How to explore your sexuality and minimize the emotional fallout for others
“I’m scared that you’re just experimenting with me,” he said.
“I’m not,” I said, “if I wanted to experiment, I wouldn’t do it with someone nice.”
I was telling the truth — that time.
As a queer woman who leans strongly to the rainbow end of the spectrum, I knew exactly how he felt. I am pretty suspicious of bi-curious girls. Everyone should get to explore their sexuality, but I’ve been queer and out about it for decades and I don’t think it’s my job to be someone’s big gay field trip.
That being said, during the last few months, more than one man has wondered if they were unwittingly becoming my lab rat. I haven’t always been entirely candid with them. When men I’m dating or sleeping with ask me what I’m doing with them, I often respond with something sweet, vague, and sort of evasive like, “I like you,” and then try to distract them with sex. It usually works. But it’s not totally honest. I mean the “I like you part” is honest, but the “I’m not experimenting with you” part is a little grey area.
Here’s the truth.
I like men. I get along with them and I like having sex with them. But mostly, I’m "homoromantic," which means that my ooey-gooey squishy forever feelings are almost always directed towards women.
I didn’t really know that about myself until recently. I‘ve been in long-term relationships for half my life, and I haven’t had years of romantic exploration as an emotionally mature adult (that’s what I’m calling myself these days). I always knew that I was attracted to men but not as much as women. I knew that I didn’t get giggly and shy with men the same way I do with women, but I didn’t have the self knowledge to understand the difference or the language to express it.
Six months ago, I started dating men for the first time in over a decade. Some of my friends were shocked. It’s not just that I’m gay. I was an early adopter of gay marriage (before it was legal) and am an outspoken queer advocate. Basically, I’m a loudmouthed, unapologetic, acid-washed rainbow spokesgirl for the magic of queer sex. “Do you actually like having sex with them?” my lesbian friends would ask. Sure, I’d say. Male friends were unsurprised. It was like I’d somehow confirmed their suspicions that the world really does revolve around cis-het dick.
What I’ve learned from sleeping with men again is that I like them but I do not love them. I loved one, but he was an anomaly.
During my recent stint with men, I did, however, treat them with the same overzealous courtship tactics that I use with girlfriends. I wrote them poems and cooked them meals and put on underwire bras. I brought them flowers and sent lingerie selfies. And then I’d sit back and wait for the sweet fluttery feelings of infatuation to begin. But they didn’t. I didn’t understand why. And so like any other confused asshole, I’d ghost.
I didn’t mean to be a dick. I wasn’t purposely experimenting with men. I don’t know how I could have figured myself out without trying. You can theorize about what you like all day, but at the end of it, you need a taste test to know for sure. I always told men that I usually date women, but I could have been more transparent with boys who started crushing on me. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like there are a dozen men crying because I blocked their numbers. It’s just that I wish I had done things differently. I talked to some experts about what you can do if you want to explore your sexuality without destroying someone’s self-esteem or emotional wellbeing.
“We can’t guarantee that we’ll never hurt someone but being upfront about preferences, desires, and curiosity is a good way to keep from leading others on, and to keep others from making assumptions that can lead to hurt feelings,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based psychotherapist. “It is possible to have honest conversations about not being sure what one is looking for — or wanting to move slowly, or wanting only a hook-up — whatever the case may be.”
So, if you know you’re exploring, you can tell people that upfront. You are less likely to hurt someone in the long run if you’re honest with them in the short run. These conversations can be unbelievably awkward, though, and Pitagora recommends asking for consent before you even try. “I often suggest to clients that they have conversations about having conversations,” she says, “Whether in person in a social environment or on a dating app, it’s always a good idea to ask for consent to engage in conversations about sex. While it’s a good idea to be honest from the start, it’s not necessarily a good idea to start telling people what you want from them before you know if they want to hear it.” I love this tip. There’s no reason to have an uncomfortable convo if someone doesn’t even want to have it with you. Consent is so sexy.
Carlos Cavazos, a therapist who specializes in working with sexual minorities, tells me that in cases like these, meeting people online might be easier. “You get to be straight-up about your intentions from the get go before you even exchange words,” he says, “Putting exactly what you are looking for and what your intentions are on your profile will let the other person decide if that is a journey they are willing to take with you. There are a bunch of different dating sites where you can categorize your sexuality as ‘questioning’ — OKCupid being one of them — which will help you easily find other people who are open to exploring.”
“It’s not that being an experiment is hurtful per se,” Cavazos says, “it’s the dishonesty that’s hurtful. Whenever we feel like we are robbed of something like our time, or our right to choose, we feel used.” This is definitely a do unto others sort of situation. Pitagora agrees. “The best policy is to exercise compassion and empathy, and think about the other person’s experience as much as you do your own, and then act accordingly with the same level of respect that you’d like someone else to give you,” she says.
When I was in college, I had a desperate crush on a grad student. She was six five in heels and used words like “homogeneity” in casual conversation. She had never been with a woman before, but our chemistry was so obvious that everyone thought we were girlfriends. One night, we got drunk and had sex in the bathroom at a bar (the fancy AF kind with a valet who pretends they don’t know what’s up) and afterwards, I was sure it was going somewhere. I had a partner, but I was ready to drop everything and post up full-time in her library carrel.
And then she fell in love. With my Anthropology professor. A man. I felt heartbroken and I also felt like she had led me on. She never promised me love, but she also never said, “this is just sex.” Real talk y’all, I still think about her. But I also think I understand her a little better now. She didn’t know until she tried.
Trying new things is cool, but it's even cooler when you can walk away from a taste test knowing that you have treated someone like they are a complex and interesting being. The best thing I could have done to prevent leading someone on was have an honest conversation. Pitagora said, “It’s a great idea to have thought about and tell the other person specifically what you find interesting about them, so they know you’re not trying to exploit some random person to get your needs filled.”
What could I have done differently during my last few months of dabbling? I could have told men who brought me flowers and took me on dates that they were unique and fascinating humans but also that our relationship probably wouldn’t progress past FWB. I could add, “only het for hook ups” on my dating profile. Actually, I'm gonna do that right now.
Let’s be real, y’all, it’ll probably make me really popular.