“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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My girlfriend and I are in a super great relationship! We’re loving, fun and understanding with each other. There’s just one thing: She won’t go down on me. We have an active sex life otherwise, and she likes receiving head, so I’m not sure what the issue is. Her excuses range from the taste/smell of a vagina being “gross” (which pisses me off, to be honest), that “the whole thing is very complicated” (what does that even mean? What’s complicated? Oral sex? My pussy? Her feelings about it? Yikes!) and that she’s nervous (even though she’s certainly not shy about other things we do).Listen, I’m pansexual, and I’ve dated a range of people who’ve had no problem with it. Men always get a bad rap for not going down on their girlfriends, but I didn’t think this would be happening to me in a queer relationship. Isn’t the whole point of being queer that you don’t have to put up with this nonsense? (I’m joking…mostly.) It feels embarrassing to say this, but oral sex is a big part of sex for me and my friends are telling me that if she won’t do it, I shouldn’t do it either. I don’t want to pressure or shame her—and I definitely don’t want to be a creepy boundary-pusher—but she doesn’t seem to have a problem receiving and that doesn’t seem fair. Honestly, it seems kind of selfish and entitled, and I don’t like the implication that my pussy isn’t good enough for her. What’s up with that?
— Pissed Off Pussy!
Wouldn’t be it be wonderful if queer sex was always as easy, smooth and unrestrainedly sexy as heterosexual sex is said to be stiff, staid and repressed? (Sorry, heterosexuals. I call it like I hear it.) Alas! The society we live in is deeply shaming, shut down and traumatized when it comes to sex—and even outside of that, sex is loaded with complex feelings and meanings. Even the most liberated, open partnerships are susceptible to breakdowns in communication around sex. And this, I believe, is what we have here, POP!: A breakdown in communication.
Let’s start by affirming that you have sexual needs, POP!, and your desire for oral sex is valid. This is something that too often gets missed in the cultural dialogue about sex, even (or perhaps especially) in queer and feminist communities. People (not everyone, but lots of people) have erotic needs and erotic selves, and if we don’t acknowledge these eroticisms as being real it becomes almost impossible to have truly honest, authentic discussions about sex with our partners.
Focusing on consent and not overstepping boundaries (a topic that is central to queer politics and that has been in the spotlight recently as a result of the #MeToo movement) is an essential step in preventing intimate partner violence. However, I believe that this is only half of a crucial conversation towards a truly healthy sexual culture. This is the million-dollar question, POP!: How can we embody and express our erotic needs while also respecting the boundaries of others?
I’m no expert (I’m not sure anyone is), but I suspect the first step is really understanding what our sexual needs are. So, if I may, let’s really reflect on your feelings about receiving oral, shall we? As in, why is this particular pleasure so important to you?
Perhaps it’s purely about physical sensation—a type of sensate pleasure that, for you, is intrinsically linked with receiving oral sex. If this the case, then I wonder: Are there other types of physical stimulation that might be able to replicate this experience? Would getting creative with toys, lubricated manual stimulation or other techniques also do the trick? (This isn’t to say that you need to abandon the idea of your partner going down on you just yet, but it’s useful information to know going into the conversation).
Or perhaps receiving oral has more to do with a particular role or fantasy you value—the emotional experience of someone giving that type of attention, in that particular way. For many people, and particularly some queer women, the idea of oral sex is very closely tied with relational identity: The essence of being queer, of having “real” queer sex, with another queer person. (Anal sex occupies a similar place in gay male sex culture.) For such folks, not having oral sex might throw into question whether the relationship is “really queer” or “really lesbian”; it might signal that the relationship has not reached a necessary level of intimacy. What does intimacy mean to you, POP!? What lets you know that the sex you are having is real and indicative of a loving relationship?
Perhaps, again, giving and receiving oral sex is a sign of reciprocity and respect for your body, POP!. When I read your letter, I really feel that anger and hurt you express around the idea that your pussy is “gross,” “complicated” or “not good enough” for your partner. What an awful feeling this must be! Genitalia, particularly women and trans people’s genitalia, are already far too stigmatized and shamed in dominant culture. Of course you want to feel that your pussy is worthy of attention, touch, pleasure and respect. How can your partner make you feel good about your pussy, up to, and including, oral sex, POP!?
These last three paragraphs are just a few examples of what oral sex might mean to someone. I encourage you to dig deep, POP!. You might actually want to journal or otherwise write down what oral sex means to you; keep going until the reflection feels complete. I want you to know that it’s valid and okay to feel whatever you write down on that piece of paper.
Once you have a strong sense of what you want to get from oral sex with your partner, POP!, I would suggest talking to your partner about it. Set aside a good amount of time that works for the both of you, when you’re not likely to be interrupted or distracted—don’t start the conversation in the middle of an argument or during a high stress time. I strongly suggest having the conversation in a place where you don’t usually have sex.
You might also want to set the boundary that you won’t have sex during or directly after the conversation, to give both of you time to think before committing to trying anything erotic. This will hopefully alleviate any pressure she might feel and relieve you of the anxiety of being a “creepy boundary pusher.”
As always when it comes to relationship conversations, empathetic curiosity will likely go a long way to help you understand one another. What is it about giving oral sex that your partner doesn’t like? I would caution here that while you may feel some temptation to bring up your past partners who have enjoyed giving oral sex, this is probably not going to be helpful. Sex is a sensitive, unique experience for each individual, and comparisons to others are likely to only increase conflict and alienation in a relationship. Let your partner know that it’s okay for her not to like it—but also that your interactions so far have left you feeling hurt and wondering if she finds your body “gross” or “not good enough” in some way.
When presented in an honest, vulnerable way, this information might help your partner reach past any surface, defensive reactions and find some deeper answers for you. Give her a good amount of time to respond to you—this kind of conversation simply can’t be rushed.
And once this door is opened, POP!, be ready for a wide spectrum of responses. As I said, sex (especially queer sex) and sex organs are loaded with feelings, meanings and memory. Every human being has a unique relationship to sex and sexuality, as well as a deep, rich story with their erotic self. Your partner might have some painful memories or associations related to giving oral sex. Or, she simply might be worried about doing a good job and disappointing you! There’s no way to know—and no way to address the tension in your sex life—until you talk about it.
If it turns out that your partner going down on you just isn’t on the table, POP!, I want you to know that it isn’t about you—it isn’t about your body being bad or wrong in some way. It may simply be that it’s something your partner can’t do for you right now. This is where having a clear sense of your erotic needs is helpful: What else could your partner do or say (that fits into her boundaries of pleasure and desire) that would make your pussy feel hot, sexy, beautiful, delicious or whatever you want it to feel?
It may be, however, that oral sex is absolutely indispensable to you, POP!. Perhaps you will accept no substitutes for the singular delight of cunnilingus, and perhaps this is something your partner absolutely cannot give to you. What then?
Here, the queer tradition of polyamory may hold some solutions for you; many segments of queer culture have long embraced the notion that we cannot expect one partner to fulfill all of our various erotic needs and dreams. Perhaps some manner of open relationship or polyamorous arrangement could help take the pressure off you and your partner around oral sex—though this conversation, too, must be held with delicacy and grace. Go slow, and make sure to explore the ways in which polyamory might positively or negatively affect the both of you.
And if you bring it up, make sure to reassure your partner that this is not about a failing or deficiency on her part, but rather a need of your own. At its best, opening a relationship is a mutual (not unilateral!) decision that expands and improves the relationship rather than covering up gaps or conflicts.
Held safely and compassionately, this conversation could be the beginning of a journey toward seeing each other in totally new ways. This is an opportunity for both you and your partner to delve deeper into each other’s erotic needs and erotic selves—to go just a little bit (or perhaps a lot!) deeper with each other’s fantasies, curiosities and vulnerabilities. It’s also a chance to explore consent through the lens of affirmation rather than rejection: You’re looking for creative ways to get each other off and fully meet each others’ needs that are also psychologically safe. What’s hotter than that?
The liberating potential of queer sex and sexuality can be an endless spiral into pleasure, but it’s also a spiral into awkwardness, challenging discussion and self-reflection—and sometimes even pain or trauma. Love, self-love and curious compassion are the keys to this labyrinth: They allow us to navigate the complex web of needs and boundaries with care and safe-enough experimentation.
Go forth with your partner in a loving, self-loving quest for pleasure, POP!. You deserve it.
Need advice in a hurry? In our new video series “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” Xtra columnist and author Kai Cheng Thom offers concrete suggestions to help keep your relationship happy and healthy in these harrowing times. Watch the first episode below.