Updated: Mar 10
TW: pornography, sexual assault, violence in sex, BDSM, descriptions of sex, sexism.
For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to performativity within heterosexual sex and mainly the impact this has on women who engage in sexual activities with a man. This is because I do not have experience of and have not researched performativity within sex in the LGBT+ community.
What do we mean by ‘performative sex’?
Performative sex is the treatment of sexual acts as a ‘performance.’ This means having sex in a way that does not provide you with pleasure or help you connect with your partner. Having this type of sexual intercourse can be damaging towards an individual’s self-esteem and their relationship with their partner.
Performative sex is most commonly something people experience in heterosexual sex involving penetration. This is because it is heavily influenced by the male gaze and heteronormative pornography. The idea that penetrative sex is the only way to have sex is a myth many people have internalised from porn and male gaze fantasies.
Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, writes that ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’ The narrative of sexual interactions we witness by watching mainstream porn perpetuates gender imbalance within sex. Porn is predominantly heteronormative and performative as it focuses on the pleasure of the man in the scene. The pleasure of the woman involved is often neglected or it is presented in a performative manner, with unrealistic depictions of female orgasms. This teaches our culture that there is one ‘proper’ way to have sex, with the sex being centred on male pleasure and penetration. Porn never shows healthy communication between partners, discussion of kinks and it rarely shows realistic female pleasure.
In performative sex, the lack of female pleasure is not the only reason why it’s problematic. It is also common for porn to be overtly violent and objectifying. The Netflix documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ states that 40% of pornography depicts violence against women. As this image of sex is extremely common in porn, it normalises a damaging idea of sex as inherently violent.
Many people having sex for the first time only have knowledge of sex from pornographic material. This is harmful for many people, particularly young women, who are sexually inexperienced. The normalisation of sex as violent can make it difficult to identify whether or not the sex you are engaging in is healthy.
With my first sexual partner, I felt frequently pressured into sexual acts which I did not enjoy but felt obliged to perform as he made me believe that it was ‘what girls should do.’ I didn’t want to participate in these acts as they felt aggressive and I did not derive any pleasure from them. However, we were both influenced by the performative sex we had witnessed in porn and we had internalised the idea that sex should look like the violent and heavy scenes we frequently saw in pornography. I only realised how damaging this was when I learned more about sex.
Signs of performative sex:
Not feeling satisfied or happy with your sex life. I have personally been in circumstances where I thought it was normal to not experience pleasure during sex. I felt that it was something I was doing to benefit the man I was having sexual relations with, rather than something for us to both participate in and enjoy together.
The most common activity in performative sex is possibly faking orgasms. This appears to be a common issue amongst women who engage in sexual relations with men. Say it Loud’s graphic designer Meg posted her ‘Stop Faking Orgasms’ artwork on Instagram, asking ‘do you think you’ve faked an orgasm?’ https://www.instagram.com/p/CB8ls3eBAW3/
The comments on this post gave a range of opinions which show the problems of performative sex and faking orgasms.
- One follower commented: ‘there’s no “bad sex” just lack of communication. If we all started telling our partners what we like and what we don’t like in bed the outcome would be good.’
This comment provides a really useful perspective. The issue is not necessarily a man’s inability to pleasure their sexual partner. The problem is rather the lack of adequate sexual education, especially on female pleasure and the lack of communication between partners.
- Another commented: ‘I legit had never had an orgasm until recently like I’ve faked it every time and didn’t even realise.’
The lack of education on female pleasure unfortunately results in many of us not being aware of what orgasms feel like or how to stimulate one. When the male gaze is normalised, we internalise
- A more worrying comment reads ‘faking an orgasm has brought me a feeling of safety from retaliation from some of my past partners.’
No one should be in a situation where faking an orgasm feels like a mandatory way to protect their own safety. The fact that women have felt like this shows how the male gaze is extremely damaging for both men and women. If you have had an encounter such as this and you feel unsafe, please contact the Say it Loud team for support (information at the bottom of this piece).
Many women may feel embarrassed to express their sexual desires to their partner. This again, is a result of mainstream ideas of sexuality being centred on the male gaze. However, by communicating something as simple as what feels good and what doesn’t, you can make a start in enjoying sex, developing a healthier sex life and connecting with your partner.
Another concerning sign of a performative sex life is an acceptance or feeling of obligation to participate in acts which you do not enjoy. Experiencing any form of pressure from your partner to do this is a form of sexual abuse and should not be considered an inevitable aspect of sex. Research should be conducted before engaging in sexual activities for the first time.
One example of this is engaging in BDSM practices without adequate research. The normalisation of BDSM and rough sex in porn perpetuates the idea that this is the only proper way to have sex. Whilst there is nothing wrong with engaging in BDSM practices, it must be done in a way that is fully informed and consensual. Much of mainstream porn depicts BDSM as violent and fulfilling male pleasure, with the woman being exploited. The most important aspects of BDSM as being consensual with healthy communication is not shown.
What you can do:
Learn about your own body and sexuality before having sex with others. Masturbate in your own time and learn what you enjoy. If you understand what feels good for you then you can communicate this to your sexual partner. No one will be able to understand your body better than you can and knowing yourself intimately can be an act of self-love.
Destigmatise talking about sexual pleasure by discussing your kinks with your partner. If you are interested in trying something then talk about it beforehand instead of just assuming that they want you to do it. This is particularly important with BDSM. You should never do anything that you don’t want to do and you should never expect your partner to do something they don’t want to do.
Let your partner know when you are not enjoying something. You shouldn’t feel guilty about pointing out when something does not feel good and helping to guide them towards making you feel good. In a healthy relationship, your partner should want to please you and be able to take guidance on how to do this!
Be mindful of the type of porn you watch and the attitudes it perpetuates. Understand that porn is unrealistic and don’t try to recreate certain sexual acts with your prior knowledge only being from porn. Research how to partake in activities such as BDSM in a safe manner.
If you need any support:
If you would like to talk about any damaging experiences you have previously had with sex or if you feel that you may have been sexually abused, please send a message to the Say it Loud team on Instagram. We also have a Facebook page you can message or you can send us an email. You deserve support and we are always happy to listen to you.
Netflix Documentary – ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ (2015)
Laura Mulvey – Visual and Other Pleasures (1989)
Meg Primmer’s art - https://www.megprimmer.com/