The best part of aging as a woman is getting to finally act more like a man—especially when it comes to what happens in bed.
“I hope this isn’t going to hurt your feelings…” the man I’ll call Lucas says, spooning behind me and tracing his fingertips down my arm, hips, and past my knees (he’s a tall Belgian guy with apishly long arms).
Oh, here we go, I think, Guess I was wrong about this one.
We’d just matched on Tinder that day, spent the whole night talking about our bonkers couch-surfing stories around the world, laughed like old friends catching up, and ended it with a nice roll in the sack at my apartment here in France. This was the kind of hookup this stupid app was made for! Good clean fun between consenting adults wanting connection. I’m a bit caught off guard, though, by him saying he’s about to disappoint me.
“I’d love to stay over,” he says to the back of my head as he starts to massage it, and I can tell he’s sincere. “It’s just that there are a lot of museums I want to see tomorrow and if I stay here tonight, I won’t get any sleep and it will ruin my last day here.” He pauses for a second, squeezes me a little tighter, then says, “So I think, if you don’t mind, I’m going to head out in a bit and sleep at my hotel.”
I pause for a second to collect my thoughts, careful to make sure what I say next sounds as if I give zero fucks (I’m a master at pretending that men aren’t capable of hurting my feelings): “No, no, it’s cool. I won’t sleep if you’re in my bed either and I’ve got shit to do tomorrow.”
This is a total lie. Of course my feelings are hurt.
My knee-jerk reaction to men leaving my bed early, not wanting to have sex with me enough (none of them ever matches my sex drive), failing to return texts in a timely fashion, or anything that feels the least bit like rejection is to assume I’m butt-ugly, a big fat pig, a dried-up old hag, totally unlovable, damaged goods, or something along those lines that’s super mean and totally not true. In other words, my patriarchal brainwashing, experience with narcissists, codependent tendencies, and tireless ego often lead me to assume there’s something wrong with me when men put their needs first, no matter who the guy is.
But Lucas is not one of those narcissistic men. He’s one of the good ones, one of those evolved men, actually. That’s why we got along so well all night. When we were hooking up, he asked what I liked, if this move or that one was OK, what else I needed, and if he could come yet. This dude is the epitome of thoughtful.
I think about this as he keeps up his strong big-spoon game. That’s when it hits me. The problem isn’t him leaving—I’m actually somewhat relieved he’s going to go bye-bye. Because let’s face it, I really won’t sleep if he stays over and I do, in fact, have a lot of shit to do tomorrow. I’m getting exactly what I want! A fun night with great sex but without a man’s elbows jutting into my back all night.
What annoys me is the fact that he asked for it and I didn’t. Before now it’s never occurred to me that I can kick a guy out of my bed, or that I even should. I always forget that it’s healthy and often necessary to put my needs first and ask for what I want. I’m not hurt or annoyed. What I am is jealous.
The Intimacy of Sleep
At 41, I’m a woman who’s been taught since the day I was born to constantly sacrifice my own best interests, comfort, and often safety, to almost bend myself into a goddamn pretzel at times, for the sake of men’s comfort, needs, and feelings. We women are all trained that way, right?
Men, however, have been raised to be selfish, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Obviously, there are no absolutes; there are plenty of men who are nurturing. But in general, most men (especially straight men) are not raised to put the needs of everyone else first, thanks to toxic masculinity’s hold on our culture. They’ve been told again and again that they’re superior to women and that we are here, more or less, solely for them—to satisfy their sexual impulses, to bear their children, cook their supper, applaud them, be their therapist, wash their boxers. All of it! Remember how Eve was made for the sole purpose of keeping Adam from getting bored?
In that moment with Lucas, I pledged to behave more like men do when it comes to asserting my needs.
As Lucas continued to caress me, I thought back to all the times I’d let a man sleep over when I really just wanted him to leave. I mean, I’m a huge fan of morning sex and cuddling, but it’s usually not worth it unless I really like the guy or the sex is just that good. Once, a guy kept me up all night screaming bloody murder during his bear attack dreams. Another one must have had restless leg syndrome, because he kicked me like a donkey until the sun rose. Most of them snore, have untreated sleep apnea, or breathe so wildly inconsistently that I panic over them dying in my bed. They don’t do this on purpose, and most haven’t a clue they’ve kept me up all night, but the point is, it usually sucks for me when men stay over.
For me, letting a man into my vagina has always felt way less intimate than letting him into my bed. Sleeping is when you’re the most vulnerable and doing this—naked—with a stranger is actually a really big deal, especially for women. This guy could do anything to me while I’m unconscious: fart on me, mumble belligerently about his deepest darkest secrets, or sleepwalk to my kitchen, grab a butcher knife, and cut my head off. The decapitation part hasn’t happened before, obviously, but strange things certainly have.
Plus, I’ve been single most of my life, so I’m used to having the whole bed to myself. Even when I’m dating someone, it takes getting used to having a man wrapped around me instead of my 700 pillows. Last year I was living in Spain and my then boyfriend was here in France. We saw each other only once a month, so we never quite got used to sleeping in bed together consistently. Every time we visited each other, the first night was awful for both of us. The second was better, and by the third or fourth we slept all lovey-dovey like they do in the movies. But since those trips were usually only a couple of days long, they absolutely exhausted me.
I loved that guy and every moment we had together, so it was worth the sacrifice of sleep. But for a one-night stand? Nah. I’m over it.
There’s Selfish, and There’s Self-care
Most of us learn sex advice from various relationships, from other people’s relationships, and from snatches of porn or movies. It’s like Easter eggs in Stranger Things—you start to put them all together to form your theory about how to approach love and life. I learned one gem from my friend Anne, when we went away together on vacation. After she came back from what I assumed was a hot sexy night with a local, she said, shrugging, “Nah. We didn’t hook up. We talked all night instead. He wouldn’t go down on me, so I refused to let him take my clothes off. Those are the conditions,” and winked.
I couldn’t believe anyone would dare say that to a dude! I asked her when she started implementing this new rule. “I realized I was walking away from every hookup feeling used and bitter. Like I was just a stand-in for his hand, not a person with needs,” she said. “The only way I can orgasm is oral sex. So if he’s not game, it isn’t happening.” Ever since then, I’ve refused to hook up with men who don’t make my orgasm as important as their own. It’s been a total game changer in the bedroom. I love sex now after decades of being resentful at men for being selfish when I was the one too afraid to say, “This is what I need. If you’re not willing to do it, you don’t get to hook up with me.”
What I love about getting older is that I feel free to be more like men, in the good ways. Let’s face it, men rarely do anything they don’t want to do. Most men seem to naturally have this ability to ask themselves, “What do I want or what do I need right now?” without even thinking about how it will affect others. Unlike women, they haven’t been trained to see everything through the lens of “How will my actions affect everyone around me?” In excess, this is selfish, childish, and unhealthy for relationships (and the world, but I digress). This is what separates the men from the boys: The assholes are the ones who consistently pursue their needs and wants at the expense of others. The most mature men I know, however, are full of empathy and have become quite thoughtful while still staying true to what they know they need. In other words, they seem to know it’s not healthy to martyr yourself all the time to avoid hurting people’s feelings. They naturally do what airplane safety cards tell you to—put yourself first so you can serve others better.
Conversely, women are taught to be way too thoughtful. We get accused of being crazy all the time by men, but we’re not crazy. We’re raised to be codependent and to try to please; some women take this overboard and end up becoming indecisive, resentful, and exhausted. We feel like victims, rather than ask ourselves, the way men do, “What do I need right now to get my needs met?”
This isn’t just a hookup-culture problem. I have a lot of friends who constantly get frustrated because their husband or boyfriend does whatever he wants without asking. For partners, it’s not about permission; it’s about making sure both people’s needs are being met. My best friend recently told me that her husband slept in the guest bedroom all week. In the past, that would have led to a fight. But this time he said, “Babe, I am super stressed about work, I think I’m getting sick, and I don’t want to get you sick. I’ve got to sleep alone for a bit.” Telling her why kept her from feeling rejected and bitter and kept him out of the doghouse. Instead, she was stoked: “I mean, I like sleeping next to him, but I got to have the bed to myself the whole week!” Because he’s been trying to be more thoughtful and more communicative, they fight a lot less. On the same note, she’s started to say what she needs and demanding that those needs be met, and she’s less angry at him. In a perfect world, things would work out like this—men would become more like women and women would become more like men.
Is He Sleep-Worthy?
After decades of dating and hooking up with guys who don’t care about my needs or orgasms, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting “selfish dude” red flags. My Tinder firewall is superstrong, and I always come out of hookups now feeling respected, satisfied, and empowered instead of bitter, ashamed, or gross. And when this sweet Belgian dude passed through town and role-modeled a healthy way to approach sleeping with someone (in the literal sense), I vowed to use this same approach to getting a good night’s rest. So many men in the past have left my bed early to get a good night’s sleep and I’d always felt so hurt. But this guy modeled how to do it in a way that’s kind. He said he wanted to stay, acknowledged that he might hurt my feelings, and then said, “But this is what I gotta do, babe.” It’s a good example of exercising self-care while being thoughtful. Men and women can really learn a lot from each other if we start to see that both of our approaches are right.
I’ll still let men stay over when I want them to, but now I make sure to ask myself whether I really want them to. If the answer is no or even nah, I tell them why I can’t and don’t worry about it. Their possible feelings of rejection aren’t about me. And the older I get, the more I recognize it’s not my job to manage men’s feelings. They’re not little boys. They’re grown-ass men. (And maybe grown-ass men who want some shut-eye too.)
On some level, I guess one way I know whether I really do like a guy or not is if I let him sleep in my bed now. Before, I’d let just about anyone, donkey kicks and all. But now, to get between not only my legs but also my sheets, you have to be pretty damn special.
By Melanie Hamlett (a comedian, writer, and storyteller from New York City who’s now living in Europe)