Reciprocity and (Oral/)Sex: some thoughts

sarahah oral sex

[image is a light blue text bubble over a darker blue background, the text bubble reads: “Oral Sex. What are your thoughts on not being able to/not wanting to go down on your partner if your partner has gone down on you? Or in general, what are your thoughts on reciprocity and sex?”]

I was replying on a Facebook post but then it became an entire blog post. Oops.

Before anything else, a note on consent: ANYONE and EVERYONE is allowed and entitled and without-exception within their rights to refuse to give or receive any type of sexual contact or activity, for any reason, and without needing to give one. If a partner uses the language of reciprocity to pressure you into something you don’t want to do, they’re very possibly being manipulative. If they hold another part of your (sexual, romantic, financial) relationship hostage, they’re very possibly being manipulative. If they try to coerce you or shame you into consenting by placing any type of moral or political value (“anti-feminist”, “sex negative”, “prude”, “kinkshaming”, etc) on your refusal, they’re very very possibly being manipulative.


Now that that’s out of the way, there are three elements I want to discuss a bit: an oral (har har) history of inequality, the concept of reciprocity, and open communication.


Unequal history:
What do I mean by this? I don’t know who is asking or where you are coming from, but this is common enough, so I want to include it in here regardless.Historically and in most mainstream (cis, heterocentric) media, there is usually a centering of cis male pleasure, a normalization of oral sex on dicks as a mandatory/”basic” part of sex, versus oral sex on vulvas, which is (less today than in the past, but still) seen as somewhere between optional and “a luxury” (again, especially in cis heterocentric discussions on sex). There are still a lot of myths about one type of pleasure being mandatory and a given because “dicks are easy to navigate”, and the other being optional and a mystery and difficult. One is being taught to a lot of us as almost mandatory or inevitable, while the other one we are socialized to think of as “too difficult”, “smelly” (have you smelled a dick?), “too much work”, “too uncomfortable”.

There are, of course, other sub-dynamics that have stemmed from that one, too. Like (usually) cis women who sleep with men refusing to give oral sex (which again, everyone’s allowed to) but not because they don’t want to, but to “close the gap”, or because they think giving oral sex is inherently submissive or inherently anti-feminist or inherently anything – which is also a bit misguided in my opinion.

If any of these dynamics sound like you, you still don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, whatever your reason for it, but I definitely invite you to deconstruct and reflect on the reasons or assumptions or scripts that have led you to how you feel about it. To help you in this, I present to you my thoughts on

The concept of reciprocity: 

I think reciprocity is super great, and is ideally something everyone wants when having sex with others, but I think that many people think of it in ways that aren’t all that helpful.

In both sex and relationships in general, we are usually taught and socialized into thinking that you need equal amounts of the same thing for something to be equal. Think about kissing: when two people kiss each other, we think of it as equal. This assumes both people need the same out of kissing, and that both people get the same out of kissing. Now think of oral sex: when A gives B oral, we often think A is giving B something, that B is giving nothing to A, and that B would have to give A oral for that particular case to be equal or fair or reciprocal. This can be true for some people, but is not true for many – for oral sex and for any other sex act. There are many ways to get pleasure out of sex acts besides having your own genitals being played with in one way or another.

I don’t usually share personal preferences this publicly, but I will, because what the hell, it applies: I get a lot more out of giving than receiving oral sex, from which I get pretty much nothing, and ask people not to sometimes. And this is not just because giving partners pleasure often gives us pleasure, but also because my brain gets more pleasantly stimulated by everything that is involved in giving than my gens get from receiving.
Now, many people are in the complete opposite end of things: they get nothing from performing oral, and everything from receiving. And many, many more people than both of those opposite ends combined probably are somewhere else along that spectrum, finding some pleasure in different aspects of giving and receiving whatever sex act. Even using the words “giving” and “receiving” (giving and receiving *what?*) is a bit false and binary in this way, but I use it because it is accessible and understandable.

The idea of reciprocity is part of a lot of unlearning that I invite folks to do when it comes to pleasure – to think about what you like versus what you are taught you should like, in any direction and with regards to any sexual act, including ones you haven’t tried yet. What are some scripts you have learned (in school, in 70’s feminism, in your past relationships)? Which ones do you want to keep or discard?

Furthermore, reciprocity can be achieved by doing entirely different things, and it will look entirely different for different individuals and different sexy times and different pairs/groups of people who have sex with each other. In my opinion, reciprocity could be more about everyone having a good time (note that I am not even centering orgasms here, either), not about identical or specific input or output.
But, how do we make sure to the best of our ability that everyone is having a good time without any formula or checklist?

Open communication.
Like I said earlier, whether you don’t want to, aren’t able to, are unsure about, would be neutral about, or would absolutely love to get or perform any kind of sex act with your partner/s, that is absolutely valid, and I am glad you know what you know about your body and your needs. But either way, communicating about it is the only way you’ll all know where you all stand.

Depending on the kind of relationship you have with a person and how much you want sex to be a recurring theme within it, you’re probably going to dedicate different amounts of time and energy talking about what works and what doesn’t. But consent is mandatory regardless of relationship dynamic, and ideally we are all having even the most casual of sex with the basic intent of not only having ourselves but facilitating a good time in the other/s.

Even a little bit of a conversation on what all participants are a Yes, No, or Maybe So (there are lists you can fill with your partner online, some charts if that’s more your style, or you can build your own convo however works for you) to is probably a good idea.
So you don’t want to perform oral on your partner/s, and that’s okay. What are other ways you are willing and able to facilitate your own and others’ pleasure?

In general, and to wrap this up, instead of looking item-by-item at your shared sex life like it’s a balance sheet, I urge you to talk with your partner/s about what reciprocity means for you, what it means for them. What does “having a good time” look, sound and feel like for both of you? What can either/both of you do to have and help the other/s have a better time?

Do you have questions about sex, gender, sexuality, relationships, social justice, trauma that you would like to ask me? You can comment below, or send me a message to my Sarahah here. I will answer what I know and have relevant opinions on, and/or post resources to people and places that know better than I do.



So you never want anyone to lead you on?

Before I say anything else, I want to say to you, if someone has been leading you on: I feel you. You probably are unhappy and upset that your crush didn’t have the same things in mind that you did. It’s normal and common and it’s okay to be sad.
We’ve all felt led on at some point or another. We’ve all been sad, disappointed, heart-broken, because we felt led on. It happens to the best of us, and it sucks.

I have a trick that I’ve used many a time so that no one I am interested in leads me on, and I want to share it with you: the trick is to destroy the idea that people can lead you on. Write your feelings on a piece of paper and kill it with fire. Or for a safer option, cross everything out until the paper tears, then break it into tiny pieces and throw it in the trash can.
Because that’s where assumptions and expectations we build up without communicating about and negotiate them belong: in the trash can.

Now, keep reading, you. As I was saying, I get it, and I’m not here to judge you. We all grow up – and, I have to say, folks with privilege on different axes (male, white, cisgender, etc), more so – to believe that if we like someone, and we think that they like us, that (often wishful) thinking is enough for us to feel entitled to what we want from them. Some people grow up being taught that if they give someone special attention (whatever that means for everyone), and the other person doesn’t outspokenly, decidedly, explicitly tell them to go away, it must be because the feelings are mutual. We are all socialized to think playing hard to get is a legitimate and healthy courting strategy; we all learn that explicit, verbal acknowledgment of feelings or interest is too vulnerable, too unsexy, too desperate. So most of us spend   y e a r s   trying to decode nonverbal behavior – and how ableist is it to advise everyone to just do that, huh?

Countless magazine articles, podcasts, books are dedicated to tips on how to know your guy is into you, how to know if “she wants the D”, how to tell if you’re both into the same kind of sex, etc.
I feel like this is a not-so-secret top secret that could or should put all these media out of business but, there is a simpler way, there is a way which ensures you are never led on, that you never lead someone on, that you can know for sure if they want sex or a relationship or for you to fuck off forever, and that is ASKING FOR CONSENT.

Here is the thing: no one has ever led you on. You have never led anybody on. You are free of that burden, you have cleaned off that stain on your romantic history. You’ve felt that way, as have I, I’m sure. And those feelings – that heartache, that disappointment – are very real, and valid. The action of “leading someone on”, however, is not real.
It is one of many unfortunate consequences of a society that does not value explicit consent, that does not empower us in our sexual agency, that breeds entitlement in those who hold privilege and power over others. And so, while you may feel however many emotions when something doesn’t turn out the way you hoped it would, you were not entitled to any particular outcome. And if we are all being honest, you didn’t know what the outcome could be because you probably never asked.

If you had, you would have had given your friend the chance to explicitly opt in or out, to choose. But you didn’t, so either this person is not informed about what they are opting in or out of, or they had to exercise their agency and bodily autonomy the only other way they could: ghosting, lying, excusing themselves, pretending or hoping you are still on the same page. And let me be clear, those are not ideal communication strategies either, but the person with the expectations is the one responsible for asking, for making sure.

Asking, checking in, making sure, all of that is scary. It is vulnerable, it is brave. I get it. The good news is, it really is up to you to never be led on again. You are not in a helpless pit of someone else’s doing. Not only is practising consent mandatory and the only way to make sure you are trekking through the wide world of dating and relationships ethically, but it is also the only way you’ll know what’s up, for sure. It is your best source, better than any advice column or expert TED talk. Better than your daydreaming, which is unreliable at best when it comes to the matters of someone else’s heart.

Furthermore, I am sorry to say, the alternative to asking is assuming, and that’s not an option. It can’t be. So much sexual assault happens where assumptions lie. This is why I am so vocal about the idea of leading someone on or not, because one underlying idea for “leading on” to make sense is that the only, ultimate, unspoken (because it’s supposed to be obvious) goal is sex, and that withholding or withdrawing consent is done out of spite, is a deliberate action to hurt the other. Everyone is free to say no to any thing at any time without having to explain themselves. No one should be “on trial” for exercising consent.


So, here is my advice for you, for when you fear you might be leading yourself on, in 3 steps:
1. Figure out what you want to ask or suggest. It’s okay if you don’t know for sure. You are allowed to say “I don’t know for sure, but…”
2. Prepare yourself emotionally for rejection. Rejection is awful, but so is reacting in a toxic, harmful manner. Not wanting the same thing you do is not a crime, and it is not wrong. A good practice I’ve started is saying, “thank you for taking care of yourself.” They trusted you enough to give you a no. Treat it, and them, respectfully.
3. Ask. And have fun. There is a rush to asking and an even bigger rush when things DO go your way. And even when they don’t, it’s okay. You’ll live, I promise.