Sex As Performance Art

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The problem with sex as performance is that it creates a barrier to real intimacy, says Laurel Hermanson.

When I was 5 or 6, a neighbor boy told me that babies were made when a man stuck his penis into a woman’s private parts and peed. I was freaked out, and I told my brother. I should have known better than to trust him with that information. He told my mother. She stood over me in my bedroom until I confessed, and then she went downstairs and called the neighbor boy’s mother. I could hear her yelling from upstairs. I decided I would never have babies.

When my dentist said I needed braces sophomore year in high school, I pretended to be upset. He was handsome and I had a crush on him, and braces meant seeing him more often. My girlfriends and I giggled about how he arranged his instruments on our chests. One day while he was tightening my braces, he said, “Don’t worry. The boys aren’t paying attention to your face. They’re looking at your body.” I was thrilled by that, because I took it to mean he thought I had a body worth looking at.

I should have known better than to trust my mother with that information, but I was giddy after my appointment. We didn’t share a conspiratorial giggle as I’d hoped. Instead, she was angry—really angry. A few days later she drove into town, walked into the clinic, and demanded to speak to my dentist. I’m surprised I couldn’t hear her yelling from our house. She switched me to the only other dentist in our small town, whose practice was in the same office.

By then, what I knew of sex I’d learned from friends, and books I snuck from my parents’ bookshelves. I was no longer afraid of it. Lacking any context, it seemed forbidden, and therefore appealing. No one ever gave me the “When two people love each other very much…” speech, so I had no concept of sexuality being an expression of love or lust or anything healthy or unhealthy. To me, it was something that made my mother angry.

The highlight of my senior year was an unlikely moment: A teacher I had a crush on walked up behind me and gave me a quick shoulder rub. I was sitting by his desk in front of a roomful of students, so there was nothing weird or clandestine about it. But oh my god he touched me. I was warm all over for the rest of class. I remember this more vividly than losing my virginity later that year. I didn’t mention it to my mother.

I didn’t want more from that teacher. I wasn’t ready to be that naughty. He wasn’t much older than I was, but he was married. My fledgling moral compass saw that as a deal-breaker, but I also knew that if he ever acted overtly sexual with me it would gross me out, that crossing that boundary would ruin my respect for him. So my crush on him was safe because he was safe, unavailable, a good man.

I didn’t want to go off to college a virgin, so I picked a man nine years older than I was (just two years younger than my teacher) because he had an apartment and I’d had enough of groping boys in cars. I knew what I was supposed to do. I wiggled and moaned, but I was nervous and clumsy. Worse, it didn’t feel good. But I got it over with.

I didn’t know how fun sex could be until I met a boy my freshman year of college. He was four years older than I was, handsome, charming, and crazy good in bed. I don’t remember if we had a single substantive conversation, but he was a “teacher” who showed me things that I would most definitely use later in life.

Even with this beautiful boy, the first to make me come, I stopped just jumping into bed after a month or so. He was never technically my boyfriend and I saw little hope of that happening, so I needed a production, some conflict, to precede sex. I needed him to fight for me enough to give me a tiny sense of control.

He ended up breaking my spirit. I’d opened myself up and let him do what he wanted with me. Unfortunately, he was doing what he wanted with other girls. Once I got over the humiliation (one of very few emotions available to me then), I figured the best way to avoid getting hurt again was to remain in control.

There I was at 19, never having slept with someone I really cared about. I still felt that sex was naughty, which held most of its appeal. I wanted to be “good in bed,” but I also needed to be in control. With those ideas banging around in my young brain, the sexual persona I came up with was an accommodating but slightly dominant naughty girl. Sex as performance art. I fine-tuned this with a few more boys, but I wasn’t cut out for real promiscuity. Something was missing. I spent the next year mostly celibate. My version of control.

I’ve had just a handful of serious, or semi-serious, relationships. The first was with a graduate student I met my junior year of college. My first love. We dated a little over two years, and the sex was great at first. I put on some of my best performances for him. Still, something about love and sex didn’t work for me. One night I had a panic attack and ended up sitting naked on the couch in his living room, hyperventilating. When I broke up with him, I was mostly relieved I wouldn’t have to sleep with him again. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

My first job out of college, I worked for a man 20 years older than I was. I was infatuated with him, with his sophistication. When he drove me home after dinners or wine tastings, I hated pulling up to my apartment and saying goodbye. One night I invited him up, and we sat on my couch drinking wine. When he admitted he was attracted to me, I acted cool. I said it seemed a bad idea to fuck your boss, but I said it in just the right way.

That night and many nights after, all I did was fuck my boss. I didn’t care about losing my job. What I cared about was that I was doing something naughty, and therefore appealing. And I was doing it well. I went to work in a short skirt and stockings and sat in his office, leaning back in my chair. I invited him out to lunch so we could go to my apartment and have sex. I fucked him in a limo on our way to a champagne tasting.

The imbalance of control in that relationship was not the kind one might expect. He talked too much about how he’d changed jobs and hired me because we’d met just once a year earlier. That might have been endearing to someone else, but not to me. I adored him in a selfish, I-can-learn-from-you kind of way, but that played out once he’d taught me about wine and food and how to be cool in fancy restaurants. I didn’t love him, and I couldn’t see a future together. I hated ending our naughty fling, but it was probably the most selfless thing I could have done.

I wasn’t a calculating predator trying to avoid love, at least not consciously. The problem with sex as performance was that it created a barrier to real intimacy. I wanted love and intimacy and romance, but I didn’t have the emotional skills to break through that barrier. It was too scary.

When I met my first husband, I saw how my need to be in control was damaging. I told myself there was no such thing as being “good in bed,” that good sex happened between partners who were compatible and attentive to each other’s needs. I saw that, but it wasn’t enough for me to completely break old habits. I relapsed during difficult times. And over 18 years, there were plenty of those. I resorted to performing instead of connecting, at the expense of intimacy.

When my husband and I agreed to divorce, I was a mess. I needed to know I was still desirable, but dating was not an option. So I did a few really stupid things.

I tracked down my high school teacher. After a few innocent emails, I asked him to call me. In full-on performance mode, I said, “So, we’re not going to get naked together?” My feelings were safe because my words were so deliberately outrageous. He laughed and shut me down with the exact phrase I hope my (now) husband would say to some crazed woman hitting on him: “I’m flattered, but I love my wife.” Safe, unavailable, a good man.

Next, I found my old boss, who had married shortly after we split. That was messier, because after a few innocent emails, he called and told me he’d never stopped thinking about me. Who wouldn’t love to hear those words? I called his bluff, but that didn’t end well. I was out of line, and his wife was justifiably jealous. He told me never to contact him again.

I met a man who wasn’t married and unavailable. He was older than I was (shocking!) and had been with hundreds of women. I didn’t care; I wanted to abandon control over that part of my life, the sexual part. I was tired. I needed someone to take charge. But it didn’t work out that way. He got more out of our time together than I did, including some of my most inspired sexual performances.

I trotted out the same performance shit when I met my (now) husband. He wasn’t impressed. He loved my intelligence and my humor and my body, in that order. I’m not sure when I stopped trying to impress him with my sexual skills. Maybe when I discovered he had skills of his own, or maybe the first time he said, “Look at me,” when we were having sex, or maybe when I realized how much I trusted him. That was the kind of intimacy I’d longed for, the kind of intimacy that turned sex into something more than physical pleasure.

I needed to give up control to break through that barrier, and he helped me do that for the first time. I might occasionally want him to pull my hair and call me “bitch,” but more often what we do together is intensely emotional as well as physical. Best of all, I lie down in bed next to him every night and feel turned on just because he’s there.

I’m happy. He’s happy. What more could I want?

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Disgrace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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