“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m a 29-year-old bi guy, and I’m dating an amazing guy. He’s supportive, kind and I love him so much. I could actually see myself staying with him long term, or even getting married and having kids. The only problem is, my boyfriend is the only guy I’ve slept with (I mostly dated women before him). I’m ashamed to say it, but I keep on wondering about what else is out there, sexually speaking.
I like having sex with my boyfriend, and we’ve talked about ways to make our sex life more exciting—kink, watching porn together, all the usual things. We even went to see a couple’s therapist about it, and to be honest, I didn’t find it that helpful. She made it seem like there was something wrong with our relationship that we needed to fix, but really, there isn’t! I think the problem is me.
I can’t stop thinking that I might never get to have that “slutty phase” that my gay and bi friends all did. And it feels really selfish to admit, but I want to! I grew up in a pretty conservative family, and it took me a long time to admit my attraction to guys. People have suggested polyamory to me, but this is something I’m just not ready for. My boyfriend said he would be willing to try it for me, but he’s also expressed doubts. So what now? I want to be a good partner, but I don’t know how to stop wanting what I can’t have, and I’m afraid it will destroy my relationship.
Shameful and Selfishly Slutty
This might come as a bit of surprise to you, but I’d like to begin my response to your letter by thanking you for all your “shameful,” “selfish” sluttiness. Thank you for hearing the call of your own desire, and for knowing what you want! This is a kind of self-knowledge and honesty that is often stigmatized in the dominant culture—we are “not supposed” to want sexual abundance, and admitting to unfulfilled desire is often seen as a sign of weakness and self-indulgence. However, I believe it is the beginning of the road to deeper, more loving relationships and more erotically vibrant lives.
I want you to know, SASSY, that sexual curiosity and sexual desire outside of one’s primary romantic partnership is enormously common, and indeed, can be part of a healthy sexuality. Sexual activity outside the boundaries of monogamous relationships is also prolific. Of course, this can be ethically complicated for all the obvious reasons (dishonesty, betraying a partner’s trust, un-negotiated exposure and risk of sexually transmitted infections). However, many couples who identify as monogamous also negotiate healthy arrangements that allow one or both partners to explore new, exciting avenues for sexual expression and pleasure.
In the dominant, colonial and heteronormative culture, we are often taught to conflate securely attached partner relationships with erotic aliveness and excitement. According to the myth, “true love” is when you meet your Princess or Princess Charming, fall head over heels in both love and lust, and then you stay that way for the rest of your life.
Perhaps the myth is true for some people. For many of us, however, the very security that makes a long-term relationship safe and enduring is also the antithesis of that spark of novelty, adventure and just-enough danger that ignites us with erotic excitement. Renowned couple’s therapist and writer Esther Perel remarks in her book (which I would recommend reading, SASSY!) Mating In Captivity that when it comes to sexuality, humans are “walking contradictions, seeking safety and predictability on one hand and thriving on diversity on the other.”
All this to say, SASSY, I believe you when you say that there is nothing wrong with your relationship, which sounds amazing, indeed—and I would like to gently challenge you to try out the perspective that maybe (just maybe!) there’s nothing wrong with you, either. What would change if you started looking at your erotic curiosities, desires and fantasies, as a part of your well-being that needs care and attention, instead of a problem to be fixed?
I believe that every human being has an erotic self—the part of us that carries and lives out our story of relationship, intimacy and sexuality (or asexuality, as the case may be). Psychological and sexological research show that our erotic needs and expression grow and change over the course of lives, in the same way that our physical, intellectual and occupational needs and activities change.
Yet many of us are denied the opportunity to grow our erotic selves and cultivate erotic intelligence: We are slut-shamed, labelled deviant or perverted for the crime of wanting sex. Too many of us experience sexual violence and abuse. Queer and trans people are actively punished, socially and legally, for our sexualities; racialized people are sexually fetishized or desexualized, while disabled, fat and elderly people are shunned as “unfuckable.” The list goes on and on.
Perhaps this is why so many newly-out queer folks seem to go through that “slutty phase” you mention, SASSY—or at least, the ones who have access to safety and desirability. Having been prevented from acknowledging and developing our erotic selves for so long, many of us might rush toward sexuality in all ways we’ve secretly longed for. Of course, simply having lots of sex is not necessarily a healing or enlightening experience for all of us: Ideally, the sex we are having is good sex, as in pleasurable, consensual, safe-enough sex with partners who care about our well-being even if they are not going to be in our lives for the long term.
Something I find admirable about the path you have taken so far, SASSY, is that you have taken the time to really think about what you want and discuss it openly with your boyfriend. When we skip these steps, we run the risk of acting in ways that are hurtful to ourselves and others. But, as you’ve said, you’ve already thought this through, seen a couple’s therapist, had the conversations. What you haven’t done, if I may be so bold, is take the next step.
You say in your letter that you can’t stop wanting what you can’t have. Reading through everything else you’ve written, though, I can’t help but think: Based purely on your own words, it seems like you actually could have the things you want—your partner is open to talking about things with you, is willing to try polyamory as well, even if he does have doubts.
You also say you’re just not ready for polyamory, SASSY, and I wonder if this might be the thing that is really holding you back—and perhaps not without reason. Many gay, bisexual and queer people carry shame about our sexual desires, and shame is an emotion that is meant to protect us: It keeps us from acting on impulses that might lead to getting hurt. Yet shame can also inhibit us from making changes that would improve our lives.
For decades, mainstream media has taught queer people that acting on our sexual impulses will lead to getting beaten up, shunned from our families, contracting STIs. We are taught that our sexual expression will result in losing everything we love. Of course we might fear following through on our erotic desires! The question is, SASSY, what would help you—and your partner—feel safe to start expanding your sex life in ways that feel joyful and exciting?
I would suggest talking through your fears together, SASSY. What are your worries, and what are your partner’s, when it comes to sexual exploration? Is it jealousy? The fear of losing each other? STIs? Once you have a good understanding of those fears, you can plan to experiment with your sexualities in ways that feel safe enough, remembering that a little danger (just a little!) is also what excites us and builds resilience.
Many couples who want to incorporate new people into their sex lives without “opening up” completely find ways to explore sexuality together without having sex outside the relationship: You might, for example, try visiting a bathhouse or a sex club together (post-COVID19 pandemic, of course!) with the understanding that you’ll limit your interactions with other people to a predetermined extent. This might be only looking at others, or only surface touch—whatever you and your partner agree is comfortable for you both.
After each new adventure, debrief with your boyfriend about what felt hot, what felt hard and what you might like to try next. Remember that both of you should be getting something out of the experience.
Gay and bi men are fortunate in that you have a relatively large number of options for group erotic experiences that don’t necessarily include actual sex. Nude gay retreats, naked gay yoga and the famous Body Electric workshops are all aimed at helping gay men develop their erotic selves and heal sexual trauma outside of intercourse and dating. Even in the era of social distancing, there are online erotic spaces where you and your partner can go on virtual sexy adventures (I won’t link to any here, since such events tend to be semi-private, but you can find them with some clever Googling! Asking within your social circle might help too.)
There are also, of course, many different permutations of “open” relationship for if and when you and your boyfriend feel ready for that: Some couples allow for one-time hookups outside the relationship (which can also be limited to only when on vacation/out of town), some use a relationship hierarchy model where the “primary” partnership takes precedence over everything else and some use a form of relationship anarchy. All of these can be successful, but staying in tune with your own needs and boundaries and communicating honestly with your partner(s) is key. So is going at a pace that works for everyone and being open to challenging conversations.
It could be that after some initial exploration, your desires will be satisfied and fade away, SASSY. Or, you might discover a side of you that is capable of enormous pleasure and erotic growth. The same is true of your boyfriend! Opening up to new sexual experiences has the potential to transform our lives, because for many of us, sexuality is central to who we are. And of course, change can be frightening, because it is unpredictable. We do not know where desire will lead us.
Let courage, honesty and compassion be your guides here, SASSY. Staying mindful of your values will keep you on a path that is true to the person you want to be—which includes being a good partner and being good to yourself. Remember that you are allowed to want pleasure, and also to have it, so long as you aren’t hurting anybody. Pleasure is not shameful, nor is promiscuity inherently harmful. On the contrary, SASSY: When achieved with integrity, pleasure is powerful and empowering. Pleasure is radical and good. Pleasure heals.
Need advice in a hurry? In our new video series “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” Xtra columnist and author Kai Cheng Thom offers concrete suggestions to help keep your relationship happy and healthy in these harrowing times. Watch the episode below.