During last weekend’s torrential snow dump, over a homemade orange Fanta snow slushie and after many hours of binge-watching Sex and the City, I started pondering the differences between men’s and women’s expectations and fears in bed.
In general, we seem to think that we have an idea about what causes our partners to freak out between the sheets, and some of us also work diligently to conceal our own sexual concerns from our partners, lest we risk ruining their experience, embarrassing ourselves, or both. But, considering how infrequently people talk about these topics with their lovers, how much do we really know, and what things would we have in common?
That afternoon, I picked up my phone and started texting friends to ask (1) their greatest concerns, currently or in the past, while becoming sexually intimate with partners, and (2) what they thought people of a different sex (for men, women; and for women, men) found most stressful or concerning during sexual intimacy with partners.
I surveyed twenty-four folks between the ages of eighteen and thirty (one genderqueer person whose preferred pronouns include “she” and “they”, one pre-transition transwoman, eleven cis-women, and eleven cis-men). My sample was entirely self-selected and mostly upper-middle class, Caucasian, and heterosexual. All respondents participated voluntarily for no compensation other than my undying appreciation.
Almost unilaterally, women predicted that men would be concerned about sexual stamina and performance.
This included him living up to his partner’s expectations (whether or not he knew what those expectations were), him sexually pleasuring his partner, him bringing his partner to orgasm, and him not daydreaming or losing focus on his sexual performance and causing his erection to prematurely deflate.
Women also predicted that men would be concerned about having insufficiently sized penises, validating their masculinity, making sure that they and their partners have a good time and respect each other afterward, if men wanted to act out a sexual fantasy or position that they thought would disinterest their partners, if their female partners’ crotches would look or smell offensive, and if the men would accidentally hurt their partners by acting too physically dominant, even at their partners’ requests for rougher sex.
One woman predicted that if the man was only interested in a hookup and not interested in a long-term relationship, he was probably most concerned with his own sexual pleasure, and with his erection lasting a long time and looking large to his partner, but not so much for making her orgasm, despite the social pressure on him to be “good” at sex. She stated that he probably would not care about his partner’s orgasm unless they were already in a relationship.
Another woman remarked that a man probably would not be worried about being objectified by his partner or being shamed by society for having sex, in direct contrast to how society uses both phenomena against women.
Men’s greatest concerns were, as expected, mostly related to penile tumescence. Would his erection last as long as he needed it to last for his partner? Would his erection last while putting on a condom? Would he have an erection at all? Would any pre-existing medical issues create a problem with blood flow or reduced sex drive?
Interestingly, most of my male participants did not identify if these concerns were related to their partners’ pleasure, avoiding their own embarrassment, or both.
Other concerns were related to sexual pleasure, itself. Would he be able to orgasm? Would he orgasm too early? Would his partner orgasm? What should he do if his partner didn’t orgasm, or if he didn’t think he was actually helping his partner orgasm? Is he doing “it” right? Should he change positions? Is his partner enjoying the transaction? Would his inexperience be problematic?
Communication also seemed to be a point of interest. What would he say to his partner if his erection didn’t last? What would he say if he didn’t orgasm? Does he tell his partner when he’s about to orgasm? How would he know how to sexually please his partner if they don’t volunteer instructions?
Another top concern was accidentally hurting his partner, vaginally or otherwise, from his weight, strength, or various body parts inadvertently landing where they shouldn’t. (The phrase, “cervix punch,” was my favorite descriptor offered. Terrible visual…)
A few men — meaning that most of the below items were stated by one man each and were not patterns in my sample — stated other concerns of if housemates would overhear him or his partner during sex, if the condom would break, if he’d look good naked, if he and his partner were both clean and hygienic, if he and his partner were “effortlessly” connected on a personal level, if his bedroom smelled weird or his bed looked gross, if his partner has any sexually-transmitted diseases, if his partner would be good in bed, if he’d accidentally say the wrong partner’s name mid-act, if his partner would notice if he touched non-sexual body parts (foot fetish, for example), crossing paths with women who he felt he had sexually disappointed in the past, if people he respects would think less of him for sexually pursuing a particular partner, and if his partner would have too much belly fat.
For casual hookups between partners who were not dating and were meeting for the first time, there was also concern if his partner would like him upon initial meeting, and if there might be potential for a deeper, committed relationship later on.
Men, however, almost unilaterally predicted that women would be most concerned with their own physical appearance.
Men also predicted that women would be concerned about pleasing their partners sexually, not being able to orgasm with their partners, and not injuring egos if they aren’t able to orgasm with their partners. One man identified not being “stinky” or “super hairy” as an additional potential fret, presumably in reference to vulvas.
As it turns out, the women I sampled were most concerned with accidental body processes (farting, peeing, and/or queefing), if her partner would be attentive to her needs, her partner’s sexual satisfaction, her own sexual satisfaction and capabilities, and her relationship with her partner after sex — including if she does not wish to initiate or maintain a relationship, and if he will respect her.
Other concerns were focused on health issues. Does her partner have any sexually-transmitted diseases? Would their rougher sex leave any marks of evidence on her body (dark hickies, bruising, etc.)? Would she accidentally become pregnant?
Sexual experience and preferences were also of concern. What is her partner’s sexual history? Will she be able to orgasm? What if her partner wants sex more often than she does and in positions she doesn’t like? What if her or her partner’s public hair length is offensive to either of them? Will she and her partner both give and receive pleasure equally? Will her partner think she’s adequately sexually skilled? Will her partner be gentle or rough enough?
Some concerns were centered specifically on her partner. Is she genuinely sexually attracted to her partner? Will her partner disclose the details of their sexual experience(s) to anyone? What is her partner thinking about, particularly if a male partner is giving her a blank stare during sex? Will their power balance match up (one partner being more dominant in the moment, and the other being more submissive in the moment, as opposed to two dominants or two submissives)? Will she take “too long” to orgasm and unintentionally frustrate her partner? If they are — or would like to become — a committed couple, is there a strong emotional connection?
Additional concerns included body image insecurities; witnesses, if her housemates will overhear her having sex with her partner, and particularly if they overhear her and think she’s lazy or unathletic; and potential pain from the length of her partner’s fingernails if she would like to be fingered, and if her partner’s hands or mouth have recently been near spicy food, hand sanitizer, or anything else that would sting her crotch.
A couple of the women also pointed out a discrepancy in their sexual priorities. If their rendezvous is just for a hookup, either as a one-night-stand or an ongoing fuckbuddyship, she is more likely to focus on her own pleasure, first and foremost. However, if she is in a committed relationship with her partner, she will prioritize his pleasure as much as — or sometimes more than — her own.
Aside from vaginal pain, accidental impregnation, or contracting diseases, my greatest concern in bed is of my partner not fully expressing (either from not feeling comfortable to fully express, or from him not knowing) his sexual wants, needs, limits, and expectations. I need to be able to trust that my partner will tell me everything he knows now and will immediately interrupt our sexual intimacy to discuss new thresholds of nonconsensual discomfort as we discover them.
Now, while it would be bad science to generalize anything discussed here to the general population, this certainly gives some interesting topics for further research — and for discussion between you and your partners.
For example, although the women I surveyed predicted that the strength of an erection would be of enormous concern to men (and it is), they did not predict that some men might stress about their ability to even have an erection in the first place. A few women also predicted that penis size would be of great concern to men, yet none of the men I surveyed identified it as such.
The men, on the other hand, predicted that women would be much more concerned with their own physical appearance in the presence of a partner than my respondents reported. In fact, most of my female respondents did not mention that as a concern at all.
Further, no men identified pregnancy as a potential concern for them or for women. Condoms breaking was mentioned, but not pregnancy, specifically. Although many of the women I surveyed did not identify pregnancy as a concern, either, most of my female friends have experienced at least one pregnancy scare over the course of their sexually active lives, and if I asked them outright if they are concerned of accidental pregnancy, I hypothesize that I would receive a larger affirmative response.
Another point of interest is that nobody identified orgasm quality as a concern, merely orgasm presence. Also, most people answered my questions in terms of vaginal (and occasionally anal or oral) intercourse, rather than any other form of sexual intimacy.
My goal with this project was to investigate to what extent we share commonalities when it comes to sexual fears, and from the looks of the responses I received, the young folks in my life bear a heavy overlap.
The most common pattern I found was that both men and women prioritized their partners’ sexual satisfaction among their utmost concerns.
It is important to note that I only collected open-ended responses, rather than offering multiple choices from a pre-selected list, because I didn’t want to influence my respondents or inhibit their raw feedback. That said, if I was to make a list of everything listed in this post and re-ask every participant to identify with which points they related, I bet we would see even more similarities.
As is the takeaway message with most of my sex and relationship posts, the moral of the story all comes down to open, honest communication between and among partners. We need more open discussion on taboo topics like these so that people can see that they are not alone in their worries. You, your partners, and your peers have a lot more in common in bed than you might think.