Sexual instruction manuals perpetuate the notion that, despite the apparent diversity of ways to have sex, there’s just one right way for men to be lovers.
I enjoy sex shops. I’m always amazed by the ever-widening diversity of toys and novelties. But I’m consistently bothered by the books: those sexual instruction manuals with titles like How to Become a Better Lover and 43 Ways to Drive Her Wild. Sex shops aren’t the only places that sell these books, of course. You can find them in most bookstores, on daytime television, and in magazines. While on the surface these instructional guides seem to encourage discussions of sex, I’d argue that sometimes they may have the opposite effect, discouraging men from engaging in productive discussions about sex with their partners.
These books and articles too often champion a one-size-fits-all model of sex. They imply that there are universal standards for sexual pleasure and that there is a “right” way to please a partner that one can learn by reading a guide and applying a set of rules to all future lovers. Providing instructions for sex implies that there is a shortcut to learning to be a good partner and that somehow we should enter each sexual relationship with the pre-existing ability to please the other person when that’s simply not true.
Too often, we perpetuate the myth that there are two groups of men: those who instinctively know how to have sex and those who do not. The former group consists of the desirables—strong, virile men who specialize in giving orgasms and spreading happiness to men and women; they’re mercenaries that you call when you “need one.” The latter group, supposedly ignorant of the intricacies of sex, was once a group to be avoided but can learn the “correct” way to have sex through a myriad of available texts.
Because sexual proficiency is a core tenet of masculinity we are expected to already know how to have sex well, and there is stigma around asking our partners if there are ways we can improve our performance. We neglect to ask if there are specific things that we may be doing wrong or that our partner may prefer differently. After all, when Shemar Moore seduces a woman on screen he already knows what to do to make her go brag to her friends about how he was the greatest lover of her life. But the truth is there are no shortcuts, and while some of us may certainly be more adept than others in the beginning, assuming that we should intuitively know how to please each new partner unfair and unrealistic.
Our current system of masculinity is oppressive and holds us (especially us black men) to impossible standards of sexual proclivity, a system that we perpetuate. We must recognize that it’s okay to ask questions, that it’s ok not to be Mr. Marcus. If we are to be good partners, we have to be humble and relieve ourselves of the burden of being sexual gurus. We should become inquisitive lovers who ask about our partner’s needs and desires and seek to fulfill them instead of developing a set of sexual standards that we uncritically apply to each subsequent partner. Sexual pleasure is subjective and varies widely. Pleasing a partner cannot be effectively taught by experts who universalize sexual experiences. The best way to maximize an experience with a partner, whether or not the two (or more) of you are in an extended romantic relationship, an ongoing relationship based entirely on sex, or may never see each other again, is through open communication. Communicating likes and dislikes with a partner circumvents the myth of inherent sexual ability and ensures that each party has a good experience.
This isn’t to say that these books have no value. They certainly can offer a springboard to more nuanced conversations about sexual pleasure by breaking the ice, offering some answers to basic questions, and providing the language to ask questions, but we have to constantly remind ourselves that books and articles are only useful when coupled with effective communication and an eye towards reciprocity. We can’t use them to learn that which we think we should already know and avoid talking. They are, at best, a supplement, not an excuse for dialogue.
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