This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
This phrase, "good in bed," has been stuck in my head lately. It's a phrase I've thought about a lot over the years.
And I've come to the conclusion that I don't like it.
I should get this out of the way first: Yes, of course, there are some basic skills that anyone hoping to have good sex should acquire. It's more "basic pieces of knowledge" than anything else, really. Knowledge of male and/or female sexual anatomy and response (depending on which gender or genders you're boinking). The understanding, for instance, that clits usually prefer somewhat delicate and indirect stimulation, and that dicks typically prefer a fairly firm touch. The understanding that most women take a while to get aroused and to come, and that most don't come from vaginal penetration alone. The understanding that erections tend to not respond well when their owners feel pressured to perform. Where the G-spot and the prostate are. Where it is and isn't safe to spank. That sort of thing.
But once you have that stuff under your belt?
In my experience, once you have these basics, good sex isn't about learning a lot of fancy tricks or positions. It's about communicating: being able to say what you want without pessimism or fear; being able to listen to what your partner wants without getting threatened or hurt. It's about being familiar with your own body and your own desires and responses, so you can communicate them in the first place. It's about being perceptive: paying attention to non-verbal signals as well as verbal ones. It's about giving a shit about your partner's pleasure in the first place, and being able to get aroused by their excitement as well as your own. (Which, as Ingrid points out, may not be a skill that can be learned...)
And it's about the luck of the draw: having good sexual chemistry together, getting off on the same sorts of things. You can have all the physical skills and know-how in the world, and be the clearest and most tactful communicator of your desires, and the most attentive listener to your partner's desires... and if it doesn't click for the two of you, then it doesn't click. If you like it hard and nasty and he likes it sweet and sensual; if you like a marathon every week or two and she likes quickies four or five times a week... then the two of you are not going to be good in bed together, no matter how good each of you might be separately. (Not right away, at least. You might get good together if you really like each other and are committed to making it work... but it's going to take some effort, and some willingness to compromise.)
I think the phrase "good in bed" is problematic for a lot of reasons. There's the reasons mentioned above: people tend to use "good in bed," not to mean "perceptive and good at communicating," but to mean "possessing the physical skills required to get their partner off." This puts the emphasis on physical parlor tricks, positions and gestures and whatnot, instead of perception and communication. And it de-emphasizes the sexual differences between people: the fact that your particular skillset might have worked great with Mary or Mark, but it's not doing bupkis with Jean or John. Even that "basic knowledge of anatomy and response" stuff won't always help: knowing that women generally prefer a lighter, more indirect touch on their clits will do you no good at all with women whose clits like it rough. (If you're doing more complex or sophisticated forms of sex, like BDSM, then physical skills do become more important... but I think the basic principle is still the same.)
The "good in bed" trope also contributes to the idea of sex as an achievement, or a competition. We tend to talk about being "good in bed" the way we talk about being good at making cocktails, or good at tennis. It makes it less about pleasure and joy... and more about ego. It makes it less about, "We are having such an amazing time together," and more about, "I am such a hot stud/ sexy bitch. I can turn this woman/ man/ wombat to jelly. I am the bomb." (Quick tangent: Are people saying "the bomb" anymore? I'm a middle-aged lady, and am kind of out of it when it comes to current slang.)
Which brings me to my final issue:
I think the phrase "good in bed" implies that sex is something one person does to another... instead of something two people do together. (Or more than two. I'm not particular.) It implies that being good in bed is a quality that one person has, instead of a quality that two (or more) people have together. It implies that sex is about the power one person has over another, instead of the power two (or more) people can create for themselves and each other. (Not that I have anything against one person having power over another, in a consensually kinky way... but you know what I mean.)
So I'd like to see us talking about "good in bed," not to mean, "possessing the physical skills/ studliness to make their sex partners intensely aroused and orgasmic," but instead to mean, "good at communicating and paying attention during sex." And ideally, short of some very basic knowledge and skills, I'd like to see us stop talking about one person being "good in bed" altogether.
I don't think one person is good in bed.
I think two people are good in bed together.
Or more than two. I'm not particular.