Thursday, September 10, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex

by Annabeth Leong

I was at a bachelorette party last year and someone asked me what I thought about a popular advice columnist. “I got annoyed recently,” I answered. “She said some really stupid stuff about bisexuals.” The columnist had told a woman there was no point in coming out as bisexual because she was married to a man and didn’t plan to leave him. Why bother your friends and family with this personal business if it wasn’t going to be relevant? (Relevant, I guess, defined as “causing divorce.”)

One of the other women at the table wrinkled her nose. “Well, I don’t want to know about people’s sex lives. Why do they have to tell me about that? I don’t see why this person should have to come out to everyone.”

I felt the familiar stomach flip. The conversation was more personal than I wanted it to be. We were talking about an advice columnist and a woman I didn’t know, but we were also touching on topics that had been keeping me up at night and making me cry in the mornings when I wrote in my journal.

I wanted to explain but I didn’t know how. It wasn’t about sex, but it was. If I were to tell someone about what I was struggling with, I wouldn’t be asking them to listen to an in-depth description of fingering or whatever would have bothered the woman at the table. But I couldn’t deny that sex was behind the things I was thinking about. I was struggling with the feeling that I couldn’t be myself while being seen as straight, even if I didn’t choose to leave my husband, but wasn’t that at least sort of about how much I wanted to do sexual things with other women? And it was hard to explain why I did need to be public somehow about that. I understood the importance of coming out for other people, but I couldn’t defend myself when people told me it shouldn’t be important unless it was going to mean divorce.

It was about sex. And if I could talk about fingering, I might say that I’d been waking up lately to how irritating it is to think that sex only counts when a cock is involved. I’d been realizing I’d had sex with women without knowing I had because it was “only” fingering. Hell, I’d had sex with people that way without realizing that it counted.

It wasn’t about sex, because it was mostly about these assumptions people are constantly making. I spill my drink down my shirt and someone says, “No reason to worry. It’s just us girls here.” As if the only time one would ever worry about how one looks is in the presence of men. That bothers me because I’m not straight, and it also bothers me because I’m not here to look beautiful for people. Explaining all that is really hard when people assume the things they assume when they think only straight people are around.

There’s this idea that whatever I might have to say about sex is gross or private or not something I should be bothering other people with.

I am not supposed to need to tell anyone that when I slept with a woman for the first time in more than a decade, I woke up the next morning and realized nothing was missing. And I wanted to cry because I’d been told so much that I was supposed to feel something was missing that I’d expected to feel that way, even though I knew my own desires well enough to know better. Why do I need to tell people that? Part of me needs to tell people how fucking wrong they were, and part of me needs to grieve over how much I’ve been missing, and part of me just wants to shout to the sky because nothing was missing.

I have this feeling that I should apologize if what I want to talk about is sex, but talking about sex has been so important for making me realize who I really am, for learning how to protect myself, for figuring out how to ask for what I want, both in bed and out of it.

This isn’t just about orientation. I wasn’t supposed to talk about sex at all, so I didn’t know that my first experiences with BDSM were actually abuse. I wasn’t supposed to talk about sex at all, but sometimes I didn’t know that, so some people thought I was a slut because I said I wanted to be on top. I wasn’t supposed to talk about sex at all, so I must have just been trying to make boys like me when I said that I do masturbate.

I get that talking about sex can make people feel vulnerable. I don’t want to force anyone to talk about something that makes them uncomfortable. But being able to talk about sex is so important for me. Because I do think it’s about who I am. Yes, there are other things that I think about and that I like to do, but sex is honestly a huge part of my life.

Erotic fiction is one way I am able to talk about sex. Sometimes, that means writing it, sometimes that means reading it, and sometimes that means talking about it with other people who write it or read it. I sometimes read it to get off, but I sometimes read it just to know what people think. And I write it sometimes to turn myself on, but mostly to work shit out.

I do want to know about people’s sex lives. And I’ve got to talk about mine. I don’t think a person can really know who I am without knowing something about that, and I do want people to know me. Besides, sex is connected so much to other things about me. If I can’t speak up and say I’m not into that popular famous person or I am into them, then how can I say what restaurant I want to go to? Being silent about sex has, for me, often led to being silent about all sorts of things I want, need, prefer, or am.


  1. I think people ought to understand that (a) each individual gets to choose what elements of his or her personality are particularly important to his or her identity, and (b) each individual gets to choose which elements of his or her own personality or identity are, or are not, kept private. And while various gatherings of people may have their own unwritten (and probably subjective and inconsistent) parameters as to what constitutes "TMI" in general conversation, I think mainstream society has evolved to the point where including sexual orientation and identity as accepted topics for general conversation (if the individual whose orientation/identity it is chooses to broach it) is a well-established "normal" practice, resisted only by bigots and prudes and the like.

    For someone to essentially say that someone else's bisexuality doesn't matter—that it's "TMI" trivia just because it isn't causing a change in partners—amounts to someone telling someone else what does or doesn't qualify as an important component of identity, for that other person. That is so wrong; and I've been on the receiving end of this kind of thing myself, when people insist that I have to think of myself as having a Jewish "identity" because I'm from a Jewish family, I'm ethnically Jewish, and I was brought up Jewish, even though in adult life I don't consider Jewishness to be any meaningful part of "who I am" as a person.

    1. P.S. When I said "gets to choose what elements of his or her personality are particularly important to his or her identity," of course I didn't mean that one "chooses" to be bisexual, etc. I probably should have said "gets to assess," or something. You look at who you are and say, "this thing is an important part of who I am; this other thing is not so significant." Perhaps there are bisexual people for whom the bisexuality is a very minor piece of the identity, less important than what college they attended. No one can judge that for anyone else.

    2. Thank you as always for your insightful comments. I understand what you mean. I think it's always been difficult for me to deal with how important sex-related things turn out to be to my identity. There are ways I'd rather I wasn't like that. But I do seem to be...

  2. So much truth here, Annabeth. It takes courage, but I agree, you NEED to talk about sex. If there were more open and honest discussion, I believe people in general would be happier and have more fulfilling relationships, both long and short term.

    On the topic of bisexuality, I ran across this article a few days ago. I really agree.

    1. That is a really interesting link, Lisabet! Thank you!

  3. I remember a conversation I had with my father about dealing with people. He said you have to assess a person as soon as possible and set the conversation around your take on that person. Whether or not to swear, whether to speak like an English professor or like a sports fan, a gangster or a philanthropist. Determining what you reveal to which people will hold you in good stead in life. Use your intuition to stay in control. Of course, if you're talking in a larger group, that tack can prove not so easy.

    1. But it's one thing to let awareness of one's "audience" (i.e., one's interlocutor) guide choices of conversational topics and tones; it's another thing to let one's perception of one's interlocutor's attitudes push one into misrepresenting oneself. Not that I think it's always prudent to "put it all out there"—though some people seem to do just that. I find it can be a balancing act, especially if one's interlocutor is self-absorbed and will tend to assume you have all the same attitudes (s)he does unless you explicitly say otherwise. I suppose the more of a two-way street a conversation is—like they're supposed to be but so often are not—the easier it is for both parties to navigate and make the choices they're comfortable with as far as representing themselves honestly without revealing more than they feel is right for the situation. Just one more reason to avoid talking to narrow-minded blowhards! (:v>

    2. I had the impression, from my limited experience of such things, that sex was the major topic of conversation at bachelorette parties, and often even at bridal showers. Isn't it an ancient and honorable tradition? But I guess there can be uptight prudes in any gathering. The woman who complained is the one with the problem.

    3. @ Daddy and Jeremy -- Certainly, one has to assess one's audience. I appreciate the nuance Jeremy adds to it, though. There is a way that after a while it can start to feel very painful to suppress oneself around a hostile or unsympathetic audience. That bachelorette party, which lasted for an entire weekend, was very much that way for me.

      @ Sacchi - I don't think her complaining was about the topic of sex at the bachelorette party specifically. I think she felt that "bothering" others with discussion of one's sexual orientation outside of "necessary" circumstances such as "I'm leaving my husband" was unnecessary.


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