issue 175 - September 1987
Illustration: Sue Hillwood-Harris
Recent issues of the NI on Sex and AIDS have suggested
that non-penetrative sex is something heterosexual people
should explore. But what on earth is it? And how can
men learn to live without the kind of sex they are used to?
Paul Ryan offers a few pointers from his own experience.
I finally lost my virginity at 18 - a red-letter day that I'd yearned for and fantasized about for years. And, as I'd sometimes dreamed, the innocence of which I was then so ashamed was spirited away by an 'older woman' (she was 19) who was 'experienced' (she'd slept with one other man a few times).
Even leaving aside masturbation, I had 'communicated physically' with my previous girl-friend in all sorts of ways - we'd deep-kissed and caressed for hours on end, bared our breasts to the touch and even explored each other's genitals by hand with some freedom. But none of this was 'sex'. Real sex was putting the penis into the vagina. And William Blake's poetry had even promised me that this mythic connection might be a Gateway to the Infinite, a Glimpse of Eternity.
Judged by these standards intercourse was, needless to say, something of a disappointment. No mystical revelations, no shattering orgasm - just a very pleasant feeling in the genital region. But what I remember vividly and with some embarrassment is what happened as soon as this gentle woman slotted my penis carefully inside her. One moment I was a nervous ingénu, trembling passively as she descended upon me; the next I was giving my best impression of a raging bull, thrusting away into her madly as if my life depended upon it. What had taken over was sudden panic that I might not be able to come, and thus I hurtled towards my orgasm as fast as I could.
What this shows me as I look back is how imprisoned men are by what is expected of them, not least in bed. Not only did I think that penetration was the only meaningful kind of sex - I also thought that there was only one legitimate model of penetration and I had to prove that I was a man by conforming to it as closely as possible.
Of course many men outgrow this kind of tunnel vision - they learn to be more responsive to their partner's sexual needs and wishes, they learn to try and hold back their ejaculation rather than to rush into it headlong. But the idea that the only true form of sex is penetration is still with us - and, while it remains, it will make a new and better kind of heterosexual communication very difficult to achieve.
'What is wrong with penetrative sex?' you might well be asking, 'My sex life works pretty well and my partner doesn't have any complaints about penetration - she enjoys it as much as I do. So what's the problem?'
It is certainly possible that there is no problem. But has your partner ever had a real chance to define the pattern of your sex life? Or has she had to accept penetration as a given fact and tried to find ways of constructing her own pleasure around it? According to recent studies of sexuality1, between 64 and 80 per cent of women seldom or never have orgasms from the sensations of penetration alone.
This is completely understandable in physiological terms. Women's organ of sexual pleasure is the clitoris, found under a lip of skin near the top of the vaginal opening. This is easy enough to find and stimulate by finger or by tongue (though some guidance in the search sometimes proves necessary) but it is virtually impossible for the penis to touch it while inside the vagina.
But this is not the whole story. Women have long understood that sexual pleasure doesn't only reside in clitoral orgasm - there is kissing and cuddling and all kinds of mutual exploration. But the problem is that while their man is lost in his focus on plunging inside her, while he sees the cuddling and the exploration only as necessary (and hopefully short) foreplay to be gone through before the real thing arrives, her sexual pleasure is bound to be limited and frustrated. Sexual counsellors recognized this long ago and it is standard practice for them to recommend that couples avoid penetration as a first step towards working out their problems.
I have spent the last year or so trying to overcome my own tunnel vision - my partner and I haven't had conventional intercourse in that time. This is partly because of the messy interruptions that condoms and diaphragms necessitate (non-penetrative sex certainly solves the contraception problem). But it is mainly because my partner has decided that, for the moment at least, she prefers it this way.
Now I won't pretend that I've found this easy. Being inside a woman is an immensely pleasurable feeling for a man - you feel enveloped in softness and safety. And I expect my partner and I will come back to penetration when we are ready as one among a range of sexual options available to us. But by making one major area of our relationship less male-defined we have improved the whole - it has helped make loving each other a fuller and more equal experience.
Besides, men have a lot to gain by experimenting, While we are tied to penetration we forget that there are other kinds of sexual pleasure. The penis is a sensitive part of the body - but so are the scrotum, spine and anal region. For example, you don't have to have homosexual feelings to enjoy an entirely different kind of penetration - being penetrated by a woman's finger. Indeed being passive and vulnerable in this way can be a revelation as well as a pleasure for a man. This doesn't mean that all men reading this should rush out and impose a new duty of exploration on their women partners. Rather they should realize that their whole bodies have sensual potential and that 'soft-core sex' offers them something too.
Of course there are all kinds of ways of improving penetrative sex: being prepared, for instance, to allow your partner to move against you so she can find an angle that stimulates her clitoris; or escaping the idea that sex finishes as soon as you ejaculate (it is perfectly possible to hang in there while your partner takes her pleasure).
But the most creative and challenging way to improve things is to explore sex without penetration. This is more than just a useful lesson to learn at a time when AlDS is making penetrative sex a dangerous activity. It is a positive step we can take immediately to help our female partners - and to discover a whole new dimension of enjoyment in the process.
Paul Ryan work as a lawyer in Dublin, Ireland.
1 Bancroft, J, Human Sexuality and its Problems, 1983; Shere Hite. The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality. 1977.