Am I “Doing It” Right?

Hannah and Adam from HBO's Girls

Hannah and Adam from HBO’s Girls

HBO’s “Girls” is an exploration of young women’s sexuality today, so I was struck by a scene that the New York Times’ Frank Bruni described as being all about what “he” wants “her” to do:

(“Hannah’s”) back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions.

‘So I can just stay like this for a little while?’ she asks. ‘Do you need me to move more?’

I can only guess that writer, producer, star, and feminist, Ms. Dunham set up this scene to examine the habit of prioritizing men’s pleasure, while women forget about their own.

Along these lines, a number of my women students and blog readers have said that they watch porn to figure out what guys like — not because they enjoy it, themselves — either the sex on film or the sex moves they learn.

Also, 83% of my straight women students said they sometimes worried about whether they were “doing it right.” That can be a distraction, as expressed by this student who sometimes feared her face wouldn’t look right when climaxing:

I just hope it doesn’t look like I’m trying to catch flies.

Maybe that’s because women in porn and mainstream media all seem to orgasm in the same way. Their backs arch “just so,” mouths miming the perfect O. It’s called “the orgasm face.” That face is probably also moaning or screaming in sensual delight. And all of that pleasure emanates sans foreplay and within moments of penetration.

The images don’t accurately reflect the variety of real life experience. Or much of real life at all because: 1) not all women naturally make that “orgasm face,” 2) most take more than a few minutes to cum, and 3) outercourse is more likely to bring climax than intercourse.

These worries extend more broadly, say my students, like these two:

Sometimes I worry about whether I’m doing it right… Sex scenes make it seem like the woman always orgasms, and does it fast. For a long time I couldn’t orgasm during sex. And then later I could but it would take all night.

I’m often worried that I’ll do something wrong or make it uncomfortable. And I sometimes worry that I don’t seem enthusiastic enough. In porn, girls’ orgasms seem so exaggerated.

A lot of women worry so much about what their parters want that they ignore their own pleasure.

Yet most men enjoy themselves more when their partners are enjoying sex, too. More on that later.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 2, 2015, in feminism, objectification, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. That’s…tragic. Understandable, in that sexuality takes a lot of practice to learn what one likes, and to get used to being in that situation, so a certain amount of fumbling is to be expected, and, hopefully, enjoyed. But to have the acidity of self-doubt flung on there too just isn’t going to help anybody.

    Pressure to, as you say, ‘do it right’ causing anorgasmic women (or men), or erectile dysfunction, or whatever…it all just makes me madder when I hear people opposing adequate sex education. Our Puritan hangover is contaminating a joyful part of life. I understand that people don’t want to talk about sex with their kids any more than the kids want to talk about it with their parents, but to leave it up to porn to (mis)educate people is just a disservice to them.

    You do get me on my soapbox! Woah, I can see my house from up here!

    • Thanks for bringing your perspective to this. It seems to be an extremely common experience – and one which I think women are often unconscious about. Hate to say but been there, done that myself, so I get it. I’m hoping that just talking about it can help people to see something that they hadn’t seen before, realize that guys actually want their partners to be present to the experience. But I think that young women can feel a lot of pressure — energy that would be better used focusing on sensations and feeling into them.

  2. That dynamic of wanting to please men can definitely get magnified in the bedroom. I wonder in part because so many women experience their sexuality through the male gaze. Is it no wonder then that need for approval/validation. What can end up happening is performance more than authentic expression in that it is the woman who ends up losing out on being able to sink into her own pleasure while she is so busy worrying about his. There is also the notion that men know what to do to make us feel good when each of us are engineered differently- which is why it can be important to explore our own bodies and know what we like/don’t like and convey that. That becomes easier to do when we aren’t so focused on having a man tell us whether or not we are doing pleasure right.

    • You make some really good points. Yeah, I strongly suspect that the male gaze — and women learning to objectify themselves (whether they realize they’re doing it or not) — plays a huge role. And a lot of guys wouldn’t mind getting a little help but women can worry about making them feel bad, or, women don’t know enough about themselves too even be able to help.

  3. I think there are many, many women who have this fear with sex; are they pleasing their partner? or as the title indicates, am I doing it right? But who is to say what’s right from wrong? Sex is supposed to be enjoyable and having that mental block can really make having sex less than pleasurable, and potentially get to the point where it causes anxiety and the mention of sex brings those feelings back. I also believe that many women are afraid of disappointing their partner (while simultaneously neglecting their own needs) to the point of just doing anything that’s asked of them. I don’t think that watching porn is the best way to figure out “what men want’ because porn is often so extreme and exaggerated, it can be quite unrealistic, not to mention the lack of intimacy it brings when choosing to do that over actually communicating with each other. Women are so overly sexualized in our society that we end up placing so much of our value on that sexuality, and in turn pressure on ourselves, sexually, and causing distress in our sex lives.

  4. You make male gaze the root of all evil here. But there’s something that is customary for sex (reporoduction) and that is “an erection” … man needs to produce that. Without that sex doesn’t work.

    So if woman’s learning of male pleasure is a problem then you can say goodbye to human race.

    • Men don’t actually need to gaze to get erections. Men can actually get erections when they have sex in the dark. Tribal men manage to get erections and reproduce even though they don’t get aroused visually.

      Pretty much, men just need to know that they get to have sex and that’ll do it for them.

      And it’s not the root of all evil, but it can cause a lot of problems, sexually, for men and women alike. Women are often left unable to enjoy sex because they are too worried about how attractive they are or if they are doing it right. It can cause men problems too. See this:

      Does Sexual Objectification Lead to Bad Sex? https://broadblogs.com/2011/07/27/does-sexual-objectification-lead-to-bad-sex/

      And that gaze would be a lot less of a problem if our ideas of what is attractive weren’t so narrow — and unnecessarily so, Since there is such a wide variety of what is considered attractive globally. But evolutionary psychologists keep insisting that very narrow looks are indicative of reproductive fitness. Plus, advertisers make money by convincing people that they aren’t good enough and then offer products to “Help.” But it helps advertisers to have impossible ideals, Because then you can sell a never ending line of products.

  5. This is a nice point of view, and I share same feelings about “sex on porn doesn’t look same as in real life”. I been arguing with a friend a while ago about porn movies. I said to him that the way how sex looks on porn is so fake. For women, i feel is easy to make a guy feel comfortable, because of the porn they know what they like. Porn is like the fantasy of most men, than women. I argued with him by selecting the porn that actually looked natural and close to the reality. While he says the ones with the blond and very “sexy” girl were the best, and I said to him that it is a really really fake. He asked me “why?” and I said that, while you are doing sex you can relate the feeling like you do in movies. For example, when a movie makes a sad scene, you are most likely to feel sad. Same as porn, you can actually relate if the girl is actually enjoying or not by her expressions. And I would said, once again, most porn movies are made by the perspective of men (and produced) so they can fulfill their fantasies. When I saw the movie Don Jon with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I feel sad for the guy. Because this might happen with someone who watched a lot of porn. I am not saying everyone will feel it but it is possible. Been disappointed with the real sex, expecting to be like in the porn. The bright side of porn, is just for guys and girls who want to accomplish his fantasies and try new things. But personally, I prefer real sex, because “what ever happens” is actual real not fictitious.

  6. I personally watch the show Girls.. My cousin actually introduced me to it because he had heard good things about it. When we watch the show he asks me.. “Is this how you and your friends think? Is this how you do things?” and so on.. I feel like in a way Hannah portrays this kind of insecure girl who doesn’t know what she wants, or what she’s doing. Specifically she shows this when she’s with Adam. She is always focused on what he wants to do, how he feels etc.. She never puts her needs or wants above his. I think this is wrong because if she is hooking up with him its so she gets a pleasure out of it and so does he.. But she’s too worried about him to think of herself. Its important for girls to understand their vale and self worth in all aspects of life not just relationships because if they don’t their life is going to be filled with insecurities and doubts about themselves.. They will never have the chance to reflect on themselves and will always put the needs of others in front of their own.

    • I think this happens because women’s sexuality is repressed, And because women are taught to be sex objects (and I’m not accusing anyone because I have experienced this exact same thing myself) AND none of us really realize that that’s what’s happening. As I said, 88% of my women students have experienced this, At least some of the time.

  7. Timothy Dela Cruz

    It’s a little sad that many women are self-conscious in bed. To those who are, here’s a little hint: if a man was able to get you naked in his bed, he is not thinking about what the hell you are doing right or wrong, he is most likely thinking to himself “Holy crap, I got this beautiful naked woman in my bed, please don’t nut too fast.” Or something along that line. Plus, it is not so bad to learn as you go. Pleasing most guys in bed is not that difficult and our physiology isn’t that complicated either. Enjoy yourself and a man will enjoy you too.

  8. I think this is terrible and tragic. It is even more tragic that we still see such things in the media today. It shows that equality and change is still very far away. It is bad enough that men our shown seeing and treating women as sex objects, but it’s even worst when women are seen objectifying themselves. This is due to the fact that girl’s are taught at an early age to be sexy, submissive, and just be “objects”; boys are taught to see girl’s as such as well. Girl’s were taught to play with barbie and boy’s were taught to see the barbie doll figure as the ideal woman. I have not personally watched the show, but I have seen many other shows or movies that objectify women in the same manner or where women objectify themselves. Personally in the end, I think that men worry about pleasing their partners just as much as women worry about pleasing theirs. I think the key to answering this problem is that both women and men should stop “worrying” about pleasing their partners.

  9. This is a constant fear of mine, that I’m not doing it right and I know it’s also a fear of many of my friends. I think in general women tend to only focus on if the guy is happy and not themselves. They put other’s needs in front of their own when they should not. I think it’s sad that females have to constantly worry if they are doing something right and are self conscious, while that usually does not cross a guys mind. I think men do like pleasing women but if they don’t women tend to not say anything, but if the roles were reversed men would say something. Sex doesn’t end until the guy climaxes but it ends all the time before the women climaxes and I find this very unfortunate.

    I think a lot of it is just in women heads about being self conscious, guys see a naked women, they don’t see all the flaws that we see. I think women need to stress less about it and just have fun like guys do because worrying all the time about it does not make it enjoyable. Everyone needs to stop comparing real life sex with porn because porn is all an act to just please the viewer, it is nothing like the real thing.

  10. While I definitely agree that there is a pressure for women to be as dirty and as porn-y as possible, I wonder what the discussion of the flipside of this would be: The Starfish. The idea of the starfish is a woman who does not expect to enjoy sex and just lays there assuming the man is having the time of his life because his penis is inside of a vagina. I would say that this is also very bad. Firstly, it involves women not expecting sex to be enjoyable, but instead something to get through. Secondly, an inactive partner is not at all enjoyable regardless of your gender or your orientation. Lastly, it upholds the idea that sex is something that is done to women. It works against women trying to claim their sexualities in a societal context, and it also gets in the way of sex being a pleasurable and connective. The Porn Star and The Starfish are both trends that need to end.

  11. I agree that women are much more likely to let guys throw them around for their pleasure but not our own. I believe this is because women are raised and shown by media to be objects for male pleasure. Women are portrayed as obedient, attractive, submissive, etc., so that guys can seem more powerful. I think that this can explain why women still feel the need to pleasure the guys over themselves. I also think that porn is another thing that adds to males understanding of sexual intercourse. Porn shows men being dominant over the female and the female loving every second of it even if it is not what sex is like in real life. All of these factors make sex something that no one truly knows how to do without communication between the two people involved. I believe, now that women are becoming more dominant within society, that sexual behaviors will change as well.

  12. This seems to very accurately describe women prioritizing men’s pleasure and I’m certainly guilty of doing this before. I feel like there is much always more pressure put on women to pleasure male partners, which is constantly shown in society and media thanks to the influence of gender roles. If I got a dollar every time I saw a magazine article with tips and tricks about how to sexually please a man, I could pay off my college tuition and textbook costs three times over. Magazines aimed towards the male demographic rarely discuss how to sexually please females when females generally take longer and more effort to orgasm, so it seems illogical to be these way if it’s easier to sexually satisfy guys until the influence of the patriarchy is remembered.
    Unsatisfying sex relates to the same idea that if a marriage is failing, it’s the woman’s fault for not sacrificing enough for peace in the marriage, even when it seems more common for males to not satisfy their female partner enough in heterosexual engagements. This probably also stems from a lack of communication (and/or experience) and women being afraid to speak up about what they sexually desire.
    I’ve also noticed that same-sex partners have significantly less issues with sexual gratification, probably due to more understanding and better communication of what their same sex or gendered partner prefers. Relationships or sexual engagements involving a transgender or transsexual partner also requires more open communication about sexual preferences, which tends to lead to a healthier dynamic.
    Aside from how skewed and unhealthy most pornography is, especially for expectations in sex, queer porn aims to combat the negative ideas demonstrated by the mainstream porn industry. Queer porn, like the works of Courtney Trouble, seeks to defy the gender norms and sexual dominance over women. I got to attended one of her lectures on Stanford where she talked about her work and spoke out how all her productions are with consent within the comfort levels and desires of her actors, to empower them in a safe way with communication and STD protection. If the porn industry sought out goals similar to this, there would be much healthier expectations and communication between all genders with far more satisfying sexual encounters and relationships.

  13. I think that a lot of the time, women question whether or not they are pleasin their partner rather than focusing on themselves and what may feel good to THEM. We can go either way and say that women aren’t always focusing on themselves and what their needs may be, or even that men aren’t doing a better job of trying to please their partners. I just think that a lot of the time women feel this pressure to not only please their partners, but to also have that attitude of wanting to come off sexy. They may be focusing a lot on how they may look to their partner.

  14. From my personal experience, I agree that men get off more, or get more excited when their partner is acting really into it. But then as a woman when I’m not feeling up to it I still feel like I need to act like I’m getting off or really enjoying it and maybe it’s for the mans pleasure or maybe if I feel like I fake it maybe then I’ll start to enjoy it. I don’t know. But in our society we are pressured so much of the time to get the man off and act like we love it even though we’re not, and it’s all for the man. Why isn’t our enjoyment just as worthy? Why is our sexual fufillment not as valued?

    • “Why isn’t our enjoyment just as worthy? Why is our sexual fufillment not as valued?”

      Good questions. And it’s complicated. I plan on writing something to try to answer this question within the next few weeks, so stay tuned — hope you don’t mind if I quote you asked KG.

  15. This post made me think about the times that I have had these same thoughts. I think is definitely hard not to think about if you are “doing it right”. Part of the reason I think us as girls do it and think about it, especially in the bedroom is because we want to make sure that they are being pleased and would want to do it again another time. Its really unfortunate that girl are constantly thinking about if they are doing it right or not because they don’t get to just enjoy it. I see how overthinking and worrying about it can cause a girl to slow down when she cums. You’re so caught up in pleasing him that you can’t enjoy it yourself.
    I also agree with watching porn for an understanding of what your partner wants. I can say I have done it for the exact same reasons. I didn’t watch it to please myself or because I enjoyed it, I simply did it because I wanted to know what, why, and how I could please him.
    These same thoughts that some, other students have said, have gone through my mind as well and it really sucks because you’re not relaxing and enjoying it like you could be.

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