What Is “Real Sex”, Anyway?

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  • Glennon Doyle
    American author and activist

She was 32 and looked just like every other woman that had ruined my life. I know this because when my friend Olivia joined us outside of a vibrant bar on Metropolitan Avenue in New York, she leaned into me, giggling, as my date was in line for the bathroom and said, “She looks like every woman that has ever ruined your life.”

Granted, this was after a few Moscow mules. But it didn’t make it any less true. Everyone at our table laughed, and I, somewhat ruefully, nodded my head in agreement. She did fit the part: androgynous, with dark and boyishly cut hair and hazel, sometimes green eyes, wearing a slightly sheer button-up with her nipples peeking through and a black leather jacket. She smelled exactly like she looked: intoxicating. When I asked her what she wore, she said it was her favourite cologne, called Book.

On our first date, I arrived early and got a table. The walls were covered in deep magenta curtains, heavy and long. Tucked in the dark space away from the still-chilly air in Brooklyn, our marble table was square and a bit too large for two people. When I saw her walk in, I immediately felt it: I knew we’d fuck.

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Early on in my coming out journey, I realised that this statement had the power to astonish others. Society tends to define sex as one thing, and one thing only: a penetrative, heteronormative act. Unless you’re watching The L Word, chances are, sex will be portrayed as cisgender, a penis inserted into a vagina. There is no room for anything else. Even upon a quick Google search of the term queer sex, an article pops up on the first page which further perpetuates this: “Is lesbian sex real sex?”

What is “real sex” anyway? Glennon Doyle, the best-selling author of Untamed, dove into this topic on her podcast We Can Do Hard Things in an episode titled “Silent Sex Queen: Why aren’t we talking about sex more?” Doyle discusses her sexual experiences before coming out as queer, describing each as what the world calls sex. To the world, sex is penetration and male ejaculation.

When speaking about her first time having queer sex, however, Doyle explained that, “For the first time, I wasn’t just acting. I wasn’t saying the script women are supposed to say from porn culture, I wasn’t arching my back like women are supposed to, I wasn’t playing a role. I was just there, responding however my body and emotions wanted.” That seems like “real sex” to me.

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From across that large, marble table on our first date, she asked questions, and then I asked questions, and then she asked some more. I learned about her childhood and she learned about mine. I learned about her grandparents from the South of the US, and the evolution of her lesbianism, and how she prefers mezcal over any other liquor. I learned that she’s writing an erotic poetry book. I watched the way her mouth moved as she smiled wide, or her lips came together lightly when she was saying something serious.

We drank flowery mezcal and tequila cocktails as I admired her pale skin against her white t-shirt. I felt myself blush as I imagined what it would be like to kiss her neck. I listened to her laugh and bit down on my lower lip. Her scent alone made me wet. Sometime after we ordered the second round, my suspicions of how the night would go were confirmed. She leaned over and said, “If this table were just a little smaller, I’d kiss you right now.”

When I woke up the next morning, my taupe sheets smelled like her. She was facing away from me, her skin still flushed from only an hour ago. There was the bed for the last few hours, then the sofa hours before, and the kitchen counter somewhere in between. We made every inch of my apartment our playground. I kissed her neck again, then her left arm, running my hands through her short, dark hair. She opened her eyes slowly, drowsy from what little sleep she had. “Again?” she asked.

Lying in the scent of ourselves, I lay my head on her chest and breathed in. I felt my eyelashes flutter against her and she slid her hand down once more. Again. Then, we found rest. I turned on my bedside salt lamp which filled the room with a low orange hue. I could see her better now. I could stare into her eyes. There she was, in my bed, looking like she belonged there. Our lips met and we kissed deep, holding and clinging, as I slid my leg between hers to hear her moan.

Yes, we had sex. There was no penis involved, no male ejaculation. But it was still real.

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In my few short years exploring my identity as a bisexual woman, I’ve grappled with the many ideas that other people have about queer sex. I’ve had acquaintances in passing say, “Well, sex with another woman isn’t really sex.” or “I guess you don’t have to worry about your body count rising.”

As I began to date women for the first time, I was eager to share my experiences with my friends. My first time, as a queer woman with another queer woman, was one of the most liberating, sexy, set-on-fire moments I’d ever experienced in my life. I’d talked with my friends about sex before, as women often do about their straight, male counterparts. But this time, when I tried to share my intense feelings, I found that my words fell flat at the indifference and judgment on their faces.

I’ve heard from other queer friends that their sexual experiences have been similarly invalidated as less than or other. It makes me sad, like that part of myself was less than or other somehow, as if I was excluded from the table unless I spoke about having a male partner. It made me feel like an outsider.

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A few days after our first date, my new lover and I sat on either end of my West Elm couch and drank cucumber-infused vodka and Pellegrino. She read me the sex-positive poetry she had written, and I read her a piece from the memoir I am working on. I watched her read and I wondered if she felt it: the way we fucked each other with our words, words that let one another in like wet fingers and thickened air and strap ons.

It wasn’t long before I was straddling her on the other end of the couch. She lay her head back and looked up at me, beneath a print of Stevie Nicks and hand-drawn bodies. Her skin was already flushed, her eyes soft, and her lips slightly parted. She looked sure — like someone does when they know exactly what they want — like someone does when they know they’ll get it. Tongue and then tongues. My finger and then my fingers, then my hand in her mouth. She took off her glasses, pushing them away before pulling my pelvis to hers. Her hands were planted on my hips so that I couldn’t budge, as she opened my button-up shirt with her teeth.

This made me want to climb to my rooftop and shout to the world that yes, queer sex is sex, and it is just as valid as a heterosexual experience. It comes in all shapes, sizes and forms. It is not a one-size-fits-all. It is fingers, strap ons, vibrators, condoms, dildos, hands, tongues, feet, thighs, body hair, bodies, and genders across the spectrum. Queer sex is sex.

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Even before this relationship, I’d known that queer sex is valid and just as important to talk about as heterosexual experiences. But I’d never before been with someone who was so unafraid to explore what sex could look like. One late evening, I texted her to ask how she felt about sex toys, and if she’d like to try some with me. She explained that she had mixed experiences in the past, but she was open to exploring because every person and situation is unique. Then, she sent a photo of herself, topless. Her long body stood in front of a mirror, wearing nothing but black boxer briefs, with her right hand inside them. Her hair was slicked back perfectly and the expression on her face gave way to all the ways she wanted me. Forward, backward, bent over, flat on my back, face pushed into pillow, open wide, clinging, holding, hard, soft, wet.

A few weeks later, we celebrated her birthday together, a little early. After dinner and drinks, back at my place, she asked me if I would show her my collection of sex toys. I smiled and grabbed a box from my nightstand, placing it on the bed. I felt empowered as I watched her touch each, and listen to her ask which one I liked best. She held them in her hands, long and short and vibrating and small. She wasn’t judgmental. “This one is my favorite,” I showed her. When she asked me why I liked it, I listed off the reasons and felt myself blush. She leaned forward and kissed me, biting my lip as she pulled away, and told me to stay still.

I listened. I watched her choose my favorite. She thoughtfully moved, slowly and with intent. Hips and hair and tongues. My body begged to let her in. The room smelled of wet and bodies and kink and adoration. She touched me, touching herself. In the orange hue of my bedroom, our bodies melted and drifted and came back together again. Sliding my favorite inside, it was as if she were there herself. Then fingers, then tongues, then legs, and a collision of us. It was a back and forth, as if she were filling me up and spilling me out over and over again, to remind me that sex can be anything we want it to be, if we allow it.

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My relationship with this partner was ultimately short-lived; we ended up wanting and needing very different things. But my experiences with her changed not only the relationships I’ve gone on to have with other partners but also the relationship I have with myself.

It’s still one of my favorite things about her: that she wasn’t afraid to talk frankly about sex and what it meant for her, both before she came out and after. To someone else, the ability to openly talk about and accept their sex life as valid might seem normal, simple even. But it wasn’t always the case for me. Before dating her, I’d had trouble confidently sharing my queerness out of fear that people would jump to bisexual erasure or put my experiences in a box.

Being with someone so proud of her own sexual identity allowed me to be much more open with how I face my own desires as a queer woman, and how I can express those, inwardly and outwardly. Now, I feel better able to fully confront what my sexuality means for me, what I want and need from my partnerships, and the ultimate meaning queer sex has for my inner self. When I’m looking for and pursuing new partners, or simply communicating in my open, non-monogamous relationship, I have found that I can authentically demonstrate my needs.

On days when I treat myself to a new sex toy or lingerie, I can feel confident in the way that I approach myself, with a gentle kindness for my body and my body’s preferences. My acceptance has made me a better potential partner, one who isn’t hesitant to fully claim the label of bisexual on dating apps, one who isn’t afraid to ask my partners about their sexual preferences, one who is full of self-love for her queer identity. In singleness, and in partnership, I have come to feel both held and free, because yes, it is real.

Contrary to what my friend whispered to me at the Metropolitan Ave. bar, my lover didn’t ruin my life. Instead, she allowed me to accept, more completely, all parts of myself. And while we don’t touch anymore, in many ways, she touches me still.

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