We’ve listened to heterosexual women call out men for not giving them pleasure in bed. Now, it’s time to hear what the guys have to say...

Content warning: this article mentions sexual assault

Nicholas* was 15 when he first had sex. It was his then-girlfriend’s first time too.

“I remember the first time, she was like, oh this was bad.”

Their relationship was based on a “crazy best friend connection”, so they were at a level with each other where open communication was a given. And Nicholas’ girlfriend was not afraid to be direct.

“She would teach me how to eat her out. It was like school lessons, 101. Let me teach you because this sucks.”

Six years on, Nicholas is now a photographer and painter. He’s since had several more exes since that first one, and has just come out of a long-term relationship (and is enjoying casual sex, as one does when they’ve just come out of a long-term relationship).

Looking back on that experience with his first girlfriend, Nicholas appreciates her directness and her patience in guiding him on how to make her feel good.

“It was kind of cool being in that environment where I'm openly accepted to being a novice or an amateur. And she's taking the time out to be like, okay, I understand that you're an amateur. And that's okay.”

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

“Well, this is the thing. I have established that I have quite a lot of pride. So for me, it was tricky to hear that it was bad… It's like, oh, that sucks. I'm not pleasuring you. And then you go into thinking, oh shit, is there someone else out there that could pleasure her better? Is she thinking about that?”

Despite being literally 15 and very recently a virgin, Nicholas says that thought process was driven by his pride. But why did pride have such a front-and-centre seat in his sex life?

“It’s so tricky because, as a male, our sex life is so embedded into who we are as males.”

“I only started realising that when I would get cut up about people saying that I'm bad, I think, why do I feel bad? That's my ego. And what is my ego? My ego is someone who thinks he is hot shit at sex. Why is that? That's because you just should be.”

Fellow heterosexual man Michael*, a 27-year-old musician in Tāmaki Makaurau, agrees that this pressure to be hot shit at sex as a young man is very real.

Growing up as an Asian guy where, in his words, “no one looks at you twice”, he, like many young people, had a deep desire to be the object of desire. And those insecurities and desires translated to wanting to “conquer” in his sex life.

“When you’re younger, you just want to prove yourself, you just want to chuck those numbers up. You want to conquer, you want to feel proud of yourself. You want to be like, I am a sexual being. You want to confirm with yourself that you are wanted. Because if you don't have sex, that's another hit on your ego.”

It seems that when you mix together the difficulties of navigating the world in your teens and early twenties - your anxiety over what other people think of you, your lack of ease with who you are, your inexperience - you end being kind of irrational in how you approach sex.

“There’s a good J. Cole song about it,” says Michael.

In ‘Wet Dreamz’, J. Cole writes about crushing on a girl in maths class that he jokes around and passes notes with. One day, she passes him a note asking, “You ever had sex before?”

That’s when Cole confesses to us that nope, he definitively has not had sex... before jumping into the second verse with: “I wrote back and said, “Of course I had sex before.” To drive the point home, he shows off to his crush with, “I’m like a pro, baby.”

The song is an endearing and very human story of two young people fronting to each other, acting like they know what they’re doing when really they’re just talking shit. It’s something we all do to some extent, especially when we’re young and insecure with ourselves.

For young men, however, the need to front and appear to have more experience and expertise than you actually do seems to be especially pertinent when it comes to sex.

A 2013 study that surveyed nearly 300 undergraduates at Ohio State University found that men are more likely to over-report the number of sexual partners they’ve had, while women are more likely to under-report.

In the study, half the participants were hooked up to a lie detector machine (which in reality was a fake machine), and the other half weren’t. On average, the men who weren’t hooked up to the machine - and therefore didn’t have any reason to think they’d be caught lying - reported having more sexual partners than those who were hooked up to the fake lie detector. 

The numbers were vice versa for women. This suggested that the men who weren’t hooked up to the lie detectors may have inflated their numbers a little - and that the women may have understated them a little.

As a woman, I can in theory understand how ego affects some men in their sex lives. I can understand the pressure to live up to a social expectation to be “hot shit at sex”, and how your sexual performance - whether that’s your ability to help your partner experience pleasure or simply your body count - can be tied to your self-worth.

However, I found this talk of pride and ego and conquering very hard to wrap my head around, as much as I tried to tap into my empathetic self. Why can’t guys just, you know, decide to stop being so ruled by their egos? To help make more sense of it, I turned to Freddie*, a gay man in his early twenties.

Turns out, the gay community is not immune to the need to prove yourself through how you fuck.

Freddie is currently in a monogamous relationship. When he was single, he’d have “experimental” casual sex with two to three guys a month.

“I feel like there's kind of an expectation among gay men, especially if you're experiencing casual relationships, that you're going to be more experimental, you're going to be sleeping around a lot more. If you're bottoming, you're a power bottom. If you're topping, you're a power top.

“If I'm with a partner who I feel is more experienced than me, or feel that they can move their body in a way that I can't, I do kind of feel a bit deflated.”

And, Freddie explains, that pressure to perform is a lot more present when he’s in what’s considered the “dominant” role.

“In my experience, it's been easier to immerse myself in the sex or put my ego aside when I'm in the submissive role. It takes a lot more confidence and a lot more energy to present yourself as this confident sex god when you're in the dominant role, and that usually ties into what position you are - whether you're top or bottom.

“There's more pressure to act a certain way, because the idea is that the dominant one knows what they're doing, and is kind of moving the submissive one in a way. And the submissive one just kind of goes along with that.”

We don’t have quantitative data on this, but in heterosexual couplings, men are perhaps more often in a dominant role during sex than women are. Even in our language around penis-in-vagina sex, we say the man is penetrating the woman. We don’t say that the woman is… enveloping the man’s penis with her vagina? The man is playing the active role, and has control of the pace, angle and even position.

And with great power comes great responsibility. Being in the position where you’re calling the shots can feel like there’s a spotlight placed on you, and that you’re going to be judged on how you perform. 

Every once in a while, I see that meme of the horse who plays dead every time its owner wants to take it for a ride. The caption will be something like, “Girls when their boyfriend asks them to get on top.” Part of some women’s reluctance around being on top is because it can be a real leg workout and we’re quite frankly tired. But, perhaps there’s some truth to it also being a position where you feel more pressure to perform a certain way and be ‘good’ at riding your guy. And maybe that pressure is what some men are feeling all the time during sex.

How can men get over that? How do men let go of those preoccupations with whether they’re living up to their ideals of masculinity? A place to start is to identify in the first place that they are constructed ideals of masculinity, and that we don’t have to buy into them.

Shortly after his first relationship ended, Nicholas survived the most disruptive event of his life.

“I got raped a few years ago by a girl. That was the biggest turmoil that I've ever faced, trying to figure out what I did wrong. As a male, how did I let that happen? How did a woman take advantage of me?

“In the society that I've grown up, I've been fed this idea that I'm stronger than a woman, and how could that ever have happened to me, and I've failed. I've almost failed my idea of a man, or my past idea of a man. So I've then failed myself.

“And that affected me sexually. Especially after it happened, I didn't feel strong in the bedroom. I didn't feel confident and strong and myself.”

In the years since, Nicholas has put in work to heal from that event, and to look inside himself and deconstruct why surviving the rape affected him in the way that it did.

He came to the realisation, “I was very complacent in what I thought a man was.” He was able to take a step back and rethink for himself what it really means to be a man. “It was almost like that event made me start at page one again of who I was, after I felt like it was torn away from me.”

During this time, he experimented with bisexuality, and became more cognisant of his pride and how it affected him. It’s led him to become more lucid than probably most 21-year-old men on how pride can cloud men’s judgement when it comes to sex.

“I'm just so over it, the kind of hurt that males get from rejection. I've even had some of my friends be like, ah, this girl didn't enjoy it. She just doesn't know what she wants. And it's like, no, it's actually completely opposite. She knows exactly what she wants, and you couldn't give it to her. And that's fine. Live with that. That's cool. Move on.”

The sooner we let go of our pride, the sooner we can have open communication around sex

At the end of my conversation with Michael, he turns all the questions I’ve asked onto me. He asks how partners have reacted when I’ve openly communicated what I wanted during sex. I say that some loved it and some seemed a bit taken aback or defensive. In those instances, I’ve wondered if it was because of the way I said it - maybe there was a more soft or sexy way I could’ve approached it. It’s easy to internalise those moments and be more shy about communicating what you want the next time.

“You can’t do a compliment sandwich for everything,” Michael says bluntly. “Just be like, yo, this feels like shit. And if they’re a good person, that's how you weed the scum from the good. If they don't like that and they don't listen to you, be like, fuck this guy, you know?”

The implication, of course, is that Michael himself would be totally cool with his partner communicating in an upfront way like this. How did he go from being a self-confessed young dude with a “dumbass-like monkey brain” who just wanted to get his numbers up to relieve his insecurities, to being a guy comfortable enough in himself to be cool with being told the sex was shit?

He learned to accept that we’re not always going to be sex gods. Sometimes, especially with a new partner, the sex might very well be shit, and that’s okay and normal.

Michael describes himself as “a very egotistical person.” In the past, there have been times when he assumed he knew what he was doing but, in reality, he didn’t. He has since figured out that it’s best to approach each new partner as if you’re starting from step one, learning for the first time how to make them feel good - because you are.

“Not all human beings are the same. And to be honest, it takes a long time to learn. So you ask them. And it's not because I'm a dickhead or I'm terrible... I think. It's because I just don't know them yet. But I will. I think that's the attitude you gotta have. Instead of being like, I'm the fucking man at sex.”

Thinking back on his experience with his first girlfriend, Nicholas says he had to take some time to work through in his head how to become comfortable with her open communication.

“I was like, okay, shit. Sex is not something where I should be thinking about other people's perceptions, because the only two people in the room are me and my partner. So what do we think is cool? And then I kind of went on down this track. And I thought, what I think about sex that is cool is that I'm able to give pleasure to her. Well, that's a thing that I'm not doing. Okay, sweet, so how do I give pleasure to her?”

And the answer, plain and simple, was to receive his then-girlfriend’s open communication with open arms and listen. After being with more partners, experiencing more of that open communication and becoming more comfortable in himself, Nicholas says, “it's become a less scary conversation. It’s more like, this is exciting and I can't wait to figure out what you want.”

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