Growing up, popular culture was my main resource for sex education. I discovered the nuances of desire and seduction from the desperate, smoldering lyrics of pop songs. I learned about the dangers of peer pressure and the perils of unprotected sex from the after-school specials of teen shows. I experienced my first visual introductions to what sex possibly looked and even felt like through the often graphic simulations offered by Hollywood movies.

In these films, sex was almost always presented as a heterosexual act. The man was repeatedly portrayed as the dominant figure around which all sexual enjoyment revolved. When a female character writhed about blissfully or groaned in theatrical ecstasy, her pleasure was still always framed as being for the gratification of the male character, more so than her own. The female orgasm was the show, but the male orgasm was the curtain closer. It was the finale and the encore — the bow to rapturous applause. Then it would be over and that would be it. That’s sex, folks.

Putting a Partner's Validation Over My Own Satisfaction

I'd never once considered how damaging these portrayals may have been to me when I first began exploring my own sexuality. Surreptitiously, it would seem, I'd been taught to prioritize male sexual validation above and beyond my own satisfaction. Every act I engaged with, every gesture and every position, it would seem, was for the sole benefit of my male partners. As such, I wasn't enjoying sex, I was performing it. In doing so, I was also carelessly and actively encouraging men to objectify and disregard me for their own validation.

I allowed these men to determine my existence the way they would a fleeting fantasy because that's how I was taught to value myself. These female characters that I’d watched, though sexually intriguing, never felt like complete, fascinating, or worthwhile characters. They existed only to further the story of their male partner, providing titillation and fulfilling fantasies as they went. They were interchangeable and completely disposable. In my journey for sexual liberation I'd somehow accidentally opted to sexually restrain myself in this way, becoming the young woman who gratifies her man while failing to fulfill her own needs. Thankfully, there was another aspect to my sexuality, one that helped to push me toward a healthy and life changing epiphany.

Discovering Sexual Equality

My whole life I knew that I was queer. Gender had seemed like a bit of a con to me ever since the tomboy years of my early life. I'd had crushes on boys, crushes on girls, and crushes on people who defined themselves neither way. None of that really mattered to me. When I'm attracted to a person, their genitalia and gender identity defines little of that attraction. It was through exploring this side of myself - and finally dating and sleeping with women - that everything I had ever been taught about sex suddenly felt intrinsically wrong.

When I was with a woman, I was suddenly acutely aware of the levels of pleasure that was owed to both of us. It was refreshing to discover that sex could have nothing to do with asserting dominance over someone and that experimentation, satisfaction and pleasure were all things that could be mutually enjoyed with a reciprocated sense of respect. From that moment on, sex ceased to be an expression of one person validating another's feelings or desires. It became a powerful expression of sensuality and equality. (Read: Getting Curious: The Surprising Skill for Hot, Fun and Consent-Happy Sex.)

For a long time, it felt as though being with a woman made us both equals, while being with a man left me feeling subjugated. Over time, however, I realized how absurd this was. Why would I strive to please a man by benching my own sexual desires in the process? What entitlement did he possess over enjoying the experience that I didn't? Why would the power dynamics so drastically shift just because I was with a woman? None of it made sense. As it turned out, I had yet to unlearn what an entire culture had tried to force me to believe.

A Relationship Full of Equality

Thankfully, I’m glad to say that I’m currently in a fulfilling, monogamous relationship with a man that is full of equality. We respect and understand each other on every level, and that dynamic is something that carries through into our sexual relationship. There’s no gratification that isn’t mutual, no sexual expression that is purely for validation, no dominance of one’s needs over another. This is true sexual freedom; exploring and experimenting with someone who enjoys you as an equal and who is enjoyed as one too.

Respect has to go both ways in all aspects of a relationship, including a sexual one. Unless we choose to respect and value ourselves and to position our pleasure as equal to that of our partners, we’re limiting our sexual lives. Each and every one of us deserves to be more than a prop in someone's fantasy. We all have a sexual identity and a capacity for pleasure. Being our best sexual selves is all about learning to own it.