I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.’” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *