Moya Crockett examines why it is that we react with shame rather than laughter when sex goes awry - and wonders whether the pressure to be ‘perfect’ plays out in the bedroom as much as anywhere else
As far as cringe-inducing sex stories are concerned, I have an almost limitless supply. I once toppled off a guy’s bed and got irrevocably wedged, naked, between it and the wall. (He had to haul me out like a mountain rescuer pulling a climber from a ravine, which was just as sensual as it sounds). There was the time I set my head on fire, after swishing my hair over a romantically-lit candle. And my friends still howl with laughter when I reminisce about the night I got such sudden, shooting cramp in both arms, mid-coitus, that I ended up inadvertently doing the robot.
It doesn’t bother me, admitting to stuff like this, because I’ve always been cheerfully steadfast in the belief that everyone occasionally makes a tit out of themselves in the bedroom. When a casual acquaintance once told me that she’d never had an embarrassing sexual experience, I shouted “OH, PISS OFF” in her face so loudly that I even surprised myself.
She may well have been telling the truth, but I doubt it.
Cringe-worthy sex is everywhere. Last week, Reddit users flooded the social networking site with stories of their most awkward sexual experiences, which ranged from the traumatic (“I got slammed into the headboard, got a concussion and puked on him”) to the frankly heartbreaking (“She gasped and said ‘oh Jason.’ My name is not Jason”). And in a recent survey of over 2,500 British men and women, 75 per cent admitted to having had an embarrassing experience during sex.
The survey, conducted by pharmaceutical company MedExpress, revealed that women’s most mortifying experiences tended towards the physical: accidentally farting, or their period starting unexpectedly. Men, meanwhile, felt most humiliated if they fell asleep, cried, or “failed” at talking dirty. But what really caught my eye was the question asking what people did after ballsing it up in the bedroom.
I’d always assumed there was only one real answer to that question. Unless your partner of choice is concussed, vomiting, or sobbing into your pillow, you laugh it off. Right?
Nope. According to a huge proportion of the people polled, you stop what you’re doing – immediately. Some 40 per cent of respondents to the survey reported feeling so humiliated after an awkward moment during sex that they were “unable” to continue at all.
It broke my heart a bit, thinking about all that embarrassment, all that shame. All those women rolling over and pulling the duvet up to their chin, their hearts beating fast at the back of their throats; all those men vaulting out of bed, muttering about needing the loo.
True humiliation is an awful, hot, panicky feeling, like sunburn from the inside out. But if clumsy sexual experiences are so common, surely they should be borderline boring. Why do they have the power to make us feel so small?
The tangled relationship between sex and shame is nothing new. Just think of Adam and Eve, cringing as soon as they clocked that they were naked, and the many, many centuries during which it was considered the height of dishonour for a woman to be openly sexual. But in 2016, most of us aren’t ashamed of being sexual.
Rather, we’re ashamed of having less-than-perfect sex; of failing, somehow, to live up to expectations.
Back in the 1950s, the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman began examining why it is that we experience embarrassment. His theory was that embarrassment occurs when we do something that undermines the outward identity we’re trying to project, discrediting the “face” that we present to the world.
In this context, that makes perfect sense. When it comes to sex, everyone wants to seem super-hot, super-cool: superhuman, basically. And accidentally setting your head on fire or bleeding on someone’s sheets betrays the fact that you are - alas, alack! - just a regular person.
“Embarrassment often stems from nervousness and a sense of vulnerability,” says psychosexual therapist Janice Hiller, who works at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in London. “That can be especially true in the case of a casual encounter or a new relationship, when it can feel like there’s more pressure to ‘perform.’”
While safe, no-strings-attached sex is totally fine, it’s true that it’s certainly more difficult to laugh off accidentally head-butting someone if you don’t even know their middle name. But even in longer-term relationships, embarrassment can quickly kill the mood.
My friend Ella (not her real name) still screws her eyes tight shut with horror when she recalls the time she farted while having sex with her boyfriend. “I felt like I’d betrayed myself,” she says. “Rationally, I know it’s ridiculous, because I’m not a sex doll or a porn star; I’m a human being. It’s not like my boyfriend even cared – he just laughed. But I felt bizarrely angry with myself for not being able to maintain this sexy-sexy façade.” She gives a hollow laugh.
It’s not difficult to identify why we feel such pressure to maintain that “sexy-sexy façade”, as Ella puts it. Thanks to the way that sex tends to be portrayed in movies, TV shows and porn, most of us have a very clear idea of how sex “should” be before we’ve ever had it. I remember vividly my sense of impending doom, aged 16, when a male friend informed me that most boys our age had learned everything they knew about sex from watching porn. How, I fretted, would I ever be able to live up to that?
The answer, of course, is that I couldn’t, and I can’t, and that’s fine. Because real sex is very rarely like the sex you see in porn, or in Hollywood rom-coms, or in a Zayn Malik video. It’s not always slick and steamy and stumble-free. It should be fun, but it can also be a bit of a flop - and that in itself can be really fucking funny.
“If it’s a healthy relationship, you should be able to laugh about embarrassing situations with your sexual partner,” says Hiller.
And if you can’t? You know what – you probably shouldn’t be having sex with them anyway.