What is a pillow princess, anyway?

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A semi-common complaint I hear from queers about new casual dates that they are having sex with but maybe still warming up to emotionally is “She’s a total pillow princess.” What they mean by this, typically, is that one of them is doing the heavy lifting in bed, and the other person is getting off, but they probably aren’t. I find this expression annoying partially because it throws femmes under the bus as sexually lazy, which isn’t true.  

So what’s going on here? There are some very common reasons why this dynamic emerges, here are a few of them:

Heteronormativity

In general, we live in a culture that doesn’t support women articulating their desires or initiating sexually. A queer lady who has internalized these messages—whether she is newly out or has been bouncing off the walls of the dyke bar for the better part of a decade—is one that is not equipped to take ownership of what she wants sexually.

I don’t know about you, but I went to a hippie-dippie state school where one way to meet girls was to go to these earnest workshops about consent and talking about sex before you do it. We were encouraged to talk about what we did and didn’t like sexually and to disclose any history of trauma we had that might come up in our sexual interactions. Now, this is a very idealistic way to talk about sex, and what I mostly found when I got older up and was trying to get a girl’s permission to take off her shirt, she would usually just throw it at me in frustration.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

When you’re 19, many of us don’t really know concretely what we do and don’t like sexually. We get ideas of what we might like by watching movies. Generally, unless you have a well-developed imagination or a slightly accelerated sexual development,  most of us are still fumbling around. We can conclusively say that we like orgasms, and we want to be desired by the object of our desire, but otherwise lots of us are drawing a blank. Which is unfortunate, because that makes the most uncertain territory of negotiating participation and consent when you are in the amorphous space of knowing the object of your desire but not it’s trajectory.

It’s tricky, though, because enthusiastic consent is displayed in different ways, and we want people to engage with us sexually for the right reasons—because they want to, and because we want to. But I think the reason talking about it kills the mood is a) because people’s awkwardness and shame creeps in and b) people often feel like they need to “check in” in ways that aren’t very “sexy.” Stopping everything to stick your head in someone’s face and say, “Is everything okay?” in a loud voice is sometimes necessary, but can be more disruptive than helpful.

So your lady who is just laying there and thinking of England may have a very complicated relationship with her body, and with shame, and may be really inexperienced in articulating her desires. Folks with a history of anxiety may get really stuck up in their own heads. In a community where confidence is often the strongest feature in whether or not people are attracted to us, there is not a lot of room to be uncertain.

People also may get off on certain dynamics (i.e. topping or bottoming) but have not necessarily articulated this at length to their partner. “I want to feel objectified” is a reasonable request; “I want you to take pleasure in my pleasure” is also fair.  However, these requests do not exist in a vacuum, and if they are not articulated, you can seem selfish, or the whole dynamic becomes confusing.

Trauma is Real

Trauma is also a strong factor in people’s capacity to be present in their bodies when sexual stuff is happening. This may inform people’s capacity only to want to top their partners, or to feel unable to be a more sexually dominant partner. The specificity of people’s trauma greatly informs their capacity to show up sexually.

Disassociation is something that also happens during sex as a result of trauma and disembodiment. There’s a range of ways it shows up, but typically people will check out mentally, and think about something totally different, sometimes feeling like they’re floating away from their bodies. It’s rough because it feels lousy for the person who is trying to rock your body, and also to the person who has a hard time not disassociating in intimate moments.

Sometimes People Are Lazy

Unfortunately, there are also lazy people that still get to have sex, and rather than participate or reciprocate, they are lazy with their partner(s). While I appreciate that people can have a diversity of interests, like bocce ball or mystery novels, and sex may not be high on the list, it’s also an activity that usually has more layers than just getting off that have implications for your relationship. Someone’s capacity to show some enthusiasm and care about the goings-on of their sexual relationship can implicate a great deal about how plugged in they are to the other aspects of their relationship.

There are lots of reasons people have for showing up or not showing up sexually or failing to reciprocate with their partners. You can really only find these things out by talking about them. While the reasons besides “lazy” are much more complicated to unfold, they are also ones you can work through. Somebody can work through their insecurities, but you can’t make anybody care about your needs who just doesn’t.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer in Seattle. You can follow her at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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