I am the sort of person who will refuse to mention anything at all at restaurants when the wait staff or the kitchen makes a mistake with my order. I’ll demurely eat my food, lie when they ask if everything came out all right, and still tip at least 20 percent rather than inconvenience anybody with something silly like my dietary restrictions or personal desires.
This is a personal choice, usually made because the anxiety that I feel at the thought of being viewed as difficult far outweighs the inconvenience of needing to suffer through a scoop of unwanted sour cream in my burrito or the wrong kind of pasta sauce.
When I talk about being this way or do it while out with others, a lot of well-meaning people in my life tell me that I need to be more assertive. There’s a prevalent belief that seems to underlie their concern, that if I’m not willing to stand up and just say to a waiter that my plate isn’t the way that I requested, then that microcosm must reflect some deeper weakness in my character.
They may be right, but oddly I don’t always see this attitude taken towards other matters of communicating with confidence.
1. Communication Ain’t Easy
We all have been told at this point that communication and respect are the keys to a successful relationship. Or at least, that’s the message that gets reiterated by everyone from legitimate mental health and relationship counselors to garbage magazines to occasionally problematic self-help gurus. It’s an indelible truth, and yet people can continue to make entire livings on showing others how to do it. The simple truth is that it’s hard to communicate well. It can be hard to even know what we want to say, let alone know how to effectively state it to another human being.
Take that insecurity, and add the shame that largely surrounds sex. For many of us, sexual desires can be tinged with embarrassment. To express them aloud is to invite judgment or ridicule for our most intimate or private feelings. This is only compounded in relationships with unsafe dynamics.
Similarly, our past traumas, experiences, and even simple dislikes can also carry shame because we might feel that by expressing a boundary about where we don’t want our sexual encounters to progress, that we are denying our partners their wants or needs.
2. Heteronormative Stereotypes Are Making Us Miserable
This can be true regardless of the amount of time that we have known a person or the extent of our sexual experience (or lack thereof). How many hacky sitcoms run joke after joke about (heteronormative) couples married 20-plus years and in a sexual slump that could be miraculously fixed if they just talked a little more?
The women in these comedies are always either prudishly withholding or wanting some deep, intimate connection. The men always want either blowjobs or more frequent “regular” sex, and without any real talking or cuddling or “unmanly” stuff. If a non-mainstream sexual experience is portrayed, it’s always the weird neighbors who enjoy bondage (despite the fact that it appeals roughly one-tenth of the population, many of whom report greater relationship satisfaction because of it) or open relationships (despite it just plain working better for some people).
The popular culture that derides these lifestyles and champions non-communicative stereotypical relationships has a vested interest in maintaining a status quo of sexual inadequacy. The common context keeps sex a procreative act carried out between men and women of a certain legal status, a certain economic and educational class, and a certain understood moral standard.
The problem is that this is also a really miserable way to live for a lot of people.
3. ‘I Would Like This’ And ‘I Can’t Handle This’
When we sit in the restaurant and receive food prepared a way that we didn’t order, we are expected to send it back because we communicated a certain level of desire in what we eat. We invest our time and money into the exchange and when it doesn’t go the way we expect, it’s our prerogative to say something.
Alternatively, too many of us don’t give nearly this level of consideration to our sexual encounters. We don’t take the time to learn and state our own preferences, more than happy to accept the opportunity to have sex without consideration for our wants. We don’t state, “I would like this” and “I can’t handle that” the way we might a dressing on the side or a lack of mayonnaise.
I’ve always suggested that sex deserves no more shame than a food preference. Some of us want the same dish prepared a particular way every time we consume it, while others sample a wide variety and need to keep things different to remain excited. There’s no shame in either and nor should there be in having a similar attitude toward sex.
The key difference is in our treatment of communication with our partners. Restaurants are places of business exchanges while sex involves our bodies as they interact with another’s. This requires an absolute insistence on respect for autonomy, and any lack thereof should be treated with suspicion.
More Radical Reads: 8 Questions to Ask About BDSM and Respecting Boundaries
4. Finding New Arrangements with Your Partner(s)
When our partners open up to us about their sexual desires, it’s our job to balance our consideration for them with our own needs. The fact is that some people want what their current partners cannot provide. If you have a partner who needs a specific fetish in order to feel sexually fulfilled and that is not something that you feel you can provide, then a discussion needs to take place wherein you communicate the boundary and the two of you decide whether or not to proceed from there. For some, the solution will be to seek out some other party who can act on that desire. For others, a different outlet will be pursued. And for still another, they may decide that the relationship is not worth pursuing.
This is important: all of these choices are valid.
I have met people who have dumped a partner who refused to perform anal sex. I likewise know a married couple that does not do anal sex despite the fact that one of them is incredibly interested, but the other has stated that they are not at all comfortable with it—they get on just fine and happy with this arrangement. And I have met one cis-male gay couple which regularly engages in threesomes because they consider themselves both “tops” and they see it as the only way in which they can engage in that particular act.
All of these are valid. Every one of these arrangements has consenting adults choosing the paths of their own relationships based on their stated desires and boundaries, and I will testify, all of them are quite happy.
More Radical Reads: 3 Steps Toward Good Sex Beyond the Binary: Having Sex with a Nonbinary Person, Even When that Person is You
Those having difficulty communicating desires, I encourage to consider where your fear originates: if it is within yourself, I remind you that Radical Self-Love means unabashed acceptance for yourself as you are. This can look any number of ways, but as long as it does no harm to any other, it has validity. If your fear is that you will be judged for that desire, consider your partner: if you feel unsafe not because of yourself but because of them, consider your reasons for your relationship. No one should be with a person who makes us feel like less for what we want.
The same is even more true for our boundaries. A person who cannot respect your body enough to listen to your stated no probably doesn’t deserve your yes.
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