I’m lying there in the dark, and it’s just that I’m not having good sex. I’ve had mind-blowing sex before, and I am going to have it again. But tonight I’m tired from work; the dog has diarrhoea; it’s really cold; I’m kind of worried about money. And the sex just isn’t that good.
As I lie there in the dark, I start to recall memories buried deep about other times the sex wasn’t that good. There was the time I cried during and again after because I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandma who had just passed. There was that time when I said yes but I just meant “if it’ll get you off my back” and I just lay there like a jelly baby—stiff yet somehow squidgy. He’ll never text me again. There was the time when he hadn’t showered and I just couldn’t break past an unnameable smell, so I just sort of idly let him masturbate onto my face while holding my breath for as long as possible. And then there were all the times that I have forgotten where the sex was just nothing: functional at best but forgettable entirely.
Up to now, I have prided myself on being a good shag. My friends and I often categorise people behind their backs as shaggers or not. And I am definitely a shagger. (Quick aside here, just so you can play the game too: A shagger can shag all night; a shagger would rather lose sleep if it meant having a shag; a shagger isn’t super picky—they love both the person they are having sex with and the act of sex itself; a shagger may not shower after sex—but in a hot way.)
Being a shagger, before my friends and I coined the term, kind of became my identity in my 20s. Because in order to grapple with being gay in public, declaring myself the biggest slut at the dinner table was a way to get ahead of the shame I felt for being gay: I’ll control the narrative before it can be controlled for me—classic PR. In this strange space of gay-slut visibility, I would bulldoze all conversations with the most outrageous thing I could think of, and for the most part, it worked: impressing dinner partygoers the city over, as I would regale them with stories that made them feel like downright sluts by proxy.
But here I lie in the dark, worried this power might be ebbing from me. Oh fuck! I think, I’ve lost the golden goose, I’ve dropped the Holy Grail and it’s shattered all over the floor.
Monday comes and I’m thinking about this a lot. I’m pacing up and down and thinking about all the times I was not only a mediocre shag but a bad one. There was the time I stopped halfway through, the time I fell asleep with my ex-boyfriend, the time he just turned around and was like, “Sorry, this just isn’t working for me.” I decide to ask my husband, and he tells me that I’m the best sex he’s ever had. Whatever. He took vows.
I message someone I’m seeing: You’re brilliant, he replies: Sure. He has to say that. I go on to a dating app and message someone I slept with a week ago, and he replies, “Had a great time, we should do it again.” I don’t really want to, so I reply and say, “Sure! Would be lovely!” knowing I’ll forget his name in a few weeks.
How can I know if I’m good at something? Can I be good at something all the time? Can I be anything all the time? I have a friend who is a devout vegan, but every now and then, when she gets super drunk, she will eat a bucket of chicken wings. When I first found out, I was quick to judge, even though I’m a carnivore. And she said that it’s better to be a vegan 98% of the time, surely.
She’s right. One simply can’t be 100% anything at all times—there is no surefire way to get a five-star rating on my performance during sex, just like I can’t on Uber, it seems. And that’s because both sex and riding in Ubers involve another person with their own context, their own standards, their own history, and their own consciousness. That is why sex is so exciting—it’s a collaboration, an equation. Not just a reflection.
The bad sex in my life has been exactly the latter. It’s been about the sublimation of one ego over another or the struggle between whose ego gets to be sublimated. The bad sex has been had in ignorance of my own desires, where I seek to please or modify or mutate myself around somebody else. I’m sure people have had that experience with me too and left sex that I thought was good feeling like it was awful—telling their friends they had the worst shag with someone who thought they were a shagger.
At the beginning of last year, I decided that I was going to try to have only really good sex. I was going to stop saying yes to mid-sex just because having it made me feel less lonely or because it validated some indefatigable need to be shown, over and over again, that someone—anyone—wants to fuck me and that must mean that this fleshy sack of mine has some value.
Since then I have noticed much more of the intricacies of pleasure. It’s like a roller-coaster ride: Sometimes I’m rising slowly, sometimes I’m thrashing down a giant rickety track, sometimes it feels euphoric, and other times it feels awful and I wonder why I decided to buckle up in the first place. The truth is that sex got better since I was able to hold the idea in my head that many things can be true at once. That sex changes minute to minute. That a deeper understanding of the other person is what I’m seeking and hopefully they are seeking that from me. Sometimes there are misunderstandings, sometimes I read a person’s signals wrong or they mine, but sometimes everyone’s needs and wants are syncopated and there you have it: mind-blowing sex.
This sex is elusive; it’s hard to find, it takes work, like all good things. We aren’t born with an innate knowledge of how to be a good lover, and what that looks like changes as we do. It is absurd and egotistical to imagine we are simply a good shag, that we can (or would want to!) do it like they do in the pornos every time and be all clean, moaning, and perfect timing. Sex is a mess, and in moving through it, working with it, taking time care and thought, we can find pleasure. And so who knows if you’re a good lover. But one thing I do know is that I am very good (most of the time) at trying to be, and maybe—short of texting every ex a questionnaire entitled “Was I a good fuck?”—that’s enough.
This article first appeared on Vogue