Do Not Delete

Yesterday I read this smoking hot guest post about the effect of a leather skirt over at Girl On The Net’s place (if you haven’t read it yet go and check it out and then come back!). It reminded me of some photos that Exhibit A took of us way back in early 2015.

This morning I went looking for them. I couldn’t find them. They weren’t in the folder with all the other photos we took in that hotel room. Then a little creeping dread came over over me. I remembered deleting those shots. I didn’t like them. I didn’t like the way my tits looked, the weird expressions on my face or the roundness around my middle. I kept them for a short while but every time I looked at them they made me feel bad so eventually I deleted them. After much rummaging in my recycling bin I found them and recovered them.

So what do I see today?

I see a snapshot of a really hot moment and remember a happy 24 hours. I think my tits look pretty good actually. I like the way he’s gripping my leather skirt. I smiled when I saw the green wristband that was such a part of him for so many years. I chuckled at the memory of his dinner turning up with teeth in it. I remember it was the first time he talked to me about Livvy and I feel a little bubble of happiness at everything that has happened on that front since. I think about walking in the New Forest and playing pool. I recall being annoyed that they’d run out of croissants by the time we went down for breakfast and picking all the chocolate out of a pain au chocolate. I grimace that we were charged £42 for two gin and tonics!

And I feel sad that it’s taken almost three years to appreciate the photo.

How many of us have deleted a photo in haste not realising that with it we have closed the door on a whole host of happy memories? How often do we take a photo then fail to appreciate the nuances of the shot because we are focusing in on our perceived flaws? Why are we not kinder to ourselves?

I’m glad I read that leather skirt post. I’m glad I fished this photo out of the recycling. I’m glad I’m sending it out into the wild. And I’m resolving to not delete in haste again and to zone in on the memories of moments, not the bits of me I don’t like.

Status, stigma and self-testing

I am writing this from the back of a vehicle in Nigeria. I’m in Lagos, the biggest city in Africa and home to 21 million people. New Africa. A so-called mega city. Vibrant, ambitious, tenacious, captivating. And becoming increasingly liberal as the trappings of our globalised world take hold? Not where it really matters, no.

Today I was told of a dress code for women who attend a business skills development course. Encouraged into business and championed as role models for a modernising country? Yes, but as just as long they don’t do it in trousers, v neck tops or skirts that end above the knee. But worse than that, sexual freedom is being curtailed.

In 2014, the Nigerian government increased the punishment for homosexuality to 14 years in jail. Anyone ‘assisting couples’ may face a 10 year sentence. In 2010, just 18% of men who have sex with men were reached with HIV prevention services. They do not access the services they need to manage their sexual health out of fear for their freedom. The result? In 2007, 13.5% of men who have sex with men were living with HIV. By 2016, that had risen to 23%. It’s not only men who have sex with men whose health is being failed by the Nigerian government. They are falling short on recommended target for testing, treatment and counselling services for the whole population. The country has second largest HIV epidemic in the world.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, in my hotel my room in Lagos, I exercised a privilege many Nigerians don’t have. I took an HIV test. The kit came courtesy of Freedom Shop and was given to me at Eroticon. The whole process took about half an hour in total: a few minutes reading the blurb that came with the test, five or ten minutes rereading The Other Livvy and Emmeline Peach’s great reviews, an embarrassing number of minutes summoning up the courage to use the lancet and then 15 minutes for the test to progress. It was easy, discreet and, actually, quite an empowering experience. It may sound odd to say I enjoyed the process, but I did. I was in control.

I live in the UK. Here we can pick up a kit like the Bio-Sure HIV Self Test for under £30 and test at a time that suits us. If we have a little more time and are not anxious about visiting a clinic we can test for free. Home testing kits are free for high risk groups. Yet, despite the ease with which we can access testing and a low prevalence rate, the UK still needs to make progress. Here, new diagnoses are almost double the average for Western Europe, it is estimated that 13,500 are unaware of their positive status and 40% of those diagnosed positive receive a late diagnosis. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that just 14% of those who identified as high risk had taken a test recently.

It is easy to think that the world has got a handle on the HIV pandemic. Comparatively speaking it has. The first time I worked in Africa, in 2003, I was visiting communities where almost the entire population of working age adults had died and the majority of households were headed by grandparents or children. Then, fewer than 200,000 people around the world were accessing treatment, now 19.5 million people receive antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. An HIV positive person on ARVs who has had an undetectable viral load for more than six months can’t pass it on.

But there is still a long way to go. 17.2 million HIV+ people still aren’t getting treatment. The rate of HIV infection hasn’t declined amongst adults since 2010. There were 1.8 million new cases in 2016. We all have a role to play in tackling HIV, by taking care of our own sexual health, especially if we are lucky enough to live in a country where stigma is (relatively) low and testing and treatment services are free, by staying up to date on the facts and testing our knowledge and joining campaigns where our voice can make a difference.

Happy World AIDS Day!

For self-testing kits plus a whole lot of other useful stuff for staying safe and heathy visit https://www.freedoms-shop.com/

When Love-Affair Friendships End

This time last year I’d just been dumped. Not quite ghosted but not far off. In the year since it happened I’ve trodden the well-worn post-break-up path; there’s been shock, disbelief, ‘what did I do wrong?’ wondering, looking at their social media feeds, sadness, anger and bitching. The only good thing about it all is that I haven’t been going through it alone. You see, I wasn’t dumped by a lover, I was dumped by a friend and Jedi Hamster and Charlotte Brown were dumped at the same time.

The screen grab opposite is the message that dropped into our WhatsApp group (and yes, don’t judge, we did also have a separate for-spoiler-avoidance GBBO chat!) and then ‘xx left’. Just like that. Actually, probably not ‘just like that’. In hindsight the signs had been there for a while: subtle and not-so-subtle silences that would smart; an air of disapproval and judgement; casual criticism of things we’d always enjoyed together that felt like a point being made; and sometimes just undeniably mean behaviour.

But why am I using this language? Isn’t it a bit relationship-y? Well, yes, but in the last week I’ve discovered a new label – love-affair friendships. I picked it up in Rosie Wilby’s Is Monogamy Dead? In it she references the “impenetrable fortress of female friendship”, speaks of how “intense non-sexual trysts between women are common” and ponders whether “a world beyond the oppressive binary of relationships being either sexual or not, might be the richer and more vibrant one.”

I wonder how many of you are nodding along to that as I was when I read those words. I’d wager that many women reading this will recognise some of their friendships in those statements. Not all of them. We can ‘just’ be mates. But it’s undeniable that many (most?) of us have a handful of ‘food for the soul’ friendships that aside from the physical component can feel as intimate as the relationships we enjoy with our partners. Are those friendships more common between women than men? I don’t know!

So what was our group was like? Well, we were funny as fuck, obviously. We were so funny we decided we needed a shared Twitter account to give life to our musings and observations. That was bollocks and lasted about a month – in jokes are rarely funny to the outside world! But while the belly laughs were good, we bonded over far more than our ability to make each other laugh; all of us single, childfree and with complex relationships with our families, we recognised ourselves and our hang-ups in each other’s experiences and responses. Some of our chats about body positivity and sex probably sowed the seeds of this blog. Jedi Hamster came up with the name Exposing 40!

Should friendships like this last forever just because, for a time, they felt so significant? No, of course not! I have often thought that there’s excessive pressure for longevity and commitment placed on female friendships and an assumption of loyalty that is rarely expected of male friends or sexual partnerships. A few years back a sociologist from the University of Utrecht in the Netherland founds that on average we ‘lose’ 50% of our friends every seven years. I can believe this. Lives evolve, circumstances change and we meet new friends through jobs, travels, volunteering, new lovers.

But there’s a difference between the natural ebb and flow of ‘of the moment’ friendships and the fracturing of the ones that help shape us. And there’s no recognisable prescription for getting over those. No automatic right to mourn. If I split up with a partner and needed a cry or a bitch, that would be perfectly normal – people know how to rally for that. Break up with a friend and want to talk it out? There aren’t the same social norms around that.

But how does all this fit with a book about monogamy? Doesn’t monogamy refer to lovers not friends? Well, you might think so but Rosie explores monogamy in the wider sense. The jumping off point for her book is a survey where she poses a series of questions to help her unpick respondents’ views on monogamy and what counts as infidelity. Now, if you’re a deeply scientific person concerned with credible representative samples, then look away. Me? As a twenty-something PR who felt her cheeks burn when interrogated by a journalist about the ‘80% of Welsh respondents’ and then had to confess that the Welsh contingent in fact numbered 10, it should be said that I am not averse to a wafer-thin bit of evidence if it provides a good hook for a story. And this book is full of good stories.

If you’re endlessly fascinated with human experiences, emotions and behaviours then ignore the sample size (100!) and just soak up the stories. Through 49 pithy and anecdote-driven chapters Rosie explores what monogamy really means. If you’re not in an open relationship what counts as cheating, kissing or falling in love but doing nothing about it? Do our needs for emotional security and physical intimacy need to be found in the same person? That’s a lot of pressure for one person. If our lives are a rich tapestry of different people with whom we enjoy different connections, are we all a bit non-monogamous?

As the book is winding up she talks about the issue of language and muses that “if we don’t have the words for a particular type of loving relationship, we can’t talk about it and it remains invisible.” Like I said above, I hadn’t heard the term love-affair friendship until a week ago. I don’t actually need my friendships to be more visible in the literal sense of the word – I play a pretty open hand as far as talking about the friends that really matter to me goes! But taking that label to reconsider certain friendships was an interesting exercise.

Was our friend wrong for wanting out? No. No more than a partner would be wrong for ending a relationship if it no longer brought joy. But I also know exactly how she would have responded had a man behaved towards us in the way she did. What are our responsibilities when we decide a friendship has run its course? There’s no blueprint for ending them. But just going dark leaves a bitterness that’s sometimes a bit hard to swallow, even if the collective moaning sessions are therapeutic.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

On scheduling sex…

Will you write a post about scheduling sex?”

A request at the tail end of a regular boozy Friday sushi night I have with one of my oldest and closest friends. As is typical for our Friday nights these days, our evening ended with sex talk. Or rather, talk about sex! Our nights out are gloriously formulaic. Booze. Sushi. More booze. More of the same sushi dish because we love it so much. All while rattling through updates on work, politics, mutual friends, family. By the time the plates are pushed to the side and it’s just a steady flow of booze that we don’t really need any more of, we are onto our two favourite topics – book recommendations and talking sex.

The giveaway words in the paragraph above are ‘these days’. Until a couple of years ago the final drunken chat was always just about books. Sure we touched on husbands (well, one husband – hers) and dating stories (mine) but we didn’t talk about sex. What changed? I told her about this blog. She’s one of a handful of offline girlfriends who know about Exposing 40 and without doubt I now talk about sex with all of them in a way we didn’t previously. And I don’t mean the bawdy indiscreet chat that often characterises the way women talk about sex in popular culture, I mean enriching, revealing and occasionally therapeutic talk.

A friend talking about marrying a man with whom they don’t have the most exciting sex but whom they thought would be a good husband and father. Another saying it seems like we are living our sex lives in reverse, mine getting kinkier, hers less so. One opening up about wanting to explore sex with women and asking about what experiences I’d had. All of these conversations born out of chat about my blog. I don’t believe they would have happened without it. Do I believe these conversations matter to these women? Absolutely.

The subject of scheduling sex started with my friend saying “you have so much more sex than me”. “I’m sure I don’t,” I replied. “But if I do it’s only because I plan it.” There followed a conversation about scheduling sex and why (given her 10 hour days, husband with unusual working hours and two small children) it might be a good for her. She found every possible reason why scheduling a regular time for sex wouldn’t work and I understood the resistance. It doesn’t sound particularly sexy and we all like to think that the kick off point for sex is far more spontaneous and passionate than that.

But the truth is for so many of us it isn’t. As we roll into our forties careers and businesses are often at their most demanding, families are young and parents are getting older. We may have settled into relationship structures that might mean we don’t live with partners. Or we are living many miles apart and seeing them infrequently. And it may not be very glamourous to acknowledge but we’re also just a lot more tired! There are two outcomes here – you can let sex drift or you can put more effort into making it happen.

Whether you’ve agreed to shove the kids in front of a DVD every Sunday morning or you make sure you always have a plan with a partner you live apart from to look forward to, the problem with scheduling sex is that sometimes when the time comes you just don’t feel like it. I have joked before about being hungover horny on my own on a Sunday but more interested in pasta and pesto by the time date night rolls round on a Tuesday. My response to not really feeling in the mood? Fuck anyway!

This might not sit well with some people. Why have sex if you don’t really want to? Are you allowing yourself to be forced into something or, worse, forcing a partner into something they don’t want? I am absolutely not advocating that. But if it’s more just a case of feeling a bit ‘meh’ then I will almost always choose to quell that feeling. I seem incapable of writing a long post without dropping a running analogy in somewhere, but I liken this to not really wanting to shove on your trainers and head out on a training run after a long day at work. As runners will know, however much you don’t feel like going out you will rarely regret it and you’ll almost always feel better for making yourself do it.

I make plans to see partners a good two or three of weeks in advance. All of our work, social and other relationship commitments, plus some of their childcare responsibilities, demand this. (Although to be honest, even without all those considerations I would still want to plan ahead – not having things to look forward to makes me unhappy). I won’t know how I’m going to feel by the time those plans roll round. But if I am not feeling horny on the day I don’t want to give into the desire to just not bother because we may not see each other for another two or three weeks. It’s not just about the sex or the orgasms (I can get on with the latter just fine on my own), it’s about investing in intimacy, in the part of our relationship that is about more than being friends, in the joy and restorative effect of skin on skin contact.

I haven’t always been that good at communicating how important the casual intimacy is to me. I have had ridiculous snotty crying meltdowns because a partner didn’t want to fuck and I read it as rejection, only to later admit that I wasn’t really feeling horny either. I am not proud of that but I am getting better at being less emotional in how I talk about sex and I am also more confident about saying ‘look, whatever sex either of us is having with other people and with whatever frequency, I still expect us to invest in each other.’ They’re not always easy conversations to have but they are almost always worth it.

The request to write this post actually came 18 months ago so why am I finally writing it now? Well, a couple of weeks ago I attended the press and blogger launch of the Scarlet Ladies #ITalkSex campaign. At the end of the event we were all asked to tell the room why we talked sex. I said that I talk sex because it should be a joyful happy thing but too many people have anxieties about it; talking can help dispel them. I include myself in ‘many people’. Choosing to articulate some of my experiences on these pages helps me think through my responses to situations so I can better understand myself. That in turn helps me feel more at peace with myself and have more constructive conversations with partners.

When I think about some of my more personal posts I am reminded how swiftly others have come forward in solidarity or with a ‘me too’ sigh of relief when I’ve talked about an issue that also chimes with them. Whether it’s relationship status, orgasms or being childfree. What this blog has taught me is that we are rarely alone in our perspectives or our insecurities. If the posts we all write here, in our relatively small community, are helping women (and men!) to feel less alone, have the confidence to be more honest about their expectations or to try new things, imagine what could be achieved in sex and body positivity if we started talking more freely and honestly with those who aren’t also sex bloggers?

A few days after the launch event I was out with my friend who requested this post and told her I was finally getting round to writing it. “Do you talk about sex more now I have my blog?”, “Er, YES,” she replied, snort laughing. I asked her if it was helpful. Her reply? “I find it far easier to talk to my husband about sex now and to bring up the things that are bothering me since I started talking these things through with you.” Testimony!

The #ITalkSex Campaign brings together women from every walk of life. We are united by our belief that by talking openly about what we need, how we feel or what we’ve gone through, we are helping women everywhere to find the confidence and empowerment to accept and love themselves for who they really are. If you want to find out more visit the #ITalkSex campaign website to learn more about how we can all get involved and be part of this movement. Follow @scarletladies and the #ITalkSex hashtag to stay up to date with the chat, including these great posts from Livvy and Tabitha.

The Scarlet Ladies are having what will surely be a brilliant #ITalkSex party on Tuesday 12th September at their beautiful home 23 Paul Street. If you’re not based in London but want to join in the chat our favourite purveyor of filth, @GirlOnTheNet, is hosting a Twitter party at 20.30.

On the power of feedback

“My name is Exposing 40 and I am a feedback junkie”.

I wish I wasn’t. I wish I didn’t need the endorphin rush of kind words and encouragement. I wish that silence didn’t occasionally leave me a quivering ball of self-doubt. I wish that thoughtless and careless words didn’t break me. But as I’ve increasingly realised as I get older, it’s very hard to change the way we are hardwired.

I have a friend who used to say ‘R-E-F-L-E-C-T-O-R’ in a deep sci-fi film voice whenever I started a conversation with ‘I’ve been thinking…’ I’m sure many friends and lovers over the years have uttered a silent ‘oh fuck, here we go’ when I start a conversation with those words. Sometimes I have just been thinking and have a passing point to make, but more often than not it’s shorthand for ‘I’ve been worrying about this and I really need to talk it through to get my head round it/feel reassured/be told I am worrying about nothing etc etc’.

For many years I tried to stifle this tendency and my need for feedback and discussion when I was with partners. I worried that this need equalled ‘neediness’ and if there’s one thing I loathe the idea of being, it’s needy. But I’ve realised (after much thinking and reflection, of course!) that the need to discuss my insecurities and seek out reassurance from those I trust is a strength, not a weakness. For me, it’s about learning about myself, facing up to what makes me feel vulnerable and trying to be the best I can be.

When it comes to sex, I want to talk through things I have or haven’t tried and I want feedback on what I do and whether I am doing it well. Regarding body confidence, I don’t mind admitting how much I have gained from people’s comments on my photos or how good an enthusiastic comment when I am naked makes me feel. We seek out development opportunities – whether that’s a professional coach, a tailored marathon training plan or a course about something we’re interested in – in all other areas of life without questioning it so why not with sex and our relationship with our bodies?

Earlier this year a new partner said ‘sit on my face’ in a tone that wasn’t brooking any argument. I hesitated for a fraction and then did as he instructed. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ I said an hour or so later as we were eating pizza. He looked surprised. ‘I just have things in my head that I don’t think are possible as a bigger woman.’ It’s true. It’s not like I actually thought I’m going to suffocate someone with my stomach, but I just had it in my head that it wouldn’t be hot for them. He and I ended up having a chat about weight and different body types and sex that left me feeing that little bit more relaxed and confident. And I’ve happily hopped on board his and other faces since. Win!

But while comfortable conversation can bolster us, words delivered carelessly can diminish us. Last summer, out of the blue, someone I was close to told me my photography was becoming lazy and I wasn’t making any effort anymore. I’m posting naked photos of myself and my friends to help us celebrate our diverse bodies and I am writing posts that think through some of my bigger emotional obstacles and I am being lazy? The unkindness of that comment, delivered across a table in a crowded pub, reduced me to tears and that friendship was never the same again. That someone would be so unkind about this photography project, which has been the source of so much fun and personal growth for me and helped other people feel differently about themselves, rocked me. Recently the awesome @confess_hannah wrote powerfully in her post Pussy Pride about the lasting impact of a thoughtless comment about her vulva.

Earlier this month I attended the Scarlet Ladies Body Positive Sex event. Many things were discussed during the evening but as I let the discussions percolate in my brain for a week or so, what I kept coming back to was that many of the experiences women shared – both good and bad – were connected back to this idea of feedback and the power other people’s words have to lift us up or crush us.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Scarlet Ladies, it was founded by Sarah and Jannette who believe in the power of sharing ideas and experiences to change perceptions around female sexuality. Their regular women-only discussion events provide a safe and confidential space where women can share experiences. So, if you fancy attending in the future and are concerned that you might see yourself quoted on a blog somewhere, don’t worry – I am not writing anything without consent and all the quotes below come from answers to my emailed questions.

Attending the event was Michelle from Mindset for Life. Michelle runs the brilliant Scarred not Scared campaign, which draws on her experiences of having 15 post-surgery scars and encourages others to share the stories of their scars. On the evening she spoke of only having had one positive sexual experience.

“My most recent experience in the bedroom was the positive experience I was referring to (thankfully I’ve had another since the talk!) and that was when the guy I was with kissed my scars. Every time before there have been negative comments, awkwardness around it or blatant body shaming. These negative experiences have made me more hesitant to talk about my surgeries and more nervous when I finally do discuss them. Now, they don’t affect my body image but when I was younger, they certainly did – it really fed into what I believed about my attractiveness and more so, I thought it was a normal way to react. Through my experiences, I was taught that scars were disgusting and I learnt to agree.”

Co-founder Sarah, who was on the panel for this event, told a quite wonderful story about the time a boyfriend spent 20 minutes or more just looking at and gently playing with her vulva, describing it in detail. It was completely spontaneous and really a very beautiful and intimate experience. It was something that was really special and allowed me to open up to him sexually in ways I had not previously. It was almost as if I broke free from the confinement of having to be beautiful all the time. It just didn’t matter. My vulva is what it is and that’s fine. It no longer needed a label of whether it was beautiful or ugly or something in between.” Sarah said.

That experience also stood her in good stead for the time a casual partner said her vulva looked like a cauliflower. “That incident, as I tried to explain on the panel, did not affect me at all. It was funny when he said it and we had a laugh. This incident only happened in the last few years, by which point I was already pretty confident about the appearance of my vulva. Had someone said that to me when I was 20, it would have been a different story.”

I think there’s a nice point in that comment from Sarah about the value of having positive experiences in the bank and how they build our resilience and self-confidence. In the same way that Michelle experienced self-doubt from the layering of negative experiences, Sarah’s ability to cope with what at other times in her life may have been a damaging comment was born out of that banked experience. I’m not saying we should all leap on the positive feedback bandwagon and throw it around like a confetti at a wedding, but I do think it is worth remembering that casual words of encouragement or bigger meaningful discussions can play a role in building the confidence of those closest to us.

I and many others in the sex blogging community have spoken before about what a warm and supportive space our part of the internet is. I know much of my personal development over the last 2.5 years has come as a result of this blog. The photography side of it is unapologetically celebratory and fun, while over time my writing has become more open and honest. Reading other people’s blogs and talking to people I have met on here has encouraged me to be more honest with myself and others about what I really think and what my expectations are. It has taught me not to be embarrassed by my emotional response to things.

As the evening ended it struck me that many of people who attend these events probably aren’t part of the sex blogging community. What Scarlet Ladies creates in its safe places is the spirit of openness and support and learning that many of us here benefit from on a day-to-day basis. At the event Michelle spoke with some emotion and frustration about the changing nature of the body positivity movement. She spoke of not quite knowing where to go next with her work. Last week when I looked her up on Twitter to make contact for this post I spotted her announcement that all her social content for the week would be sex-related: “Inspired by @scarletladies”, she’d tweeted. There’s some feedback worth having!

Scarlet Ladies invited me to the event in return for a review but all opinions are my own. Many more topics were discussed on the evening beyond the angle I have chosen to explore in this post. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from period sex to body hair to fat girl fetishes to fat positivity versus body positivity. If you’re interested in checking out a Scarlet Ladies event you can find out more at http://scarletladiestalk.com/.

 

Orgasms are not worth the worry! 

“Don’t stop touching yourself,” he says as he fucks me from behind, feeling that I’m about to come and probably wondering why I’ve stopped. I’ve stopped because I’ve felt myself about to come, thought that I am and that very thought has stolen the orgasm from me.

I’m really bad at orgasming with partners. Actually, not bad – I am purposely playing devil’s advocate using that word! – but I am really slow. And I hate that. And so I overthink it, I worry about it and I chase the orgasms. And chasing them makes it less likely to happen, or rather it’ll take even more time to happen. And I really shouldn’t worry about it; I know my orgasm isn’t a prize I have to deliver, for myself or my partners. But knowing I shouldn’t worry doesn’t mean I don’t and it doesn’t mean that I can stop myself occasionally thinking that I am in some way inferior because I don’t orgasm quickly or over and over when I am with partners. It’s easy to be influenced by things you read and to judge yourself against them even when you know you shouldn’t.

I can also be cripplingly insecure about sex with partners, which probably sounds unlikely to anyone who knows me in real life or who reads this blog and has picked up on my sometimes annoyingly optimistic outlook and exuberant lust for life! I was once told by a colleague that I was too confident and didn’t consider other people when going after what I want (yeah, jog on Mr with your fragile ego!). But when it comes to going after what I want in the bedroom I can be the complete opposite. It can take me weeks of thinking about something before asking. I put my suggestions in text messages rather than asking face-to-face and will then worry until I get a reply and if I don’t get a reply at all I will tie myself in knots. I crave reassurance and feedback in my sex life even more than I do in other parts of my life, and I crave feedback a lot about everything!!

But this isn’t a sex negative post. Insecurity and over-thinking may scupper me on speed when it comes to orgasming with partners but we do have great sex.  I don’t just think my partners and I have great sex, I love the sex we have, with or without an orgasm. And there almost always orgasms! Happily, in the last five years or so I would say I have only had one selfish lover (“I’ve realised I am not really interested in your pleasure” – seriously!) and if I reflect on all of my partners over the last 23 years I would struggle to name many had no interest in my orgasm. But in partnered sex I am trying to teach myself to not see my orgasm or the speed of its arrival as a goal or an indication of success or failure.

But sex with myself? Well that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I am an awesome wanker! With none of the worries of speed or performance or having to build myself up to asking for what I want, I’ll happily play away, trying new things – sometimes for hours, sometimes for seconds. Way back in my early twenties a friend who was worrying about her orgasms asked me how quickly I come. ‘I timed myself once and it was under 30 seconds,’ I replied. ‘WHY?’ she asked. ‘Just for the fun of it and because I wondered.” On a train a couple of months ago I decided to get myself off to a super-hot film a lover had sent me. ‘Tell me when you’re starting,’ he messaged a couple of minutes after I told him my plan. ‘Oh, I am done. I am eating cake now,’ went my reply. 

Sometimes it’s not about speed. I may decide to have a ‘freelancer’s lie down’ as Jedi Hamster so divinely calls it and I’ll wobble back to my desk an hour and four or five orgasms later and with new knowledge about my body. I’ll amuse myself by sitting up in bed pretending to read a book while I watch the builder on the scaffolding and my We Vibe does its thing beneath the covers. I’ll sit at my desk and relieve the boredom of doing finances by nestling a bullet vibe up against a butt plug. And I’m very good at pretending I am asleep and keeping everything deathly still beneath my blanket on long haul flights.  The tapping technique is best under the blanket for anyone wanting to embark on a mile high self-love in. Minimal movement!

So when I saw Tabitha’s #30dayorgasmfun challenge I thought ‘Wahey, this is going to be great. I’m going to own this’. I didn’t! In fact I failed almost immediately. Day one I was hungover and not in the mood. Day two it was nearly midnight when I got in from a work do and thought ‘oh God, I have to have an orgasm’. Day three, four, five… and I was quickly making myself come in the morning, thinking ‘I should get this over and done with in case the day runs away with me…’ Within the space of a few days all the joy and fun of wanking was replaced with the ‘I need to get this done’ thinking that sometimes invades my thoughts when I am with partners was stopping me coming. I was putting myself under pressure and the whole exercise was making me unhappy. By having a goal, a ‘task’ that needed to be ticked off, my orgasms were becoming a source of stress. Which is the exact opposite of what Tabitha intended with the whole exercise, which was about orgasms being part of good mental health. And it was also the opposite of what I usually get from sex with myself.

I have purposely been using term ‘sex with myself’ in this post rather than only saying wanking or masturbation. Obviously it is wanking, but since having a mini meltdown when I realised the ‘challenge’ wasn’t working for me I have thought a lot about my orgasms, by myself and with partners, and alongside that my sex life more generally. I have partners who are important to me, but I definitely identify as single in terms of how my relationships influence my life and decision-making. I don’t have a lot of sex with partners (although I do have regular sex and know I am much more fortunate having partners who are close to me when some friends are in long distance relationships, so I’m not complaining!) so when I think about my sex life I’ve realised I should include time on my own in the overall picture. And in thinking about my sex life as a whole thing I have realised I am more than happy with my orgasm count, variety and intensity. The only time orgasms make me unhappy is when I worry about being too slow to have them.

And I’ve also realised that when I reflect on what I enjoy about sex with partners my orgasm is actually one of the least important things. Brilliant, of course, and definitely very pleasurable, but sex with partners brings pleasure to me in far more important ways than my own orgasm. I am not a sex multitasker and I would so much rather concentrate on the feeling of his cock when he’s fucking me rather than on furiously rubbing my own clit, trying to rush an orgasm. This is absolutely not me deprioritising orgasms with a partner and I’m pretty sure the men in my life will still be pretty keen to keep them coming, excuse the pun. But I’m definitely going remove some of the stress I put on myself by worrying less about making them happen and spending more time appreciating what I can’t do on my own. I can give myself wobbly legged amazing orgasms, but I can’t bite my own tits, pull my own hair, hold myself down, scratch my own back or spank my own arse! Those things won’t drive an orgasm as quickly as direct clitoral stimulation but they’re definitely one of the most awesome things about being with someone else. The joy of partners is the feel and taste of cock, the smell and weight of their body, watching the expressions on their face. And at the risk of making it goal-centred on their orgasm instead of mine, I bloody love spunk! Seeing it, feeling it, tasting it. All those things matter to me more than an orgasm when I’m fucking someone. 

So what happened when I ditched Tabitha’s #30dayorgasmfun? Well, I went back to business as usual, which meant some days I worked for 12 hours and was happy as Larry, some days I lazed around, more interested in books than sex, I had lots of indulgent freelancer lie downs, and I had glorious orgasms with a partner. But I stopped putting a daily target on it. I am pretty sure that if my orgasms were added up they’d total the ‘one a day for 30 days’ target but I was so much happier when I wasn’t counting. And although I said above that I failed at Tabitha’s task, I don’t actually think I did because it made me think about my orgasms and the part they play in the overall fulfilling picture of my sex life in a considered way for perhaps the first time ever. And it made me promise myself I wouldn’t worry so much!

Always Coming Second

March 2016 and the early days of a new partnership. We’re talking around the headlines of each other’s lives; comfortable enough to talk about the bigger picture but not yet talking about the finer details.

“So, he is your primary partner then?”

It was phrased as a question but his assumption that the answer would be yes meant he delivered it like a statement of fact.

“No!”

I could tell from the look on his face that he was taken back by the force with which I’d answered. “I don’t have a primary partner,” I added. At that point his look of surprise turned to confusion: “How can you not have a primary partner?” For him, married with children, it was quite clear that our fledgling relationship was a secondary partnership. That I would be coming to things with the perspective of not having a primary partner momentarily destabilised his notion of what we might become. “I don’t want a primary partner,” I clarified, keen to allay any unspoken questions or concerns he might have of the ‘well if he’s not your primary partner are you expecting me to become that?’ kind. But he couldn’t really understand that I didn’t want a primary partner, or rather how I could be happy being a secondary partner when I didn’t have my own primary partnership. As I tried to answer his questions I realised I didn’t really know all the answers myself. Not because I thought that what made me happy was wrong, just because I’d never really thought about why it worked for me. I started this post about two hours later.

My mind has wandered to it every so often since then, but I have never felt compelled to finish it. In truth, I didn’t think I ever would. I occasionally reference partners in written posts and on these pages you’ll find photos of them, of me taken by them, of us, or even of their wives taken by them, but I’ve never written about how my relationships work and never felt the need to. While I hadn’t really expected to publish this post, thinking it through over time helped me process my views, why I respond in the way I do to some things and how I want to label my relationships so they make sense to everyone involved and help me articulate my expectations. Earlier this year, I was answering some questions @19syllables had and I heard myself say “I have a half written post on this. It’s got a great title!” “Oh, write it! I would love to read it,” she replied. Then this Twitter chat happened last week. And so I find myself putting a structure to various musings.

I guess my starting point should be why I don’t want a primary partner. Happily, I don’t have any horror stories that influences this, just a very average roll call of mid-teen obsessions through to lovely late-teen and early twenties boyfriends. Then in my mid-twenties I moved in with a boyfriend. He was brilliant, we were in love and we’re still in touch. But I felt trapped and I felt lonely. I rarely, if ever, feel lonely when I’m alone, but it’s amazing how lonely it is to be with someone when it’s not a situation that suits you. Where some people find security and warmth in a shared home I found claustrophobia. I wanted to travel, he wanted marriage and babies young. I detest routine and our habit of going to the supermarket every Monday actually made me miserable. To this day I cannot bear to be in a supermarket with a partner. I rounded the corner of an aisle in my local Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago and spotted a guy I occasionally fucked and I actually backed away. Seriously! Not because we’d fallen out or I looked rough but because the idea of wandering round a supermarket with a partner rang such Pavlovian Bell of misery!

Was my response to my relationship with Nik because we weren’t right for each other or was it because fulltime relationships genuinely don’t suit me? I don’t know for sure. Maybe there is someone out there with whom I’d happily blend my life, but nothing about the thought of it appeals to me. In my early thirties I made efforts with traditional online dating, not yet admitting to myself even that I didn’t want what all my friends were embracing. The truth is the idea of shared diaries, family events, planning holidays together – all sources of joy and security to many people – make my shoulders go up. Finally accepting that a more flexible and (as far as is possible when you’re an adult and running a business!) commitment-free life is one that best suits me was a great relief.

For a while what that did leave was a life with little or no sex. There was lag time between me ceasing the joyless task of trying to meet ‘the one’ and the point at which I realised I could have relationships that worked for me. I know I’m not interested in casual sex or informal ‘friends with benefits’ arrangements that only mean occasional sex. I want the benefits of a regular partner or partners. I want to learn about someone’s body and they to learn about mine. I want the connection to improve over time as we get to know each other and to have the confidence to suggest and try new things, which I don’t think I would have with casual partners. I like the relaxed intimacy that comes with knowing someone well. I want partners who understand my insecurities and know how and when to reassure me. For a while I assumed all that security was also tied in with a larger commitment to a ‘proper’ relationship and that I couldn’t have one without the other. Not wanting commitment or casual sex meant I just checked out of the dating game altogether for a while.

Then in 2012 a colleague pointed me to OK Cupid and a whole lot changed. I’ve learnt so much about myself and what my expectations are in the years since. One of the most significant is my shifting notion of what constitutes a relationship and becoming comfortable with referring to what I have with partners as relationships. It’s really only in the last year or two that I’ve stopped saying I don’t want a ‘proper’ relationship. And it was a conscious decision to stop saying that. Something not being ‘proper’ suggests that it isn’t important or that I have no expectations. I want to engineer what makes me happy by being more vocal about my expectations, believing I can find people to meet that and that I am worthy of having them met. And I decided I no longer wanted to undermine what I have with people who are important to me by suggesting they are not ‘proper’ just because they’re not fulltime or traditional.

Why would I suggest that what I have with someone who has been in my life for more than three years, introduced me to this community and has at times listened patiently while I work through my ‘theories of me’ isn’t proper? Why would I downplay the man who I’d only see once a month when he taught me so much about my body and what I enjoy and with whom I started to see some of my partnerships through a structure of polyamory? He met me within days of meeting another woman. He spoke immediately of his desire for a long term committed relationship, saying he could see that developing with either of us. I definitely didn’t want that; she did. “Would I still like to invest in our romance by being his secondary partner?” he asked. Aside from thinking the use of the word romance was charming, this was new label for me. That was my first experience of someone developing a more committed relationship while still ensuring I knew I mattered. With him I discovered that I love to hear about partners’ more significant relationships. I also started to recognise that I only feel vulnerable in my relationships if there’s a not a plan of some sort in the diary. He and I would periodically get our diaries out, look ahead a couple of months and get a couple of week nights and a weekend day in the diary. I don’t like planning more than a couple of months ahead but I also need to know that there is time that will be mine. If I have that then my equilibrium is pretty sound; I’m not someone who needs daily contact or any of the support structures you can expect in a fulltime relationship.

Over time I’ve come up with my own label for how I describe what I look for and that’s ‘partner light’. I can’t really type that without giggling since a friend quipped “well as long as you’re happy with your relationships sounding like an incontinence pad, I guess that makes sense!” but to me it’s the most simple way I’ve found to describe the balance of what I’m looking for. More than friends with benefits, less than fulltime committed partner. And to bring this back to @coffeeandkink’s original tweet, that is why I thrive on being a second.

Over the last five years I’ve had five partners who in some way were or are significant. Of them only one didn’t have a primary partnership when I met them. I have always felt more secure in the partnerships where there were wives, partners or in one case a cohabiting parenting partnership, which meant there were or are people and things that must be prioritised over me. Their need to fit me round the structure of family life or their primary relationship means there is an imperative to plan well, which makes me happy. I find deep reassurance in knowing they have chosen to place me alongside much bigger things in their life while never needing to worry that they will one day want more from me than I am prepared or able to give. In fact, my interest in one partner fell off a cliff when it turned out he was getting divorced.

And as for the partner who wasn’t in a committed partnership when I met him in 2013? Well, most people in the blogging community don’t need an introduction to what’s happening in his life! Happily, I’d say I don’t really recognise how we are now compared to before. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t recognise myself in that partnership? I don’t know. But I do know I feel more secure in what we have now. How much time I have with him hasn’t really changed. In fact, as much as I may need reminding of this if I’m being grumpy, I probably see more of him now. Or certainly more in terms of quality time and plans made in advance which keep me happy. I never worried with him about needing to give more than I could but I frequently had a self-destructive degree of insecurity about thinking there were women more exciting or better or hotter than me. As his life has changed over the last two years and I’ve recognised my desire to keep him in my life, my confidence in articulating what I want or what I am worrying about has grown. I no longer pretend I am comfortable with winging it, I make sure we have plans instead. And the upshot is rather than feeling diminished or threatened by such a significant change in his life I actually feel more secure; I more clearly understand that I am valued when time is made for me and what we have continues to exist and evolve alongside something that is so magnificent and so much bigger than us.

I don’t really care how partners label me. They can call me a second or a partner or a lover. The label doesn’t matter to me as much as knowing I am valued and seeing my place in a structure. For me, having the commitment of partners who choose to see me regularly and build me into their lives without there being any expectation of a deeper commitment or more formal blending of lives is where I feel at my best.

It’s almost like I’m hardwired to always come second!

If you enjoyed this post (and it’s my most read post ever so I think people are liking it!) then why not head over to The Other Livvy and read another take on the same subject