And before we get going, it's a story of who I might bang in the right kind of circumstances and even some of the (VERY EXPLICIT) logistics of said banging, so if either you're my mother or that's not the sort of thing you want to read, now's your chance to hit one of the clearly marked exits before the ride starts. After this, you just have to tuck and roll and hope that action movie physics will keep your injuries to a minimum.
Okay, here we go.
Last year I wrote The Buy Me Lunch Answer About My Gender, and even though I thought I was pretty well shoehorning a personal post into a commentary on labels and words, it turned out to resonate pretty hard. I had always sort of thought I would be doing this article SOME day, but the timing was decided for me when not too long ago, you will be shocked to find out that I ran across people being terrible on the Internet.
This is a similar story. It is a story about why I kind of grudgingly call myself a half a dozen vaguely descriptive terms, but would much rather have lunch with you (your treat because I'm pretty poor) and explain myself.
I don't like labels.
That might be weird to hear from a writer who deals in words, but I find it is actually ironically common. Maybe it's because writers ["and editors!" -Chris's editor] are the exact sort of people to understand the limitations of language. I'm not telling you that words don't have power. (I know far too well just how much power they have.) I'm telling you that when a signified concept has different signifiers for different people....well, a certain number of them start to act like wankel rotary engines.
If you've been online and discussed sexuality in the last ten years or so, you probably know there's a semantic....let's say dispute between hardline "pansexual" and hardline "bisexual" label enforcers. Most people are content to listen to the concerns the other has about a given label, understand the linguistic history of the LGBTQIA+ movement, respect the labels people choose for themselves (so long as they're not explicitly biphobic or transantagonistic), and honor others' identity. But some load up their No True Scotsman and False Equivalence fallacies and declare themselves the arbiters of What Words Mean™. Either by saying that "pansexual" is biphobic or that "bisexual" is transphobic.
It's just a whole lot of fingers in ears and lalalalala-ing.
I could spend a whole article spanking this kind of bullshit prescriptive dogma, its absolute lack of intellectual rigor, and the erasure damage caused by dismissing someone's identity. Folks out there stamping around, punching down, and not just letting everyone identify how they identify are behaving in what is a shocking echo to telling someone what ethnicity they REALLY are or what gender they REALLY are....since obviously they know better than the actual person.
And while I'm sure such an article would definitely do the trick, solve this issue, crack the case, probably end meanness online in general, and maybe even stop climate change, instead I just wanted to examine why, despite hating labels, I kind of grudgingly say "pansexual" as I hold out my flat hand and tilt its angle back and forth.
But what I really want is for you to buy me lunch.
Avoided label #1
I think I am probably on the "asexual" spectrum. Not very far. Not very far at ALL, but I'm there. I wouldn't have thought I was in a million years if I weren't regularly exposed to so much thought about sex and sexuality. I generally like sex, often like it A LOT, and I've had my share of multiple-times-a-day during a honeymoon period. But as I read people's experiences, the phrase that kept coming up for people on the mild end of the spectrum wasn't that they were repelled by sex or experienced no sexual interest or couldn't ever get aroused, but "I can take it or leave it."
I have a great sex life...with myself. And part of the reason I wouldn't have pegged myself as "Ace" (hur hur "pegged myself") if I hadn't done a lot of reading about Ace experiences is because of just how frequently I have a great sex life with myself.
I mean really, REALLY good. I rock my world.
With other people, though? Eh. It varies? I'm not apathetic, but my desire is based on reciprocity. I'll be the first to admit that when my partners kind of just want to phone it in and get their rocks off, I'm usually perfectly happy to help them with that, but I'm probably going to be more "leave it" than "take it" with myself if they're not putting some effort into a seduction. I'm like a moon instead of a sun. I can be quite bright, but I'm not generating the light independently so much as reflecting what is sent my way. If my partners are not enthusiastic participants (which can mean distracted, uninterested, or preoccupied), approach sex like it is a banal working of body mechanics, or are just passive––by which I don't mean submissive, but more indifferent––my interest shrivels up.
Sorry about that visual.
I (often) will take care of my partner without wanting anything in return. I enjoy this but I could take it or leave it for me. Sometimes, though, this causes some "gender reverse" situations. I've had partners who I needed to slow the heck down (and some who didn't after I said so). I have had partners who didn't engage me in enough foreplay (both in ways that were abrupt and off-putting too early in an encounter but also in ways that didn't turn me on enough to get off). I have had partners get off but leave me wanting (sometimes literally rolling over to go to sleep while I contemplated satisfying myself). I have had partners use me without checking in. I've had partners focus on my orgasm like it's the only thing that mattered in what we were doing. I've had partners ask every few seconds if I was going to come. I've had partners take it personally and even get upset when I wasn't in the mood to have P.I.V. sex or wasn't in the headspace to have an orgasm. I've had partners be coercive about sex, whinging to the point where I simply did it because the fight we would have would be worse.
There's a reason I usually relate to women's accounts of disappointing sex much more than men's.
I think a lot of guys have stories of women who just thought they had to show up and be naked, or who were non responsive, and when I read them, it always seems like the guy didn't enjoy it much, but it also didn't exactly stop him. For me, there's a certain physiological response that makes just....um....plowing ahead (this shit writes itself sometimes) rather difficult. If I'm not into something*––and sometimes EVEN IF I AM––my physiological response tends to come and go. [Yes, I'm talking about an erection. Everyone do a synchronized clutch of your pearls.] So that lack of enthusiasm sometimes led to some pretty spectacular disasters in situations where my partner really did think that sex involved them being there and being pretty and what the hell is wrong with Chris that he just wants to go down on me again and call it a night?
I can take a lot of foreplay to warm up and even require some halftime coaxing to stay there.
(*I fucking swear I didn't even mean to do that one. It REALLY writes itself.)
It didn't take long to learn how empty, unfulfilling, and frustrating casual sex could be as a crapshoot with someone's willingness to work with my non-traditional sexual response. There are absolutely folks whose expectations of sex are utterly heteronormative––they expect to be drilled like an oil derrick for five minutes by a rock-hard penis just for showing up and stripping down. I've never been the guy who could make that happen. I get nervous, I get overheated, I get desensitized. I get too far into my own head. I want or need a break.
And the more heteronormative the expectations of "what sex is," the more of a letdown I tend to be. If I were the type to get a raging erection early and often, I might have been able to fake it through a few more of the encounters I had in my twenties, but I've never been that guy either. Sadly mine tends to come and go like the quirky neighbor in a sitcom. So once I'm clearly a letdown and focusing on that in my head, things tend to spiral downward pretty quickly.
Partners working with me often made for spectacular events worthy of the songs of scops, but partners who expected me to be a guy from a porno movie made for conversely events just as epically bad. I'd have rather been spending quality time with myself (if you know what I mean) or, hell, even reading a good book. Being pretty take it or leave it about partners I didn't know were going to be supportive, accepting, possibly patient, and with a willingness to explore ways to get me off that weren't the ol' in and out––or even just accept that it wasn't happening this time––has led me to mostly consider trust and intimacy high premiums...things it's awfully hard to find in someone you don't know.
Ironically, I've had some lovely Friends With Benefits relationships, where the sex was even better than some of the romantic ones because I wasn't too tangled up in my worries about rejection to just talk about exactly what I wanted and needed. I'm getting better about that, but it's been a long road.
If I'm not feeling safe and secure in a relationship (whether it's a friendship or a romantic one), my interest––and even my body mechanics––will betray me. I'm absolutely one of those people with whom the strength of the relationship can be gauged by what's going on with the sexual dynamics. So while I am attracted to attractive strangers, and I suppose that out there somewhere there might be a room key slipped into my pocket that I wouldn't simply ignore, most casual (or casualish) sex has been disappointing enough that I really want to know someone is going to bring something that will tip the scales from the fact that I could really take it or leave it.
Some people think this might put me on the "demisexual" spectrum too. I don't know. It seems like the ironic fact that the more sex is treated as PLAY rather than a solemn ritual laden with expectations, then the more I'm into it. Some people think that's the opposite of demi. Certainly I've never found sex and love to need to go hand in hand. I've had great sex without love. I've had great love without sex.
That's why you're buying me lunch instead of just getting a list of labels. This comment section is already going to be a trash fire of people insisting I am X or am not really Y.
Avoided label #2
If you're on my Facebook page or watch my personal updates closely, you probably have realized that I'm "non-monogamous." That means I have more than one relationship at a time and that I am open and honest about all of them with everyone else. Some of those relationships are deep and loving. Some are friends with benefits.
Twas not always so.
When I was a teenager, I was actually kind of the jealous type. I tried not to be, but I had a lot of cultural programming from a toxic culture about how people who love each other should act. (And, without going too far down the rabbit hole, usually my spidey senses were spot on, so I wasn't like indiscriminately jealous.) There's a lot to unpack about how I ended up married to the first person who expressed the slightest attraction to me (I was pretty messed up after a stint of being Muslim and feeling unlovable), but suffice to say that in my mid-twenties, I was married to a Mormon (and was technically Mormon myself for a hot minute), and another couple invited us to swing. While that didn't really ever work out like gangbusters (and there are whole stories here that I'm skimming over), the couple's check-out-all-this-dysfunction, bad-boy roommate convinced my spouse of this "polyamory" thing I'd never heard of, and I came home one day to find A) that I had been cheated on and B) an ultimatum about being polyamorous if I wanted to remain married.
Today I would take just the fact OF the ultimatum (regardless of any interest in the polyamory) and tell the person to get bent, but at the time I was a little ball of insecurities and.....well, whatever the opposite of boundaries is.
And the rest is history. I've been non-monogamous ever since. That relationship ended in the non-monogamous version of cheating (involving breaking of trust and agreements) a decade and a half ago, but the non-monogamy stuck. Mostly because I've always BEEN with someone who is polyamorous or engaged in some level of relationship anarchy. But I'm not like one of these people who says "If I weren't polya, I would just cheat." or "I feel hard-wired to be non-monogamous." If somehow, tomorrow, all my polyamorous relationships ended spectacularly and someone monogamous came along who was worth giving up
I'm definitely not resentful (anymore) that I got coerced into being polyamorous. I'm pretty good at it these days, to be honest! In the last fifteen years, I really haven't felt jealousy. I have felt some envy about people who have no end of success seducing everything that moves and hooking up threesomes, foursomes....thirty-sevensomes just by making a couple of phone calls, but I haven't felt jealous. I even spent a hot moment in therapy worried about whether that was a sign that I was keeping people out. (Very unlikely, given my other feelings.) My main thing is that agreements with partners––whether those agreements are monogamy or are that we send each other a text message if we're sleeping with someone else that night––are not one-sided.
There's certainly more to say about the agreements I'm willing and not willing to get into with partners (I don't like hierarchical relationship structures that can "veto" people further down the chain, for example––or in a monogamous relationship, the person better understand that I require a LOT of personal time and I am probably going to fall short if they expect me to be a source of direct engaged stimulation any time they're not at work or asleep), but this approaches the level of detail that only someone who were a partner would really require.
I found the term "ambiamorous" in an article a few months back and was delighted. ("Oh look. It me!") It means could be monogamous...or I could be polyamorous. It really depends on who I'm with and what they want. Perfect. Well, except for the fact that there is still a metric buttload of explanation required, and everyone does non-monogamy differently.
Hence the lunch.
|Like really, really differently.|
Avoided Label #3
This is more of a quick rest stop before we get to the main event, but it's worth mentioning because it gets tangled up with attractions and affections.
It wouldn't have occurred to me until recently as I got further into the world of fluid labels and binary rejection, but many of my relationships with men, I would characterize as "romances." Non-sexual (at least all of them so far). But romances nonetheless. I wanted to spend time with them, made gestures, paid for things if they couldn't. In many cases they were as important or more so than my romantic or sexual relationships. Sometimes there were difficult fights and even, in some cases, breakups after a fashion. And I would be sick during our periods of estrangement. There weren't sexual dynamics, but "platonic" doesn't quite cut it and "bromance" is too chic and overused.
Of course more and more as time went on and I rejected the heteronormative assumptions I'd been raised with, I would consider what affection (beyond the hi/bye hugs) would look like with these men (usually quite pleasant). Eventually I'd even think about sex. Not that I was attracted to them necessarily, but with that trust and intimacy of friendship, if they wanted to "play" as sort of an extension of that deep friendship (or certainly if they wanted to have me join them playing with someone I was more conventionally attracted to), I probably would.
It would very likely be a case of wanting to make them happy and not being so much into anything myself, but I could see it happening.
Avoided label #4
I'm not sexually attracted to masculinity.
The more masculine someone is, the less I'm sexually attracted to them. This tends to go tenfold for those carrying around expressions of TOXIC masculinity.
I have friendships with masculine people, and sometimes I form platonic romances with those people (see above), and those could be possibly be sexual if the guy wanted it, but I'm not that into dudes. So MOST men don't do it for me.
As the slider moves towards androgyny and then femme, my attraction grows. High femme can make my head spin. I should say here that there are a lot of things that can attract me to someone other than their outward appearance (as I mentioned above), but that pure physiological response tracks.
Because of this, for many years, I simply called myself straight. My platonic romances could be written off as really good friendships (and they were), and none of those men had ever made a pass at me anyway, so that was moot. I just thought I had an active imagination and wasn't a homophobe. I was mostly attracted to women. Mostly NOT attracted to men.
Then one day––a couple of years ago––it sort of just OCCURRED to me that I was having an on-again-off-again sexual relationship with someone who is non-binary. They had a lot of femme presentation, but they were gender neutral. And that led me to consider that one of my partners identifies as a man. And I'm definitely attracted to other men (even if that attraction almost always exists because of some thread of femininity).
"I guess I'm not exactly straight," I thought.
This is the reason that if forced to choose a one-word label, I reach for "pansexual" instead of "bisexual." I'm still not that into cis-dudes or masculinity. MOSTLY I'm not into guys. I don't feel like "bi" REALLY applies because I feel like that suggests something is there that isn't. But people I have been sexual with (at this epiphany moment and since) have not all been women. Some have even been men. And I am sexually attracted to folks regardless of their gender. And my attraction ALSO happens regardless of people's plumbing (a few logistical alterations in what to do to make someone feel good doesn't really matter). So I'm definitely not straight. I shy from that "bisexual" label (personally, your mileage may very, you do you, your way right away at Burger King now) because my attraction, while perhaps growing more willing to play and experiment, hasn't really changed.
What changed is MY UNDERSTANDING OF GENDER.
I don't like labels, but some seem to hit closer than others. Some people insist I'm "queer." (And I do use that word in some contexts when I don't feel the need to be at all precise.) Some say "bisexual." (But I have my reasons for why that seems a slightly less good fit FOR ME.) Some say "pan." (Look, maybe kinda, but I'm still going to ask you to buy me lunch because one word isn't going to cover it.)
I know I'm going to take heat for this article. I'll lose some of my religious followers. Maybe even a couple of friends from old jobs or high school. But I think those of us with the privilege and position to come out have GOT to be willing to talk about this stuff. To explore the complexities and the rainbow of human expression beyond labels. To understand that the full array of human variation absolutely applies to one of our most common behaviors. But also just to talk about it AT ALL. The heteronormative world that seeks to push everything into one of two or three columns ("and please shut up about it if you're in column 2 or 3"), and they complain bitterly that anything beyond that is "too complicated." Usually after memorizing all the Pokemon. I'd hate to see double plus ungood linguistic minimalism be allowed to define us when there's a whole world of lunches out there with which to extrapolate on as blunt an instrument as a label. And absolutely they can't be allowed to silence this discussion in a broader sense.
It is also possible that this article will not "age well." This discourse will finally gain "traction" of a sort and one side or the other will achieve a critical mass. Please check the date before you assume I popped it off last night, will ya?
Still, when it comes to self-identities as complex as gender and sexuality, it is 31 flavors of obnoxious, elitist, gatekeepery, and shitty to dictate to entire groups of people how they ought to identify, to presume their (group) ignorance of any discourse, to "No True Scotsman" the label you insist they REALLY have while arbitrating that language only ever changes in the way you proclaim it to have changed (thus the label you deem the One True Label™ cannot possibly be tainted in any mind), and proclaiming that anyone who fails to immediately fall in line with their suggestion is some flavor or another of bigot.
....rather than simply take the two goddamned minutes to ask someone why they picked that label and listen with a little good faith understanding.
Also, in my case, buy me lunch.
[If you would like to actually buy me lunch, feel welcome to drop a couple of bucks into the tip jar.]