Great Expectations

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How can someone else know what you want in bed if you don’t?

Last week, I had a strange conversation with a kid cousin I’m particularly close to. I’m her shield against parental missiles and the antidote to colony aunties’ stings. Every major life decision is discussed with me before going to battle with her parents. But for some strange reason, we’d never discussed sex. Until last week.

A few months ago, her parents introduced her to a lovely young man. A few weeks ago, they got engaged, and by year-end, my kid sister will be on her honeymoon. Which means we can no longer pretend she’s too young for sex. So I took her out for dinner, ordered pitchers of Sangria (in case she told me something I really needed to forget by the morning), and asked her to spill the beans. Had she tested the goods before placing the order? If not, did she have a POA to find out? She had no answers. Because, as it turns out, my kid sister  wasn’t pretending—she truly did believe she was too young to have sex. “I don’t know, man. I guess I always thought it would be romantic to save myself for marriage. I want the first time to be magical.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her what first times outside of Mills & Boons are like. The confused fumbles. The mental acrobatics involved in getting the time (not too soon, not too late), the distance (of condom from hand) and the speed (at which the equipment needs to go in) right. No one tells you that. No one warns you that if you’re not doing Pilates, the first time can seem like an advanced physical education class, the kind you were so desperate to avoid, you prayed you’d get your period. To this day, I don’t know why I bothered to have a second go at something that had been mildly uncomfortable and mostly disappointing.

I hoped my sister’s dreams of a magical first time relied on a better plan than my own. They didn’t. “We’ll be married, dude. He’ll know what to do,” she told me confidently. I was horrified. Where had she gotten this unfair and unrealistic expectation that a stranger would know what to do to her body better than she knew herself? Had my never-masturbated-before-because-what-if-I-hurt-myself sister, without knowing it, admitted that she, as a woman, didn’t feel intelligent enough to know her own vagina? That a man would know it better? It’s a good thing I’d ordered all those pitchers of Sangria.

For the next few days, I kept replaying our conversation in my head. In a strange way, it made perfect sense. I’ve often wondered why so many women I know are so dissatisfied with their sex lives. Were so many men really so bad at it? It had been convenient to think men were too selfish to care about what women really wanted in bed. But what excuse do women have for not making the effort?

Again, I’m reminded of my first time. After our first clumsy attempt, I took it upon myself to figure out what had gone wrong. With the determination of a 19-year-old who thought she was going to get married and make babies with the boy she’d lost her virginity to, I attacked Google. I would make Mission: Enjoy Sex a success.

The first step was to learn everything I could about the machinery I was dealing with. I thought that would be the easy part. I’d paid attention in biology and knew what everything was supposed to look like. The day I actually looked, I fell off my carefully positioned chair. As it turns out, the textbooks had been lying. I looked nothing like the diagrams. Everything looked indistinguishable, way more complicated than I’d expected. For a while, I felt like a freak of nature. Maybe this is where it starts, this mistaken belief that someone else must know our bodies better. We put our faith in science, then family, then pop culture, and finally, a man—but never in ourselves. Do we ever truly believe that we know what’s best for us?  

Not to be defeated, I decided to indulge in a gynaecological photo-fest and learnt that we’re not all factory manufactured. Since one size doesn’t fit all, perhaps we’d all benefit from a little self-exploration. Perhaps our sex lives would be a whole lot better if we allowed ourselves to find out what our bodies liked, instead of dumping all the responsibility on some poor sod’s shoulders. Over the years, I’ve learnt that sexuality isn’t static; it’s a wildly zipping graph. And only you can pinpoint your exact location on the spectrum—that is, if you let yourself find out.