I’m twisting around to look at my ass in the mirror. My crack stretches up beyond the top of the tiny bikini my husband has just gifted me, and my cheeks peek out from the bottom. I study the pale flesh spilling out of both ends of my new suit and wonder how I could ever wear this to our son’s swim meet or a family vacation.
He grins big and says, “Baby, it’s perfect. You’re hot.”
I feel flattered that my bleavage turns him on ― and then, immediately, anxious that he’s horny and it’s my responsibility to take care of it. A sex clock starts ticking down in my head, knowing he’ll pout if too much time passes before he gets the intimacy he craves.
When we turn in for the night, hours later, there’s a will they/won’t they tension pinning me to the bed. I hope there is some amount of stillness that says “no, thank you” without me having to actually say it. I dread the passive-aggressive pressure far more than I’ve ever dreaded sex. The next day he huffs and puffs in the kitchen. He slams the cabinet and offers only one-word answers.
This was the story of my life with my husband for the first decade of our marriage. The gifts and flattery were part of a cycle that came with unspoken obligations and micro-blaming when I didn’t meet them. It was a theme across our entire relationship, not just with regard to sex.
He made lavish meals and then stared at me while I took my first bite. I found myself over-performing my pleasure with the food to validate him. He’d ask repeatedly if I liked it when my performances failed to convince him. We had an implicit agreement that I was responsible for his emotional state, and it was exhausting me.
Admitting to myself that our dynamic was toxic was the catalyst I needed to push us both into therapy, where we could unpack and challenge all the nonsense our families of origin had modeled.
I was raised in a Southern conservative family with strict gender roles. I was expected to brush my hair, tuck in my shirt and worship the men around me. There was no real sex education at home or at school, but I basically earned a master’s in what-is-expected-of-a-woman. My mother was chronically responsible for my father’s emotional state, in addition to most of the housework and a full-time job.
There were no healthy, mutual partnerships in my husband’s upbringing, either. His father was always in charge, even if he didn’t know what he was talking about, and he brutally dominated the family and any business contacts who crossed his path. As one of four boys, my husband learned to revere female anatomy, but not to understand it.
In therapy, we started to see our conditioning more clearly. We learned we are each responsible for determining and communicating what we want, and for giving the other person the compassion and space to do the same. My husband learned to take everything less personally, and to manage his feelings of rejection with a bit more grace. We still work in therapy to untangle our co-dependent patterns and take responsibility for ourselves.
This new perspective allowed me to step into a leadership role in our life and home. I realized I wanted true, equal partnership, so I started to assert myself and worry less about his response. My husband had to relearn his beliefs about leadership too, and to accept how important it is to also be an enthusiastic follower.
Our new, healthier marriage requires that I confront him regularly and elbow my perspective onto the table for consideration, since we were both raised to prioritize only his. It was during one of these pivotal confrontations when I accidentally sparked the best thing that ever happened to our sex life.
We occasionally read nonfiction books at the same time, book-club style, and one day I confronted him about his recommendations. I complained that he was in an echo chamber of white men who don’t acknowledge patriarchy, white supremacy, or the privilege they receive from those systems. I couldn’t get past the ignorance to receive the lessons of the books, I told him.
And holy shit, he listened.
His next book recommendation was Emily Nagoski’s “Come As You Are,” and I was so excited that he was suggesting a patriarchy-smashing author, I didn’t even mind the book was about sex! Turns out, feeling heard is a bit of a turn-on for me. Who knew?
Nagoski’s book demystifies intimacy and genitalia and makes a very strong case that we all have the same parts, organized in different ways. The author makes this point so often that the reader really can’t help but feel deeply connected to every other body on the planet with each turn of the page. This flattened our confusing hierarchy where I was desired but objectified, and made us equals at last. What a relief to dismantle that pedestal he had me on ― I’d never really felt safe up there.
The next thing he did was plan an entire date around the book. He owned the project of incorporating the information into our life, and his emotional labor felt like love to me in a way my drawer full of slutty bikinis didn’t.
He read and recommended the book, and invited me to a scheduled date on my calendar ― which might not sound sexy, but it feels like steaming hot consent to me. He completed the accompanying worksheets, set up activities, and led the conversation to discover our most mutually pleasing sexual context, as the book recommends.
Nagoski describes “sexual context” as all the things happening around and inside the people having the sexual experience. Each person’s mental state, the relationship dynamics, and little details like the temperature of the room and the scent of a candle all make up the context.
My husband and I had been putting too much pressure on the act and not enough focus on all the other things going on around it. Our cat-and-mouse dynamic was giving me anxiety and making him resentful, so our mental states were not ready for pleasure. As we worked through that big, foundational dynamic with our counselor, we started experimenting with the setting details.
We learned to set up a space heater and make a bed by the fireplace, because I need heat. We went on a date to mix up our own salty, tropical scent so we could be reminded of sexy vacations. We kept the practice of scheduling connection time, so I get a chance to look ahead in my calendar and crave our date nights and their happy endings.
Co-creating a sexual context was fun, and helped remind us that mutual pleasure is the only goal. Our optimal context honors our individual preferences while casting us in an act where we are utterly equal.
I know honorable men everywhere are treating women like sex goddesses and queens, but I’m pretty sure that misses the point. If the goal is a reciprocal, sexy partnership, no one really needs The Royal Treatment. I’m grateful to have learned it was actually standing in the way of what my husband and I really want.
I’m not a queen or a goddess. I’m a person with a body, and so is he. We have so much more pleasure when we acknowledge that.