I have recently been dipping a cautious toe back into some swinging spaces, albeit almost exclusively very queer ones. These adventures have brought up some thoughts and realisations about the ways that I operate in sexual spaces that I’ve been thinking about a lot. So, because blogging is cheaper than therapy, let’s talk about them shall we?
I’m not sure I was ever really a swinger, to be entirely honest. Years ago, I wrote about things I disliked about the mainstream (read: hetero) swing community, from the weird prevalence of sexual racism to the casual kink-shaming. And I don’t think I’m really a swinger now, either. Or at least, claiming that label feels disingenuous when the last time I did anything more than hand sex with a stranger was literally years ago.
I’m a polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous person who also enjoys some casual sex with lovely people every now and then. (Exactly where the dividing line between “swinger” and “whatever the fuck I am” lies, I am truly not sure.)
Thing is, I’d really like to be sluttier than I am. In theory, at least, I’m a huge Ethical Slut. I love flirting, giving and receiving sexual attention and interest. I love making connections, making plans, making out, that slow but certain escalation when it becomes apparent that yes, this thing is ON. And I love sex. I’m a high sexual desire person (it’s not a drive!), and in an ideal world I’d be having sex several times a week at least. Yes, I’m a horny fucker.
So why do I find it so fucking hard to actually make that leap and do the things in a more casual context?
I’m envious of people who can just dive in. People who can pull a stranger or leap into the centre of an orgy without thinking too hard about it. I wish that could be me. So why don’t I and why isn’t it? Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to untangle.
My Sexuality is Complicated
Being very sapphic certainly complicates things. The overwhelming majority of people in swing and casual sex spaces are cis man/cis woman couples, most of whom – as is typical in that community – do things exclusively together. This is tricky when I don’t fancy very many men, though.
I’m not going to fuck a guy I don’t fancy just so I can play with his partner, and I’m not going to tolerate hands wandering after I’ve set boundaries about who can and cannot touch me and where. Realistically, I’m also not going to fuck a woman for a man’s enjoyment. Performative queerness does nothing for me. Less than nothing – it’s an active turn-off.
So where does this leave me? Probably limited to playing one-on-one with other women, playing with very trusted friends, playing with couples where the guy will happily accept “I’ll fuck your wife with you but I’m not going to fuck you”, or waiting for the cases where I am attracted enough to both/all parties to also fuck the guy(s.) The last two scenarios on this list? Well, they’re rare. In practice, my sexuality limits who will be interested in me and how I can play simply because I don’t typically offer much for the guys.
Hitting on women is hard, too, for a simple reason: I don’t want to make other women feel the way that creepy men make me feel. (Yes, there’s a whole other post in this, too.) More than once I’ve noticed an attractive woman at a party and then totally failed to even talk to her. I always kick myself afterwards, of course, but I haven’t figured out a way to overcome this one yet.
Sexual Health Fears
There’s also the sexual health angle. I got an STI about a year ago (ironically, during a particularly non-slutty phase) and it really rattled me. Though it was dealt with, I have no desire to ever repeat that experience. I feel like I’d be absolutely furious with myself if I inadvertently contracted something and then passed it on to one or both of my partners.
I preach open communication about sexual health constantly, but in reality it can be really hard to be the person saying “hey when were you last tested?” when no-one else in the room has raised it.
The reality is that, if we are going to be sexually active, there is a risk of STIs. This is even true in monogamy, because people can cheat and people can have symptomless infections for years without knowing it if they’re not testing regularly. There is no way to be a sexually active human and totally eliminate this risk. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. If anything, it gives us a greater responsibility to take the reasonable steps we can to mitigate the risk to ourselves and our sexual partners.
In some ways, this is probably the easiest issue on this list to solve. This one can probably be solved with practice and giving fewer fucks about seeming like a buzzkill for being the person to open the conversation.
“I Shouldn’t Be Doing This”: Internalised Shame
On a less practical and more cerebral level, I think I’m probably still dealing with some internalised shame around casual sex. Like so many of us, I grew up in an intensely sex-negative society and “slut” was one of the worst things someone could call you. (I got called it for having sex with my one boyfriend of well over a year when I was sixteen, but that’s another topic for another day.)
“But Amy, you’ve been polyamorous your entire adult life!” I can hear some long-time readers saying. And yes, I have. However – and this is also going to be the topic of another post soon – the polyamorous community has a massive slut-shaming problem.
Hang out in polyamorous spaces long enough and you’ll often hear phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” to deride casual sex. You’ll also hear derisive language used towards swingers (and anyone sluttier than the name-caller approves of), as well as assertions that casual sex “ISN’T REALLY POLY.” Mainely Mandy did a fantastic video on this subject. It’s over an hour long but I really urge you to watch it all if you can. Mandy is insightful, engaging, hilarious, and just so right about this topic.
I suspect there’s still some internal work – and probably work with my therapist – to be done on unpacking this shame. I find it so easy to celebrate others getting all the hot sex they want with all the partners they want, as long as it’s ethical and consensual. I’m not sure why I am finding it so hard to extend that to myself. But I do know that once in a while, I get hit with this overwhelming feeling of “I shouldn’t be doing this”. And that’s a mood-killer if ever there was one.
Vulnerability is Fucking Hard
Finally, there’s also the fear of making myself vulnerable. I know not everyone will agree with me here but to me at least, there’s an inherent level of vulnerability to sex (or at least to good sex.) If I stay completely detached, there’s just no point. I’m not going to enjoy it and will probably end up feeling used rather than fulfilled.
But as the title of this section says: vulnerability is fucking hard. Vulnerability, in my experience, often leads to pain.
Of course, on the flip side, vulnerability can also lead to some trancendently wonderful experiences. Vulnerability has brought me beautiful relationships, deeper communication and intimacy with my partners, hot sex, leg-shaking orgasms, the kind of memories that still get me wet when I recall them years later.
But it’s really, really hard to be truly vulnerable and it does not come easily to abuse survivors in particular.
So… What Now?
I don’t really know, to be honest. Maybe I need to just be brave and take bigger leaps into the things I want before overthinking gets in the way and stops me. Or maybe some things do need to remain “in theory.”
I sent a draft of this post up to this point to my girlfriend, having no idea how to finish it. Because she’s brilliant, she made this suggestion: “Imagine someone has written that post and sent it to you asking for your advice.” A lightbulb went on instantly. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The conclusion of this piece will take the form of an open advice letter from me to me.
Open Advice from Me to Me
Hey Amy. This sounds legitimately complicated and like there are numerous different factors at play.
First I want to validate something for you: this stuff is complex. I’ll also let you into a secret: it’s complex for almost everyone! Those people you see at parties, who seem to be having all the casual sex all the time without a care in the world? That’s probably not their reality. Behind the scenes they are likely thinking things over, considering their boundaries and desires, perhaps discussing things with their partners. They probably have many of the same insecurities as you, and plenty of their own unique struggles too. So first, please don’t think you’re alone or weird for feeling conflicted about this. You’re not. What you see at parties is, in all likelihood, the smallest tip of the iceberg.
Next I want to tell you that your sexuality is perfect as it is. We live in a deeply, aggressively heteronormative world and it can be hard when you fall outside of that. You never, ever have to have sex that you don’t want to have. If you want to have sex but only with a certain gender or genders? Awesome! If you’re open to other genders but only occasionally, sporadically, or circumstantially? Great! If some types of sex appeal to you but not others? Excellent self-knowledge, well done.
I would advise simply being very upfront with potential playmates about who you are, what you want, and what you can offer.
Will this mean some people aren’t right for you? Yes, absolutely. And that’s okay! No-one is everybody’s cup of tea, and having incompatible needs with some people doesn’t mean that your needs are wrong (or that theirs are.) If someone isn’t into what you’re offering, you can wish each other well and move on to more fitting connections. If someone deliberately breaches boundaries you’ve set or oversteps your consent? Get up and leave. You deserve better.
I hear your frustration that suitable connections seem to be relatively few and far between, possibly due to your low interest in men. But a small number of great connections is vastly preferable to a lot of bad ones. You seem to be doing this already, but continuing to prioritise explicitly queer and queer-positive spaces is much more likely to get you the kinds of experiences you want.
Your sexual health concerns are also valid and understandable. They particularly make sense with the context that you’ve had an STI in the past and do not want to repeat the experience. Sexual health is a sensible thing to be concerned with. Most STIs are not a big deal – they are treatable, curable, or manageable. However, some can have a significant or even life-changing impact, and antibiotic-resistant strains of certain infections are a growing concern in the medical community. Even easily curable STIs are, unfortunately, still heavily stigmatised.
I know you know this, but you are not being a buzzkill for raising this topic. If someone rejects you or gets annoyed with you for discussing it, they’re not right for you. By having this conversation before hooking up, you’re being a responsible partner and caring for both your own and your partners’ sexual health.
One possible way to become more comfortable with this conversation might be to have it in advance where possible. Are you chatting to people online prior to meeting them? If so, raise the topic during your pre-party flirtations. Are there online spaces, such as forums or Discord servers, where party or event attendees hang out? If so, why not get a sexual health discussion thread going in those spaces? This takes the “in the moment” pressure off. It also normalises the conversation and allows you to get a feel for people whose risk tolerance aligns with yours.
As a general rule, sexual health practices should default to the boundaries of the most cautious person. If you want to use a barrier, for example, then your prospective partners can either use that barrier or decide not to hook up with you under those conditions. What they cannot – or should not – do is try to talk you out of your boundaries. Trying to change your mind about sexual health protocols is a major red flag, and one you should not ignore.
Internalised shame and fears around vulnerability are, unfortunately, harder to overcome. You’re right that we live in an intensely sex-negative society. It also sounds like you have some personal experience of people weaponising sexual shame against you. Shame is complex, multi-faceted, and unpacking it can be an ongoing (even lifelong) process.
Next time they arise, I invite you to sit with those feelings of shame and ask yourself what they are telling you. Then hold those ideas up to your values and beliefs about the world. Do they align? And if not, where did they come from?
For example, perhaps you realise that your feeling of shame is telling you “people who respect themselves only have sex in committed relationships.” Do you really believe that is true? Presumably not, since you accept and embrace the fact that casual sex can be a positive and joyful thing (and that sexual behaviour is not correlated with self-respect.) Okay, so where did that belief come from? Perhaps it was your parents, your peers, school, the media, or the religion you were raised in. By unpacking the things shame is telling you, you can take more control over which of those beliefs you internalise and which you choose to consciously reject.
On your fear of vulnerability, I want you to know that it makes perfect sense. Existing as a woman or femme in this patriarchal society is hard, and doubly so for survivors of abuse. When vulnerability has been used against you or resulted in pain in the past, it can be incredibly difficult to let yourself go there again.
This fear is your body and brain’s way of keeping you safe. Try to remember that when you’re feeling frustrated with yourself. All those positive things you identified that allowing yourself to be vulnerable has brought to you? What do they all have in common? They all had to happen from a place of safety. This likely meant coming to vulnerability in your own time, not forcing it from yourself. If getting to that baseline of safety takes you longer than it takes other people, or takes you longer in some circumstances than others, then that’s okay.
One vital thing I want to invite you to do is just to listen to yourself. Your body is deeply wise and intuitive. Try to tune into what it’s telling you in any given situation. Try to learn what your personal “yes, more, this” feels like, as well as your personal “no” or “ick” or “I’m not sure about this.” What does safety feel like? What does it feel like when you truly, deeply want something?
Learning to follow those intuitive clues will teach you to trust yourself. It will also help you to come into a deeper understanding of what you really want and don’t want, both in the big-picture sense and in any given moment. In time, you’ll learn how to move towards your “yes” and away from your “no” more authentically.
Finally: remember that there’s no right or wrong here, and you’re not in competition with anyone. You are not less of a non-monogamous or sex-positive person if you’re slower to warm up and get comfortable with being sexual. It’s okay to be a “yes” on one occasion and a “no” on another. It’s okay to be choosy, to be selective, to make sure any given situation is right for you.
It is okay to explore, try things out, surprise yourself. To like things you weren’t sure you would, and do dislike things you were sure would do it for you. And it’s okay if some things need to remain “in theory,” for now or forever.
Breathe. You’re doing fine.
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