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sex with the lights on

Do you have sex with the lights on or off?

So, sex with the lights on, or off? If you have a negative body image, the former may seem a nightmare. But, Anouszka Tate asks, what should sex look like anyway?

I grew up with rom coms that suggested there’s one thing that really splits the population. It’s not the football team you support or if you eat meat or not. It’s not even whether you worship or eschew top 40 music. It’s whether you have sex with the lights on or off.

On-screen relationships made me believe this was a defining feature of an adult’s personality. Like you were either someone who’s turned on by bathing in blinding light, or can only get your rocks off by rolling around in the pitch black.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realise this is less a conscious decision that remains the same every time you have sex, and more likely the accidental result of what state you left your room in before you stumbled home with a partner, fingers more eager to fiddle with buttons than fumble around for the big light switch.

However, there is something in it.

There’s certainly not the clear binary the films I rented from Blockbuster had me believe, but, as with everything to do with sex, there’s a spectrum of needs, desires, and experiences.

There is something in the idea that some people are more at peace with the thought of their partner seeing their body under a glaring spotlight, should that be the lighting scenario they’re presented with, and some for whom the notion of someone else seeing certain parts of their body up close is, paradoxically, a nerve-wracking turn off.

Understandably, the less comfortable you are in your own skin, the less likely you are to want to get naked …at all, let alone in front of someone else.

That plays out both physically and mentally.

It might mean we limit the positions we’re up for trying for fear of how we’ll look doing them. Holding shame about our bodies can make us feel less worthy of receiving pleasure, making us detach from those who want to give it to us. Negative body image can mean we distance ourselves from the physical experience, instead watching ourselves from the outside, passing judgey comment on our perceived flaws with the flair of a highly strung mum on a Facebook group.

All these things rip us out of the moment, making us less present and the experience less intimate.

Our good friend porn does have a bit to answer for, not for scare-mongery, click-baity, porn-is-evil reasons, but for the simple fact that porn is ultimately a performance. It’s not the job of porn to replicate Actual Sex. It’s entertainment.

Porn has to look good. It’s entirely irrelevant whether the acts being shown feel good because you’re consuming sex through sight (and sound), not touch. Positions in porn are directed specifically because of the visual feast they serve up. Sex acts are exaggerated because simply capturing what feels good is quite frankly a bit boring to watch. This is show business darling; awkward position transitions and weird noises aren’t going make it to the final edit.

I’ve talked before about how benevolent filmmakers wanting you to have an unrestricted view of the action leads to those of us in the real world making a direct correlation between lack of pubes and good sex. Similarly, people who watch porn might be forgiven for thinking sex is only sex if the penis involved is so big it demands its own Winnebago.

Look, porn performers are doing just that – performing. For you. They’re making sex look good for you. But who’s your audience? Who are you trying to make this look ‘good’ for? Should aiming to look good come at the expense of you and your partner feeling good?

Because we make wild sweeping generalisations and deem some bodies and body parts universally ‘sexy’, we in turn make a value judgement about the types of bodies – people – that deserve great sex.

To be comfortable enough to not worry about what we look like having sex, we need to get better at being naked. I’m a big fan of general nakedness because it takes the power out of it. The more ubiquitous something is, the less of a big deal it becomes.

The thing is, nudity is not inherently sexual. We’re born naked. It’s literally just a state of being. We’ve attributed sexual meaning to simply existing in our bodies, and in doing so have made our lives a lot harder. (Case in point: nipples on female-presenting bodies are censored on social media while the same biological structure on male-presenting bodies are given a free pass).

We associate nudity with sex, sex with shame, and thereby nudity with shame too. So basically we’re not allowed to subsist in peace? Wicked.

That we believe naked bodies are disgraceful is evident in the fact that nudes are still used as a tool to publicly humiliate people. The narrative added to a naked body is that the human that inhabits it no longer deserves respect. But women are trying to change that, and you guys might want to follow suit. Women are seeing taking nudes as self-care, as an opportunity to build confidence, be in control of how their body is viewed, and embrace both sexual, and non-sexual nudity.

Have you ever looked at the nudes women take? Like, really looked? With the greatest of respect lads, you need to up your game. Guys will snap an upside down pic on a Nokia 7650 and be done with it, while women could use their nudes to apply for the job of Vogue’s creative director. The lighting! The poses! The carefully chosen colour schemes!

Is anyone ever going to see these photos? Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Editorial nous aside, it’s about capturing the moments you feel really good about yourself so you can remember that that feeling is possible, and can embody it again in the future.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve personally never understood dick pics, even when they were from someone I was deeply in love with and wanted to shag at every opportunity. To me, it’s like sending a photo of a shin or a shoulder. It may well be a great shoulder, but it’s some weird dismembered part of a whole person. I want to have sex with a whole person, and I think that’s potentially a good way to think about any insecurities you might have about your own body. You may well spend every day fixating on that one thing you’ve always hated about your body, but your partner is wanting to have sex with you, not your stomach / pecs / forearm.

Anyway, get comfortable with non-sexual nudity. Take photos, go to life drawing classes, give it a couple of minutes before you get dressed after a shower. The point of looking at and thinking about naked bodies a fair amount is to reach a place where you no longer need to think about them at all. We want to be replacing any negative thoughts about how our bodies look with positive ones about how that part of our body feels.

So, what does sex – the sex you have – look like? Well, there are two easy ways to find out if you’re so inclined. Film it, or do the livestream version of amateur porn by watching yourself in a strategically placed mirror.

Watching yourself have sex in a mirror is a far cry from narcissism (although if that’s why you want to watch yourself, by all means plough on). So clearly seeing your partner being turned on by you is only going to help reinforce all that body-positivity you’ve been working on. Plus, you’re able to watch things quiver and jiggle in the mirror and connect that with what you’re feeling: “Oh, it’s a good thing that I look like that, because if I didn’t this wouldn’t feel like it does.”

Aside from the self-love stuff, it can just be really hot. Mirrors give you a view of the action you might not normally get. I’m sure your partner has the best top-of-a-head in the business, but imagine being able to see exactly how they do that thing with their tongue during oral sex. Mirrors can enhance intimacy too, especially if your bread and butter positions don’t normally allow you to lock eyes. Favourite position and emotional connection taken care of. You’re welcome. I’ll await my thank you card in the post.

In conclusion, the anti-beach-body champions have it right. They’re out here telling us you’re beach body ready if you 1) have a body and 2) go to the beach. Nailed it! The same applies here. Sex looks like whatever you look like while you’re having sex.


This needs to be a mutually pleasurable experience; I want to help answer your questions too. What are you confused, curious, or concerned about? Ask me a question in the comments below or on my Instagram page and I’ll do my best to answer in my next column!

Photography by Max Budny.

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