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Wednesday, June 03 2020 @ 12:56 PM CDT

Are You (Sexually) Experienced?


Rachel Kramer Bussel

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how one’s sexual experience shapes their outlook on sex and relationships. Is more experience, not necessarily your “number,” but practical experience with other sexual partners, helpful when it comes to knowing what to do with a new partner?

I don’t think it’s a question that can be answered in the abstract. Certainly, I feel more confident and comfortable with my body now, at 35, than I did when I first started having sex at 17, with a partner who was 31 and much more experienced than I was. At the same time, approaching a new partner means, in some ways, forgetting everything you might have learned about “what people want” and focusing on what the specific person you’re sleeping with wants, and how your desires and theirs interact. For me, it boils down to sexual confidence. Sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t. Some of that depends on the person I’m seeing, but a lot of it depends on how I feel about myself at any given moment. Even when I’ve had great sex with someone already—if I’m having an off day, it’s hard to remember that I still have whatever it is they liked about me in the first place.

It’s complicated by the fact that people I’ve dated will casually say things like, “So I know you’re polyamorous” (or “submissive”), statements I don’t consider to be true. There are very few aspects of my sexuality that I think of as concrete, immutable, part of my identity. Some people bring out certain elements in me and some people don’t. Am I inclined toward polyamory and submission? Yes, sometimes, but I don’t have an ideal arrangement and can’t conjure one in the abstract.

I’m pretty good at tuning out the white noise of past relationships in their specifics when I’m with someone new. It’s not that those experiences are forgotten, but I pretty quickly adjust to the here and now, to the dynamic between me and who I’m seeing. This is why I’m actually pretty bad at polyamory, because switching on and off, from one mode of interaction to another, makes me feel too much like I’m putting on one costume, then rushing backstage to change into another, and never fully being myself. For me, there is somewhat of a danger of all sex then feeling like a costume rehearsal, because I’m usually so concerned about how I come across to the other person that I can lose sight of what my own instinctual reaction is.

As for my partners’ erotic pasts, I’m curious about where they’re coming from, mostly because I want to know how that shapes them. I might want to know a certain story, but I don’t want details about their exes, and the times I’ve probed, either verbally or via Google, I’ve usually found out things I didn’t necessarily want or need to know.

At Thought Catalog, Ryan O’Connell writes about “Sleeping With A Slut.” At first it was exhilarating, and then it became a bit less so. “…sometimes when I would watch him in action, I couldn’t help but get a little turned off by how smooth he was. It’s like he knew how to do everything too well. There were no awkward moments, no endearing mistakes. Sometimes I felt like I was having sex with a porn star instead of the adorable boy he actually was outside of the bedroom.” The very thing that had made his boyfriend so appealing in bed became the thing that made him feel a little off-put. He writes something that I think a lot of people would agree with: “I wanted something more intimate and less rehearsed.”

I don’t think, save for a few moments with people I wasn’t all that invested in, I’ve ever approached sex in a rehearsed way. Even if I’ve done whatever it is we’re doing before—even if I’ve done it with the same lover I’m about to do it with, before—the whole point of sex, to me, is that it feels somehow new, and invigorating because of that newness. That doesn’t mean pretending I’m more virginal or “innocent” than I am, but focusing on the ways I enjoy that specific, live moment. This is a topic that also comes up in Cindy Gallop’s excellent TED Books e-book Make Love, Not Porn: Technology’s hardcore impact on human behavior, based on her website of the same name. Her point is not that porn is bad, but that many people wind up using porn as their entire sex education and then fail to live in the moment and listen and be open to their flesh-and-blood sexual partners’ actual desires.

In some ways, I envy people who have a very clear-cut idea of their sexuality, who are either dominant or submissive, who have not just precise boundaries but precise fetishes, exacting standards that they can instruct others in how to meet. That sounds, perhaps, cold and mathematical, which to me is exactly opposite to how I experience my sexuality. I like being sexually curious, I enjoy finding out novel nuances to myself, even if that just means a momentary lust after a staffer at a restaurant who I’d never have said was my “type” (yes, that means you, Sweet Iron Waffles).

Ultimately what I appreciate most about being in a sexual relationship with someone else is the interaction between us, the give and take, and the process of joining forces to create something that’s bigger than the sum of our parts. Of course, physically, there are things I can do with a partner that I can’t do alone, but for me the physical rarely stands separate from the mental. I know this because the times when I’ve been intimate with a partner who was only going through the motions of some kind of kink, with no actual heartfelt humanity behind it, we both lost out. I would a million times rather hear about someone’s outlandish, even off-putting fantasy, if it’s real and raw and sincere, than some rote idea of what they think their fantasy should be.

I’m sure plenty of people would disagree, but I think the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind can apply to sexuality, even though it’s challenging. Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki is quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” You can read more at Zen Habits. I’m not saying we can’t learn sexual skills and use them in bed (or wherever you’re having sexual fun) but that those skills are not one size fits all, and I’m grateful for that. Otherwise, I suspect, for me, sex would become boring and homogenized. Instead, it’s more like a constant adventure, and I want to do everything I can to keep it that way.

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