I love it when people email me interesting questions. This letter is posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse –

I found your coming-out article on “Time Out” and I am both grateful and fascinated by your story. I apologize if this email is a bit personal, but I am unsure where to get honest non-judgmental advice. Recently a lover introduced me to SM and while I have always considered myself a fairly sexually tolerant and open person, I found myself unwilling to let go and trust with a scenario. On the surface, I feel I would very much enjoy what BDSM has to offer, but in practice I am unable to fully appreciate? the fantasy.

My questions to you are: did it take a bit a time for you to … hm … let go of yourself with this type of play?

It seems from your article that you recognized this lifestyle was / is a “fit” for you. How do you know if it is the right lifestyle for you?

Also, you mentioned some therapists who specialize in understanding the needs of alternative lifestyle folks. Could you direct me to some resources for additional information?

Here’s my response:

Hi there,

Firstly, and most importantly, here is the link to the website for the list of Kink Aware Professionals. You can read their FAQ and hopefully find a therapist to assist you there. I recommend that if you have the choice, you visit several therapists before choosing one. I wish you luck.

I can definitely say that once I had spent a little time doing S&M with Richard, the “main character” in my coming-out story, I was absolutely sure that it was what I wanted. It was undeniable, even though it was hard to adjust to it. But at the same time, I had trouble — that’s part of why I wrote up my coming-out story. It took me a long time — years! — to be totally okay with letting go and enjoying S&M. So, yes, it took me some time. And if you think you want to try it, then I think it’s important that you give yourself some time, as well.

But still, your question about “how do you know?” is a difficult one. When I first encountered Richard, I wasn’t very attracted to him. And if he had just asked me, “Would you like to try some S&M?” I might have said no. I had even encountered someone who tried to do S&M — holding me down and biting me — several years before I encountered Richard, and I wasn’t very interested at the time. But when Richard actually started hurting me, hard … I recognized it, and I knew it was something I had been seeking for a long time. So how did I recognize it when he did it, but not when the previous guy did it? I’m not sure.

I think that sexuality is very affected by the way we have a given experience. Our mood before we start having sex; our feelings about our partner; our level of attraction to our partner; our satisfaction with our current relationship; the reasons we have chosen this sexual experience at this time …. All of these factors come together in how we feel about a given sexual act. And then, on top of that, there’s also the fact that the way a given sexual act is performed can change the way we enjoy it. For example, I often get bored (or irritated) if someone ties me up and acts nice, even if they give me oral sex. But if someone ties me up and acts mean — if they try to genuinely scare me, or hurt me a lot in the ways I enjoy, and then they give me oral sex — then I think that’s really hot. So I think that the moral of the story is that there’s a lot of different ways to have different kinds of sex, so it’s often worth trying things more than once (unless you really, emphatically didn’t like it the first time). Recognition can come late.

Finally, just remember the old saying — “The search is more important than the find.” My best sexual experiences happened after I gave up on “finding” something, or “being sure”, and I started simply trying different things and enjoying them for what they were.

I recently wrote a post on my blog about how to encourage sexual openness; maybe it will be helpful for you.

I had some more thoughts after I sent the letter, and they were complicated enough to deserve a blog post.

1) When we showed the polyamory movie at my sex-positive film series, I remember there was one particular woman who stuck around for the discussion afterwards. She was blonde and wearing a sports jersey, and she said that she really wanted to try poly, but there’s a problem: she likes sports, and she’s not interested in science fiction, gaming, comics, or other alternative nerd-type subcultures. A lot of people laughed when she said that because it precisely illustrates something important about the polyamory subculture: most poly people are hippies, geeks, nerds, etc. (For more on this, and particularly more on the demographic differences between polyfolk vs. swingers, you can check out this post from Polyamory In The News.)

The point I’m trying to make is that a person may not be well-suited for the subculture around a certain type of sexual expression, and yet want to practice that kind of sex anyway. I’m not sure what to advise in that case. I think that sex communities are incredibly valuable, and that it’s in a person’s interest to attend workshops, panels, and just generally chat with other people in a given sex community if they want to have alternative sex. One of the awesomest things about the S&M community is how a good S&M workshop will teach us kinksters how to be safer and more skilled at Whatever It Is That We Do.

But … even I would probably be less interested in the S&M subculture if the communities I’ve encountered didn’t contain a healthy number of science fiction- and fantasy-readin’, game-playin’, liberal-leanin’ weirdos just like me. I mean, BDSM workshops would still be valuable if I didn’t know any BDSMers who shared my hobbies and politics … but the group would seem much less interesting. I guess that for someone in that position, I’d still suggest attending the workshops and getting to know people in case you need advice. Unless you really dislike them!

I’d also suggest not making any judgments about your sexuality — about whether you’re interested in BDSM, or polyamory, or swing, or whatever — based on whether you like the local subculture. If you really hate the local S&M group, don’t hang out with them, but don’t assume you hate S&M either! You can learn plenty about S&M from books (like The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy) or even the Internet (the kinky social networking site FetLife has lots of great discussions).

Oh, and before I forget, here’s a fantastic calendar of Chicago BDSM subculture events.

2) It’s so weird (and wonderful) how enjoyment of sex can change completely from a different angle. And I don’t necessarily mean physically — sex is all about emotions and connotations, so different mental angles on sex can matter a lot. As I said in my response to the woman above, being tied up is totally boring on its own … but when combined with a partner I trust and who knows how to hurt me, being tied up becomes a hell of a lot hotter.

It is totally reasonable to feel uncomfortable with sex, or with a certain kind of sex. But figuring out where that discomfort comes from and how it ties into your desires will help you open new doors and broaden your sexual expressions. Figuring out what turns you on or makes you uncomfortable even at a very simple level can take a long freakin’ time, so don’t expect to know all the answers right away. And don’t be surprised if your desires are more fluid and changeable than you ever imagined!

Here’s some questions I’ve found helpful for identifying new angles on sexuality. Maybe they’ll be useful or maybe other people will hate them or maybe they’ll make some people feel uncomfortable. Always keep in mind that if you don’t want to have sex, that’s okay — so if you really hate the idea of doing something sexual, and you don’t feel like trying to figure out why, then suit yourself! Feedback and examples are welcome, as always.

A) If you’re interested in a certain act: What inspired your interest? Did you see or hear something that appealed to you? What elements of this kind of sex seem hot?

B) If you’re not interested in a certain act: Are you sure you don’t like it, or are you willing to try it? If you tried it and didn’t like it, can you tell what turned you off? Is there something that could make you more interested?

C) Just for fun, some basic exploration questions: What are the hottest things you’ve ever seen, read, experienced? Can you describe those things to your partner? How do they make you feel and are there elements of those things that you want to try with your partner?