What is gender?
Gender is a spectrum, which means that between and outside of the constructs of male and female, there exists an entire range of gender identities. We often speak of “transgender” and “cisgender” identities: “cisgender” indicating that one’s gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth, and “transgender” indicating that one’s gender does not. However, we still often only recognize trans women and trans men, failing to acknowledge that this too incorrectly perpetuates the “binary”.
And what do people mean by ‘gender essentialism?’
Too often, even conversations about trans identities fall into “gender essentialism” – that is, the misconception that there are only men and women, and that they are two distinct and fixed identities: for trans or cis women to exist validly as “women,” they must perform “womanhood” (wearing pink, loving babies, caring about their appearance, etc.), and for trans or cis men to exist validly as “men,” they must perform “manhood” (loving sports, shunning femininity, etc.). As you might have noticed, gender essentialism is terribly sexist and does not reflect the many realities of the human experience, even for cisgender people.
Some people do exist whose identities match these gender essentials, but it’s reductive and destructive to imagine that these delineations should define gender or identity. There are trans and cis women who do not conform to constructs of the “female” or the “feminine,” and trans and cis men who do not conform to constructs of the “male” or “masculine.” They are entirely valid.
What does it mean to be gender nonbinary?
There are also those who do not identify as male or female at all. There are those of us who exist somewhere along the spectrum, not identifying with our birth gender but not necessarily identifying very strongly with any other gender, either.
To be nonbinary is to identify as other than male or female: as multiple genders at once (pangender or bigender), as neither (agender), as androgynous (androgyne), etc. To be nonbinary can mean your gender identity can vary (genderfluid/genderfucked/genderqueer), that yours is a gender specific to your culture (Two-Spirit or third gender, etc), or that you identify with a binary gender like man or woman but not exclusively or all the time (demigirl/demiboy).
Binary gender is actually largely a Western (mis)construction, and it’s it certainly doesn’t speak for all of us. You can read more about nonbinary identities here and debunk some misconceptions here, but let’s get down to it –
What does sex look like outside the gender binary?
When a nonbinary individual is sexual, every act can be charged with the personal and political. Almost the entirety of our understandings of sex – from the media to sex ed to our love songs and how tos – involves bodies gendered along the binary. Queer partners are asked who’s the girl, even when both or neither are, because sex is coded heteronormative: the male dominates and penetrates, the female receives. Dominant/submission, penetrator/penetrated. Even in queer or same sex partnerships, sex is coded along the gender binary, and to experience your body or someone else’s outside of these heteronormative scripts is an act of radical undoing, of radical innovation.
I want to speak about sex beyond the binary as it applies to being a nonbinary sexual individual, or being sexual with a nonbinary individual, but I want to note that we all can benefit from a sexual understanding that transcends gender essentialism. Also, it’s important to include that asexual and aromantic trans and nonbinary people exist and are valid – sex and gender are not always in correspondence, and neither is sexuality or lack thereof; do not conflate one identity with the other.
To be nonbinary and sexual can mean to redefine what you’ve been taught sex is.
Raised a woman, I was taught that sex is to serve cis men. It’s still not uncommon to question the very existence of an orgasm for people with vaginas. It’s still common to perceive sex as a process of kissing, touching, oral sex performed on penises, perhaps briefly oral sex performed on vaginas if a vagina is involved, and then penetrative sex until the person with the penis experiences orgasm. Any or all other pleasure-oriented acts are still largely considered “extra.” Just by watching tv or porn, or talking to cishet people, anything else might seem “deviant” – and that is just one of the most unfortunate symptoms of the sex-negative cisheteropatriarchy!
Sex can and should be fun. Sex can and should be empowering and affirming, for any gender or sexual orientation. Whether you’re being sexual with yourself or others, your sex should reflect whatever is best and safest for you and/or your partner(s).
When you are a nonbinary person, because sex has been scripted in such an essentialist way, you might experience dysphoria or other triggering moments during sex. When you are a gender conforming person having sex with a nonbinary person, you must consciously ensure that your partner’s experience is affirming rather than triggering. Here are a few steps to keep in mind:
More Radical Reads: 9 Strategies for Dealing with Gender Dysphoria for Gender Queer and Trans Folks
1) Unlearn the binary scripts of sex.
When you are a nonbinary person you may have been socialized as male or female during the beginnings of your sexual exploration, and you still may have memory or muscle memory of those sexual roles. You may have been socialized to be one who penetrates or one who receives, a dominant or a submissive. Even reversing or opposing these roles can still feel gendered: one of the first times I was sexual with another person with a vagina, I felt a maleness arise in me, as if there was a “he” who needed to be present. This can be fine, if it makes sense for you and your partner, but I was able to recognize that I was trying to approximate a heteronormative sexual experience because it was the only understanding of sex I had ever had.
I had to confront the unspoken scripts that were racing through my mind, informing my actions and experiences: if she’s being dominant, I should be submissive. If I’m focused predominantly on her orgasm, I feel more masculine. I was able to recognize that I was ascribing gender to experience, and I didn’t have to – I didn’t have to!
My gender identity is not necessarily directly correlated with what I like in bed, and my sexual experiences do not need to be informed by the gender binary.
You don’t need to sacrifice your nonbinary identity to be sexual, because you do not need to perform gender during sex. There doesn’t have to be a male or female, dominant or submissive. Experience yourself and your partner. Undo the power imbalance – share and balance your powers instead.
As the partner of a nonbinary person, it is crucial to be aware of this. Do not ever expect your nonbinary partner to perform gender during sex. Be aware of the fact that no matter your own sexuality, you may implicitly expect your partner to take on a role complementing your own — recognize that there are no opposites here. Focus on creating an experience of pleasure and positivity for both of you. Do not forget that the trust that must go into any sexual experience may be heightened for your nonbinary partner. The process of self-love that non-cis individuals may experience before they’re able to share their bodies with someone else can be a very fraught one – respect and appreciate that they are granting you this trust, and do not betray it.
Communicate, always. This doesn’t mean bully or coerce them into sharing information that might make them uncomfortable, or guilting/pressuring them into teaching you how to fuck them in a way that feels empowering or affirming for you. Let them know you understand that you do not have authority over what they’re going through, that you respect their desires and their body, and that you are here to share a positive experience.
2) Recognize dysphoria.
The sounds you make, the expectations of what your body should do or should experience, the way you move – all this has been gendered, and whether you are nonbinary or being intimate with someone who is, it’s a process of consciously detaching those reductive gender ideas from what’s actually happening.
As a nonbinary person, combating dysphoria can already be a struggle. When we experience it in sex, it can be even more triggering. Reclaiming your breasts, your penis, your testicles, your vagina, and/or your orgasm from societal scripts and exploring them as they actually manifest in your incredible body, as they affect your incredible soul — that in and of itself is an experience, and can become a celebration. Let your partner know what triggers you, and if certain acts or expectations manifest as misgendering for you. You can be explicit or you can keep certain reasons private depending on your relationship with your sex partner, but there must be some degree of trust if you are going to be intimate. You shouldn’t feel pressure to detail past trauma to a casual hookup, for example, but you can let them know that you’re not comfortable being submissive, and they should respect that.
As the partner of a nonbinary person, ask how you can help. Be aware of how the reality of your cis body, the certainty with which you inhabit it, may be painful for your partner. Recognize it’s not about you. Good sex requires you to be both a little selfish and selfless, but when you’re having sex with someone with dysphoria, recognize that your needs and wants must adjust to the possibilities of what is safe and comfortable for them. Check in. Make sure what you’re doing together is affirming for their mind and body. Avoid gendered sexual language, unless your partner wants you to use certain gender labels or pronouns.
More Radical Reads: On Loving A “Feminine” Body As A Transmasculine Androgyne
3) Focus on the realities of you and your bodies.
Now that you’ve undone the narrow notions of what sex “should” be, and worked to make you and your partner(s) are comfortable in your shared space, you are part of a comparatively unscripted sexual experience. This means you can focus on your comfort, and your pleasure.
As a nonbinary person, focus on what actually feels good for you. Take time by yourself, if you’re comfortable with it. This can be masturbation or literally just experimenting with your own senses. Explore your body by yourself; touch places no one has; use different pressure. Remember that there’s no should here, nothing should necessarily feel good, just focus on what is. If penetration feels good to you, experiment with pressure, placement, speed, depth. If stimulation of your thighs, chest, throat feels good to you, explore how much. When you are ready to be with a partner, communicate what you’ve learned. Don’t feel trapped by what you’ve been taught bodies like yours should enjoy — no body is quite like yours. Your sexual experience is a place of possibility. Positive, communicative sexual experiences may actually affirm your gender identity — this is your body, and you are in control of what you do with it and what you want others to do with you. You define what feels pleasurable to you.
When you are the partner of a nonbinary person, listen. Without putting pressure on your partner, ask them what feels best for them. Be responsive, check in to make sure they like how you’re doing what you’re doing. Be open to using toys, or experimenting with positions. Do not view toys as a threat. When your nonbinary partner asks you to adjust something that you’re used to, something you’ve never questioned (like playing with nipples or testicles, for example), respect them, their preferences, and their body. Do not view their instruction on how to make them feel sexy and safe as a criticism of your own sexual skill — instead, recognize that this is how to be sexual with the individual in front of you, and embrace it. Detach your sex from binary roles, from binary expectations. Work together to make each other feel good.
Sex is a collaboration, a partnership, and can be experienced positively by anyone who wants it, across the gender spectrum. Gender is not binary, and neither, necessarily, is sex. To all of us out here whose gender exists outside the binary, to the nonwhite nonbinary, the disabled nonbinary, the asexual nonbinary, I love you! Know that if you want it, positive and affirming sexual experiences are out there for you, as well as within you. Your body is unlike any other, and that is an awesome and powerful truth. Your body belongs to you, and whoever you share it with must respect your identity and your desires.
Now go out there and be sexual in whatever way makes you safe, affirmed, and satisfied!
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(Feature Image: A photograph of two people. On the left is a person with short brown hair. They are wearing a brown, white and black scarf, and a black hoodie. The person on right has blue hair, sunglasses, a dark jacket and blue jeans. They are sitting outside, holding their knees to their chest. They are both smiling. Source: Franziska Neumeister)