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Learning From the Freaks (i.e., Each Other)

Welcome to Metroland’s annual sex issue. Working on this issue, aside from making it even more likely than usual that I will bring up inappropriate topics at places like my high-school friend’s 30th birthday dinner, has reminded me that learning about what other people do/like is not just a matter of curiosity or hipness. It can be a great source of sexual wisdom, as each community and predilection (at least the people who’ve figured out how to live healthy and sane lives within those communities and following those predilections) has particular issues and options they have to exercise more than the rest of us, like a different set of muscles.

The idea to try to spell out what I’ve learned from various groups—those I’ve been a part of, those I’ve hung around, and those I’ve kept a safe distance from (I’m not identifying which is which. Sorry.)—came from The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, who make a similar list, though with a somewhat different focus. (Since my copy has stayed with whomever I last lent it to, there may even some overlap between the lists. It’s not intentional.)

Some of the observations have been relatively straightforward in the mind-opening department. If you hang around gay men long enough, it’s kind of tough to go on imagining that the butt is no more than a surrogate vagina, for example. It clearly can be an erogenous zone in its own right, even before you get down to the prostate. Why let them keep that secret all to themselves? Gay men have also taught me that it can be OK to be direct about what you want—even direct and nonverbal, perish the thought.

Other lessons have had a more political twinge. Talking about safer sex in general with queer folk can make you think carefully and critically about what safer sex means, and what bias is built into even forward-looking safer-sex literature: Why are lesbians encouraged to use dental dams, if straight couples aren’t, for example? Or in the other direction, do we really know how frequently AIDS is transmitted by cunnilingus, if any HIV+ woman who has had sex with a man once, no matter how long ago, and no matter how many women in between, is assumed and recorded to have gotten it from him?

It’s not surprising that the highly visible and political queer movement might adjust my sexual worldview. It’s a little more surprising to realize how much I’ve learned from folks far more on the fringe. The domination/submission crowd make a good case that there are power dynamics in every sexual situation—recognizing them and playing with them, even if you don’t fetishize them, is far less dangerous than pretending they’re not there.

People who are into specific role-playing scenes that need to be planned very carefully have proven to me that negotiating/talking about/planning sex beforehand doesn’t have to make it less hot. For someone who has always regarded turn-on as a magical and unpredictable thing, this has almost been a challenge to rise to, even though I have yet to show any interest in elaborate pirate kidnapping scenes.

S&M bottoms have taught me that what’s painful and what’s pleasurable are largely dependent on context. And this actually seems to be true before one ever introduces lashes or torture devices into the picture. If context is all, context can be varied. Maybe something I didn’t like once, or that was painful once, would be worth exploring again in a more trusting relationship, with more time to be turned on, or with a different attitude.

S&M tops have taught me, despite reading about some things the images of which I’d rather not have in my brain, that having fantasies that would be harmful if acted out literally doesn’t necessarily mean you are a dangerous or disturbed person.

Sometimes the wisdom I’ve gathered from different folks appears to be contradictory. Lesbians have taught me that sometimes taking turns can be hotter (and easier) than aiming for the all-mighty simultaneous orgasm. Bi folk have frequently reminded me that gender often doesn’t make as much difference in attraction or in bed as we assume it must. And then the straight folk sail in to remind me that on the other hand, gender differences, even expected ones, don’t have to be oppressive in bed, and in fact, if you’re comfortable enough to play with them, they can be fun. And simultaneous orgasm is pretty awesome. And they’re all right, sometimes.

Polyamorists, in all their varied configurations, have taught me that sexual jealousy is not a primal instinct. The possessive portion of it can be unlearned, and the rest of it is usually a sign that your needs aren’t being met, whether those needs are for time, attention, reassurance, emotional safety. They’ve also taught me that making it entirely the problem of the person who is feeling the jealousy to get over it will backfire every time.

Seeing lots of people naked in a massage class and on nude beaches helped me to demystify the human body and become more comfortable with my own. But nudists have also taught me that I don’t really want to entirely demystify the body. A little mystery can be fun, after all, when you’re undressing for a lover.

In theory, sexologists would have lots and lots to teach us. That’s their job, after all. I’m sure that I have benefited from their technical information at some point along the way, but the lesson that really stands out is from Joani Blank, founder of Good Vibrations, Inc. and a trained sexologist. At a lecture I attended once, she described the downside of studying this stuff too much: She said any time she’d be having sex and she’d wanted to try something to turn herself on more, unbidden she’d think, “Well, that has about a 30-percent chance of working. . . .” Instantly that percentage became a lot lower. So, I am reminded, thinking too much can be counterproductive. And on that note, I hereby cease my list-making.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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