On the receiving end of sex – why it’s not just about giving

EDIT: People find this post as a result of searching for “giving and receiving” in sex. Yes, absolutely you should be able to both give and receive in sex. If you want a good post about consent and negotiating for mutual enjoyment as part of a long-term sex relationship, I recommend this post on Ashley Easter’s blog.

This particular post is about my personal experience at feeling slightly guilty about being pleasured by my husband, when I wasn’t also giving to him. But you know what, it’s OK to be pleasured.

Every now and then I read something that suggests that if you’re not on the giving end of sex, you’re doing it wrong. The argument follows a few leaps of logic:

  1. It is better to give than to receive;
  2. Therefore, to desire your own pleasure is to put yourself before your intimate partner;
  3. Therefore, if you’re not giving, you’re abusing.

Now I will say that if you’re in a sexual relationship and you’re never at the giving end of sex (or not nearly as often as your intimate partner), then that points to an imbalance and imbalances raise questions about the overall health of the relationship. But I cannot reconcile myself to a model of sex where the expectation is that you must always be giving. Or, to put it another way: I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that a healthy sexual relationship means you should always be contributing to the pleasure of your intimate partner.  (After all, sex is a shared experience not a commodity/object even though we often talk of it in such terms.)

To explain, I’ll need to tell you about some of my sexual history. Deep breath.

When I was growing up, I considered myself to be a sexually aware person and I treasured my sexuality, but I didn’t get into a sexual relationship. At least, not until I met someone I felt safe to be vulnerable with, who was prepared to make themselves vulnerable to me, and who was willing to be public in their commitment to me. In other words, I was a virgin bride.

Hands touching

However, even though my husband and I were very much in love and committed to each other, for the first three years of our marriage, our sex life was largely pleasureless. Even when we had an enjoyable experience, I came away as if I had no memory of it. There was no joy of anticipation, only dread and weariness, conjured from the memories of failed encounters and the shame of counting the days – even weeks – between each sexual attempt. I was filled with uncertainty and confusion over my body, as it refused to make up its mind about what it liked but kept responding with pain and awkwardness.

Throughout this time there was definitely a problem in my lack of desire for sexual pleasure, but I think the bigger problem was that I was unable to receive it: I was indifferent to my husband’s touch.

So when things did change – and that was with the help of professional psychosexual therapy, which we only had after I finally had the courage to believe I wasn’t being whiney – it was unsurprising that being able to receive my husband’s affections was one of the things that I treasured very highly.

However, even as things in the bedroom improved, we still fumbled about each other’s bodies and only rarely were we able to contribute to the other’s pleasure at the same time.

And this is why I have such trouble with the notion that if you’re not giving/contributing during sex, you’re doing it wrong.

It sounds noble. After all, if you’re giving, then you’re “other-centered” and not “self-centered”; if you’re giving, you’re not focussing on pleasure itself, but on another person. I don’t have a problem with either of these ideas as general principles for relationships and living, but I do think that if you apply them too seriously when it comes to sex, you’re fundamentally missing the fact that sex is meant to be a form of play.

Yes, there is always a place for self-control in the bedroom, but the act of sex is not about self-denial. Each person needs to be allowed to feel focussed on and enjoy pleasure, because that’s the point of the experience. And if both parties can get that at the same time, fabulous; but if they can’t, let’s not get hung up about it.

Having sex this way – where all or nearly of all the contribution is made by one person for the other’s pleasure – does not mean you then have to view your sex life as an exchange of obligations. Sometimes people talk of “give and take” in a relationship and the phrase is often used to try to promote balance between people. I’m all for that sentiment but I can also see how this phrase makes it easier to see the relationship as a contract (and I would say that marriage is a covenant – a discussion for another post). The problem of thinking about relationships as a contract is that it can encourage a feeling of entitlement, and that can lead to… bad stuff.

Each time my husband and I came to sex, we actively chose to see it as a gift given, not a payment made. I stopped counting how often I did things for my husband, and how often he did things for me, and how long it had been since each sexual encounter. There was no need, because we were living in the abundance of the other’s joy; we knew that if either of us asked, we would receive. (And we had already proven that even if one of us did go through a dry patch, they still loved the other and were loved by them.)

It is better to give than to receive. The person who said that is undoubtedly the one person who I respect and trust most in my life; I’m not going to argue. I will certainly advocate giving in a sexual relationship, but instead of saying that a person must always be giving, or that they may only receive if they are giving at the same time, I say let a person receive. Why else are gifts given?

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