Tag Archives: identity

Who I Am With You Isn’t Who I Am With Him

M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher

I wrote a story a few months ago called “Looking Glass”, in which a woman looks forwards to having sex with the guy she’s seeing, not just because she wants to fuck him (though she does), but because

“sex is her looking glass. It lets her see who a person is, (or rather who they are with her). It lets her see who she is with them. She wants that view more than she wants to get off. She wants to see if they fit.”

At the time I wrote the story, I made a mental note to circle back to the idea that sex can be a mirror, not just for you or your partner, but for who you are together. Identity and personality are pet topics on this blog, so I’m not going to waste time saying that personalities are fluid. Anyone with a secret Twitter account can tell you that Secret Twitter You is just as authentically “you” as Dinner with Gran You. It’s just not the “you” your gran is used to seeing…probably.

Instead, I want to look at how that fluidity plays out in sexual dynamics. Most of us slide up and down a sexual scale. Even people who identify very strongly as one thing (submissive, dominant, vanilla, etc.) tend to play that thing out differently with different lovers. Part of what makes for sexual chemistry between any two people is how well you intuit each other, and that’s different case by case.

That’s why I’ve always been curious about what sex would be like with different people. Like the protagonist in “Looking Glass”, my anticipation in the build up to my first time with someone new is rooted in curiosity—who will I be with them, who will they be with me, and what will be together? In other words, what will we bring out in each other?

Ages ago, I was seeing two very different men. Let’s call them A and B. My dynamic with A was emotionally and sexually intense. We went dancing and did a great deal of staring intensely into each other’s eyes. The sex was fucking hot.

My dynamic with B was different. Mostly, he and I laughed. We went to diners and dive bars and told rambling stories. The sex was also amazing, but in a super playful, peaches and cream kind of way.

One day, B and I went to an event and met up with A and his date. Everything was great, so much so that I didn’t give the meeting a second thought until the next time I saw A when he commented that he’d had no idea I was such a goofball.

Here’s how that conversation played out in semi-fictional dialogue.

A: Hey, M?

Me: What’s up?

A: So….

Me: ….yes?

A: Do I keep you from being you?

Me: (blank stare)  No. Why?

A: Because you seemed so relaxed with B the other day. I mean, I’ve never seen you so relaxed and goofy and I was kind of wondering if I was keeping you from that because, you know, I’m not relaxed. Or goofy.

Me: Aw, babe…. (sits on his lap and gently bites his neck) Who I am with you isn’t who I am with him. I’m goofy and relaxed with B because B and I are goofy and relaxed together. I’m pouncier with you because that’s how we are. One isn’t more me than the other. It’s all me. You’re just seeing what naturally comes out with you.

A: (melts because he loves having his neck bit) Okay, so…what you’re saying is…it’s all good.

Me: (straddles him) It’s all good.

The conversation ended there and all was (extremely) good – because that’s how it worked naturally for A and I. Had that conversation happened with B instead of A, I probably wouldn’t have nibbled on him and gone straight to sex because that’s not how it was with us. We’d have had a good conversation, probably gotten philosophical, and then had slow, lazy sex before watching The Matrix and eating take-out.

In either case, the set of impulses I had with A were just as authentic as the ones I’d have had with B, they were just very different. That’s why the first time with a new partner is exciting, even if it isn’t magical right off the bat. It’s not just about chemistry. It’s about curiosity and mutual potential; how we connect, and how defined that connection is.  Do we share one wavelength, or do we slide over the scale together?

All of those questions hum along, fueling attraction, chemistry, and sex. And the answers, as variable and context dependent as they are, form a hell of a good mirror for anyone, so long as they are authentically engaged. It’s why relationships fascinate me in all of their brilliant, curious, mind-blowing, toxic, soul-deep, casual variations.  It’s one of the biggest reasons I love sex…aside from the obvious.

 

Unrelated PSA:

For months now, I’ve been working on a collection that I’m very excited about. I’m lucky enough to be working with an amazing editor, but life is getting busier and I need to clear more time for it, so, for the next little bit, the blog will be moving to a slightly less regular posting schedule. It’s definitely not going anywhere. There will just be a slightly longer gap between posts.

In the meantime, feel free to dig into the archives and cringe at what a catastrophe of a baby blogger I was. It’s the blogging equivalent of refrigerator art –  precious, precious stuff. 😀

The Myth of One True Self

Portrait, Anais Nin

Portrait, Anais Nin

This post contains a nude image so I have the pleasure of telling you it’s  NSFW.

A few months ago, Ella Dawson wrote a post about sexual harassment. It’s an excellent piece and she makes a lot of good points, but the quote that stayed with me is this:

“It is easy to find me on Facebook, and my Twitter feed is lively and seems unpolished, even though it is heavily curated. It is easy to feel like you know me.”

I thought of that quote earlier this week as I followed a discussion on a Facebook page about masks and writing erotica. I was going to comment on the thread, but my response got longer as it went farther afield so, rather than hijack the thread, I’m writing this.

Masks are a useful metaphor, one we often use to simplify complicated things – like personalities. But there’s a trap in the metaphor. Take Batman for example. Which is Bruce Wayne’s true self? The billionaire or the masked avenger? Every modern franchise touches on that question in some way, but there is no definitive answer, because Bruce Wayne doesn’t have one true self. He has two, and he performs both with equal “trueness” depending on the situation.

The mask metaphor is seductive in its simplicity, but whether you use a mask (like a pseudonym / alternate identity) to explore your life / art more freely, or whether you feel that you find yourself in the wearing of a mask , the metaphor implies that we have one fundamentally true “self” over which less true “masks” can be laid.

It’s a really attractive idea, but it discounts two things:

1. Identities aren’t static, nor are they mutually exclusive. I became a mother when my daughter was born, but that didn’t erase my other identities (writer, wife, lover, friend, etc.), nor did it make those selves any less true. I can write frankly and graphically about sex and still be a engaged, stable parent. I perform all of my selves with equal truth (sometimes simultaneously) depending on which context I’m in. No one truth is truer than the others.

2. Identity is behavioral. It’s something we perform for ourselves and for others. We engage our identities in a lot of different ways, but they all boil down to our behavior in different contexts. As our context changes, so does our behavior. Different facets of our personalties (i.e.: different selves) engage. It’s why a lover can “bring out the best in you”, or so called “nice people” can be jerks to waiters.

We give people access to different facets, or selves, through the actions and reactions we perform. But access to one facet doesn’t equal access all, nor does it mean that the facets we’re privy to are “truer” than those we aren’t. It also doesn’t mean that the hidden facets are any more authentic than those we see.

Part of what makes masks (and the implication one true self) seductive, is that the removing of a mask creates intimacy. While a private revelation is legitimately intimate, it’s important to remember that “unmasking” is a performance too. Despite the seductive intimacy, removing a mask simply means revealing something that was previously hidden. It doesn’t mean that the revealed thing is any “truer” than the things you consciously expose.

Which takes me back to Ella’s quote and the idea of curated truths.

Every time I dissect myself in an essay, I reveal something of who I am. That’s a choice I make because the intimacy it creates is important to me. I want to connect with the reader, and the only way to do that is to open myself up. But this doesn’t mean that the truths I expose in an essay, even the raw, difficult ones, aren’t fully curated. Every single facet I reveal gets exposed to support the narrative I need to communicate.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Malin Daguerretype

This is a picture of me. I was going to use it for Sinful Sunday’s vintage prompt, but I didn’t end up posting it (I just wasn’t ready). That said, the experience of choosing and editing the image was interesting. As a writer, I wrestle with the impulse to control how I’m read, and I had the same impulse with the photo – the impulse to pin down the selves (i.e.: facets, identities, narratives, masks) it reveals.

So, to make my point about unmasking, here are some of the true selves that I considered revealing in the abandoned post.

1. Emotionally Unguarded Me: This is a test shot. I didn’t realize it was being taken, so what you’re seeing is what I often look like when I’m not paying attention – distracted, preoccupied and a little bit sad. This is me at rest. Me at rest is a little intense.

2. Overly Concerned, Serious Me: I’ve never participated in Sinful Sunday (though I want to) and I rarely post photographs of my face online. There’s a good reason for that, but it makes me sound like an asshole. When I was younger, I was dismissed in academic or professional contexts because of the way I look. I learned to downplay my appearance so people would take me seriously. Posting a nude of myself, especially in the context of my work, is uncomfortable because it goes against that grain.

3. Me With Hang-Ups: As I worked with this image, I kept trying to crop out my face or my breasts, but no matter what I did, it always looked wrong. For some reason, the fact that this picture reveals how small my breasts are bothered me more when my face was in the shot. Likewise, the relative vulnerability on my face bothered me less when my breasts weren’t visible. Apparently, one at a time was okay, but face + breasts revealed too much…. Heh, heh. Looks like the joke’s on me.

Which brings me to the self I’m revealing (in addition to the others) in this post….

4. The Me Who Says Fuck It: Because what the hell, why not. I’ve just “unmasked” myself by using the un-cropped nude and revealing my mixed feelings about this image. In doing so, I’ve revealed more than my tits and my face. I’ve given you a glimpse of my inner life. It’s an honest glimpse but, like all the other glimpses cataloged in this blog, it’s a curated one. I selected the details and framed them to illustrate the myth of the one true self and support the post’s narrative.

The unmasking I just performed revealed true things, but it did not reveal everything. There is no single, definitive me to reveal, which means that there is nothing to shield me from misinterpretation. You could take what you’ve read and say that I’m full of shit. Or pretentious as fuck. Or a small breasted basket case. Or an ego driven slut. Or, or, or… Because I can’t hand you my one true self, there will always be a gap between what the world sees, and the whole of who I am.

It’s that gap that we try to fill, through communication and curation. We all try to control our narratives, whether we’re writing a post or chatting with a friend (“I’m great! Prison isn’t so bad after all!”). We curate ourselves to reveal the facets that will help us connect, while downplaying those that may compromise us within a given context.

In the end, we all wear masks – multiple masks – that serve or reveal our various true selves. For some of us, the lines that mark our identities are thick and bold. For others, the lines are blurred. But for all off us, the truth lies deep in the aggregate, not in the threads we pull.

Kinky People Sex

Art by Franz von Bayros

Art by Franz von Bayros

I’ve been thinking about labels recently. It started with the resurgence of the erotica vs. porn debate (which Tabitha Rayne addressed beautifully in this post) but quickly spun out to include people, sexuality, kink and the labels we use to describe ourselves.

I’ve written about my own system of genre classification and many others have addressed the question from different angles since. But when the issue was brought up again, I was struck by just how subjective labels like “erotica” and “porn” are. Yes, there are standards most people agree on – erotica has a narrative focus while porn is primarily concerned with sex – but beyond that there’s a lot of grey area defined mostly by an individual’s impression of a work.

I’m not saying that literature and genre defy definition (I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a post-modernist). What I am saying is that regardless of what label we place on a thing, that thing’s identity (or classification) will likely retain some level of fluidity. Anais Nin called a great chunk of her work pornography, while today we consider her catalog one of the foundations of modern literary erotica. A group of Christian moms considered this fondant teddy bear’s seam to be an overly sexual image. I can’t say I agree. The point is that a thing can shift labels depending on who is viewing it.

Which brings me to my actual topic. Labels and people. People use labels as a short-hand for larger, more nuanced identities – are you one of us, or are you “other”? In this way, labels can be incredibly useful. But if you become unquestioningly wedded to your label it can box you in, because labels can’t always keep up with the fluidity of a person’s experiences.

If you’re primarily straight but have slept with someone of the same sex, does that make you bi? If you’re primarily dominant but sometimes like to sub, are you a switch? If your experiences or beliefs are non-binary, then labels may fit accurately, but if you inhabit an ideological or sexual grey area, it often becomes a curiosity when you deviate from the behaviors your label dictates.

Kink is a great example of this. Kinky people are generally thought to be those whose interests fall outside the sexual norm (whatever the “norm” is). I’ve identified as kinky since my early twenties when I realized that threesomes (and foursomes) were a thing. Adopting that label was liberating at the time. As a result, for much of my twenties, I allowed the “kinky” label to direct my sexual interests. I played in ways that I might not have otherwise done and, for the most part, I loved it. I also enjoyed a ton of sex that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if I hadn’t also adopted the label of slut. But I also remember feeling that my occasional desire for straightforward, vanilla sex didn’t adhere to my label(s), so I often went without the no-frills missionary I also craved.

At that point in my life, I thought that kinky people were supposed to have kinky sex all the time, which isn’t necessarily true. For many people, kink defines their sexualities in a very whole and satisfying way. But for others, like me, identifying as any one thing excludes five other labels that I could just as easily adopt. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I made up my own label – sexually omnivorous. I want a helping of everything and always have. Or, to put it another way, I have a very fluid relationship to my sexuality and kinks.

Now, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll toss out a few of the labels that I do feel comfortable claiming:

Bisexual

Non-monogamous

Voyeuristic (with an exhibitionist streak)

Dominant (though not a Domme. I’m more of an alpha who likes D/s. Domme implies things I don’t want to claim.)

I also like rough sex and boundary pushing. I like feeling vaguely uncomfortable and I like it when my partner feels vaguely uncomfortable too (within the bounds of consent). More than anything, I love intensity. If a sexual experience serves up intensity, odds are I’ll be interested. It doesn’t matter if the intensity is emotional or physical. Even better if it’s both.

That said, I also love vanilla sex (which can also be emotionally and physically intense). I love missionary. I love waking up, having slow, drowsy sex and then going back to sleep. I love catching a quickie before running out for drinks. I love oral – both giving and getting. I love Sunday mornings in bed. I love entire week-ends spent doing nothing but straight up fucking – no games, no trappings, just hungry-for-more fucking. I even love making love with the right person.

So, do my more conventional tastes cancel out the kinks? I don’t feel they do – I think my sexuality covers a lot of ground and that exercising all aspects of it gives me pleasure. I’m hardly going to lock down the snuggly-missionary-loving part of me in the name of kink, any more than I’d give up D/s play because it doesn’t fit conventional sexual tastes. What I want has everything to do with who I’m with and what we need at the time. Sometimes, it’s rough. Sometimes it’s sweet. Unlike my young self, I’m not interested in missing out on either.

So, to bring it back around. If a person dedicates themselves to writing “porn” that’s great. If they claim the label of “erotica” (or “erotic romance” or “smut”) for their work, that’s great too. The danger is in becoming overly committed to a label – whether it’s porn, romance, kinky, straight, feminist, Christian, atheist or anything else. My concern is that, when a label becomes an ideology, it can curtail the intellectual, creative and sexual fluidity that makes you an individual, rather than a component of a larger, homogenous group (kinky people sex aside); or, in the case of erotic fiction, it can needlessly limit your work in a falsely simplified genre.