Respectful sexual exploration 101

sexual exploration
Illustrator: Jo Yeh

One of the most beautiful parts of existing as sexual beings is that our desires, behaviors, and identities can evolve through our lifetimes. However, unless you are raised in an exceptionally open and diverse setting, most of us still live in a world that assumes every young child will grow up to be straight. As a result, it is common for folks to begin their sexual journey identifying as straight (almost de facto) and to only begin to question this later in life.

Sexual exploration is a great way to find your place in a heteronormative world and learn more about yourself. However, as you begin to question or determine your sexual identity, you must consider the feelings and needs of those who are already part of the LGBTQI+ community. 

So how can you practice respectful sexual exploration with folks who have a firmer understanding of their sexual identity?

Start with discernment.

Sex podcaster extraordinaire Roisin Nic Ghearailt is one of many people who embraced their queer identity later in life. Her advice to those who are sexually questioning is to start with honest self-reflection. Do what you can to shed societal expectations, get into your body, and spend some time thinking about the people to whom you are attracted. Whom do you find yourself checking out at the coffee shop? Whom do you fantasize about? What type of porn do you enjoy? 

Get educated.

Learning more about the LGBTQI+ community is vital to being respectful when entering queer spaces. Read about the importance of pronouns, the validity of bisexuality, and the biology of pleasure. Learn how to respectfully engage with those in the trans community. It is not the community’s job educate you. Listen to some podcasts, read some books, and check out some articles. This self-education will help you navigate new spaces more smoothly and appropriately. 

Getting educated can also help you learn more about yourself. A client I work with just discovered that they are demisexual. It was very helpful for them to put words to their experience of wanting a deeper emotional connection before getting sexual. It helped them better communicate this to partners and create more positive sexual spaces. 

There are a plethora of sexual identities beyond straight and gay. By doing some research, perhaps something will resonate. 

Be transparent. 

It is imperative that you be honest with partners when you are exploring new types of relationships. Communicate with them about where you are in your sexual journey, then let them decide if they are interested in engaging with you. You don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty, but it is helpful to share that this type of interaction may be new to you. When meeting partners online, many dating sites allow you to categorize your sexuality as “questioning.” Indicating your status will help you find other folks who are open to sexual exploration with you.

“It’s vital to remember that you are engaging with a person. No one likes to feel like they are an ‘experiment,’” Nic Ghearailt explains. She suggests that instead of calling what you are doing “an experiment,” which sounds like haphazardly mixing elements in chemistry class, you can describe it as a thoughtful, deliberate, sexual exploration. 

There is nothing wrong with walking into an interaction not knowing exactly what you want; it is being dishonest or acting like you don’t respect someone’s time that becomes a problem. My male friend met a man who identified as straight on Grindr and spoke to him for months online. This person kept telling my friend that he wanted to hook up, but then gave mixed messages and was not ready to sexually engage when they hung out. Of course, consent can be revoked at any time, but it sounds like this person should have spent more time reflecting before taking too much of my friend’s time and emotional energy.

When engaging with someone new, spend time thinking about the other person’s experience, and not just your own. If the situation was reversed, would you feel sufficiently informed and fairly treated? 

Accept the unknown.

It’s completely normal to be unsure about your sexual identity. This is not something that you need to figure out right away (or even at all). For some folks, having a clear sexual identity can be empowering. For others, it can be a source of stress. 

Instead of focusing too much on what each encounter means on a macro level, start small. In each sexual interaction, ask yourself: Am I attracted to this person? Do they create a space that feels safe to explore? For now, you can just be a human, exploring sexual and romantic relationships that feel right. 

Try it more than once.

It may be hard to learn too much from one sexual interaction. If I’d judged my sexual orientation from my first heterosexual hookup, I would have come back thinking there is no way that I’m into dudes. Each sexual interaction is an opportunity to explore and expand our sexualities and ourselves; it may take several times to experience a deeper understanding of oneself.

If the first time exploring doesn’t feel right, there are many potential reasons for this beyond your partner’s gender identity. Nic Ghearailt explains that the conditions under which you have sex are the most important element of an interaction. Ask yourself: What internal dialogue is going on during the interaction? Do you feel comfortable? Are you experiencing shame around your exploration? 

Don’t make assumptions.

Another male friend of mine hooked up with a fellow who identified as straight. After they had sex, the other person assumed that my friend wanted him to leave. That he was only looking for something casual because of his preconceived notions about gay dating. When my friend briefly looked at his phone, the guy made a snarky comment about how my friend was already on Grindr looking for a new partner. 

It is deeply disrespectful to make any assumptions about a person based on their identity alone. While this kind of behavior tends to stem from fear or shame, the healthy and healing thing to do is to treat each partner like the unique and beautiful person that they are.

More people are identifying as queer now than ever before. If your designated sexual identity doesn’t feel right, perhaps it’s time to embark on the beautiful and expanding experience of sexual exploration. If you ensure that you are being respectful of others, becoming educated, and listening to your body, you are bound to learn about yourself—and have fun along the way. Happy exploring!

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