After my divorce, I started dating a man I was genuinely attracted to, and my sex life was good. More than good. Once I had overcome my self-consciousness of farting and pooping in close proximity to my man, I felt open to well, pretty much everything. In our first months of dating, he brought up the term GGG to describe me, something I had never heard of before. It stands for “good, giving, and game.” (Think good in bed, giving of equal time and equal pleasure, and game for anything, within reason.)
It was flattering. And I was giving. After all, I had been sexually withholding for so long in my marriage, hating the pressure of it, the obligation, the fake-it-till-you-make-it, the having to designate a day for it so it wouldn’t become an issue for all the other days. Now it felt good to give, to make myself available as a conduit—or orifice—for gratification.
My new partner often knew what we wanted and could tell me how he wanted to be touched: fast or slow, with delicacy or firmness. He could point to specific areas on his body that craved attention, and he could give as good as he got. He was thoughtful, decisive, experienced, and loving.
But when it came to what I wanted, articulating my specific sexual desires still felt transgressive, selfish, and domineering. Giving made me feel good about myself. Receiving was a riskier erotic frontier—one that required an exploration of what felt good for myself. The truth was, I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to be touched. No one had ever asked me that before.
GGG felt like a promising entry point, but there was so much more to unpack. I would wager I am not the only female who has misinterpreted GGG—a term that has become the de facto tagline of the sex positivity movement—as a way to mask my own sexual desires. What I soon realized is that I wasn’t game to give myself what I so gamely gave to others. I was eager to please, less eager to be pleased. I was comfortable handing out the hand jobs, but then would demure when offered one.
Reticence has its place—say, at a potluck where the best dessert on the table is running low. But in the bedroom, self-effacement dampens sexual desire and snuffs out the life force wanting to make itself known. The way I undermined myself in bed was subtle, and I wanted to cross over the threshold of GGG into newer, uncolonized territory.
First, I wanted the backstory on the term GGG…
Anyone who’s poked around dating sites and forums has probably encountered the abbreviation GGG. Apparently, we have Dan Savage, one of the most influential advice columnists in America, to thank for it.
His original 2004 column specifically defined being Good Giving Game as something you do for a long-term partner. It was a response to a man who had a fetish for golden showers, which was unreciprocated by his wife. She was, however, willing to let her partner lick her clean after she urinated, which was mutually satisfying for both. This sexual middle ground became a teachable moment for Savage, who used it to espouse the view that marriage doesn’t necessarily destroy your sex life.
“You can be married and enjoy an exciting, mutually pleasurable, wildly adventurous sex life—provided, of course, that you have the good sense (or the good luck) to marry someone who’s good, giving, and game, and that you and your partner are both willing to be open and make compromises,” Savage wrote. The term went viral, but interpretation of what it meant ran the gamut.
For many women, it reinforced the idea that we should prioritize our partner’s comfort over our own. Good Giving Game mixes seamlessly with various other cultural messages women are fed, namely that our worth in bed comes from our desirability—not the expression of our own desires. As the late Audre Lorde, a feminist and writer, wrote in her famous essay, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power: “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for or accept many facets of our oppression as women.” Until we become in touch with our erotic power and claim it, we have learned to be satisfied with self-negation and to make do with self-effacement.
Over time, GGG became conflated with overriding one’s limits or boundaries, as if having a hard “no” was a killjoy in bed. In the ensuing backlash of confusion, Savage refined GGG to include a respect for hard limits. In a speech uploaded to YouTube in 2012, he said: You can’t have a long-term relationship with someone unless you’re willing to identify the prices of admission you’re willing to pay—and the ones you’re not.”
So, how could I get better at receiving?
When I first came across Betty Martin’s seminal work The Wheel of Consent, I realized that giving was easier because it felt safe. Receiving? Not so much. That stirred up all kinds of fears. Am I worthy? Did I matter? Was I being selfish in asking for what I really wanted?
Martin, a somatic sex educator, points out that receiving can be bewildering, as often you may not know what it feels like to have your own sexual desire be the one that counts.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of GGG, Martin told me. “Doing things that are pleasing for your partner, what I call serving, is a hell-yeah kind of satisfying. But there is a certain skill involved in learning to give something well. The most important aspect, which is usually overlooked, is to (gently) find out what the receiver actually wants. That’s the art of it. Not giving up till you find out. It’s the hardest part.”
The second part, Martin told me, is to be absolutely clear about what you are not willing to do. When Martin told me this during our Zoom call, I couldn’t imagine something my partner would ask me that I wouldn’t give. (Hello, honeymoon phase!)
“What about branding?” she asked me.
She had me there.
It dawned on me that having a limit was simply the flip side of having a request. Since I couldn’t articulate what I did want, it stands to reason that I would be fuzzy about what I didn’t want.
“Most of us try to override the limit of what we feel comfortable participating in,” she says. “But you do have limits. And when you own those limits, you relax and become generous within those limits.” It makes both giving and receiving feel fuller. What’s key to enjoying touch is knowing we have a choice in the matter, says Martin. Then it feeds both of you.
Not only that, but limits are necessary if you want your generosity to be “clean,” says Martin. “Trying to make yourself be OK with something you are not OK with, or to give more than you feel comfortable giving, is a completely backwards approach,” she adds. “Don’t confuse limits with limitations. Limitation is what you are not capable of. A limit is something you choose—it’s where your ‘no’ is, and it changes all the time. If you think having a limit is a limitation, that’s a problem. Your ‘no’ is as powerful as your ‘yes.’”
It was easy, amidst the hullaballoo of a reawakened libido, for me to get a titch stuck in the giving. Yes, I wanted to be good and game and hella giving. Yet making choices, being responsible for my own experience, developing my capacity for joy, and demarcating my own sense of self and its inherent power was a harder reach.
It meant owning, for example, that when I wanted to dress up sexy, I was doing that for myself, because it turned me on to wear a corset and see the invitation of cleavage between my pushed up breasts. It meant voicing an interest in anal sex, not for the sake of being game, but to see if it would enhance my own pleasure. I still wasn’t asked—yet—to do anything beyond my limit. But when we tried watching porn together, the videos on Pornhub felt intrinsically violating and reductive. I needed to find out if there was some other kind of porn that would speak to me, which I found on several women-owned ethical porn sites. Finally, it meant having the courage to not be “game.” To say, when my lover asked how I wanted to be touched, “I just want to be held in your arms for a bit.”
For most of us, receiving feels more vulnerable than giving, says Martin. That’s because it requires you to reveal what you want, which in turn makes you subject to criticism, shame, or denial. It involves more exposure. If receiving is hard for you, as it is for me, you may be more accustomed to using giving as a way to get things, such as approval.
It’s one thing to ask someone how he or she or they would like to be touched, it’s quite another when someone asks you the same question. Try it for yourself and see which one is easier for you. You may be surprised.
To receive is to be able to name your sexual desire and know that it matters. You might not always get what you want, but there is enormous freedom in having the self-confidence to ask. You put your heart on the line and trust its capacity to stay undefended, no matter what happens next. To receive “cracks you open,” says Martin. It honors the deepest yes within yourself.
How to get better at receiving
Neither giving nor receiving is inherently more erotic, Martin explains. “What is erotic is taking them apart and taking turns. Does that mean you want to take turns every minute of every day? God no, I hope not. But as a practice, and as a way to sexually play, it’s fabulous.” To improve the quality of your experience of touch, the first place to put your attention is on the request that you will make. The idea is to attend to the process of noticing what you want, then communicating that specific desire.
Martin designed the following exercise as way for you to feel safe enough to slow down to notice what you want. It’s an abbreviated version (for the fuller version, click here), but a great place to start.
Landing on what you want is not something you need to figure out; it’s already inside you. But the process of extracting that knowledge does take time to bubble up into your consciousness. Slowing down to tune into what sounds wonderful to you right now brings you right into the present. All you have to do is commit to waiting until the answer is clear and you get a loud Hell yes, this is what I want!
Start with what feels easy.
Some things are easier to ask for than others. For example, it may feel easier to get a 20-minute back massage from your partner than have him or her go down on you, says Martin. For some, the opposite might be true. To help you feel more comfortable receiving, start with things that don’t feel so risky. If you tease apart giving and receiving, it will give you a very clear taste of what it feels like to have your sexual desire be the one that’s driving. Giving with a full heart is predicated on being able to receive with a full heart.
Take turns asking and answering the question, “How would you like me to touch you for three minutes?”
When it comes to giving your partner what he or she asks for (will you scratch my back, kiss my neck, bite my toes, hold me) there’s a good chance you’ll happily oblige, as long as you are genuinely okay with it. If you find voicing your request—and really relaxing when you’re on the receiving end of things—more challenging, Martin offers the following advice:
Put yourself first. Set aside what you are OK with and what you think you should ask for. Instead, go for wonderful. Don’t worry if it seems trivial, silly, too sexy, or not sexy enough. Trust where the desire is coming from and that it has meaning for you.
Take all the time you need to name what you’d like. This is the most important part—and often the hardest. If an answer to what you really want doesn’t come to you right away, hang out in that uncertainty until one emerges.
Ask as directly and specifically as you can. No hinting, no maybes, no “whatever you want to give.” Instead, ask “Will you…?”
Stop trying to “give” your giver a good experience while you’re receiving. That’s their job! If you notice this happening, remember step No. 1 and put yourself first again.
Change your mind any time and ask for something different.
Say thank you!
After talking to Martin, it’s clear to me that in order to step into the full expression of our sexuality, we need to emphasize the receiving as much as the giving—the allowing as much as the taking. Her work points out that the need for sex is not simply the need for sexual activity, as in resolving the biological drivers that beset us with an uncomfortable urgency. The actual need, she says, is for sexual expression—“to acknowledge who you are as a sexual being and express it in a way that is real and meaningful for you.”
I love this as a definition and mission statement for sex. Rather than smuggle desire in the backdoor, proclaim what it is you want to be given. Dare to make the big ask—and then dare to receive the answer.