Non-penetrative sex: Shame, heteronormativity and climaxing without the destination
By: Xiaoran Shi
After I had penetrative sex for the first time, I did not feel whole. Not in the way the young adult pulp fiction I furtively devoured as a pre-pubescent tomboy promised me I would. Nor did I feel more like a woman. Not in the way a flower blooms, tilting towards the sun when a hummingbird drinks at its stamen.
Mostly, I remember feeling disappointed. Looking out at the world through the eyes of someone newly initiated, I saw nothing I had not seen before. On the walk home from his dusty Marrickville flat, I was seized by the horror of a familiar warmth snaking its way between my legs. Ducking into a nearby public bathroom, I lifted up my dress in front of the polished metal mirror streaky with disinfectant and saw a thin red line running down my thigh. I did not disintegrate then and there as my worst fears calculated I would. Instead, I continued home, letting my dress fall to my knees and the blood to dry on its own terms.
For years, the epistemic void of ‘virginity’ clung to my skin, marking me out as though by scarlet letter, as juvenile, cowardly, unenlightened. But now that I had passed through the threshold and knew what others knew, I was bereft all the same. It was a knowledge not in service of myself, my body, my desires; rather it was a votive knowledge, given up to appease what was expected of me, my body, my desires.
Sex has and continues to be defined by the act of phallic penetration. Summarily valorised as the romantic, sexual, biological ideal, it is the momentum that seemingly carries intimacies, subjectivities and our very species into perpetuity. The hegemonic narrative of penetrative sex is liable for abbreviating intercourse to a crude arithmetic of insertion/reception, and as such, any sexual event that falls short of the penetrative absolute is held in contempt. Non-penetrative sex does not satisfy the categorical imperative of ‘real sex’ and thus disrupts the myth’s cultural sovereignty.
Non-penetrative sex can only be made sense of when conceived of as an abortive launch, an enervated prologue that peters out before the main act. We need only look to the semantics of ‘foreplay’ to behold how penetration is entrenched as the most significant and singularly legitimate sex act.
In our current language of the erotic, what precedes penetrative sex is, quite literally, mere child’s play. Prevailing ideology instructs that non-penetrative sex should be regarded as a perfunctory prelude, that its existence is entirely contingent on a penetrative conclusion. This is sex as teleology: all sex prefigures penetration just as all roads lead to Rome.
By the same token, the history of non-penetrative sex has long struggled to negotiate its relation to paradigms of religious conservatism and perceived sexual delinquency. Indeed, it is crucial to recognise the deeply problematic elements that have informed advocacy for non-penetrative sex, particularly for women, and how such repressive forces have contributed to the ongoing fetishisation of penetrative sex.
Plainly put, patriarchal codes authorise the supremacy of male desires, and the corollary formulation of the ‘feminine’ as a vessel for the resolution of masculine libido. This has resulted in a sclerotic gender binary that at once venerates virginal purity and phallic penetration, thereby giving birth to a political economy of sex where the height of male desire corresponds with the height of female anxiety.
Yet, even for those who do not subscribe to the heteronormative status quo, its discursive strictures retain control over the logistics of their sex lives. For Tina, a queer woman from Melbourne who now lives in Sydney, the gendered power dynamic is precisely the source of her aversion to penetrative sex. Tina solely enjoys receiving clitoral stimulation, and attributes this preference to her conflation of penetrative sex with heteronormative sex, which “at its most benign, leads to awkward sex and at its worst, to sexual violence.”
“I enjoy being able to pleasure my partner, even if it’s via fingering, which mimics the mechanics of penetrative sex. But even so, the overall feeling I get when engaging in penetrative-style sex is one of anatomical inadequacy. Fingers are a poor substitute for a penis,” she explains.
Here we see the coercive power exerted by the heteronormative paradigm, which has effectively crippled Tina’s sexual confidence insofar as her penis envy, so to speak, is a tacit acknowledgement that anything other than phallic penetration amounts to something of a charade.
This is complicated by the fact that Georgia*, Tina’s partner, who was previously in a long-term heterosexual relationship, regularly orgasmed as a result of phallic penetration. The couple has reoriented their sexual relationship away from a focus on orgasm, but Georgia has confessed to initial apprehensions about whether her enjoyment of penetrative sex called the “legitimacy” of her queerness into question.
“I can’t help but associate penetration with a penis. I know so many queer women who just focus on their clitoris in having sex and I definitely wanted to be like, “look at me enjoying sex without it,”” she said.
The couple personify a symmetry of symptoms; Georgia enjoys penetrative sex whereas Tina does not, yet both women are haunted by its misogynistic and heteronormative implications. In this way, penetrative sex can no longer be divorced from phallic penetration—we live in eternal abeyance to its injunctions.
An end to the totalising dominance of penetrative sex, however, does not lie in its condemnation wholesale. Instead, rehabilitation of the mainstream erotic narrative is located in emancipating contemporary non-penetrative sexual practice from the shame and deviance traditionally attached to it, and expanding sexual discourse beyond the penis-in-vagina parameters that currently constrain it.
Xiaoran is a reticent law student and has written for Overland, New Matilda, VICE, Daily Life and more. You can follow her inane stream-of-consciousness on Twitter @XiaoranShi.