You Like That, Baby?: The Myth of Feminine Mystery
The last time I had the misfortune of getting back into the hetero dating scene, I met Aiden on OkCupid. Going to a bar or a social event to meet people is not only time-consuming but also requires putting on pants, a commitment I’m not willing to make for any man. While scrolling through the app in my underwear, waiting for a burrito to finish cooking in the microwave, I sent Aiden a message. He wasn’t that great, but at least we had the same taste in music.
After the third night with him, as I was clipping on my bra, he said, “I don’t like it when women make noise. In bed, I mean.” He didn’t look at me when he said this. He never looked at me.
“Do I make that much noise? I don’t think I do.” I thought back to some of the porn videos I had seen, the women actors screaming bloody murder, all groans and gasps, presumably at the request of the male director. I saw a video once where the woman, upon reaching climax, yodeled like she was in a Ricola commercial.
Aiden shrugged, reached over and handed me my inside-out panties. “Not a lot, I guess. Just some moans. But it takes me out of the moment, and I can’t fully enjoy it.”
“You manage to come every time,” I pointed out. Within the span of five minutes, though I kept this to myself. “And if I don’t make sounds, how will you know which parts I’m enjoying?”
He didn’t answer, just continued to help me gather my clothes strewn across his bedroom floor. It was clear he did not care what I enjoyed. My pleasure did not interest him. In fact, my expression of pleasure was an unwanted distraction from his own pleasure.
After that, I didn’t visit Aiden anymore. He asked me via Facebook message why I stopped coming over, to which I replied, “Are you serious?” All at once, I was both furious and impressed by this man’s Olympian lack of self-awareness.
I thought about chewing him out, explaining to him in great detail why I did not want to make a special trip for bad sex, why his disinterest in my experience was a turn-off. I thought about how I wanted to be taken seriously, in and out of bed. I looked at my keyboard for a minute before replying:
“I’m tired of being quiet.”
I like to write about women and their physical experiences, experiences that I feel are not always respected. I have few qualms in writing about my own body in an explicit way, since a woman’s body in American culture is a public entity in American culture. I write about my body sexually, especially sexually, in an effort to give a voice to my personal desires, the only aspect of myself that men do not seem to be interested in.
Compared to the incredible publicness of the female body in television, film, and other mediums dominated by the male gaze, the sexual wants of women are relatively unexplored, particularly transwomen, queer women, women of color, and disabled women; either these women are completely fetishized or portrayed as non-sexual, with little middle ground. At both ends of the dichotomy, these women’s respective autonomies and complexities are disregarded. The only time women’s bodies are kept secret is when it comes to our desire, and then suddenly nobody has anything to say. When the conversation turns to the sexual needs of women and the elusive female orgasm(s), men feign unfamiliarity with the female body. Women are so secretive, so mysterious!, men lament. Oh, if only we could know what they want! Like, what even IS a g-spot?
This is a running joke in entertainment media as well, with some productions handling it in a more self-aware fashion than others. In the forgettable romantic comedy What Women Want (2000), it takes telepathy for Mel Gibson to really get the women in his life, when he could have just fucking asked Helen Hunt what it was she wanted. (And although that film was released nearly two decades ago, it’s still being touted as an example in numerous online lists of how cracking the feminine psychology is just so hard.) Even South Park poked fun at the seeming sexual ineptitude of men in their 1999 feature-length film in which the clitoris is personified as a god that hides and reveals itself at its own whim. Chef covertly tells the boys that, once you find the clitoris, all your questions will be answered. The real joke for anyone with a clitoris is that the organ is astoundingly visible and is not the one and only form of sexual enjoyment a woman can experience.
In more recent years, the concept of the mysterious woman has been morphed into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. She is desirable to the man, because her quirky, self-contradicting self absolves the man from being required to make a genuine connection with her. From Summer in (500) Days of Summer (2009) to Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns (2015), the mysterious woman is not so much a woman as a symbol to obtain (or a transformative life lesson), and symbols do not have wants and needs. In a quintessential example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, Natalie Portman’s character Sam in Garden State (2004), is a pathological liar, which only further absolves Zach Braff’s character from having to take an active interest in her as a person. What’s the point of trying to satisfy a woman who just lies about what she wants?
The trope of men being willfully ignorant of what women want, both in and out of bed, is unfortunately not just fodder for light-hearted or satirical comedy films. Even famed physicist Stephen Hawking has perpetuated the stereotype that women are illogical alien creatures, claiming in a Reddit AMA that the biggest mystery he’s ever encountered is women. (He expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with New Scientist in 2012, suggesting this is a fun little quip he likes to reuse.) This fails as a joke because it’s, first, not funny, and second, damaging; it gives men permission to not even try to empathize with and understand what their women partners may want. Hell, if genius Stephen Hawking can’t understand chicks, how can I ever expect my poor dumb boyfriend to give me an orgasm?
In college, I dated a shitty man, shitty in all aspects, including sexual. Despite being well endowed and having a vague concept of angles and positions, everything Kenneth did was ultimately for his own pleasure. When we had been dating for several months, I brought up my lack of orgasms with the intention of helping him troubleshoot the issue.
Angrily, he picked up his Xbox controller and loaded Netflix. “Well, I don’t know what to do about that,” he snapped. “It just takes so long to even get you close. Maybe you’re one of those women who can’t orgasm.”
There’s something wrong with you, is what he meant to say.
“I have orgasms!” I protested. “I am physically and mentally able to have them, with myself and other people. Just not with you. You just need to take more time with me and to listen to what I want.”
“Are you done making me feel like shit now?” he asked. He clicked a button on his controller and started up Eastbound and Down, which he knew I hated. Danny McBride’s sunburned face loomed on the television screen.
Along with simply disregarding my clearly expressed desires, Kenneth found ways of interpreting my desires so that they coincided with his own, often willfully pretending that I was enjoying what he was doing. He often skipped foreplay, reaching his hand directly inside my panties and rubbing haphazardly, mistaking my labia for my clitoris.
“Oh, baby,” he’d breathe in my ear. “You’re so wet.” He’d say this even when I wasn’t, especially when I wasn’t. My vagina would be drier than the Sahara, and he’d still murmur that to himself. It didn’t matter that I was visibly not enjoying the experience; he was able to pretend that I was, that my desires aligned with his.
After we broke up due to a display of violence on his part (for which he, surprise, surprise, blamed me for instigating), Kenneth started dating a coworker of ours. He texted me to tell me how much fun they were having.
“Tess let me put it in her butt,” he texted me, “on the first date.” The whole time we were together, he tried to convince me to just “give anal another try” when I was adamant that it was not for me. When he couldn’t succeed in convincing me to like something I didn’t like, he’d try to slip it in as if I wouldn’t notice.
“She sounds great,” I texted back. “You should marry her.”
Our desires, Tess’s and mine, were placed into a hierarchy based upon how well they correlated with Kenneth’s. Tess liked anal, so she was fun, more exciting, better. I was less-than, a boring prude, because I preferred to keep my asshole to myself.
While it’s annoying enough to fight for an orgasm every time I sleep with a man, this willingness to disregard women’s sexual desires is just a symptom of men ignoring women’s requests about their own bodies in a more general sense. It’s a short jump from pretending not to hear a woman when she says “Go slower” to pretending not to hear her when she says “Stop, don’t, no.” It takes several hands to count the number of times in which I told a man to stop being so rough, stop touching me, stop sending me sexually explicit messages, and he did not comply—sometimes feigning that I was not clear enough or was giving him mixed signals. A few shitty lovers is not the issue; rather, the attitude that it’s okay to ignore a woman’s voice when she’s talking about her own body is a systemic problem that affects more than just bedroom relations. If men took us seriously when we spoke, maybe we wouldn’t have to worry so much about being harassed, beaten, raped, killed.
There are ways, I’ve noticed, that men will use to give lip service to asking me what I want without actually listening. I’ve grown to despise dirty talk, partly because it’s performative and awkward, but mostly because it’s not a genuine request for me to speak my desires. “What do you want, baby?” and “Tell me what you want me to do to you” are not invitations for me to say, “Well, I’d really like it if you stopped pinching my nipples like you’re trying to pop a zit.” Or, if I’m being serious, I will say that I want a massage. I like massages. They calm and relax me, which makes sex less stressful and even enjoyable. However, it’s not as sexy a request as “Pound me until my teeth rattle in my head.” With many male partners, it is a request that was ignored. Kenneth would give me a couple disinterested shoulder squeezes before going back to grappling at my vulva like he was trying to find a light switch in the dark.
Asking me to tell him what I wanted was not a genuine request, but rather a cue for me to parrot back what he thought was hot. My desires were only valid if they mirrored his.
I saw a casual lover for a while; his name is Brian.
Before Brian and I had sex, he said to me, “We should have a safe word.”
“How about ‘Stop, I don’t like this,’” I suggested seriously.
He paused, looked unconvinced. “But what if you say that but mean the opposite? How will I know?”
“I will never say ‘no’ and mean ‘yes’” I replied, already getting turned off from what little foreplay we had done. “’No’ never means ‘yes.’ And shame on anybody who thinks otherwise.”
He looked at me with his broad, gooby face. I noticed for the first time that his eyes crossed just slightly.
“But fine,” I said. “How about ‘submarine.’”
He smiled and nodded. “No” was too harsh, too direct; “submarine” was cutely out of place, and therefore fine.
When we had sex, and he bent me over his bed (immaculately made, which was weird to me) and slammed into me with the jackhammer movement that has never in the history of sex been pleasurable to me. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say “submarine.” It was a word that didn’t fit, one that seemed so much less serious than the “No, don’t, stop!” that I was feeling. It was a frivolous word that in no way matched the panic that contorted my insides. It was discordant, felt unreal. I couldn’t say it. I also couldn’t say it because he was choking me at the time, and I was focused on not dying. I started crying instead.
Upon his completion, he asked me if it was good for me. Tears streaming down my face, blood smeared across my thighs, my hair a frizzy mess from being grasped in his sweaty fist and wrenched backward, I forced a smile. He wasn’t interested in what my experience was, and I wasn’t interested in telling him. I just wanted to get out of there.
I put on my clothes, and left, making the decision to never see him again.
When I got home, I got a text: “You left your earrings on my end table.”
I laughed to myself. They’re your earrings now, buddy.
I bled the rest of the night.
There are different facets to this problem of men not listening to women about their own bodies, a problem that is directly linked to rape culture, domestic violence, and lack of reproductive rights. Part of it is the social acceptability to write off women’s desires as too cryptic to really bother deciphering. Another part of it is the tendency for men to assume that we don’t really know how we feel, a tendency that is potentially life threatening when the man in question is your doctor. A quick Google search reveals dozens of articles, essays, and comments about how women’s symptoms are taken less seriously than men’s symptoms. Writer and illustrator Aubrey Hirsch created a graphic narrative for The Nib about how her symptoms of Grave’s disease were written off for years as symptoms of anorexia, anxiety, or other “woman” problems. She notes toward the end of her narrative that she originally thought she had just slipped through the cracks, but, upon researching the phenomenon, she found that it takes an average of five years and five doctors to get an actual diagnosis for patients who suffer from an autoimmune disorder; seventy-five percent of those patients are women. The 2001 study, “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias against Women and the Treatment of Pain” shows that ignoring women’s pain is an epidemic among healthcare professionals.
Another, related way for men to question our autonomy is to insist we don’t even know our own bodies. It’s not uncommon for men to assume that women’s bodies are just as baffling to us as to them. My high school boyfriend Jason was no exception. Our relationship dynamic was one that normalized being treated as if I was less-than, like my thoughts and feelings were somehow not valid. This mentality progressed into a sexual sphere as we began to experiment. Based on his pornographic viewing habits, Jason was under the impression that getting a woman off did not involve anything more intricate than railing her in missionary position. Unfortunately for Jason, he was mistaken, and my world was left despairingly un-rocked.
One day after school, while hanging out in his basement, he had a glint in his eye that he got every time he convinced himself he was a genius.
“I have something to show you,” he murmured, covertly. He pulled his laptop onto his knees and opened the lid to a RedTube video. He pressed play. A man in an ill-fitting blue suit appeared in the frame. He introduced himself as Dr. So-and-So, a sex researcher from Such-and-Such University. He stood over a naked woman lying flat on her back on a raised table. The woman was not introduced.
“I’d like to see this man’s credentials,” I said, crossing my arms over my stomach and slumping down into the couch. Jason waved his hand to shush me.
The man smiled confidently at the viewer. “I will now demonstrate how to stimulate a woman so that she reaches a quick and powerful orgasm,” the man in the video said, quick being the operative word. The camera zoomed in on the woman’s shaved privates as the man inserted his two middle fingers into her and curved them upward into a Spider-Man pose. He jostled his hand around like he was trying to snag the last Pringle out of the can. After about thirty seconds, the woman came, arching her back with a moan and squirting in that way that women in porn often do. I would have thought this woman was a porn actor had she not looked so profoundly embarrassed. Instead, I wondered if she was an intern, goaded into this position for the sake of advancing the field by teaching teenage boys how to finger their girlfriends.
After the man in the video had given a brief diagram-aided explanation as to why that neat little trick worked so well, Jason closed his laptop and looked at me expectantly.
“What?” I asked. “I don’t want to give it a try right now, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“I just mean, isn’t that cool? She came, just like that!” He snapped his fingers.
I shrugged and reached for the TV remote, intent on flipping on some dumb show to change the subject. “It’s nothing I didn’t know before. I know where my G-spot is.”
Jason’s face darkened and he set his jaw in that martyred way he had anytime I failed to praise him for the most basic things. I’m not sure why he thought the video would show me anything new about my own body; as a teenager, I had touched and caressed everything in different ways, finding what I liked and what I didn’t. This knowledge was also something Jason could have learned from me if he listened to what I wanted. Instead, a ratty man in a bad suit on a RedTube video was more credible than I was about my own pleasure.
With the remote, I flicked through the channels and settled on something I didn’t like but Jason did. I felt a silly need to apologize. I placed the remote on the couch next to his leg, brushing the material of his cargo pants with my knuckles.
“Can we make some chicken nuggets?”
When I told my partner, a man, that I was writing about men ignoring my explicitly stated sexual desires, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He put on a voice and said, “It’s like a damn Rubik’s cube down there!” while gesturing to his crotch. The idea that many men are bad in bed because they are dismissive of their women partners was something he had heard before from women friends and former partners. I was struck by his choice to use the Rubik’s cube as metaphor and how perfect it was. The Rubik’s cube is perceived as complicated, but also frivolous—nobody really cares if they can solve it or not, because it’s just a toy. But if you actually take time to learn the pattern and practice, solving a Rubik’s cube is easy. It comes down to whether or not the person really wants to do it.
The more I thought about it, the more perfect the metaphor was, and I told my partner as such. “You should give up that silly software engineering pipe dream and be a writer instead.”
He nodded, thoughtfully. “You might be right,” he replied. “Computers are on their way out anyway.”
Knowing that many men are conscious of the difficulties women face in getting themselves heard, even when it comes to their own bodily experiences, is heartening, but only a little. This is a slow fight. It took us hundreds of years to just earn the right to wear pants. But maybe, in the coming decades, women will have rights over our own bodies in all spheres. Maybe men won’t question our physical autonomy and use that as an argument to limit our say in what happens to us. Maybe the voices of transwomen, queer women, women of color, and disabled women will be championed more so that the fight for voices includes all women. Maybe it won’t take a woman until she’s in her late twenties to realize that her sexual desires are valid and worth acknowledgment. If anything, maybe I at least won’t have to come across any more “Ten Things Your Boyfriend Wishes You Would Do in Bed” articles. The feminist fight would be worth it just for that.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.