What Does It Really Mean to Be Bad in Bed?

We all know it's one of the worst things we can be, but what does it actually mean?

June 10, 2021 8:58 am
Man and woman sit facing away from each other on either side of the bed looking displeased
Does bad sex make you a bad lover?

There are many scenes from Sex and the City that can haunt a person. One of several that have become permanent residents of my own mind is one that occurs early into a second season episode in which Charlotte has become convinced that she’s “bad in bed” after a man falls asleep during sex. Carrie, being a bad friend, later relays Charlotte’s woes to Samantha, who expresses zero doubt that Charlotte probably is, in fact, bad in bed. After all, says Samantha, “Have you ever seen her on a StairMaster?”

As a not yet sexually active teen watching heavily edited Sex and the City reruns on cable TV, I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded ominous. Was sex, a biological function upon which our species literally depends, actually so difficult that you could really be bad at it? And if you could, was being bad in bed such an intrinsic part of your identity and the way you exist in the world that even the manner in which you use workout equipment could betray your shameful sexual ineptitude for the world to see?

Even today, as a sex-having adult, I’m still not entirely sure what Samantha’s StairMaster comment was supposed to suggest, but I am a little self-conscious every time I mount one at the gym. I tend to assume I’m not bad in bed, but presumably everyone believes that about themselves, because who would ever want to admit otherwise? After all, society has made it clear to men and women alike that a skilled lover is one of the most important things a person can be. As Samantha put it, “Who we are in bed is who we are in life.” But even if you are willing to admit that you’re lousy in the sack, how would you know? As a certain voiceover narrator might put it: I couldn’t help but wonder, what does it really mean to be bad in bed?

Can you really be bad at sex?

“Sex is most definitely something you can be bad at, and sadly there are so many people who are pretty bad at it,” says Zhana Vrangalova, NYU professor of Human Sexuality and a sexpert for LELO.

According to Vrangalova, being “bad in bed” means two things. “One, you don’t have the basic — or more advanced — skills necessary to please a partner,” she tells InsideHook, adding that such a skills might include techniques for performing various sex acts or positions, or even basic moves like thrusting for penetration, without hurting your partner. “Of course, different things will work for different people, but there are some relatively reliable ‘best practices’ that are likely to work well with many people, and some no-nos that wouldn’t work for most,” she adds. “Knowing these in theory, and having had a chance to practice them in real life, is a huge part of being good in bed.” 

That said, it’s not all about the technical. “The other component of being good in bed is being responsive to the specific partner you are with; all the techniques in the world are of no use if they are not what your partner wants at that time,” says Vrangalova. So even if you’re a skilled thruster or you’ve mastered the art of oral sex, you might still be bad in bed if “you are not noticing your partner’s cues of pleasure and displeasure or not you’re not responding to them appropriately.”

While Tyomi Morgan, certified sexologist and in-house sexpert for Sweet Vibes, disagrees that sex is something anyone can be truly “bad” at, claiming that such a subjective judgment “comes from expectations and fantasies often perpetuated by pop culture and pornography,” she agrees that both good and bad sex depend on a combination of technical skill and communication. 

“There are several factors that play into a person’s ability to be a satisfying lover in bed. Of course, since sex is a physical activity, the techniques applied to the physical body, spiritual body and mind are key in delivering pleasure,” she tells InsideHook. “Knowing how to read a person’s verbal and non-verbal cues and knowing how to communicate about sex are also important factors,” she adds, noting that other qualities such as enthusiasm, connection, responsiveness, playfulness and adaptability are also key to a satisfying sexual encounter. 

“Sex that is typically labeled as ‘bad,’” on the other hand, “lacks confidence, communication, consent, connection, enthusiasm, passion and skill,” says Morgan. 

Are some people just naturally good in bed?

Clearly no one comes out of the womb an expert in the fine art of fornication. But just like some kids are scoring goals while their teammates are still learning to dribble and others easily take home A+ report cards while some of their peers struggle to master the ABCs, are there some people who just have a natural proclivity for sexual excellence?

In short, “Yes, some people are naturally better at sex than others,” says Vrangalova, 

But, once again, being “naturally” good in bed is about more than just mastering the technical skills. As sex therapist and author Ian Kerner, PhD, LMFT puts it, “Nobody’s just naturally better at putting a penis in a vagina or a tongue against a vulva.” However, he adds, the more sexually gifted among us “might have a more inherent disposition towards the qualities that create healthy sex or the characteristics that create healthy sex.”

Part of that tendency toward success in the bedroom simply has to do with “how sexual someone is as a person,” says Vrangalova. “The more sexual you are in general, the more time and energy you are going to spend exploring your own and other people’s sexuality, paying attention to what your partners like and don’t like, and you’ll be more motivated to educate yourself and learn all the techniques you need to know,” she tells InsideHook. 

The other part, according to Vrangalova, simply comes down to how well one connects with other people, both in and out of the bedroom. “Some of us are just more attentive to other people and their verbal and nonverbal signals — sexual or otherwise — and are much more motivated to give to or to please those around them.”

However, “No one was born a good lover. No one,” says Vrangalova. “Even the most sexual and most perceptive, giving people were not great lovers when they first started having sex. These natural tendencies we were born with require the right kinds of experiences to further shape them into applicable skills and practices. So those who are predisposed to be naturally better at sex just learned faster that the others. There is no way to get there without the learning and experience part.”

If you are bad in bed, can you get better?

Short answer: obviously. Even if you consider yourself a skilled lover, there’s always room for improvement, and recognizing that is actually part of what makes someone a success in the sack, by the way. 

“The act of sex is most definitely a skill, and it can be sharpened with education and practice,” says Morgan. In fact, she adds, that’s part of what makes sex so great: “that one can improve and become better with education and practice.” 

Again, sex may be a natural function of the human species, and when it works it can certainly feel effortless, but good sex does and should take work

“I think good sex is about getting absorbed and getting aroused and really being present, and ultimately getting into a kind of a flow state with a person where you’re not thinking about the sex, you’re not worried about the sex, you’re just in the sex. It’s like you’re dancing the dance without worrying about the steps,” says Kerner. 

That said, to get to that state of effortless dancing, you do have to learn the steps first. Everyone does. 

“If you think about it, what talent or skill is acquired in a totally spontaneous, natural way? I mean, even as a kid learning to walk, you stumble, right? There’s nothing that you learn that’s just natural and spontaneous,” says Kerner. Allosexual people “are born sexual creatures,” he adds. “We’re born with desire. You are definitely, I think, born to be sexual. There’s just some learning that has to happen.” 

And done right, that learning never ends.

“Becoming a better lover is not only totally possible, whatever your baseline level, but also one of the most enjoyable and worthy personal projects to go on,” says Vrangalova. “I highly recommend it to everyone.”

Worrying you’re bad in bed is probably making you bad in bed

Watching that episode of Sex and the City as a sexually inactive teen, my biggest fear was that being “bad in bed” was a card you were dealt by the universe at birth, one you were powerless to trade or discard. I feared people either were or were not bad in bed, that either was an identity one was stuck with for life. 

It may sound absurd to spell it out that way — because it is — but in many ways, that’s the narrative society feeds us. So much of our culture remains beholden to harmful, essentialist binaries that insist we are, inherently, either one thing or another, and only one of those things is the right one to be. Sexual skill is no different, and that mindset is probably causing serious damage to our own sex lives. 

“There is a cultural stigma around the idea of being bad in bed, and it causes great anxiety for people who desire to be sexually active,” says Morgan. “This expectation causes stress and produces performance anxiety that can throw anyone off of their game.” 

Moreover, this black-and-white narrative surrounding sexual competence reinforces a feeling of obligation around sex and sexual performance. According to Morgan, many people “feel that they have to be great in bed in order to maintain their romantic relationships and to be accepted by their lovers. No one wants to be labeled as bad or trash in the sack, and the added stress that this causes can lead to health issues and symptoms within one’s sex life that must be corrected by a professional therapist, doctor, coach, counselor or a combination of them all.”

This desire to be perceived as objectively “good” at sex also reflects one of the biggest obstacles that prevents many people from actually having good sex at all: a tendency to view it as something with an end goal. 

Whether you’re worried about giving your partner an orgasm, having one yourself, or doing either as proof that you are not, in fact, bad in bed, “We collectively tend to approach sex as a goal-oriented act instead of approaching it as another way that we get to connect with the people we love in pleasure,” says Morgan. 

This is something Kerner has seen again and again among his patients, and a tendency many of them actually assume makes them good lovers. “It’s sort of like, everything that people think is being ‘good in bed,’ I often find is ‘bad in bed,” he says. “People are so used to identifying good sex with performative sex. And, to me, performative sex is bad sex.”

No one is born inherently good or bad in bed, and there’s always room to improve. As Vrangalova puts it, “Being good in bed is part natural talent, part learned skill and part mindset.” And as far as I can tell, none of those things can be divined based on how you use a Stairmaster.

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