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On sex practice

So, here’s an odd statement, which the guy who emailed me was kind enough to allow me to publish:

I sometimes want to try things out – I have zero or little experience and I worry about that. Would be wrong to use a girl as just like to practise on and improve?

The word ‘practice’ bothers me, and not just because of its context-dependent spelling of ‘s’ or ‘c’. This gentleman was asking, after my article on virginity, whether it was OK to find someone to practise sexual things with (kissing, oral, and other delicious non-penis-focused activity) without having to have actual sex.

The answer to this question is a wholehearted ‘yes’, but also a wholehearted ‘no’, because of the way it was phrased.

Not having sex is totally fine

If you meet someone and want to do sexy things but without having what you’d class as ‘full sex’ (i.e. train goes in tunnel) then that is not only fine but, if the other person you’re with is a fan of kissing, oral, frotting, etc, utterly delightful. There’s a deep and gutwrenching joy in having things that aren’t ‘full sex’, and although I am personally a bit of a penetration fetishist (I find it hard to get off if I’m not being pounded, or at least under promise of being pounded in the very near future), there are hundreds of other things that are fun.

However, the word ‘practice’, makes me shudder with discomfort, because it implies some things that make me sceptical of how you actually feel about your partner.

There is no sex Olympics

The key question, really, is what are you practising for? Is there some sex competition that I didn’t know you could enter? Are there skills and techniques you need to know in order to pass a shagging exam? Is this hard work going to pay off ten years down the line when you meet someone who refuses to sleep with you unless she can see your Doctorate in lovemaking? No? Then what you’re doing isn’t practice.

It’s an uncomfortable word because usually we practise on something that isn’t the real thing. We learn to drive with supervision, in cars that have a spare set of pedals so our instructor can slam the brakes on when we almost power headlong into a roundabout (and Colin, if you’re reading this, I’m really bloody sorry). We practise exam questions on past test papers. Above all, the results of our ‘practice’ don’t really matter, because the marks aren’t real or final.

But in bed, the person you’re with is real. They have real nerve endings, real emotions and desires. To reduce them to a GCSE test paper, in which the marks (i.e. their feelings) don’t really matter sounds deeply disrespectful. This, coupled with the word ‘use’ was what gave me shudders in this guy’s email.

There’s nothing wrong with having consensual sex fun with someone that doesn’t involve penetration, but there is definitely something wrong with viewing any individual sexual partner as just a stepping stone towards the amazing sex that you’ll eventually have with someone else. Heavily implied there is ‘better’. You practice on the not-quite-real person, then have better sex with someone… well… better.

Eww.

Sex practice doesn’t make perfect

Most importantly, the idea of practice implies that if you do enough of it you’ll eventually become ‘good’. This is one of those bullshit beliefs we hold because so many advice columns, sex books, and articles about ‘Ten Ways To Blow Her Mind In Bed’ insist on peddling the myth that everyone likes the same thing. That you can be, objectively, a ‘good shag’. This – and I cannot stress this enough – is bollocks.

Sometimes you’ll have sex with someone for the first time, and loads of your trademark moves will genuinely blow their mind. They’ll sigh, and writhe, and moan in delight as you rub, lick, suck, and fuck them into a glorious and delicious climax. But this is rare. Most of the time you’ll do some things they like, some things they love, and many things that make them want to say ‘left a bit’, ‘a bit softer’, ‘no, wait, a bit harder’ until you do something exactly the way they like it.

I’ve slept with a fair few guys as well as a few girls. Each and every one of them was slightly different, with some of them doing things in ways I’d never have anticipated but turned out to love. Others did things that worked well for their previous partners but turned me right off. I’m sure the same is true of what they thought of me, and generally with those people I was with for longer, we got better at pleasing the other one and knowing what they wanted. No amount of practice can prepare you as well as the knowledge that everyone’s different. So practice doesn’t make perfect – it doesn’t even make ‘good’ – the best revision you can do is to talk to the person you’re with, and listen when they tell you what they like.

Don’t ‘use’ anyone

You don’t owe it to any hypothetical future partner to be the best you can be in bed. It’s not the case that you can pick people who don’t matter to help you perfect your techniques so that you can wow the love of your life at some point. Firstly because the love of your life may well want something completely different, secondly because whoever you’re practicing with may turn out to be the love of your life, and finally because it’s just a shitty thing to do. If I had wild and sticky sex with someone and subsequently found out that they were just ‘using’ me for ‘practice’, I’d kick them out of bed before you could say ‘I am not an unfeeling shag-robot.’

I don’t think this guy is deliberately being mean, or callous. After a few emails back and forth I think he’s just under the impression that he needs to be the best he can be. But you can be at your best not by learning techniques or practising your cunnilingus skills, but by being empathetic, caring and considerate of what your partner needs and wants. Not a hypothetical future partner – the one you’re with in exactly that moment.

14 Comments

  • endymion says:

    I totally agree with your objections to the word practice as far as the “traditional” sex-acts you mentioned are concerned. For the sake of completeness, however, I want to point out that in some context it can make sense to practice sex skills with a willing and informed, but temporary partner. Think of rope-bondage or similar skills: practising actually does make you better even with a different partner. It obviously doesn’t make you “good in bed” as some kind of ultimate goal. It just allows you to focus more on the sexual interaction with a later partner since you are not fumbling around with knots.

    Yet, even in this context I certainly do not mean that it’s ok to “use” someone as practise-partner. Even if you are practising together to achieve something, both partners need to be aware of the context. Heck, “using someone” is practically a patent-recipe for objectifying someone!

    • Girl on the net says:

      That’s a good point, and I think I’d definitely be less squicky about the word ‘practice’ in this context, probably for two reasons… *ahem*…

      1. You’re practising a particular skill that may genuinely be beneficial. For instance, cunnilingus is a very personal thing: some people like it one way, others another, etc. Whereas rope-play, although people might prefer it in different ways, requires a baseline knowledge to ensure you’re doing it safely. ‘Practice’ in this context isn’t about using a partner to improve yourself, but improving yourself to make sure you don’t inadvertently harm a partner.
      2. Maybe this is my own prejudice, and I’m utterly on the wrong track about this, but I think with kinky things people tend to be a lot more open. i.e. “I am looking for someone who can help me learn how to do an amazing rope tie”. Given this, there’s far less opportunity for uncomfortable upset as most people are more open about what they want (there’s more variety in desires/expectations, so I think they need to be). So, I think, there’s less potential for hurting someone by ‘using’ them as practice, because if there’s a particular skill you want to perfect, chances are you’ll have had an open discussion about that.

      But yeah – thank you for bringing that up, as it’s definitely given me something to ponder. I wonder if maybe it’s all about the idea of *what* you’re practising on or with – i.e. if you’re practising on people there’s that uncomfortable objectifying thing going on, whereas if you’re practising something *with* a person, and it’s open and accepted that that’s what you’re doing, then it can be an awesome thing. And also, potentially, a turn on. I’ve had a guy who ‘practised’ his photography on me – trying to get the right shots, lighting, positions etc to make me look hot as fuck. It was awesome, but I never felt like I was being used, more like I was being included. And that was lovely.

      • Mimieux says:

        Endymion… I agree with you, and with GOTN too… And I would add that this is also the case with someone new learning about hitty things… Definitely need to practice swinging a flogger under the tutelage of someone who is more knowledgable than you, or on someone who has a high pain threshold, so can tell you really if you’re hitting a bit too hard (random Dave, I am sorry).

        I think that’s the difference though, between straight up sex, and bdsm, in this case, anyway… It’s important to practice, because if you don’t, someone could get seriously physically hurt.

        I thin GOTN has it dead on though… The difference between practicing with and practicing on. Maybe the poor guy meant he wanted to build up his experience, but you’re right, practice reminds me of endless piano scales and a level test papers (and despite my best efforts, they were still never 100% perfect).

        :)

        • yeah i did mean i wanted to build up my experience and i’m going to veto vote my naiveness as to using the word practise .And i wasn’t looking at it from a bdsm pov .but thanks for the heads up for if and when i want to and @GOTN i am a photographer (like serious amateurish )and i have wanted to try out nudes at some point ;some sort of coincidence???uh anyways thanks again GOTN

      • The Hill Mouse says:

        “I wonder if maybe it’s all about the idea of *what* you’re practising on or with – i.e. if you’re practising on people there’s that uncomfortable objectifying thing going on, whereas if you’re practising something *with* a person, and it’s open and accepted that that’s what you’re doing, then it can be an awesome thing.”

        I was about to write that it was the guy’s use of “practice on” rather than “practice with” that made me uncomfortable but you’ve beaten me to it. It’s probably just an unfortunate use of language on his part but it did give the sense that he was objectifying the other person and using them rather than having any kind of relationship with them.

  • Some chap says:

    Ok.. firstly, I would say that I could not agree more about the awesomeness that can be had without any of the penetration. The single most wonderful sexy event of my life didn’t involve the train getting anywhere near the tunnel. In fact, the train didn’t even do whatever the train-based euphemism for the male orgasm is. Further to that, the only genuine ‘ongoing’ sexual relationship I’ve had never involved penetration.. but was amazing.

    With regards to ‘practice’, I think I know where your guy is coming from. It’s a bad choice of word, but I’m not sure there’s a better one.. but it’s about wanting to add to the experience bank, so that you approach the next encounter with a little bit more confidence. Of course there is no sex olympics, and I wouldn’t want ‘practice’ because I thought it would help me be the Usain Bolt of duvet-based-shenanigans.. but I might want it to make me feel less worried that I’ll trip over my shoelaces on the way to the track.

    Putting aside all the nonsense out there about what sex is supposed to be like.. and how you’ve failed as a human being if you’re not doing it that way.. surely it’s like most other things we do, where there is a learning curve and some basic levels of competency and core knowledge/experience that we would all rather like to have in place before we start doing things with other people… and there does come a point when we might all be reasonably expected to have that bit sorted, and if not then there’s a confidence barrier.. and the whole thing compounds somewhat.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Haha, your Usain Bolt/shoelaces analogy is just superb – thanks =)

      I agree – there might be a better word for it than that, but I think even looking at it as ‘experience’ rather than ‘practice’ seems to imply somehow that there are people (let’s call them the ‘initial eave of sex robots’) who are somehow less important, less significant than those that come after them. Anything that implies improvement that you feel you need to do again implies that at some point in the future that improvement will pay off with someone who is … better in some way. That’s the main reason I don’t like it. I agree that there’s something about experience that bestows confidence, but as soon as that’s a conscious search (“I must become experienced” rather than “I would like to do more of this”) then it’s really hard to enjoy, be with, love, fuck, pleasure, etc… someone else *in that moment*.

      Tl;dr version: everyone’s important, and they can only be ‘useful experience’ in hindsight, I think.

  • kencf0618 says:

    I’m very much in the same boat. I’m a middle-aged nerd with a handicap which precluded a full social life until fairly recently, so essentially I spent decades of my life as the Invisible Man. Then I became a weirdo with known quantities, and then a Nice Guy. Definitely a niche product –the goods are odd, but the odds are good! I expect extensively fabulous pillow talk and not a few OED spankings… Any partner would forsooth make allowance for my inexperience, for we would be learning our intimacy together, after all. And that’s our intimacy, not someone else’s.

  • Fiddy says:

    “Practice sex” in the meaning I see it most commonly referred as roughly translates to “Screwing someone behind your girlfriend/boyfriends’ back and tagging it as practice to remove any guilt/responsibility.”

    Which my wife did for almost a decade, until we finally went official, she used to “practice” with me all the time. Was too shy/proud to admit to have feelings for me the entire time though. XD

    However, on the “use” part, while thinking of sex that way is a turn off for you, my wife loves nothing more than to be surrounded by guys using her for their own satisfaction and not giving a damn about her. But she’s kinda special. Knowing that’s she’s gonna be used like an onahole gets her soaked as hell.

    It’s all about taste, really.

  • ladyfan says:

    Hey, thanks for this article. I have often felt stressed out about my “abilities” and “talents” in sex. I TOTALLY agree about how it can be problematic to view certain sexual experiences as “practice” versus, well, the real thing. One thing I can relate to, however, has to do with shyness–it’s a bit of an analogy. Whenever I smile at the gorgeous man at the counter or compliment someone on her shoes, I feel sort of accomplished, and buoyed up by the hope that maybe I’m not so awkward with people! Similarly I feel that in sex I literally don’t have enough social confidence (which may come with practice!) to communicate effectively–you know, to be able to assert my own desires AND be sensually and sexually generous at the same time. I haven’t had sex in two years, though, so that’s sort of been my way of dealing with shyness and insecurity. I guess what I’m saying is that–although the guy probably could have worded his question differently–I understand that feeling of wanting to explore sex with someone who will be honest and nonjudgmental about my ignorance, curiosity, earnestness, etc. Sometimes enthusiasm is taken as desperation or naivete, which sucks, because those things should be the ultimate compliments!

  • ladyfan says:

    I meant: “that”, as in “enthusiasm,” should be the ultimate compliment.

  • Azkyroth says:

    I sometimes want to try things out – I have zero or little experience and I worry about that. Would be wrong to use a girl as just like to practise on and improve?

    I assume there was more to the letter than quoted which indicated he was talking about what you responded to rather than asking whether it was okay to have sex with someone he wasn’t interested in any kind of relationship with, or necessarily that into personally, just to have the chance to explore sexually and acquire some skill with specific techniques? Because that’s how I would have read that statement (and it seems like the ethics are “yes, if it’s consensual and you’re up front about all that.”)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Pretty much, yes – we had a bit of a chat over email to clarify things, and that’s why I thought it was important to open with the first section (basically a qualified yes), because I think there’s a lot of nuance around this topic, and as with many sexual things it often comes down to informed consent + understanding between both people. What worried me about the original discussion was that there was a sense (very possibly not deliberate, hence why I didn’t want to tear into this gentleman!) that there was something vaguely disposable/insignificant about the practice partners.

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