Perhaps one of my favorite things about APW is taking people’s stereotypes about feminism and blasting them wide open. I think it makes all of us smarter. Today’s post is the second post we’ve run on APW about smart, sassy, feminist ladies who decided to save sex for marriage (take that, stereotypes!). Last year, Liz wrote about why and how she saved sex till her wedding night. Today a long time Team Practical member (who is anonymous for this post), talks about what she learned when first time sex was painful and hard (hints: sex isn’t limited to intercourse and communication helps). I think this is required reading for everyone, waiting or not.
My husband and I both grew up in the kind of conservative communities that tout waiting until marriage to have sex as, if not the actual norm, at least the idealized one. The language that we heard about waiting went something like, “If you wait, your reward will be rainbows and unicorns on your wedding night! Sex will be instantly effortless, easy, and movie-like, complete with simultaneous orgasms for everyone!” (Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious. But just a little.)
So basically if you’ve ever had sex and you’re reading this, you’re laughing, right? Well, my poor husband and I, even though we were pretty sure the bit about immediate simultaneous orgasms wasn’t true, didn’t really know what to expect when it came to first-time sex. (Oh yes, we waited. We had our reasons. And no, they did not include thinking that premarital sex sends you straight to hell.) The first few weeks of our marriage consisted of sore muscles, achy backs, lots of painful attempts at intercourse, one very terrified wife (me), and one increasingly frustrated husband (him). What was worse was that we found ourselves constantly fighting about sex. About whether or not we ought to go slower or faster; about feeling pressured; about feeling like we’d failed. I spent quite a few evenings locked in our bathroom during those weeks, crying my eyes out, bitterly thinking that everyone who’d told me “It’s worth the wait” was dead wrong.
Thankfully, it got better. We confided in some married mentors. We kept hashing through the difficult fights. We slowed down and drank a lot of wine and gradually discovered, together, how to approach this new kind of intimacy. And we learned a lot in the process.
At the end of the day, I’m glad we waited, but I do wish we’d been better equipped for that “wedding night” experience. While I certainly don’t hope or expect that every virgin will have the same difficulties we had (in fact, I wish you all very smooth sailing as you enter the waters of sexuality, married or otherwise), here are some things that helped us, in the hope that they might help others in a similar situation. (Basically, if wedding grad posts are what you’d like to tell your engaged self, these are the things I wish I could zip back and tell my virgin self):
Don’t freak out. Since wedding nights don’t get talked about much and people tend to just waggle their eyebrows at you and make knowing remarks about the honeymoon, it can be really easy to feel like you’re the only couple in the world having trouble getting their married sex life off to a fabulous start. Definitely don’t buy into that kind of thinking. (If anything, remind yourself of this post and the fact that there is at least one other couple that you know of who had trouble!)
Communicate. The longer I’m married, the more I am convinced that good communication is key not only to good first-time sex, but to good sex, period. While my husband and I had told each other, leading up to the wedding, that we weren’t going to put any pressure on the wedding night itself, we certainly each still had some unspoken expectations and tightly-held dreams about first time sex, whenever that was going to happen. Looking back, it would have been great if we’d known to have a conversation beforehand about how our ideal selves would react if sex didn’t go well initially. Other questions that I think are useful include: Do you hope that we’ll have sex on the wedding night itself? Do you want to have intercourse the first time we try? How would you feel if we gradually led up to intercourse over the first few days of the honeymoon? How do you define a successful lovemaking session? Would you feel disappointed if we have trouble producing orgasms right away? What would you do if sex hurts/what would you want from your partner if sex hurts?
Remember that you are a team. I think the temptation when sex isn’t going well is to feel like a martyr and to blame your partner for not being understanding, caring, slow, patient, insert-word-of-choice enough. In our particular case, we fell into the trap of getting entrenched behind our opposite genders – He can’t understand how I’m feeling because he’s a man, I’m the one who has to bear the physical pain of first time sex; or, Why in the world are women’s bodies so over-sensitive and fragile? She can’t understand how I feel because she’s a woman, etc. It wasn’t until we came to the realization that neither of us had asked for our particular bodies, with their specific desires, limitations, and needs, that we were able to get past seeing either each other’s or our own bodies as the problem but rather as needing to be navigated together. What I learned from that experience was that if you start thinking that your partner is the enemy, then sex becomes a zero-sum game and you both lose. The flipside of that, of course, is when both partners says “Okay, this is our problem and we’ll figure it out as a team,” the foundation of your marriage grows a bit firmer from that insistence.
Expand your definition of sex. I’ve found that for a lot of people, conservative or otherwise, “sex” is still equated with penis-in-vagina intercourse, so if the act of intercourse proves painful or plain impossible for you at first, it’s really easy for your mind to go to the “Oh my God, we fail at sex!” place. And anytime undue pressure is put on one aspect of sex, whether that is intercourse or orgasm or something else entirely, all the joy of physical intimacy can go right out the window, am I right, ladies? So take your time to explore all aspects of sex (after all, in Liz’s immortal words, there’s no need to tear around all the bases immediately, right?). If intercourse is stressing you out, agree to have some nights when it’s completely off the table and just focus on other kinds of touching and getting used to being comfortable with each other. When you’re ready to tackle whatever aspect of sex that hasn’t been quite working again, that comfort and knowledge of each other’s bodies will stand you in good stead.
Don’t be afraid to seek help. I firmly believe that all marriages can benefit from an outside perspective (as long as that outside perspective is of the “I’m committed to helping you two honor your commitment to each other” variety, of course, and not of the “Let’s bash marriage!” sort) and that outside help can be especially useful when it comes to sex issues. This help can be provided by a trusted friend or relative, a mentor, a religious authority, a professional who specializes in sex or family therapy, or someone else entirely that both of you are comfortable turning to. Talking about sex, especially when it’s not going smoothly, can be such a delicate and difficult thing to do that sometimes it’s good not to have only your partner to hash things over with (especially if both of you are equally inexperienced!). I was so glad to have a couple of trusted women friends to whom I could pose questions like, “I know everyone says it hurts at first, but how much pain is indicative that something’s wrong?” or “Um, we can’t seem to fit our bodies into all the positions of the Kama Sutra, is that okay?” It was endlessly comforting to me to hear about their trial-and-error forays into sex and to get practical suggestions like “Next time, try doing it this way” or “Have you thought about having a couple glasses of wine first?”
Trust that it gets better. My husband and I are nearing the one year mark of marriage right now and, despite the rough beginning, I can honestly say that our sex life rocks. I find it so comical now that the wedding night/first-time sex experience is treated like this magical thing. There is no other physical activity that we expect our bodies to perform perfectly the first time, why do we expect sex to be any different? So be gentle with your body as it learns to do something it’s never done before. It’ll likely be a bit awkward and a bit uncomfortable at first (seriously, who knew that your partner’s hipbones could do such serious injury to you if you’re not careful?!), but practice is the great perfecter of all our actions and the beauty of married sex is that you get to explore and get better at it in safety, trust, and commitment, over the entirety of a lifetime.