let's talk about
from evy's notebook
I wish it was more acceptable to talk about sex. When I find a topic difficult to think about, my go-to strategy is to explore that topic through conversations with friends. Sex has been one of the more complicated and confusing things I've been thinking about recently, but it's been difficult to talk about with people because sex is such a taboo subject. Despite this, I've had a handful of wonderful conversations and done a lot of thinking, and I feel like I've learned a lot. I want to share some of what I've learned with you.
It feels extraordinarily vulnerable to share these thoughts and experiences here - but I wish it was more acceptable to talk about sex, so here I am trying to help make that happen.
grappling with the label "graysexual"
In queering "queer"
I discussed how I identified as graysexual for a few years. This label felt accurate to me because of how infrequently I fantasized about or desired sex. I adopted the label partially as a way to warn potential partners that I wasn't going to be very interested in sex - but then this backfired in moments when I was
interested in sex and the people I was dating got confused. I started to question if the frequency and intensity of my desire was "normal" (meaning it was wrong to identify as graysexual) or "not normal" (meaning it was worth warning people about). If it had felt more acceptable to talk about sex, I would have learned much earlier that there is a vastly wide range of "normal".
Meanwhile, I continued to analyze my cryptic sexual desire. I was thinking about sex quite a bit for someone who didn't fantasize about sex very often. I rarely desired sex, but so strongly desired to desire sex. A question I've often returned to is why I feel so motivated to keep sex in my life despite not experiencing much raw sexual desire. Is it because I want to be a "good" romantic partner in the way society expects of me? Is it because I fear not being enough for the people I love? Or is that connection and play are important to me, and sex seems like a special way to connect and play with someone? I'd like to think it's mostly that last one, but I also know that it's difficult to separate myself from others' expectations of me.
I didn't know what I wanted, and I didn't even know why I wanted to want anything at all. I felt bad for my partners - it's not the most fun to have sex with someone who is confused and anxious about sex, and this threw me into a spiral of shame. A "good" partner can ask for what they want, can give enthusiastic consent, can easily have a fun time. Worrying about being good enough at something tends to makes it more difficult to do that thing well
, and sex is the epitome of this - any hint of anxiety during sex erased my desire, which was a frustrating and shameful experience in itself. Noticing my feelings about feelings has been a massive help in managing anxiety in my life, and noticing how shameful it felt to ruin sex with my shame was an important first step to improving things.
meeting anxiety with curiosity
One of the most effective strategies I've found for battling anxiety spirals is to be curious and try experiments. I now try to practice framing things as experiments as often as I can.
"I'm curious how it would feel to tell someone I think they're attractive - I'll try it as an experiment, and reflect afterwards if I'd want to do it again."
"I'm curious if I can be happier at work - I'll try a new job as an experiment, and if I don't like it then I'll have some more data for what kinds of jobs I might want to try next."
"I'm curious how it would feel to write about a difficult or weird topic in my notebook - I'll write about sex as an experiment, and we'll see how it goes!"
This strategy helps reduce the pressure that the decisions I make have to be good ones, and moves focus from the outcome to the learning process. However, to be able to experiment, there has to be space to fail. I have to be confident enough that these experiments won't result in complete disasters, and usually this confidence comes from a place of privilege. With sex, the confidence has come from discussions with partners who help me feel that it's okay to be "bad" - it's okay for sex to be boring or unpleasant, it's okay to try something and not like it, it's okay for me to get anxious and want to stop.
If it's okay to have bad sex, then it's okay to try an experiment. If I'm able to experiment, then I can figure out what sorts of things I want to do, and figure out when I'm interested in doing them, and maybe even figure out why!
People often think being polyamorous is all about being able to have sex with lots of people, but when I started practicing polyamory I identified as graysexual in a more simple way and had no interest in having sex with new people. It's annoyed me for years that people associate polyamory so strongly with sex, and yet I have to acknowledge how much dating more people has helped me understand myself. Different people have been open to different experiments, and I'm so grateful for what I've learned from the diversity of experiences and conversations I've had around sex in the past few years.
I've heard people say that the bdsm community attracts older people who have gotten bored with vanilla sex, so perhaps power play was intriguing to me because sex has rarely been appealing to me on its own. I love romantic tension
, and I love the emotional quality of an intense connection to someone, but I don't usually feel this kind of intensity through the experience of sex itself. Playing with power dynamics has been a tool for me to feel intense connection to a partner, and perhaps this intensity is comparable to what some people feel through raw sexual desire.
The submissive role has been particularly helpful to me as a strategy to cope with sex anxiety. If someone else is controlling a scene, I can more easily turn off the part of my brain that's constantly planning and organizing and analyzing. I can be more present in the current moment.
There's another aspect of being submissive, discussed by Natalie Wynn in her video on shame
, that fascinates me:
Notice how excitement at the attention and the flattery of being desired is not the same thing as attraction to men. There's a difference between “I want you” and “I like that you want me.”
But for a long time, I confused one for the other. And one reason I was able to do that is that the normative sexual role for women is to be pursued, possessed, desired, seduced, dominated by men—it's all very passive. [...] And I do think that the thrill of being desired is a valid thing to want. I like that feeling myself, and I do genuinely enjoy taking on a more submissive role sometimes. But you have to go about it thoughtfully, because if you don't, sexual submission can be a way to avoid confronting what your desires actually are.
It's freedom from freedom. And if you're ashamed [...], then relinquishing responsibility for your own desires by letting someone else take control can be the only way you can enjoy sex at all.
Do I use power play as a way to avoid confronting my complicated and stressful feelings about sex? It definitely feels like that's part of the appeal. There are so many possible motivations for wanting or not wanting to do something in sex, and trying to tease them apart has been confusing, fascinating, and ultimately not fully possible.
What I do know is that power play has been a way to make sex - something I'm not always particularly interested in - about something much more interesting and enjoyable to me. If the thing that's motivating me to think about sex is a desire to bring more play and connection into my life, then power play has been an excellent tool for furthering these desires.
let's talk about sex
Whenever I've spent months figuring out how to think about a complicated topic, I like to write a newsletter
about it, and usually at least one person reaches out after to say I helped them build a better framework to think about that thing. I feel like my reflections on sex could help someone else think about their own relationship with sex, and the thoughts I want to share are even closely connected to a lot of other topics I've enjoyed discussing with people in the last few years: curiosity, creating and respecting boundaries, radical acceptance, play, feedback loops.
But the idea of sending an email about sex to 150 people (some of whom are past or present coworkers) feels terrifying and even forbidden. I understand that talking about sex is uncomfortable or intense for a lot of people, and I think it's important to give people opportunities to opt out of these conversations, but why do we get to talk about guns and violence and devastating world news in public spaces - but not sex?
It still feels scary to write this post on the public internet, but I'm glad I did this experiment. I'm definitely curious to see how it plays out.
some things that didn't make it into this post but that I still want to mention:
- Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski's self-help book on sex science, was helpful for me in figuring out my sex feelings, and I'd definitely recommend it!
- There's a rope bondage meetup I attended weekly for a while, and I really appreciated it as a place where I could learn about and explore tools for power play, but in a space that wasn't particularly sexual (people kept most of their clothes on and focused on technique). This helps me feel more confident that I don't only like power play as a way to escape my sex stress. (I also recommend rope bondage! It's a really interesting and technical skill!)
- Let's Talk About Sex has been stuck in my head a lot today :p