I am no stranger to bad sex. I had mostly bad sex in my early twenties, and considering the collective catharsis Women of the Internet experienced after Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” short story came out in The New Yorker in 2017, it wasn’t just me. As evidenced by the young protagonist in “Cat Person,” bad sex isn’t necessarily violent or coerced, but you tend to have it just because you think you should, regardless of whether you want it or think it might feel good.
I was a late bloomer, and when I graduated from college with only a few drunken notches on my box spring, it seemed I needed to catch up. I didn’t know how to, say, switch positions without kneeing someone in the chest; or to gracefully excuse myself to pee to avoid the dreaded post-coitus UTI; or how to be on top without gyrating someone out of me; or frankly, even how to make sex feel good, for my partner or for me. Indeed, my early sexual experiences were at best boring and a little wet, and at worst downright excruciating, like someone was ramming a broom into my cervix.
Sex ed classes teach you that sex will riddle you with diseases and unwanted babies, but conveniently omit a lot of important stuff, like how to make it feel the least bit pleasurable. Pop culture teaches you that sex is a writhing, leg-twisting, candlelit thing you want, but doesn’t explain why (or whether or not anyone observes fire safety by blowing out the candles when it’s time for sleep). When I was young, the message I gleaned from teen comedies like “Superbad” and “EuroTrip” was that men want sex and women want men to want them.
Like many millennial women, I came of age watching “Sex and the City” reruns on E!, and thus was taught adulthood consisted of a rotating crew of short-lived relationships and one-night stands, with a couple epic romances tossed in for the sake of drama. It was with this messaging burned firmly in my frontal cortex that I approached adulthood.
My dating adventures went about as well as you might expect.
At the time, dating apps like OkCupid and Tinder were starting to become popular, which made it easy to trick men into meeting up with me. Each date would go thus: I’d hit up a bar on the way to the chosen date spot for a shot of liquid courage, then make my way over, racked with terror that my prospective paramour would run once he saw my stubby legs slide off a bar- stool. Once we were trapped together, I’d pull out all the stops to force my date to fall in love with me.
I’d crow about his favorite director, ask him questions about his hometown, pretend to care about his job, maybe touch his arm if I was feeling daring. Did I like him? Did I like any of them? It didn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. I was the dumb, useless child with something to prove, not them. They needed to want me—the rest we could work out along the way.
First and second dates were chaste, but if I made it to dates three and four, I had to psych myself into sleeping with these people or dump them. Those were the rules, after all, and if I broke them, my date would be disappointed, and I couldn’t have that. I dumped most of them, but sometimes I didn’t, in which case we’d go to dinner or to a comedy show, or we’d watch a movie at his house, and I’d drink heavily in preparation for fifteen or so minutes of clumsy, emotionless sex.
Then I would leave, or if my date happened to be at my place, I’d make him leave. To spend the night with someone would require me to talk to him in the morning. I didn’t know how to do that without revealing that I was a fraud. My dates thought I was sexy and experienced, just like them, but I was nothing but a child. These men were for practice. They were the experiences that would close the chasm between Girl and Woman that made me feel like I’d been left behind.
In my quest to mark up my bedposts, I saw the darker side of casual dating.
Maybe I would have liked these men, had I known them. I wasn’t trying to know them. I was trying to count them. In order for me to play with the big girls, I needed to rack up numbers and experiences, even if those numbers and experiences had me hyperventilating each time my phone pinged. I assumed I was doing what everyone else was doing— putting myself out there, accommodating, dating.
Maybe I would have liked these men, had I known them.
This type of dating got me in trouble a handful of times, sometimes comically, sometimes not. Once a date could not, uh, perform, then collapsed on top of me in shame. “I have to be up really early,” I said after ten minutes or so spent crushed beneath his torso. He took a full glass of whiskey with him when he left, glass included.
Once, almost on a dare, I brought home a man I met at a famed hookup bar. My roommate at the time paired up with the man’s friend, and once we were back at our apartment, they retreated into her room while my chosen creature and I went into mine. When the lights were out, I realized I was alone with a stranger who was a lot bigger and more powerful than me. He didn’t smell right. He didn’t sound right. He hurt me when he handled me, and I didn’t want him to be there. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to leave. So I bit him, and not in a sexy way. “There’s something wrong with you,” he growled at me right before he fled. He left his muscle tank in my room, and the next morning I picked it up with a Swiffer handle and threw it in the public trash bin down the block.
And then one day, it occurred to me that I could leave the awkward, boring sex behind.
These “dates” made up the majority of my sex life, until I discovered something spectacular: it is possible to have sex with people you like. Not only that, it’s enjoyable. I made this discovery when I found myself in bed with a good friend whom I loved platonically, but maybe even a little more than that. The fallout from that encounter was messier and sharper than what I’d experienced with the strange men, but once I had good sex, the bad sex was much more difficult to tolerate, let alone welcome in.
Single women are constantly made to feel like their lives are missing something if they’re not getting any, which is one of the things that tricks us into having sex without first asking ourselves if we even want it. Not to mention single women are reminded all the time that they can’t find love because they’re not open enough, or they’re too picky, or they’re not putting their best foot forward, which is sometimes how you get stuck (literally) letting a person in when you’d rather shake hands instead.
To turn someone down—because you didn’t know them, because you weren’t sure you wanted them, because five drinks weren’t enough to make you ready to take your clothes off in the dark— meant you weren’t trying hard enough, and so the fact that you were single was all your fault.
In theory, women have agency when it comes to dating and sex. It is still a crime to force someone to sleep with you when they say no. But it is hard, when you’re in the moment, to remember that you don’t have to kiss someone when they ask or lean in for it, or get in a cab with them because they bought you shots, and that pulling away from someone you do not want does not mean you will pull away from someone you do.
You are not single because you will not settle for a night of bad sex with a stranger. You are not falling behind. The sexual revolution liberated women, but liberty is being able to say yes or no to sex with whom you please, not having to fuck every man who swipes right so you don’t die alone. Dying alone is better than signing up for a lifetime of bad sex.
Of course, if you stop having bad sex, you might stop having sex at all.
A fun thing that happens, though, when you stop letting yourself have bad sex: You have much less sex altogether. I’m four months into my current bout of celibacy. I’ve managed to pass the time by watching “The Great British Baking Show,” and mostly I’m doing just fine, save for a rather elaborate occasional fantasy involving a barista at my local coffee shop and his mermaid tattoo. No sex and/or dating leaves me lots of time to get to know myself better, like what dinners I prefer to microwave or which vibrator setting will put me to sleep. You save a lot of time and money not worrying about shaving or showering, or about having to wash your sheets.
The other day, though, I opened up one of my dating apps out of curiosity, or maybe habit. I discovered something shocking: a hookup object, a relic from my past as a bad sex-haver, had just sent me a message. “Hey, how’s ur summer going?” he wrote.
He had no idea we’d met.
He’d been inside me.
He’d forgotten me.
We are all each other’s pawns in this game of tangled limbs and clumsy mouths.
Rebecca Fishbein is a former staffer at Gothamist, and has been published in Baltimore City Paper, Time Out New York, Jezebel, Vice, Splinter, Adweek, The Cut, Lifehacker, and Curbed NY. She lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2019 Rebecca Fishbein. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.