I stood in the center of his room, blindfolded by a full leather hood, while he wrapped me tightly in plastic wrap from my shoulders to my ass. I could feel my heart beating faster: this was a kind of bondage I had never done before and which had always frightened me. He grasped me firmly by the shoulder, spinning me in circles, disorienting me more and more with each spin. When he stopped, steadied me, and let me go, I wavered, was sure I'd fall over. I felt something genuinely fearful rise up in me. I worried I was edging too close to panic. A quick inner conversation with myself: did I want to call the safe word and let him know I was badly scared, instead of good scared? Or was I actually good scared? Maybe a bit of both. Did I really trust him? Yes. I knew he would push me over, at some point, I was sure of it. He wouldn't push me to the floor, right? That was too dangerous, I couldn't break my fall with my arms sealed to my sides. No, he would surely push me onto the bed. It would be almost comedic, like a scene of someone jumping dramatically from a seeming high-rise window only to land on the pavement just a few feet below. My panic became absurd. Could I abandon my own fear long enough to let him push me? I don't like roller coasters; I don't like being jostled around or dropping, even when I know it is a manufactured fear contained within safe parameters. But this time, something in me said: no, you should push your limit. Let your fear make you tremble a little more than usual, it will be good for you.
He pushed me.
I fell about one foot before landing backward on his soft, yielding bed.
And it was good for me. Real good. A total release. The bewilderment and endorphins that come with fear can produce a very real high and ignite our senses, bringing us profoundly into our bodies. Beyond the physical aspect, however, was an emotional one. After that evening, I felt so much safer with that top, so much more grateful for the way he took care of me, knowing how scared I was, letting me reach a new place within his capable hands. We aren't a couple, but we snuggled all night and it bonded us to each other in a new way. And while I think it is absolutely crucial that we know and assert our sexual boundaries, I think it can be equally important to rethink, revisit, and reassess them from time to time, and then test them in ways that feel safe.
Of course, there are important reasons that I was able to trust him in that way, that he was able to guide me in that way. We can best push our boundaries consciously and comfortably when we feel deeply safe with someone. For me, feeling safe like that requires a few things. I need to feel like I can communicate my desires and fears explicitly and directly. I need to feel that my partner is really listening, without judgment. I need to be in a position where I know both me and my partner value one another’s pleasure and comfort equally, that we understand the gravity of what being trusted means, and that we both treat that honor with the respect it deserves. Ultimately, I need to feel safe being vulnerable, and I need to be prepared to hold the other person’s vulnerability too.
And all this isn't limited to kink. Trying something new that scares you, a little or a lot, whatever it might be, makes you vulnerable. And if your lover respects you and is grateful, honored even, to be trusted with that vulnerability, it lays down a new layer between you, something you share. And to have someone else be vulnerable in front of you is something you should be honored by. Even if their particular kink or fantasy or new idea doesn't actually turn you on, or your first reaction is to find it kind of silly, it is so crucial to acknowledge when someone is leaving their comfort zone and to treat them gently and kindly at that moment.
This level of trust and comfort probably isn’t possible with everyone. That said, it also isn’t necessary to know a lover deeply or for a long time to be able to respect them adequately. Ideally, we respect all our fellow sex-humans – be they a one-night pick-up, an on-again/off-again FWB, or a long-term partner – such a way that we could always feel this safe and vulnerable and trusting with one another. And I do find that as I get older, as I have more and more sexual experiences (good and bad), I am getting better at only engaging sexually with folks where I feel that respect. Sometimes this means letting go of lovers who find this kind of conversation difficult, other times it means working hard at cultivating this kind of experience with those willing to do the same. Time together is not so necessary as being capable of uncomfortable conversations and explicit communication, right from day one. It also requires honing our non-verbal communication skills and sensibilities. Norms around all these things are subject to cultural variability and neurodiversity, but regardless, we all need to determine for ourselves what kinds of signals we need to be safe and to best respect our partners, and we need to feel confident that we can establish these with the person or people we’re with. So maybe we’re not very verbal; if we know that, we can tell our partners this and think together about alternative codes to use (I like to include a lot of specific kinds of eye contact and tapping into my safe-word arsenal). Or, if we know we have difficulty picking up non-verbal cues, we need to let our partner know this so they can determine if they’re comfortable enough being vocal when their boundaries are being met.
While pushing the limits of one's sexual comfort zone might feel a lot safer with someone you’ve built trust with long term, I have sometimes found it a lot of fun to get weird with someone who is either a near stranger or a fairly new lover. Sex with a longer-term partner can get so routine, it can become really hard to add in a toy, try a new move, turn the lights on, turn them off, wear that elaborate lingerie, pull out some dirty talk, try out a role play, whatever. Doing so can bring up all kinds of anxieties: “Are they bored with me? Have they always wanted to do that? Are they thinking of someone else? Do they want something/someone else?” It can send people who thought they “knew each other” (as if we were static beings) spiraling into self-doubt. This isn't the end of the world, but it may require some tough, honest conversations.
Being with a newer lover, on the other hand, can be an especially liberating scenario. I recall one very tipsy one-night stand (before I got sober – don’t tell my sponsor!). We were walking to his place and I really had to pee, so I just squatted on the street under a bridge (I was classy like that) and while I peed, this marvelous guy (who's name escapes me) just shoved his hand into the hot stream and started to play with me. It was so unexpected, so nasty, and such a turn on. I appreciated that he took a chance and I reciprocated. If we’d both known each other for more than an hour, we might have felt the stakes were too high to risk being seen as the disgusting perverts we clearly both were.
Since I don't drink or drug anymore, sober sex is about all I've got left in terms of ways to “let loose”. So I tend to go ahead and get weird with new lovers. But does that mean I never second guess myself, feel slut-shamed, awkward, or embarrassed if their response isn't what I was hoping for? Of course, I do! And I have to make sure that I don't then shame myself for feeling shame. Balancing my self-doubt with my self-respect is a constant work in progress. But most of the time, I have felt the risk was worth it. That, however, is a calculation that will be different for everyone, and that changes over time. There are periods where I haven’t felt safe, emotionally or physically, to be bold and daring with new partners (or bold and daring enough to even seek new partners) and that’s perfectly fine too. The imperative for clear communication includes oneself. I try to check in constantly with myself, to assess where my boundaries are these days and if I either need to shore them up or if I’m curious to stretch them.
So what's my point? Whatever it is I’m interested in trying or changing, I try to prepare yourself. I try to coordinate my level of vulnerability with my level of trust: the safer I feel, (whatever that means for me on a given day: sometimes it means I need to feel emotionally swaddled, other days it just mean I feel pretty certain you won't get physically hurt in a way I’m not prepared to deal with), the more I trust someone, the further I might seek to push my experimentation.
But – I always have a but – I often have to remember not to pressure myself into thinking I always have to want to be pushing my limits. Capitalism values progress for its own sake, and on a personal level this has translated into an edict that one is always expected to be “moving forward” or “expanding their horizons”. But sometimes in sex, all we want is something super comfortable and super reliable, and there is nothing wrong with that. I often think about how, despite all the “slut-shaming” and “kink-shaming” there is out there, we also engage in a healthy dose of “vanilla shaming”. I find this is especially true in queer communities and “sex-radical” cultures, but also among straight ladies, where it's usually sold as a necessary component to some kind of pseudo-empowerment. Whenever I'm at the grocery store scanning the covers of women's mags, it seems like there are a million “new steamy sex tricks for my man” that I'm supposed to want to try and master. But maybe for now I just wanna keep humping the showerhead, you know?
A cute young thing I was recently boning isn't much into kink. And he had a really good reason for why he doesn't feel compelled to push those limits: “the regular thing is already pretty great.” Damn right. Filling your head with a bazillion little “tricks” (as if sex is about fooling someone into cumming?) may only serve to confuse and overwhelm. Focusing so much on bizarrely precise techniques can draw you completely out of yourself and out of the moment (“now was it lick the right side of his scrotum clockwise or counter-clockwise…?”). I think one of the most radical ways that we can push our limits is by actually pushing ourselves to trust our bodies, learning to listen to them, and simply not being afraid to try stuff out. If it feels good, keep doing it, and if not, stop. Sex doesn't have to be a bucket list or a merit badge sash or a video game with advanced levels. It can just be a silly thing where we wiggle our bodies together because it feels good. Sometimes when we wiggle one way it's a hilarious mistake. So what do we do? We laugh, we move on. We wiggle another way.
- Ava Mir-Ausziehen
Cover photo by Unsplash
Based on what others are reading
Professor Sex, Feb 19