get to opt into or out of in life, although despite that knowledge I still do very little. I asked my parents if they’d consider paying for gym membership as a Christmas gift. Initially, they thought this was a great idea – they’ve been hassling me to be more active for years. But then they had a little chat overnight and decided that they both agreed that a personal trainer (obviously a much more expensive option) would be better.
I’m ashamed, but not particularly surprised, to say the whole conversation collapsed into a tearful row. I cried. I made my mum cry. My dad, normally a staunch ally, took my mum’s side. I’m not interested in a personal trainer: I can’t bear to catch sight of myself in mirrors when I exercise, the thought of *paying* someone to stand there and watch, especially if that someone was male, sends me spiralling into immediate panic.
You’re not listening, I argued. What might be objectively best for me won’t work for me, because there are other factors getting in the way. I’m looking for compromise: you’re telling me it’s your way or the highway.
And that was my experience of sport pretty much all through school, as well. When I was eleven, and had come home from double PE in tears again, my mum lost her temper. ‘*Everybody* has something they’re bad at,’ she argued, ‘What about the kids who can’t read or add up?’
She had a kind of point there, but again, the comparison wasn’t quite fair. I’m young enough that I went to school at a time when humiliating kids with poor reading or maths ability by getting them to read out loud in class or to come up and work out an equation on the board had gone out of fashion. Sadly, the same wasn’t true for sport. The focus of sport was at best on teamwork (I don’t like letting people down), at worst it was ‘Get into groups, design a dance/gymnastics/aerobics routine and perform it in front of the class. High jump was one at a time in front of everybody else. So was rope climbing. Hurdles. My PE teacher ironically ultimately won an MBE for services to sports education – I don’t once remember her asking what she could do to help or make me feel more comfortable.
Her younger colleague on the other hand, obviously came from a different school of thought. She cornered me after a trampolining lesson and asked if I’d consider coming to trampolining club early on Friday, before everyone else arrived. ‘Bring a friend,’ she said ‘And you can have a go while there’s nobody else here. Would that be better?’
There’s a limit to how much of that special treatment – great, and kind and appreciated that it is – that you can expect when you have a disability – you kind of do have to just get on with life the best you can. But I don’t think that’s a reason to make it unnecessarily hard on yourself – to go against what comes naturally.
On the subject of feedback, I had my mid year appraisal at work yesterday. It was, much like the job itself, paper heavy, insular, more like a (endlessly long) cosy chat than an appraisal. It’s another of the things that tells me I’m in the right career: nothing about the pushy, competitive, bullshit-heavy, male-dominated worlds of consultancy or the city, for example, appeal to me. I wouldn’t be good at those jobs. I’m too soft, too emotional. I don’t think that makes me a bad person or a failure: it’s just about recognising that I have a different skill set.
The point I’m trying to make is that although, obviously, we’d communicate with our partners often and sensitively and constructively in the bedroom, in practice I think that’s harder to achieve. Good communication is something to aim for, but I don’t think it comes naturally to many couples, whether they’ve been married for years or are just friends with benefits.
Since I started having sex, men have said all of the following to me:
‘I don’t care if it’s waxed or not as long as it’s tidy.’
‘We’re not friends, we’re just two people who fuck and get on fairly well.’
‘Use your hand as well.’
All of those have stung a little bit, for one reason or another. My body confidence is low – is my bikini line neat? Does it meet his standards? Probably not – it’s not as neat as I’d like it to be, but I don’t know how to do a better job of it. Why aren’t we friends? What’s wrong with me? Are you ashamed of being seen out with me in public? And ‘Use your hand as well?’ To me that translates as ‘You’re shit at giving head.’
A lot of this is fuelled by issues that I have to address. I know that – it’s just one of the many reasons I see a therapist. But as relationships become more complicated – as more and more of us are in friends with benefits arrangements, or just having regular one night stands – what qualifies someone as having the right to give ‘feedback?’ I wouldn’t, for example, be open to receiving comments on my technique from someone I picked up in a night club and wasn’t planning to see again.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the trust necessary for giving constructive feedback on sex, and for it being well received, extends far, far beyond the bedroom. With me, you’ll win that trust by showing that you’ve thought about how things affect me that perhaps don’t affect you – you’ll hold my hand if we’re crossing an icy road for example. Or, if we’re out having dinner, you’ll squeeze my shoulder when you come back from the Gents: little signs of affection that show that you care about me even when we’re not naked.
If you’re not that invested then I’m sorry, I’m not particularly open to hearing what does/doesn’t work for you in the bedroom.