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What Is “Bad Sex”?

~ May, 2021 ~ While Tarana Burke first started the #MeToo conversation in 2006, it’s really been since October 2017 that it took off as a global movement and it seems like it has faded to the background a bit in light of all that happened in 2020. This is unfortunate. The #MeToo movement has been about how a person, usually someone with some degree of power and/or privilege, uses that power/privilege to try and force a sexual interaction with another person with less power or privilege who is not seeking a sexual interaction. And then what happens next is a complicated, confusing, and often overwhelming mix of sex, power, exploitation, manipulation, threats, retaliation, inequality, betrayal of trust, and pain. It seems like the #MeToo movement has been highlighting the idea of “Bad Sex”.

And with the #MeToo examples, Bad Sex is often understood to be about a lack of consent or where coercion, threats, or manipulation occurred. Let me be clear that a lack of consent, coercion, threats, and manipulation absolutely make a sexual encounter “bad”. But it is also alarming to this sex therapist that these are the examples of Bad Sex that we know and understand as bad. It tells me the bar is really, really low and our collective understanding of Sex In General is still at the basic, introductory, or beginner’s level. Shouldn’t the absence of these be the bare minimum in a sexual encounter?

As is often the case, when we start to talk about sex a whole bunch of stuff comes up for people like memories, hopes, fears, desires, and feelings.

And I would argue that lack of consent, coercion, threats, or manipulation isn’t Bad Sex — it’s really Abusive And Violent Sex. And so that begs the question: what, then, is Bad Sex?

Some examples of Bad Sex

To me, Bad Sex is when any of the following occur:

– sex that isn’t mutually and enthusiastically consensual from start to finish

– sex where any partner is under the influence of alcohol or drugs to the point of impaired perception and/or loss of physical sensation

– sex where any partner does not know their own body’s sexual response

– sex when partners do not discuss before and during what they like, don’t like, their turn on’s, their turn off’s, or their hard and soft limits

– sex where sexual boundaries are not respected

– sex that isn’t adequately negotiated to all partners’ satisfaction

– sex where partners do not discuss and/or agree on safer sex practices, addressing both pregnancy and STI risks

– sex that causes unwanted physical pain to any partner

– sex where any partner feels pressured to have sex or do any sexual act or that they cannot freely say no without negative consequences to their person and/or priorities

– sex where any partner does not feel emotional, relational, and physical pleasure

– sex where any partner does not feel positive afterwards

Some of these are legal offenses, others are moral or ethical offenses, and some are basically inconsiderate behavior. Some can cause physical or emotional trauma while others are just, well, sh***y experiences.

As is often the case, when we start to talk about sex a whole bunch of stuff comes up for people like memories, hopes, fears, desires, and feelings. As a result, it has been difficult for us culturally to separate Abusive And Violent Sex from Bad Sex or take a more nuanced approach and piece out one type of Bad Sex offense from another; they all get lumped into one category. And that’s particularly problematic for us all because as we contemplate all these different experiences, we become acutely aware how many of us do not have or have not been taught the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to keep ourselves sexually safe, set sexual boundaries and accept others’ sexual boundaries with grace, or communicate, negotiate, or self-soothe. Certainly makes me think about how all of us, not just children, could benefit from being taught about “tricky people”, the new version of the old and inaccurate “stranger danger” concept and what to do when we encounter them. Here’s an interesting thought exercise: what are some behavioral traits that a sexually tricky person demonstrates? How good are you at identifying them in the moment? What do you do when you notice a person is a sexually tricky person? Or what gets in your way from asserting your needs with a sexually tricky person?

It’s time we get serious about changing sex education

If we as a society want to have the above examples of both Abusive And Violent Sex and Bad Sex decrease in frequency and severity, then it means we change our sex education. I’m talking a total overhaul. Teaching pregnancy and STI prevention and basic anatomy (and I mean basic — how many of you clitoris havers were actually taught about the clitoris?) is not enough and never has been. I would argue it has only led to two things: all the Abusive And Violent Sex we have been talking about in these last few years and all this Bad Sex people are having that I and so many of my fellow sex therapists and sex educators must help them address.

Only solo masturbation happens with ourselves — the rest of it happens within the context of relationships, however brief, with other people. “Teaching about sex” also means teaching self-knowledge and relationship skills. It means we grow up and let go of what is not collectively serving us anymore. This includes our beliefs, attitudes, laws, and ethics about sex. Are we ready to advance to the intermediate level of understanding Sex In General?

© 2021 Diane Gleim

A version of this article originally appeared here on


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