Not Everyone Is Erotically Compatible

Here is something I take as a given as a kinky person: people are not always erotically compatible.

Two people who only top and don’t bottom might co-top others but would have trouble finding something to do just the two of them. Ditto two bottoms, ditto one partner who wants to switch within a partnership and another who prefers a consistent role. Or one person whose kink centers on power exchange and one who likes to play with sensation but not power. For some combinations, there might be ways to creatively get everyone’s needs met, but for others, it would be pretty challenging if not impossible.

There are many reasons talking about one’s specific kinks is normalized in kink communities, and this is a big one: if you’re looking for someone to do kinky things with, you’ll want to find someone with corresponding interests.

When I’ve tried to date (or, um, seek mental health care) in queer spaces that weren’t specifically kink-aware, the prevailing assumption was the opposite. The assumption there was that as long as two people had compatible genders, they would have compatible erotic practices. (Or, really, compatible sexual practices, as the distinction between erotic and sexual doesn’t tend to be made in most circles either.)

There is a lot of talk about communication and consent in queer circles, but the framework of that talk isn’t broad enough to encompass kink—at least, not as I practice it. Someone might ask how you want to receive touch, but not whether you want to receive touch. What kinds of sex you like, but not whether you like sex at all. Whether you enjoy playing with a power dynamic, but not whether you enjoy playing without one.

The unspoken assumption is that there are some activities only kinky people like (power play, pain, fetishes), and others that everybody likes (genital sex, gentle touch, power-neutral interactions). If a kinky person partners with a non-kinky person, this idea goes, they can simply default to non-kinky activities.

Kink is presumed optional; gentle, power-neutral sex is presumed universal. And if everyone can agree on gentle, power-neutral sex, then everyone is compatible.

The problem with this idea is twofold. First, for many kinky people, our kinks are important enough that partnering with someone who doesn’t want to go there with us would ultimately be unsatisfying. Second, wanting gentle, power-neutral sex is not universal. Some of us don’t. I don’t.

I have an online dating profile where I state that I’m kinky, and a somewhat common response I get is that I’m so brave for putting what I want out there. But identifying myself as kinky is less about bravery and more about self-preservation. If I don’t announce what I’m looking for, most potential dates will expect gentle, power-neutral sex. Since that act is not on the table for me, I don’t want to risk ending up with a partner who assumes it’s on the table for everyone. Talking about kink is a way of going after what I want, but it’s also a way of shielding myself from what I don’t want.

Everyone deserves partnerships where all parties can find erotic fulfillment and all parties respect each other’s boundaries. Understanding that not everyone is compatible means knowing that not every potential partnership can offer me or potential partners what we deserve. I talk about being kinky because I want to be able to find fulfilling partnerships and consensual erotic experiences, and I want others to be able to do the same.

Maybe that’s brave. But for someone who doesn’t consent to normative sex, it often feels like the only way to go.

Reducing People to Their Genitals Is Vile. It’s Also Anti-Kink.

I have been wanting to write a piece about my latest, maybe last, venture into fanfiction, what it meant to find a community of erotic storytelling keyed to an imaginary world to which I felt intimately connected. The way finding that community and reading their stories, after being cut off from my own desire for years, awoke some deep part of me. It was January, cold and dark, but I could feel something growing, finally, a shoot from a seedling. A remembering of self.

I want to tell this story, and one thing that stops me is imagining a snickering reader who hears “some deep part of me” as a florid way of saying “my vagina.” I hate that talking about something as complex, layered, expressive, and individual as desire will lead people to reduce me to my genitals.

Reducing people to their genitals is, I believe, an oppressive practice closely aligned with the idea that how sex works is obvious. It is cissexist, misogynistic, ableist, and anti-kink.

I hate it.

I was telling a story to someone in my life about the way my dog snuggles up to me in cold weather. He paws at my hand until I lift the bedcovers, and then he crawls under and curls up beside me. Licking must be some kind of self-soothing behavior for him; he never seems to lick out of affection, but at bedtime, he’ll find any patch of bare skin (or, in a pinch, a blanket) and lick until he falls asleep.

The person I was talking to snickered here; the combination of “lick” and “bedcovers” must have been too much for him—or, well. The combination, of “lick,” “bedcovers,” and my body, which is, in the end, a (cis) woman’s body, and we’re all adults here, we can extrapolate what lick means to a body like mine.

The ickiness here is multi-layered. As it happens, the kind of licking this person imagines is not a way I choose to receive touch. Beyond that, I don’t want to hear that this person is thinking of me in a sexual context, or (for fuck’s sake) putting a sexual context to a story about my dog. And then there’s the logic that makes the joke work in the first place, the same logic that makes jokes about piss and shit work: here’s something crude we all know your body does; here’s us bravely breaking the rules of decorum to say so.

It’s the we all know piece I’m thinking about now. The invasive and wrongheaded idea that what someone desires, and what they choose to do with erotic partners, can be easily extrapolated from what their genitals are like, which can (according to this invasive and wrongheaded framework) be easily extrapolated from their gender presentation, and just… no. No to reducing people to their genitals, and no to assuming that anything you know, or think you know, about the intimate contours of someone’s body tells you anything about their desires or their erotic expression.

When I talk about being kinky, it’s this snickering reaction I brace myself for the most. I talk about kink as a way of making space for my experience of desire in a context that largely assumes my experience isn’t important or doesn’t exist. The snicker hears my story simply as an opening to remind me of what (supposedly) we all know. I talk about kink to disrupt the assumptions that are made about me based on how my body is perceived. The snicker tells me that whatever claims I might make about myself, a deeper, dirtier truth is written on parts of my body it can only imagine.

As a silencing tactic, this type of response is frighteningly effective. I talk about kink in part to avoid being sexually violated (more on this later, I’m sure). But this snickering reaction—a reaction that takes my mentioning the erotic at all as a cue to reduce me to my genitals—is itself a kind of violation. Reducing people to their genitals is violent and dehumanizing. It says that ableist, misogynist, cissexist, and anti-kink tropes about what our bodies mean have more value than our own lived experience. It undermines consent by saying that whatever we claim to desire, the snicker knows—and the snicker has a right to insinuate—what we really want.

It’s not going to silence me this time. But when I think about how many times I’ve chosen not to talk about kink, a core part of my identity, because I didn’t want to be immediately sexualized—or immediately violated—I can’t help but be furious. Some deep part of me has been cut off from community and connection. This snicker, this crude, slimy, presumptuous set of beliefs about what bodies mean and who is entitled to decipher those meanings, is a big and vile reason why.

Being Kinky Is (Kind of) Like Being a Writer

When I try to describe what kink means to me, I find it useful to draw a comparison between being kinky and being a writer.

Both are deeply held identities as well as practices, things I do, but also things I am—and, sometimes, things I don’t do, but in their absence, the world feels duller and more lacking.

Both kink and writing are sites of creativity and means of expression. Both bring self-knowledge and self-discovery. Both are, in their own ways, lifelong pursuits with limitless potential for growth and learning.

Both are ways of being curious about and making sense of the world. Both are means of communication—writing with anyone who’s reading, and kink with whoever I’m doing a scene with.

This isn’t a perfect comparison, but I find it useful as a way of getting at where kink resides in my identity and why it matters.

It quiets the question of why I’m kinky. Like writing, kink is innate to who I am; neither needs (and neither has) an explanation.

It also makes clearer the cost of not talking about kink. I can, if need be, conduct relationships without disclosing that I am a writer, but avoiding the subject takes effort. It creates distance and ultimately leaves the other person with a distorted or fragmented impression of me. That’s to say nothing of how, if I don’t disclose that I’m a writer, I’m supposed to make connections with other writers, let alone find people to write with.

Okay, the subtext here is, as they say, rapidly becoming text, but I share this analogy to illustrate that having kink as an innate part of my identity and practice often means being pressured not to talk about key areas of who I am and what I do.

Kink, like art, is a way of making connections. But as with art—as with anything—I can only make connections around kink if I first acknowledge it exists.

What Being Kinky Means to Me: The Basics

Definitionally, what makes me describe myself as kinky is that what I experience as erotic is substantially different from what is normative.

I desire and seek out erotic experiences based around power, sometimes involving pain, and not necessarily involving sex.

I do not desire or seek out, and generally do not consent to, erotic experiences that do not involve power or pain. (Some kinky people do, but I don’t.)

I do not desire, seek out, or consent to sex without power or pain. (I am unsure these days whether I desire, seek out, or consent to sex at all, but that is another story for another time.)

I am trying to be precise in my language because I want to avoid misunderstandings. There is often a vast gap between what someone thinks I mean when I call myself kinky and what I actually do mean. This effect is amplified by how many knee-jerk reactions there are to bringing up the topic of eroticism at all. Talking about eroticism, desire, or sex is considered uncouth, icky, crass, and too much information. It’s hard to hear nuance when one is dazzled, or horrified, or titillated, or embarrassed by the topic at hand.

What I am supposed to do, of course, is not to talk about eroticism in public. What I am supposed to do is recognize that there’s no need to talk about it, outside partnerships, or maybe small intimate circles, because eroticism is basically just sex, and sex is unimportant and obvious, and anyway, it works basically the same way for everyone.

Only, of course, it doesn’t.

I talk about eroticism because of that gap between what is understood to be true for everyone and what I know to be true for me. I talk about eroticism because I want it to be more broadly understood that someone might want the kinds of things I want and might not want the kinds of things I don’t want.

Speaking of which, if you are still concerned that talking about being kinky is giving out “too much information,” perhaps you will notice that I haven’t given out much information at all. I’ve noted categories—power, pain, sex—and stated my general alignment toward each, but I haven’t at all gone into specifics. For the purposes of this conversation, specifics are unimportant.

At its simplest, what being kinky means to me is that what eroticism looks like for me is different from what is expected. It means that you can’t correctly assume from looking at me, or from knowing that I’m queer, or a femme, or a woman, how eroticism works for me.

It means that desire, intimacy, and connection—no matter how socially unacceptable the topic—are things we have to talk about.

Welcome to my Kink Autumn blog series. Let’s talk.

Coming Soon: Kink Autumn Blog Series

I am excited (and a bit trepidatious) to announce Kink Autumn, my new blog series.

Who: Me, your local melancholy writer-kinkster

What: Short posts about kink, identity, consent, trauma, and why any of this matters in 2017

Where: Here on Circumstance and Carefulness, at least for now

When: Starting this week! And continuing, tentatively, until winter

Why: Because this stuff does still matter

How: One small idea at a time

I’m looking forward to the next six weeks. I hope you’ll join me.

How I Got Here 2017

This summer, I had the privilege of telling a story at Debauchery 2017‘s speakers’ corner. Here is the piece I read–an updated version of my first-ever post on this blog.

This is how I got here: I wanted kink to save me.

It was a fantasy I’d been bringing to lovers for years. After a traumatic first relationship in high school where my girlfriend convinced me I owed her sex whether I wanted it myself or not, I came into new relationships with an unexamined urgency. I was in pain, and I wanted that pain fixed. Each new lover, each new sexual encounter, was an opportunity. If I only did sex right this time, the fantasy went, everything would change.

It was a fantasy that did not see my lovers. There was no place in it for my partners’ needs, my partners’ desires. It was a fantasy that did not see me, did not see that my body was once again being used in the service of a narrative that had nothing to do with bodies. In my abusive relationship, I’d used my mouth, my fingers, and far more nakedness than I could bear to promise my girlfriend I loved her. Now I wanted the promise that sex couldn’t hurt me and was conscripting my body and my partners’ bodies into proving it.

Most of my partners kept their distance from me where sex was concerned. My senior year of college, I was lucky enough to have a partner help facilitate my coming into my own desire. Cat was the first person I knew who identified as polyamorous and, oddly, the only man I’d ever dated. He showed me his desire for me and waited gently, patiently, for me to name desires of my own. What I named was still limited by what I understood to be possible; I knew people who did bdsm—my college even had its own bdsm student club—but I’d never considered it in relation to myself. I was still, after all, trying to work out “the basics.”

At the same time, I got back in touch with a high school friend in another city who had just opened up her marriage. We at first reconnected over polyamory, then over her also becoming involved with Cat, and finally over each of us seeing enough of his flaws that we both cut ties. Within a few months of opening their marriage, my friend and her husband discovered kink. Both kept LiveJournals, and I read eagerly, hungrily, their stories of exploration and self-discovery. This was what I craved for myself: for desire to be a site of transformation and joy. Through the journals, I saw those possibilities in bdsm, and I wanted them.

By then, I was in a sort of sexual limbo with a dear friend. Our dynamic, which periodically shifted between tensionless friendship and something more erotically charged, had taken a sharp turn just before she left for a semester-long study abroad. Much would change before we saw each other again, I knew, but surely in that one night of intense and joyous intimacy just before she left the country was the promise of a future. We would explore New York’s kinky underground together, I was sure of it. So as I graduated from college, watched my friends and chosen family scatter to the winds, spent long days unemployed and purposeless, and was too proud to admit how alone I felt, I checked off days on the calendar, waiting for my friend and our transformative future.

And then, of course, I lost her too.

It was nearly two years before I first set foot in kink space, and by then, my sense of urgency had returned. I brought so much anguish with me: resentment that my high school friend had come so easily to her self-discovery when I felt so cut off from mine; shame at my inexperience; anger at the partners who had seemed to promise an end to my pain but never delivered; guilt at my sense of entitlement—I knew my partners didn’t owe me sex, but I thought the universe did, and the more panicked and powerless I felt, the harder it was to keep the two separate.

I did not bring embodied desire. Before my friend came home from study abroad, I’d had a host of toppy fantasies, but those were forgotten in my heartbreak, my loneliness, and my desperate terror that sex for me would always be a site of trauma, defeat, and broken promises. Instead, I came to the kink scene with the same fantasy I’d brought to every lover: this place, these people could help me end my anguish, if only I could figure out how to do things right this time.

Just as my fantasy failed to see my lovers, it made invisible to me the particulars of the community I’d found. I sat through classes on how to hit, pierce, or tie up a partner, ashamed that I did not yet know if I wanted to hit, pierce, or tie up anyone, resentful that I had no way of trying. It never occurred to me to evaluate the experiences I was having. If the people around me thought it had been a good class, I supposed they were right, and that my still feeling stuck was simply my own failure—as always, when it came to sex and desire—to grasp something everyone else in the room easily understood. And if the people around me criticized the class, I felt even more ashamed. Yet again, I was too foolish and too inexperienced even to have noticed.

And then there were the parties. My high school friend’s transformations had begun at play parties, and I was sure each monthly gathering held the possibility of change. There was a cycle to it: the week before, I’d be giddy, fantasies spinning fast and big and mind-altering. When the day came, I’d grow uneasy. I’d slip on borrowed clothes, lingering at the mirror, wondering: Was this the night? Would I come home different? And then, hours later, I’d return, crushed and defeated, as far as ever from untangling the mystery of who I was, what I wanted, and why my sexuality so often seemed to keep me isolated.

I met people at play parties, started to recognize faces that would greet me, talk with me, then disappear sometime during the evening with a date and a satchel full of implements I could never quite make myself look at closely. Some people I met expressed interest in me, but they usually backed off when I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to what it was I was into. I met a top who offered to let me play with her submissive the next time the two were in town. I met a bottom I thought was cute, and we talked about grad school and erotic poetry, but I couldn’t bring myself to suggest we do anything.

Still without answers, still in pain, I decided to push myself harder. Every offer, I reasoned, was an opportunity. I let a stranger with whiskey on her breath pull me into a makeout session that slid further and further out of my control. I let a woman who couldn’t stop shaking her head at my age—she was all of six years older than me—into my home and my bed. There was a top I’d once turned down who had always been kind to me. I wanted to talk to her about topping, ask her some of the questions I’d started to ask myself. But that, I knew, was a ludicrous thing to do at a party, so I approached her for play and promised myself I’d try whatever she suggested.

Finally pushed too far, my body rebelled. I came home from a party unable to move. I lay in bed all weekend, arms heavy, chest thick, eyes hot and sticky, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. All my efforts, all my fighting, had only brought me here: my body pressed cold against itself on a three-foot square of mattress. Lying there, I knew with an awful clarity that I had been wrong. Kink was never going to save me. It was only making things worse.

I left the scene. I joined a writing group and was struck, moved, by how easily I felt competent there. My memories of the kink scene faded like a bad dream. I still had no answers about desire or sexuality, but I knew now that pushing past my own limits would bring me no closer to the answers I wanted. I sat back. I wrote. I waited.

In the writing group, I met a woman with whom I eventually became involved. She wasn’t into that kinky stuff, she assured me up front. Good, I thought. I was safe here. I did not tell her about the world I’d left. I only told her I needed to take things slow.

It was the first time I’d come to a relationship without that sense of urgency. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time a partner didn’t push me away. When we had sex for the first time, I felt vulnerable and strange. As we kept having it, I felt the knot of pain and hopelessness begin to unwind itself. I started to imagine possibilities beyond simply not getting hurt, not getting rejected. I started to see the shape of my own desire.

And so, in a sense, I’d been right all along. It was only when I was having erotic encounters consistently that I was able to start finding my footing within them. But it turned out I’d been right about something else too: the shape of my desire was pretty kinky. The woman from my writing group told me she was “up for anything,” but she didn’t think “anything” meant a polarized power dynamic or her bottoming to acts I would not then bottom to myself. I shared with her the desires I’d been feeling, and we ended our relationship.

I did not relish the idea that I would need to find a place for kink in my life. I was not ready to go back to the places where I’d pushed myself to breaking or to the people who’d been there alongside me and never noticed. At the same time, I was not willing to ignore my desire. And I had resources this time. I knew where my limits were. I knew how to listen to myself, and, when things got to be too much, I knew how to leave. I tiptoed back, gently, open to possibilities but prepared to protect myself.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first. But I think I assumed that someday, it would get easier. That one day, I’d be like those tops I’d met early on, playing effortlessly at every event, bewildered by the idea that one might approach kink and play and desire with anything less than delight and satisfaction. What I’ve learned since coming back to kink is that it’s always going to be a challenge. I say “no” more often now. I admit more often when things are hard—and when I talk about my own struggles, those around me are often willing to admit to struggles of their own. Still, sometimes there is nothing to do but go home, knowing I am in no state to play or even be around play tonight. Sometimes there is nothing to do but be gentle with myself, to wrap myself in a blanket, sit back, and wait.

In our public discourse about kink, we do not often talk about the ways these things we do—these things that can be joyous, energizing, hot, and intimate—can also be hard. But for so many of us, they are hard. And that’s okay. We’re playing with desire, power, and vulnerability. How many of us can say that these parts of our lives are simple? Would we even want them to be?


I wrote this piece in 2010, a few months after the end of my first kinky relationship. There was a lot I didn’t know then. I didn’t know it would be six years before I had another play partner. I didn’t know I’d have a nonsexual kink partnership and start questioning whether sex was part of the shape of my desire at all. I also didn’t know that that 2017 was going to feel quite so politically catastrophic.

When awful things are happening around us, it can be easy to think of kink as something frivolous, or unimportant, or not “the real struggle.”

I share this piece as a reminder that for a lot of us, kink is a core part of our humanity. Kink is intimacy and connection, kink is creativity and self-expression, kink is bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. For me, those things are worth fighting for. And I don’t know about you, but I find that for me, it’s only when I have access to those parts of myself that kink represents, that I have the will to fight for anything.

Thank you.