A Case For Sex Without Penetration

Photo: Megan Madden
“Did you have sex last night?”
“Yes.”
“But did you do anal?”
“No.”
“Oh, so not sex then?”
From the moment we became sexually active, that intense, bleak pressure to lose your virginity became like a race between us and our peers; a race which got me into weird situations just so I wasn’t last over the finish line.
When all that high-school fumbling under sleeping bags at sleepovers started, for about a year, I didn’t do any 'butt stuff', as we queens call it. Sure, when I was alone I stuck a few things up there: a candle, a carrot, the slim end of an olive oil bottle. But when it came to taking a live penis, I was unsure, scared of pooping on it (it happens, get over it), and found it incredibly hard to find the perfect suitor attached to said penis in my tiny regional town, which had exactly zero gay bars and exactly 100% homophobia.
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In the end, I bit the pillow and took it, consentingly, calling my friends to proclaim I had, finally, been penetrated! I could join their camp of penetrators/penetratees and be a legitimate late teen.
For years thereafter I had endless dicks up the butt (sorry Mum), and loved it — thinking what I was achieving was constant sexual and intimate success, one after the other after the other.
Then, lo and behold, I got an anal fissure (lol) and couldn’t do it in the ass for a while. This disappointed potential dates and hookups, my want for penetration growing weaker and weaker and their appetite for it eventually following suit. And while they were breaking it off, claiming that they needed 'more' – 'satisfaction', 'intimacy' – I wasn’t really missing it.
Now, it’s been a long time since I last had a penis in my bum, and vice versa. Initially this worried me, as well as my friends – "But is it really sex if there’s no penetration?" (cc every lesbian ever who has been asked "how lesbians have sex" while the perpetrator makes a weird scissoring gesture with both hands. To clarify, there’s penetration there, too. Think about it...)
But why is the focus always on penetration? Why have we built it up to be the ultimate form of sexual success/satisfaction?
Well, like most things which are totally endemic and shitty, it’s the patriarchy. The patriarchy says that reproduction is what sex is for, and you can’t have the former without the latter (again, you can… think about it).
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Sex is synonymous with penetration everywhere we look: in films, literature, in newspapers, in pornography, in articles, in conversation, in our conditioning. What’s more distressing about this is that sex is also synonymous with intimacy, ergo intimacy equals penetration, no ifs and/or butts.
The problem with this cultural phenomenon is that, in mine and so many people’s experience, intimacy definitely does not always come with penetration. Yes, it can feel pleasurable and yes, penetration can be an incredibly intimate act full of trust and connection and expression, but in countless cases that doesn't hold true. I can only recall a single time I’ve achieved orgasm through anal penetration — not that orgasm is the ultimate end goal, either — and in her book, The Case of the Female Orgasm, Elisabeth Lloyd explains how only about 25% of women achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration.
So penetrative sex isn’t always the most pleasurable choice, nor is it always the most intimate choice. Arguably, then, it can’t be the most ‘successful’ choice.
What about those people who don’t like penetrative sex? What about those people who can’t have penetrative sex? What about those people who have it, and love it, twice a year? Are they failing at sex? Are they failing at intimacy?
Society would say yes, if society would ever let us have these kinds of conversations. I can only imagine the steely eyes between straight lads over pints at the pub if someone were to say “Hmmm… I’m much more about kissing and cuddling than penetration.”
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Well, lads, I am. For years I existed inside a construct which made me feel like penetration in multiple forms made me successful at sex. I also felt that in being penetrated I was being intimate with the men who were penetrating me: achieving what society wanted me to in the field of sex (minus the gay thing, but I already knew they were wrong about that).
But funnily enough, it was over pints at the pub that a friend of mine said to me that she wasn’t that into penetration, and that penetration is definitely not akin to intimacy.
As ever (I know she’s reading), she was right. There’s a huge difference between having penetrative sex and feeling loved, desired, cared for, catered to, special and pleasured — all integral facets of intimacy.
So now, when my friends ask me if I’ve had “proper sex recently”, I say “yes” with no added justification or clarification. To me, sex has become a site where connection and pleasure are the most important things, not penetration. That's not to say connective sex can’t be kinky, extreme, vanilla or end in orgasm – or include penetration, for that matter. But we need to reframe the categories of 'sex' and 'no sex', moving away from ‘penetration’ and ‘no penetration’ and focusing instead on ‘pleasurable’, ‘stimulating’, ‘fulfilling’.
It’s these things which are a huge part of intimacy. Pleasure which can be achieved in numerous, oftentimes better, ways beyond the usual in-out. Touch, love, kind words, eye contact, cuddling, kissing, telling your partner — or your friend — they’re beautiful.
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That’s intimacy, and that, in a world which can be so disconnected from it, is a far more legitimate, expressive, beautiful, and perhaps radical, act than penetration.
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