Sexual Pleasure, Sexual Skill

Image: Mattia Ascenzo

You may be (very much not) surprised to hear that we talk about sex, and the ways people engage in sex in both the real world and in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, on a fairly frequent basis. As we compare and contrast the two, we noticed one major difference, and it becomes immediately logical the moment you think about it even a bit.

In the real world, multiple studies aimed at examining differences in gender approach to casual sex have arrived at the same conclusion: Women are less likely to accept offers of casual sex than men are.

This might seem obvious. In fact, it’s so universally assumed to be true that Sigmund Freud argued, and some people still argue, it’s a fundamental biological difference between men and women. Something to do with hormones or ideal mating strategies or whatever else is the latest evo-psych theory du jour—wired, in other words, into our very DNA, as much a part of the differences between men and women as ovaries or facial hair. (Which, if you pause to think a moment, clearly aren’t necessarily as set in stone as many people like to believe either, but since when has that ever stopped an evo-psych theorist?)

That seems implausible to us, to put it mildly. It seems to us that sociological differences between men and women (starting from the fact that men who have casual sex are admired as ‘studs’ whilst women who have casual sex are castigated as ‘sluts’) might be pretty powerful disincentives for women to say yes all by themselves. Culture is a powerful tool for developing unconscious assumptions, after all. 

Just look at how historically, women were often portrayed as more prone to giving in to the flames of irrational lust, and more likely to lead men astray, where men have been perceived as more rational and less prone to giving into the temptations of unreasoned passion. Consider how many of the mythological creatures and divine beings associated with lust and sexuality were portrayed as female.

But there’s also another part of the equation, and it’s even simpler than biology or DNA or reproductive strategies or social double standards.

Women who have casual sex are just less likely to have a good time than men are.

At least, that’s the conclusion of a 2022 study by Terri D. Conley and Verena Klein, appropriately titled “Women Get Worse Sex: A Confound in the Explanation of Gender Differences in Sexuality,” and sadly behind a paywall (if you happen to have a copy, we’d love to read it!). It’s also the conclusion of a WebMD article about casual sex as well.

Women are, in other words, likely to get the raw end of the deal when they have casual sex. They bear more of the risk but are less likely to have a good time. Is it surprising that doesn’t really seem like such a great offer?

Ah, but what if that wasn’t true?

What if we lived in a society where most people were skilled at sex and invested in a lover’s pleasure, where there was no (or almost no) risk associated with sex, and where sex carried absolutely no social stigma?

The result, we think, might be interesting.

In the City, men and women are about equally likely to offer, and accept offers of, casual sex.

Wait, hang on, let’s take a step back.

In the City, the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘women’ isn’t really all that clear-cut. Citizens in the City can change their bodies at will. Want a body different from the one you grew up in? No problem! Want to change your body for a party tomorrow night? No problem! Want breasts and a prehensile cock? No problem! Want multiple sets of genitals? Hey, if you can figure out how the anatomy works, you do you, just hop in a medpod and dial up what you want.

So already, it gets a bit hard to talk about differences between ‘men’ and ‘women.’ Those terms barely have any meaning in the City as it is. And when sex has no shame or stigma—indeed, it’s part of the civic and religious structures of the society you live in—there’s no social pressure for people who wear one type of body not to have sex whilst people who wear a different type of body are praised for having sex.

One of the things the two of us recently found ourselves musing—because, of course, we often muse about the worlds we create together—was that if a person from the real world were to be transported abruptly to the City (and can we just say ‘yes, please!’ to that idea?), the average sexual encounter with an average person in the City would quite probably be…well, a lot of fun.

A typical person with average sexual skill in the City might very well be in the top one percentile of sexually skilled lovers in the real world. An above-average lover in the City, perhaps in the top one tenth of one percentile. Even someone who in the City might be regarded as a rather uninspired (although maybe not going as far as mediocre) lover would probably be pretty sexually savvy by real-world standards.

A lot of people in the real world settle, we think, for some pretty pedestrian sex.

It’s not just that people in the City live in a society that attaches no shame or stigma to sex, though of course that’s part of it.

It’s not just that people in the City live for hundreds of years, so have plenty of time to up their game, though that’s part of it too.

It’s not even that people in the City can, and frequently do, freely change their bodies on a whim, so have the experience of having sex in multiple bodies with many different sets of genitals, though that also plays a role.

It’s that people in the City are often formally trained, usually in the context of religious training, in the sexual arts.

And not just in sexual techniques. A lot of folks make the mistake of assuming that sexual skill is about learning how to move your tongue or how fast to thrust or how and where to kiss and stroke. Which kind of misses the point, because people are different, and have different tastes and different subjective experiences of sex.

The thing that makes you good at sex isn’t knowing how to move your tongue, it’s knowing how to pay attention: how to read your lover’s responses, how to see what gets them hot. It’s also openness and communication—not just telling your lover what cranks your motor (although that’s important), but learning how to hear your partner talk about what cranks their motor, without fear or judgment. How, in fact, to encourage them to talk about it.

“She is one of the loveliest Fountains in my time as a priest of the Quickener. Would you like to pleasure yourself with her?”

“Is that allowed?”

“Yes. It is one of the nice things about being in his service.” He laughed at Marisem’s expression. “Not until you learn to read the signs, Initiate! You must take care not to allow the Fountain to reach ecstasy. When you have learned to do that, you may perform your duties in whatever manner you choose.” His fingers strummed Terlyn’s clit. “You’ll learn to read a person’s body very well. You may also be called upon to excite the Fountain during days of heavy worship, which means you will learn how to touch a person to evoke excitement again even after an orgasm. There is a reason we who serve the Quickener are in such high demand as lovers.”

—from The Brazen Altar

This ability to pay attention is one of the keys to being a good lover:

Rainshadow read Yaeris’s body with an uncanny knack bordering on telepathy. She took note of every slight quiver during her patient, methodical exploration, until it seemed she knew how to touch Yaeris better than Yaeris herself. Yaeris soon lost track of how many times she’d come, as she drifted into a fog of pleasure, carried away by long, slow, gentle orgasms, so different from what Euryale had given her. The orgasms blended into each other until Yaeris floated beyond awareness of anything except Rainshadow’s hands and lips and tongue.

She came back into herself some timeless time later, guided by Rainshadow’s body on hers and Rainshadow’s voice in her ear. When she opened her eyes, the shadows in the tent told of a sun that had moved noticeably in the sky. “Ah, there you are,” Rainshadow said. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Yaeris stretched and discovered she was no longer bound. “You are extraordinary.”

—from The Hallowed Covenant

Hear that? Extraordinary. High praise indeed.

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we’ve created a world where sex is ubiquitous, an ordinary and accepted part of casual social discourse—yet the part of sex we want to highlight, the part of sex that makes the act of sex extraordinary, is connection. Sex, even casual sex, is best when it’s connective—when the people involved pay attention to one another deeply, and invest in the experience of their partners.

In all of the novels, characters wonder why the AI gods they’ve created demand worship through sex. The answer is complicated, and nuanced, and every character who asks receives a different answer (perhaps we will write about that in the future!), but ultimately, the answer is connection. Connection to each other, to your community, to the gods, even to oneself. Sex is best when it’s connective, even when that connection isn’t expected to endure past one encounter.

In a society where that’s a baseline standard, perhaps casual sex might become a more appealing proposition for everyone.

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