|Captain Awkward. Or Sue. I might have gotten my notes switched.|
I had an amazing time in Chicago this weekend. Everyone at the University of Chicago was absolutely wonderful to me, and the talk went great; the room was packed, the audience was great, and besides my little monologue, we had a really good discussion about negotiating sex and relationships. And then I got to go to the Field Museum and meet Captain Awkward (the blogger) and Sue (the dinosaur). It was so ridiculously awesome that I'm all out of eloquence and just going "so ridiculously awesome, you guys!"
This is a (rough) transcript of the talk I gave. It's on a separate page because it's quite a bit longer than my usual posts. And that's saying something.
How To Have Sex On Purpose
We didn’t worry so much about what we wanted, as about what was correct. Like the official Sex Judgment Committee was going to be there awarding points and making deductions for incorrect sexing. “7.3. You got off to a good start, but we had to deduct for incomplete gender performance and poor showmanship at the climax. But you really stuck the dismount!”
This is how bad it got: I’d watch porn and not jerk off, just so that I could see how Sex Experts did it. These people were professionals, they must be doing it right! I lost about three years of my sex life to that mentality. And you know the only thing worse than trying to have sex like a porn star? Trying to fall in love like a romance novel heroine.
What saved me was that I turned out to be a gigantic fucking pervert. I realized I had some weird-ass fantasies, and read up on them because that’s the kind of person I am, I imagine getting chained up by a mysterious stranger and I go “I need to research this!” - and I actually spent about a year just reading and lurking online before I did anything in real life. And then I fell in with these kinky and polyamorous crowds and everything changed.
Suddenly sex wasn’t one thing. It wasn’t this challenge that you did right or you failed at. It was a big, beautiful, terrifying universe of possibilities. It could involve your whole body or nothing but your mind. It could be you by yourself or it could be with a roomful of people. Sometimes it wasn’t actually sex at all but it still felt pretty awesome in, y’know, the vagina kind of way. And in the beginning I kind of tumbled through all these types of sex but when I got to know what I liked, I got what I liked, and that was nice. That was really nice. In the vagina kind of way.
And relationships weren’t divided into “boyfriend” or “not boyfriend.” I learned words like “metamour” (that’s your lover’s lover, sort of a lover-in-law) and what it means to be in a committed poly relationship versus being in an open relationship and how overlapping bonds of love and sex can build a network of intimacy in a community. I also learned concepts like “hot bi babe” and “unicorn” and “one penis policy” and “AT LEAST WE’RE NOT SWINGERS,” because every group’s got its problems.
But the things I want to share with you aren’t really about having kinky sex or having multiple partners, because, y’know, you’re wired for that or you’re not. I don’t think you can learn it. A lot of people just aren’t wired for it and that’s okay. What I do want everyone to learn is the philosophies that the people who do these things have developed. When your sex doesn’t follow the traditional model to begin with, you have to - well, at least you should—put some extra thought into what you’re doing, and a lot of really good ideas have come from that. That’s what I want to share. Because whether you’re into latex Boy Scout Uniforms or not, you can still learn to experience sex as being made of possibilities and choices. Whether you want to have twelve lovers or just the one, you can still learn to build relationships instead of just letting them happen.
So. Relationships. Where do we even learn to have relationships? It’s funny, we give kids sex ed, there’s a lot of problems with that but at least we teach them the basic parts involved - I don't think we've reached the point of “we'll tell you what an ovary is once you're married,” - but... raise your hand if your high school had a class on “relationship ed.”
[One guy raised his hand. I asked if he'd gone to public school. He went to private school. In Canada.]
So we sorta learn from movies and books, sorta from our friends, maybe from our parents if they have an okay relationship, maybe from our parents if they don’t, and that doesn't work out well--and we never do get a super coherent idea of what we’re supposed to do. But it’s all supposed to very dramatic and torrid and one partner’s supposed to be womanly and hard-to-get and the other’s supposed to be manly and pushy and you prove your love via sex or money respectively and by being super possessive and then you get married and never have sex again--and despite this being a very specific set of circumstances, it’s supposed to magically happen all on its own because if you do any of it on purpose then it isn’t romantic anymore.
Polyamory throws a lot of that out the window. Again, this isn’t really about the “dating multiple people” part, because you can totally do that and still be terrible at relationships (oh my God I have stories), but poly communities, the people who really geek out about polyamory, have gotten really good at normalizing the idea of deciding and communicating about what kind of relationship you’re going to have. Because you can’t just waltz in one day and say to your partner “oh, by the way, this is Susan, she’ll be moving in with us, don’t worry, you’ll still have a spot in the bed on odd-numbered nights.” They will have questions.
And the answers to those questions are reached by communication and mutual agreement. There’s no conventional path-of-least-resistance way to date three people, so you have to work it out among yourselves. Which is, I’m not going to lie, really painful if you’ve soaked up any of the traditional ideas about relationships. The first time I sat down with my boyfriend and his girlfriend and said, “we need to get some clarity about what we want this relationship-thingy to actually be” I was putting my heart down on the table. I mean, less poetically, I felt like I was probably going to barf. But when we started really talking, and we could tell each other what made us feel lonely and what made us feel loved, and then we went out and did the loving parts--that was worth it. It was so worth it.
(I know I’m saying “stuff and things” a lot here, and some of it was fuzzy-wuzz like “I need to know I’m important to you,” but a lot of it actually turned out to be very down-to-Earth, like “we need to start sharing a Google Calendar” and “you need to spend quality time with me when we’re at parties together.” I seriously don’t know how anyone ever did poly before Google Calendar. If they had a whiteboard or sent carrier pigeons or what.)
The best thing we ever did for our relationship was to schedule these talks every month. Which is a pretty common thing among poly people, and it’s great, because it lets you check in when there isn’t a crisis. It turns the dreaded “we need to talk” into a routine thing and it stops being scary. We can bring up the little things, or even just say “actually, I’m pretty happy right now,” and that’s still a talk worth having. I mean, even if it's just that, damn that's a load off your shoulders.
The other thing you get from poly is that you can’t take anything for granted. There’s a lot people seem to take as just understood in relationships--like, ”well, he should have known that was wrong.” But that only works—well, never, actually—but it only kinda works when you're both taking your relationship cues directly from the dominant cultural narrative. Once you go off the tracks, even a little bit, even just like being in a long-distance relationship or a relationship that doesn't have conventional gender roles, you've got to set your own ground rules. Which is great, because you don't have the “you know what you did” conversations, and scary, because you have to talk about things like jealousy and cheating and having emotional needs.
I really, really recommend every couple or group figure out a working definition of “cheating.” For my partner and me, that's having sex without telling each other. He lets me know what he's planning, he can have sex with the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, and I might have opinions about that (those opinions might be “fistbump,”) but that fundamental feeling of broken trust that comes with cheating won't be there. Then again, for you, that might be a hard limit. You might be a Bears fan. Or you might feel like your partner kissing another person is too much and gives you that sad feeling in your stomach. Either way, if you both know where the line is—and you have enough fundamental trust that nobody's going to rules-lawyer it with “we said hugging was okay, so I hugged his penis!” - it's a lot easier to avoid accidentally hurting each other and a lot more clear what happened if someone does break that trust.
Jealousy's a thing we talk about a lot in poly. There are some people who genuinely don't seem to feel it, but most of us? We're human, we get jealous. Even if we're monogamous, even if we don't have to process our partners actually having relationships with other people, there's usually some way that you have to share their attention that you have some feelings about. Whether it's about friends or work or their hobbies or Christina Hendricks or even just the idea that you could be losing touch with them. Jealousy's not a good thing, it's not like in Twilight where “ooh, threatening murder over me is how he shows he really loves me!”, but jealousy is not evil. It's just an emotion, and how you express it makes the difference. Bottling it up until suddenly you're really upset and you get into a big nasty fight: that's bad. Bottling it up forever to try to be the Perfect Undemanding Totally Chill Partner and eventually your head explodes: also bad.
So just say it. Just lay your emotions out there on the table so you can work on it together. “I feel lonely (or neglected, or jealous) sometimes when you do X, and I would feel a lot better if you did Y or reassured me about Z.” Like everything you've got to do this in good faith and have some flexibility - you're getting into some real bad-news territory if you ask your partner to never make you jealous about anything ever - but there's a lot of things in between that and totally stifling yourself. Sometimes you just need to hear from them that you're not losing them. Sometimes you can make compromises like “going out to dinner with your ladyfriend is fine, but you're going to owe me dinner next week,” or “okay, you can watch Mad Men, but no freeze-framing.” There's just a lot you can do when you talk about jealousy before it's a crisis.
The last thing I want to talk about in relationships is gender roles. Fuck gender roles. Your gender is who you are, it's not what you have to do. Let's move on.
Let's talk about kink and sex.
If I’m going to do one thing in this part, I’m going to completely tear to pieces the idea that sex is only passionate or romantic or whatever if it’s completely spontaneous. That great lovers just fall into bed together and know what to do. And that if you're not a great lover, you're still supposed to fake the “just knowing”. So maybe you read sex books or Cosmo sex tips or whatever—do read Cosmo sex tips, by the way, they're fucking hilarious, but for God's sakes don't actually do that stuff until you've checked if your partner likes shoelaces tied around their balls—but in “everything has to seem spontaneous” world you're not supposed to let your lover know you're reading up. (Hell, a lot of those sex books are actually titled “don't let him or her see this,” because shoelaces on your balls is only really pleasurable if it's a complete surprise. Obviously.) You're supposed to come to bed completely like “Oh, a female body? I know how to work these!” and then either all your moves are perfect or you're bad at sex, sucks to be you.
You can't do that if you're kinky. Even though kinksters are about the only people who would like shoelaces on their balls. Because kink is so polymorphous. You've got people who want to be turned into ponies and harnessed up to carts in the same general category as people who want to suck on someone's toes. You can't come to a kink scene going “don't worry, I know your gender, I got this,” and then start applying some kind of general principles. That's going to end badly. Might involve horseshoes. You've got to know what the specific person you're playing with is into, and let them know specifically what you're into, or it's just not going to work. Well, I don't think that's any less true for people who aren't ponies.
A moment to talk about consent. Consent in BDSM is a really big deal, because the stuff we do would be torture without consent. It’s sad that it’s any different for sex, but not a whole lot of people could convince themselves “well, they seemed like they wanted to be dressed up like a ballerina and smeared with mashed potatoes, they did go up to my bedroom after all” to themselves. You’ve gotta be sure when you’re doing kink. It's not just about having a good experience but about not committing a felony. Wait... isn't that true for sex too? Again. If you wouldn't punch a person because you were kinda sure they wanted it, don't have sex with them either. Just be like, “So... wanna fuck?” Gotta tell you, I haven't gotten a lot of “Oh, I was wet and humping your leg and imagining the things I'd do to you, but now that you asked, forget it,” from that. I have gotten “no,” but thank God for those “no”s! I'm especially glad I asked then!
But consent is a bare minimum standard. That's what makes your sex not rape. Which is very necessary but rarely sufficient. Not a lot of people go home and write in their diary “oh my God, that sex we had was so consensual.” So when you take your communication beyond yes/no consent, what you've got is what kinky folk call “negotiation.”
Negotiation does not sound sexy. It sounds like you might want to bring your lawyer along. “We're prepared to offer up to ten minutes of manual stimulation in exchange for valuable consideration in the form of that thing you do with your tongue.” But it can be sexy as hell. It can be something you do cheek to cheek, bodies pressed together, whispering dirty thoughts heavily in each other's ears. Or maybe it isn't that sexy, but it's simple. “Touch me here,” and then they touch you there? That's negotiation, right there. That's all it takes sometimes.
Or sometimes negotiation isn't sexy or simple, but it's something you do three hours ahead, get to anticipate the whole evening, and then you can have that feeling of just falling together and being swept away, without the risk of “oh shit actually I didn’t want to be swept away like that.” A lot of people who aren't used to it complain that explicit negotiation sounds really awkward and boner-killing, and I'm not gonna lie, it can be. But sex where you have no idea what the other person's getting at and they put their hand on your butt and you don't know if they want to spank you or put their finger up your ass or just grope you or what? And they don't really know what you want either so they just sort of creep their finger toward your anus and then you sort of scoot your butt away to be like “nuh-uh, buddy, not there?” and then they just grope your cheeks like that's what they meant to do all along? That's awkward.
One of the things that can get you is, there is kind of a default script for two-person non-kinky non-LGBTQ-anything sex. (And to some degree it can slop over into other kinds of sex.) He initiates, they make out, there's groping above the waist, there's groping below the waist, there's maybe oral sex on him, maybe oral sex on her, then vaginal intercourse missionary that might switch to cowgirl or doggy-style and then everyone rolls over and fall asleep. And there's nothing wrong with that! Sometimes that is, for real, all you want out of sex. I'm not trying to force everyone to discover your inner desire to be strung from the ceiling by a woman dressed as a stegosaurus here. Maybe your desires really are simple and you really just want to have the default sort of sex, or your desires aren't terribly specific and anything sorta sexlike will make you perfectly happy. That's fine. Then that's what you share in negotiation. If nothing else, it's going to reassure your partner that you aren't secretly yearning for something you're not getting.
So talk. Seriously. Talk. All of the hottest and wildest sexual experiences of my life have started with talking, because some of them involved, like, pee or dog cages, and that's shit you sure as hell don't whip out without talking about it first. If talking's hard, write shy little letters. Write an email and pretend no one's going to see it and at the last minute send it to your partner anyway. Bring along some erotica and point to it and be like “I want to do like that. Um, I'd be Dumbledore in this picture.”
There's a couple other things you can take from kink too, besides negotiation.
For example, in kink one of the umbrella terms for What It Is That We Do is “play.” We play together, we have play parties. Age play, ass play, sensation play, pony play. Nobody wants to go to a work party for some ass work. (I take it back, that sounds kinda hot.) Anyway, play is a really good way to look at sex. It's grownup playtime. It's something you're doing (generally) for purposes purely of pleasure. It's supposed to make you happy, it might make you laugh, it's something that lets you live out fantasies and move your body in ways you don't normally get to, and you get to feel like you're having a big adventure right in your own bedroom. I don't want to be all prescriptivist with this part, if sex means something else to you I'm not saying “NO! IT MUST BE PLAY!”, but... if you ever find yourself approaching sex with grim determination or with that massive “I have to do this and do it right or I'm a loser” ego investment, it can help to step back a second and realize that the whole thing where people rub their crotches together to get happy is really kind of ridiculous.
Another thing to think about: in kink circles there's sometimes kind of this rush to be the very shockingest, to get all competitive “if that other guy had an acorn squash up his ass, by God I'm going to take a pumpkin,” but the truth is that the most kink (whatever that even means, it's not like you can check on a kinkometer) is rarely a worthy goal, compared to the best. Some people's kink is entirely conducted by talking to each other, pants on, hands above the waist, and yet for them it's pervy and hot as hell. You can take this across to sex; you can have an encounter that's not intercourse that's still entirely satisfying sex. You can switch your sex life up without feeling like you have to make it “spicier” each time—sometimes something that's not at all “spicy” ends up creating a wonderful intimate moment between you. I mean, I've talked—okay, bragged—a lot in this talk about all the wacky stuff I've done, but some nights my partner and I just lay on the couch together and make out like high-schoolers and that's still completely awesome.
Last thing. I know that a lot of the stuff I said about negotiation can be kind of daunting, because it seems like it would only work for someone who really knows what they want. I mean, if you're one of those people who can be like “I need exactly 6.5 pounds of pressure applied at a 38 degree angle to my vulva,” that's great, but a lot of people aren't. I'm not. So what do you say? Exactly what you're thinking. “I'm not sure what I'm into yet. Let's experiment.” Some of your experiments won't work out and that's okay. I've tried a lot of kinky shit in my day that made me go “GAHHH, no, not for me,” and that was okay. I proved the null hypothesis, is all. And then I tried other things that I ended up loving. I explored the boundaries of what my body could do and what it could make me feel, and I discovered some wonderful, completely unexpected new ways to experience joy.
(One caveat, though: this is something you do for yourself, not something you push your partner to do. “You don't know you won't like it until you try it” is how you feed vegetables to small children. It's not something you want in your sex life.)
When we talk about negotiation or we talk about consent, it's not just about “yes” or “no.” “I really don't know,” “let's try a little bit and see” and “not today but maybe later” are all good answers too.
In the end, no matter who you love or how, it all comes down to: humans are really fucking complicated and really fucking different. And the cultural mainstream has set some pathetically simple one-size-fits-all rules for how we're supposed to love and fuck. But fuck those rules. You only get one life. You only get to spend so much of it making love. And there are so, so, many wonderful and amazing ways to make love and I think some of them haven't even been discovered yet. (We found a new permutation just last Thursday.)
You owe it to your lovers and to yourself to toss out what you're supposed to be like or what you accidentally ended up with, and fuck and love in the way that brings you joy.