Good At Sex: Sex as a Status Game (pt5)
A guide for men in bed
This is part 5 in my Good At Sex series, where I merge data with sex psychology analysis to discover how to make you wake up at 4am one night startled, it must have been the sound of bushes rustling; you flick on the lights and poke outside. Slowly you see dark, human shapes shuffling slowly towards you in the distance.
You squint. One looks like that girl you hooked up with last June, if the faint moonlight outline is any indication. Another shares the same teal hair as that one girl you banged in a closet at the new years party, and - oh god, is that your ex Amanda?
Someone bangs on your door, a fist belonging to a woman you haven’t yet seen yet. “We’re horny,” a feminine voice breathlessly whines. “We need you to fuck us”.
You swear under your breath and stumble backwards into the hallway. You haven’t touched your shotgun in a while, you didn’t think you’d need it. You’d scrubbed your address from the internet after you moved so women would stop trying to pull semen out of you. How did they find you this time? You can’t afford to lose any more semen, not after last time.
“Nobody else fucks us as good,” the voice comes again, and you think maybe it’s Haley from the orgy? How does she know, you never told her your name-
You hear your bedroom window shatter. You fling the hall closet door open, pull out the shotgun, knocking over some boxes as you do. Shit, one of those was the ammo. It’s dark, you fumble on the ground for it. You don’t want to turn on the lights, but maybe it doesn’t matter because they can obviously hear you. Or smell you? Is that how they got here?
The glass in the bedroom keeps cracking and you hear soft, attractive grunts as a fertile-sounding lady tries to get through presumably without cutting herself open. Can’t have sex with too much blood loss, you think wryly as your fingers find the ammo and load the gun.
Something starts ramming at the door. It sounds heavy - is it a fucking battering ram?
“My penis isn’t even that big,” you shout at them, hoarsely.
“I know. It doesn’t matter, somehow,” says another voice, echoing from… the door of your basement? Thank god the door is locked… you think.
“Is it my technique?” you ask, despite knowing the answer. “The way they teach in stuff like fingering videos, about orgasm plateaus and whatever?” The gun is to your shoulder now, your back up against the end of the hallway. You’re too afraid to move rooms, you don’t know how many of them are already in your house. You want them to keep talking so you know how much time you have left-
The basement voice says “No, it’s not that. Like, this guy Henry is really good at technique, he even made me squirt, but you don’t see me breaking into his house-”
The sounds of breaking glass in the bedroom stops. “Wait, you had sex with Henry?”
Basement voice goes “Yeah”
“No way! I did last year too. He was pretty good”
“I know, right? Real good stamina, and great pussy eating technique. He made me cum twice, which is rare for me”, bedroom voice shouts back.
The pounding on the front door pauses. “Good pussy eating isn’t that rare girls, come on, focus.” Ah, that sounds like Amanda, both in voice and vibe.
“Why don’t you go sex Henry to death,” you shout at them.
“Eh”, comes the bedroom voice, along with another shatter of glass. “I don’t like, have sex dreams about him, not sure why”
“And you do about me??”
A chorus of feminine voices moan “Yesss”
The wood around the door latch splits under the battering ram. You point the gun. “I don’t want to do this. Don’t make me do this.”
“But nobody else can,” Amanda cries, and the door bursts open.
You squeeze your eyes shut as you pull the trigger.
The noise deafens you, but faintly above the ringing you can hear women’s horny shrieks - dozens of them? - as they lurch towards the open door, towards you, into your house, into your hallway. There’s too many of them. There’s no way out, here. Faint perfume of vanilla and sage fills your nose as you fall, and through the skirts filling the air as women tear them off their bodies, you can see Amanda on the floor crawling towards you as women from your past surge over her.
You have enough time only for one last, fading thought as they start the semen extraction process - if only… if only you hadn’t read Aella’s Good At Sex guide.
-the response of a male friend (with 3 girlfriends and bodycount of 80) after proofreading this post
This guide isn’t meant to be about technique. Technique is important, and I’ll probably at least go over some crucial or oft-missing technique components when they fit into the larger structure, but I don’t think this the crux of what makes sex memorable.
Knowingless is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’m writing this guide because I’ve heard women say things like
“I don’t know if I’d really fuck him again? His technique was really good, like he knew how to finger correctly and everything, but I don’t know, something about it just didn’t pull me in.”
This is something I’ve also experienced - a guy will clearly have learned which buttons to press in which order (which absolutely does help don’t get me wrong) - but something about the sex doesn’t call to me, doesn’t make me want to bang down his door at 4 am in horny desperation.
Perhaps by evolutionary design, knowledge around female sexual desire is hard to pin down, including to ourselves. When I first started writing this series, I found that identifying in a communicable way what made sex good was just as difficult, if not moreso, as writing something like my Frame Control post or even pinning down where my sexual preferences came from in the first place. It’s a hard problem, no wonder there’s very little deep education here.
What I’m trying to get at is the hook of sex, the part of a sexual experience that burrows into my brain like a drug and orients me towards it like I’m possessed.
As I described in the first post in this series, my definition of good sex is when:
…I'm no longer Aella's brain, doing thinky things, I am Aella's body, doing orgasmy things. I've lost the plot, I don't remember what the plot was, I'm just sexcreature emitting a constant stream of noises.
So let’s take a detour into social dynamics to check out the groundwork of some principles of interaction that will become vitally important later.
Keith Johnstone, a famous improv teacher, describes how he used to get students to follow motivation in a scene by various prompts - being mean, kind, servile, whatever - but the real breakthrough was when he asked them to play with status.
When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theater Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce ‘ordinary’ conversation. They said ‘Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life.
…I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motivations for each action… I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motivations, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had.
When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.
‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuverings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”
He describes status moves as happening all the time, among both enemies and friends - though typically this is subtle rather than dramatic. People move their status just a little bit above or below others constantly, and much of social angst and pleasure comes from this ongoing tension.
“Status is a confusing term unless it’s understood as something one does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa.
“A further early discovery was that there was no way to be neutral…
You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say ‘Look! I’m not claiming any more space than I’m entitled to’, and they hold themselves very straight as if saying ‘But I’m not submissive either!’ If someone points a camera at you you’re in danger of having your status exposed, so you can either clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive. In formal group photographs it’s normal to see people guarding their status. You get quite different effects when people don’t know they’re being photographed."
If status can’t even be got rid of, then what happens between friends? Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every moment, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together. If I take an acquaintance an early morning cup of tea I might say ‘Did you have a good night?’ or something equally ‘neutral’, the status being established by voice and posture and eye contact and so on. If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say ‘Get up, you old cow’, or ‘Your Highness’s tea’, pretending to raise or lower status. Once students understand that they already play status games with their friends, then they realize that they already know most of the status games I’m trying to teach them.”
A girl I dated in my early 20’s always played low status, and it took me a long time to figure this out; I was used to dating men, where they would often play high, and I didn’t understand why it felt like my banter was falling into an unechoing hole. I would tease her by providing some sort of playful poke, but she would never poke back - always absorb it.
For example, I might say something like "You cooking dinner tonight? Remember, the smoke alarm isn't a timer."
And she might say something like “Hey now, I’ve never made a smoke alarm go off” (defensive), or simply giggle and blush.
Teasing typically is a playful, high status move, where you present the other with a challenge, and they can either go low (crumple, giggle - “That’s not truuue”), or high (tease back, or agree and amplify) - e.g. “If I haven’t made the smoke alarm go off then am I really doing my job?”
I was so startled with the woman I was dating because I wasn’t very experienced at dating women, and when it comes to flirting in relationships, women’s seduction (as opposed to evaluation!) strategy tends to be going low, while men’s tends to be going high.
Both low and high are good strategies for getting what you want out of a conversation and relationships. If you’re trying to avoid being hurt, you can play deferential “I am harmless, don’t hurt me” or a threat “If you come near me I will make you pay”. If you’re trying to gain love and approval, you can go low via “I’ll give you what you want”, or high with “I’m a valuable person to love.”
And people tend to default to one as their strategy, and feel unsettled when they have to play otherwise. When I was young and recently out of my sheltered, borderline-cult upbringing where play low status was drilled into me as a matter of survival, I got a job at a photography studio where they expected me to photograph clients. That job required a lot of playing high, where I was supposed to build a confident world where the client looked good, I knew what I was doing, and they were supposed to do what I said.
Trying to do this was excruciating. My entire life I’d learned that playing low got you rewards and love, and if you played high people would beat you. Being asked to suddenly step into a high status role felt like being asked to walk off a cliff. I couldn’t force myself to do it.
I also think this is related to my issues around an increase in fame. I was having a lot of anxiety around my changed role in social groups. Eventually I figured out how to start handling this better, and in a certain light you can view the shift as me realizing I had been using ‘playing low’ as a defense mechanism to demonstrate I wasn’t a threat, so people wouldn’t hurt me. Really, lots of my recent growth has been around getting more comfortable playing high, in various ways.
People are often wrong about the status they play.
Status seems to me to be a useful term, providing the difference between the status you are and the status you play is understood.
As soon as I introduced the status work at the Studio, we found that people will play one status while convinced that they are playing the opposite. This obviously makes for very bad social ‘meshing’ - as in Bion’s therapy group - and many of us had to revise our whole idea of ourselves. In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile! If someone had said ‘I like your play’, I would have said ‘Oh, it’s not up to much,’ perceiving myself as ‘charmingly modest’. In reality I would have been implying that my admirer had bad taste.”
I ask a student to lower his status during a scene, and he enters and says:
A: What are you reading?
B: War and Peace.
A: Ah! That’s my favorite book!
The class laugh and A stops in amazement. I had told him to lower his status during the scene, and he doesn’t see what’s gone wrong. I ask him to try it again and suggest a different line of dialogue.
A: What are you reading?
B: War and peace
A: I’ve always wanted to read that.
A now experiences the difference, and realizes that he was claiming ‘cultural superiority by implying that he had read this immense work many times. If he’d understood this he could have corrected the error.
A: Ah! That’s my favorite book.
A: Oh yes. Of course I only look at the pictures…
Why are we so often so bad at detecting status moves? Impro talks about status, but I think a bit clears up when you think of this in terms of frame.
Frame (in the way I’m using it here) is your way of viewing the world, the stage you’re on, the storyline you’re playing out. It’s the entire set of contexts that contribute to your narrative. If we’re having a fight and I cross my arms and say “Are you going to apologize?” this is an example of me setting a frame in which I, the asker, have nothing to apologize for. If your child accuses you abuse and you go “Oh dear, you’ve been misled by tiktok people who milk trauma points to feel special”, you’re setting a frame where your child’s complaint is actually a manifestation of being victimized by other people, not you.
In a way, you can think of entering someone’s frame as playing low in the status game. “No, I’m not going to apologize” implicitly steps into a world where the primary question at stake here is apology. “Yes, I’m sorry” does the same thing. But instead, going “Some nerve to ask that, given what you just did to me” is a rejection of the premise itself.
I think in this way, we are often mistaken about the status of moves. We see the sense of increasing tension itself as playing high status - rejections themselves are us ‘exerting power’ on the scene somehow. When I teased my girlfriend with “Well aren’t you cheeky” and she responded “Well I had a little to drink tonight,” it might have seemed to both of us like playing high, but she was instead handing me the power, because she was entering my frame to fight.
Meeting scenes between romantic leads in romance movies often are a great place to demonstrate a lot of these conversational dynamics. They typically involve two people both trying to play high status, the woman pushing back wittily, but ends with the woman failing a move, or getting flustered and playing low. Check out this scene in The Big Sleep. I’ve included the transcript with my analysis.
Marlowe: You wanted to see me?
Vivian: So you're a private detective. I didn't know they existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you're a mess, aren't you?
[Challenge, playing high by calling his position low; implicitly establishing a narrative (including posture and context) where he’s supposed to prove himself to her; what she says is a line in a script that expects the next line to be an attempt to earn her approval]
M: I'm not very tall either. Next time, I'll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.
[Despite the self-effacingness of his words, he’s playing high status here because he is refusing to cede to her frame; he refuses to ask for her approval and refuses to demonstrate shame about his position. He also teases her challenge by framing it as a ridiculous demand - what does she want, stilts?]
V: I doubt if even that would help. Now this business of Dad's. You think you can handle it for him?
M: It shouldn't be too tough.
V: Really? I would have thought a case like that took a little effort.
[Implying he is lazy or incompetent]
M: Not too much.
[Avoids stepping into her frame by refusing to defend himself]
V: What will your first step be?
M: The usual one.
[His frame here is one where he owes her no explanation; he conveys this by refusing to put any effort into communicating information he knows she doesn’t have]
V: I didn't know there was a usual one.
[Her tone is sharp, skeptical, distrustful; implied that he’s still being lazy by taking a rote option]
M: Oh sure there is. It comes complete with diagrams on page forty-seven of 'How to Be a Detective in Ten Easy Lessons' correspondence school textbook and uh, your father offered me a drink
[He’s toying with her; she’s framing his lack of forthcomingness as incompetence, while his frame is that her questions indicate interest in knowledge that he has the power to refuse her, and that her preconceptions about how the business works - a textbook? - are silly. She comes at him in the role of an evaluator, and he responds from the role of a teacher]
V: You must have read another one on how to be a comedian
[She ignores him asking for a drink - a high move - and presents a frame where he’s not a teacher but rather simply a jokester]
M: Did you hear what I said about the drink?
[Implying he doesn’t actually care about the incompetence-evaluator-teacher-comedian battle, and directly calls out her lack of manners]
V: I’m quite serious Mr Marlowe my fa-
M: -I said your father-
[They’re talking over each other, a rapid escalation of tension; there’s a concrete question of who-pours-the-drink, and Marlowe has explicitly pushed into it. He’s using politeness norms of the host-offering-a-drink to try to force her into a symbolic low status move]
V: Help yourself.
[She ‘calls the bluff’, choosing to be rude instead of play low]
A bit later:
V: You know I don’t see what there is to be cagey about, Mr. Marlowe. I don’t like your manners.
[Similar move to the private-detectives-are-messy challenge in the beginning]
M: I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like 'em myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings, and I don't mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
[He again responds with agree-and-amplify to a degree that positions her whole complaint as silly. He frames himself as chill - “don’t mind” and her as flawed “you drinking your lunch out of a bottle”; he frames it not as an accusation, but as a casual supplementation to his other point of him not minding.]
V: People don’t talk to me like that.
[This is where she ‘loses’; she gets flustered, enters his frame, and plays low by providing a direct resistance in his territory. It’s an admission that he’s doing something unusual and bold by playing high. She could have played high by saying something like “What a pity that a woman simply enjoying a drink is enough to make you feel so defensive”]
I want to point out that the agree-and-amplify move might look like entering someone’s frame. She says “You’re a mess” and he says “And I’m short, too.” Is this not agreeing to fight in her arena?
But no - her arena isn’t that he is short or a mess - this is a concrete state of things, a description about the world. A flaw is not an arena.
Rather, an arena is fundamentally about a dynamic between two people. Her arena doesn’t care about his state, it cares that he is attempts to gain her approval.
Thus, entering a frame is when you step into the storyline they’ve laid out and participate in the script they’re demanding of you. One way to play high is to fight from the outside, and refuse the script entirely. But another is to fight from the inside - ostensibly enter their frame, and then subvert it. Marlowe does this repeatedly; he is like “sure, let’s take your assumption, and now I’m going to inflate this assumption until everyone can see how absurd it is”.
I’m speaking of this as though it’s adversarial, but conflict is just when it’s most obvious. Friends constantly playfully blow up each other’s frames, joking that they’ll end the world when teased about being a hot mess, that they’re simply conducting a patience test when you roast them for being late.
Because this is a text blog post, dialogue is the easiest status mechanism to focus on. But so much of communication happens through body language. Generally playing high means meeting eye contact, not avoiding the head, and keeping smooth movements; all symptoms of relaxation and lack of fear. Playing low means visible signals of submission - contracting the body size to appear smaller, avoiding eye contact (or visible discomfort with eye contact), and more jerky, nervous movements.
I’m going to link some scenes from movies and TV. I recommend turning off the audio and focusing on the body language only.
Here’s a classic large status gap between someone in power and subordinates:
Someone in a high position playing low, and someone in a low position playing high:
And two powerful characters; one starts low and ends high, the other starts high and ends lower:
Again, to reiterate: none of these moves are inherently good or bad; banter and play is often done by alternating playing low and high, relenting to and resisting the other person’s frame. Fun tends to be in the shifting of it, not stasis.
All right - so now we have the concept of frame, of entering and resisting frame, of what it looks like to play low or high status. We know that often moves can be counterintuitive, appearing on their face to one thing while secretly being another.
Why are you telling me all this, how does this apply to becoming a sex god?
This is vital to sex godhood. I’ve been using the word ‘status’, but here’s the key secret: this entire time I’ve actually been trying to teach you something else, something you’re already familiar with in a sexual context.
I’m going to do a similar breakdown as I’ve been doing above, but with a twist, and applied to a seduction scene, an amateur porn video popular among women, and a sex scene in a romantic novel. Let’s go:
content warning: mild nsfw below