Sex: How Much of a Fantasy Girl Should You Be?

He wanted me to wear short-shorts. Like Daisy Duke short-shorts, half-inch-inseam short-shorts, the kind one could purchase from Victoria’s Secret’s lovely outerwear collection in the mid-’90s. He gave them to me under the guise of some gift — our one-year anniversary, perhaps — but I had not worn them outside our dorm-room walls, likely because they were a bit (go figure) short for my comfort. I would happily wear them at “home,” or in “the bedroom,” both of which equated to our respective campus housing cells, as I did not mind spicing up our nascent sex life. But I did not take it upon myself to go anywhere (where would I go in these, anyway?) with them barely covering my ass in everyday life.

Then, suddenly, he was angry with me. Sulky, barely-speaking, passive-aggressive angry. At first, he refused to tell me why, insisting I should instinctively know. Then, after some seriously frustrating phone conversation — our first conflict in more than a year of dating — I dragged it out of him: He was mad I had not intuited his desire for me to don the short-shorts for Dillo Day, an outdoor music festival at Northwestern University (that is, alas, not as dirty as it sounds). Apparently it should have been obvious by his buying of the shorts and presenting them to me in the early spring that I would then be obligated, by my undying gratitude for said shorts, to frolic in them at the pinnacle of the season.

I told him he was nuts, he told me I didn’t understand his tender feelings. But I moved past it, resigned to sometimes not understanding the love of my life’s every thought.

Or at least I’d thought I’d moved past it.

In reality, I’d have the same fight with the same man again and again, and again, from the time we met in college when I was 19 to the time we finally broke up for good 10 years later. The garments and desires changed — sometimes it was a thong, sometimes it was a miniskirt with no underwear, sometimes it was a dirty picture, sometimes it was a threesome. But it was always the same tiresome dance: He’d ask me to do something I didn’t like, I’d express my hesitation, he’d accuse me of being cold to his advances, I’d be left to agonize over whether I should stick to my guns in the name of feminism or give in in the name of trying new things for the man I loved.

I never got out of the cycle until I got out of the relationship. But this constant struggle wore its way not only through our sex life — which was otherwise, it should be noted, quite robust, and not at all vanilla — but through my self-esteem as well. I didn’t come to college with a wide frame of sexual reference, as the only two boys I’d loved in high school were a strict Catholic and a closeted future-gay-best-friend. When, during my sophomore year of college, I found the man I thought I was going to marry, I truly wanted to make him happy. Until, it seemed, he told me exactly what would make him happy. These weren’t the typical things you read in women’s magazines that you don’t have to do if you don’t want to. They seemed kind-of, mostly, harmless. I would find myself thinking, Why don’t I want to go to the bar wearing this short skirt with no panties? What’s the harm in giving my future husband this little thrill? This line of thought soon unraveled into something more like, What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel comfortable doing this? Why am I so frigid and unsexy?

I think this urge, to look for what’s broken in ourselves when our sex life isn’t going as planned, starts, like so many neuroses, with women’s magazines. When we are constantly bombarded with 57 Ways to Please Him Tonight (or 75 Naughty Sex Moves Men Crave Most), we think it is our duty to go through these checklists, one point at a time, and accomplish sexiness the same way we accomplish career or academic success, relationship or baby-raising success, beauty or fitness, in our idealized-super-woman times. If we do not accomplish these successes, the reasoning goes, it is because we are not doing everything possible to do so. Therefore, to not do so is a personal failing, a sign of defect.

It is telling that I did not share these struggles with anyone at the time. I wanted so badly for my friends and family to believe that my relationship was perfect, that I had pleased my man the same way I’d pulled my undergrad grade point average up to a 3.5 after dipping dangerously close to the 2 range my freshman year (hint: don’t take three lit classes at once; also, statistics is a hard class) — by beating it into place with my iron ambition and steel will. Meanwhile, as we moved in together, he was complaining that I never initiated sex, and, well, he was right — I was afraid that starting anything would lead to something I didn’t want to do. The non-vanilla sex life devolved into a barely existent one. We decided this was a spectacular time to get engaged, naturally.

Even as I said “yes” to his “Will you marry me?,” I couldn’t parse the question at the core of our relationship: What happens when your partner’s sexual wishes constantly irritate you? Do you give him what he wants in the name of love, as I so often did? Or do you stand up for your own feelings in the name of feminism? The fact that this all bothered me so much bothered me in itself: Wasn’t he supposed to be telling me what he wanted in bed? Wasn’t that what all the sex self-help books told us?

We eventually broke up for a million interrelated, complicated reasons, the buildup of ten years of sacrifices and regrets compounded by two lives pulling in opposite directions until they shattered. I never figured out the answers to those questions. At least I didn’t think I did, until I noticed two curious, related phenomena in subsequent relationships: One, I broke up with anyone whose tastes in the bedroom didn’t blend seamlessly with my own. And two, I tend to initiate a fair number of sexual favors for my current, true love of my adult life. Following a checklist — whether dreamed up by Cosmo or your man — just never feels sexy. Making your own fantasies together, as a couple, does.

Having years of emotional distance from the whole ordeal with my ex also helped me realize what was truly getting to me about his sexual requests: They seemed to come from a pre-approved list from Maxim magazine or something, the ultimate markers of commodified female sexuality — I wasn’t even sure he wanted them, per se, as much as he wanted to prove he could have them (the same way, I must admit, I’d wanted an engagement ring from him just to prove I’d won at life). This was borne out one day, late in our relationship, when I danced on the bar at Coyote Ugly (yeah, just like the movie) at his urging, and he seemed more embarrassed than exhilarated.

The fact that my more spontaneous expressions of sexuality, the ones that came from the real me and not some trussed-up hussy version of her, weren’t enough for him degraded me doubly. If this sounds familiar to you — fake sexuality being forced upon someone while her genuine sexuality is devalued — that’s because it’s called the society we live in. I don’t — I can’t — blame my ex, who was as young and dumb as I was at the time, for ideas foisted upon generation after generation through everything from porn to ads to magazines.

But if you’re wondering whether to shoot that amateur porn or wear that uncomfortable crotchless latex onesie or enter that stripping contest at the request of your loved one, make sure you — and he — really want it to begin with. And if not, maybe it’s time to find a new lover whose fantasies you fulfill just by being you.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong


  1. Have you read “Female Chauvinist Pigs”? It touches on some of these themes. I love that you know better than to blame him or yourself (though I will say that he sounds particularly insensitive)–there’s a complex culture crash that happens, and that particularly happens to us as third-wave feminists who have grown up thinking we’re in control of our sexuality and our bodies. Which we are, and aren’t, to varying degrees, and in different ways than our mothers were. Now when husbands force sex upon us, it’s rape, not “that thing that happened last night”–I wonder if the next generation will have better language for things like this than we do?

    • Yes, it’s a very Female Chauvinist Pigs kind of problem, made all the worse when it’s happening on such a personal level at such a critical time. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves??

      • You know, I think part of it might BE because we’re feminists. Um, not that we shouldn’t be, to be clear! (And I wouldn’t express this sentiment in the broader culture, because I know how easily that statement is misinterpreted.) But certainly feminism isn’t a suit of armor against the pressures of society, and the pressures of relationships with people we care about who might not “get it,” as seems to be the case here. I very much grew up thinking that I could take care of myself, because I was a girl and girls were strong and powerful and kicked butt and YAY GIRLS, all of which was awesome, and I’ve never not pursued anything in life that I wanted to pursue because of my gender. But that empowerment doesn’t cover every inch of our psyches, and ironically it can sometimes leave a woman unprepared for situations that may have been presented to her as “her choice!” and “empowering!” but aren’t really either. Or that ARE her choice, but that she might feel conflicted about.

        Again, this doesn’t mean that feminism is a failure, not in the least. The occasional gap that I’ve experienced from being raised as a feminist and walking through this world as a woman? I’ll take that any day over not having been raised in a feminist household and being proud to call myself a feminist today. But I think that we need to address these complexities in order to conquer them.

  2. Jen, your article really struck a chord with me! My lover has the same requests of my sexuality, which have been tempered by years of pornography and media. Everything that men do is dependent on what the media has told them they should do, just as women are told what it is we need to do to be sexy and attractive. We had a debate the other day about men being genetically pre-programmed to sew their wild oats and have sex with any female they can see, while I say that as a species humans have evolved beyond these base instincts. However, he is adamant, but so am I. The important thing is communication, I believe. After many requests for threesomes and continually asking me which woman I’m attracted to when walking through a mall, being honest with each other has to be the key.

    • You’re absolutely right, Purdita! I always wonder if things would’ve gone at least a little better if I’d had the confidence and insight to point out what was going on and have an intelligent discussion about it. I’m glad you seem to be doing that. And I take the middle path on your evolutionary debate: I think men are probably pre-programmed to want sex with every female they see, but I think they should be intelligent enough to control that instinct.

      • Purdita says:

        I sometimes think that it’s because women are innately more morally inclined than men. So it’s not that we don’t drool after every man we see because we’re not attracted to them and wouldn’t consider bedding them; it’s that we have a sense of responsibility towards the people in our lives – we make a point of avoiding thinking about men in that way because in our minds and hearts we’ve made a promise or something. Perhaps you’re right in the middle ground, because it seems as though we’ve evolved faster into a more considerate sex, while men – who have been sexually indulged for centuries – have continued to live free and easy.

  3. Serena says:

    Really powerful post – thanks for this. I think it’s really important for feminists to be up front about how our relationships oftentimes aren’t in any better shape than the rest of society. Yes, we believe in some powerful ideals about equality and controlling our bodies, but at the end of the day, people don’t always live up to these ideals, whether it’s intentional or not. Glad you’re in a new relationship where the sex is good – and everything is consensual. :)

  4. M. Hawkins says:

    If you’re happy with it; theres nothing wrong with it. Sex is about pleasure for me.

  5. Rori says:

    This makes me officially love this blog, so true and elegantly explored. Count a new reader in me.

  6. lisabonnice says:

    Well, ya won me over as a subscriber with this one! :-*

  7. You keep talking about standing your ground in the name of feminism, and I think that might be part of the problem. What ever happened to standing your ground in the name of not having to do anything sexually that you don’t feel comfortable. What happens in your own bedroom (or bar or wherever it’s going on) shouldn’t be motivated by feminism, feminism should give you the right to do what you’re doing, but it shouldn’t be the reason you do or don’t do them, the reason should be your own feelings!

    Sorry for all of the shoulds. I don’t mean should in a judgemental way.

    • We completely agree — weirdly, it’s sometimes easier for some of us to be empowered by feminism to actually acknowledge our own desires (or lack thereof) than the opposite … but the opposite (that is, what you say) is certainly the ideal.

  8. Laura says:

    I’ve never had the issue of “not being sexy enough”, luckily as I’ve been with some really decent guys. However, my response to a guy would be to turn his accusations back on him. For instance, if he wants a threesome, I’ll be like, “Okay, what kind of guy tickles your fancy?”


  1. [...] Dilemma #2: He wants things in bed that you don’t. Man, Third Wave feminism is confusing, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be constantly breaking through our hangups to explore vast expanses of new sexual territory to take advantage of all that our foremothers fought for … or something … right? And yet, we might just not be that into having a threesome or making a sex video or anal. Stop trying to figure out why you don’t like some stuff — we all get to just not like stuff. Sure, give it a chance if you’re iffy about it and he’s dying to do it, but if something really makes you uncomfortable, draw the line. Not doing so can be the beginning of the end of any relationship. [...]

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