I’ve been boy crazy for as long as I can remember.
In kindergarten, I announced to my dad that I had a boyfriend and that we slept together at naptime. Scandal! Starting in middle school, I had a string of relationships with great guys. In my first years of college, I went on dates with an MMA fighter, a CrossFit instructor, a powerlifter, and a meaty rugby player that my friends called “the caveman.” This didn’t change much even as I grew as a feminist: by day I went to gender studies classes to unpack societal scripts. By night I went out with hunky stereotypes of American masculinity.
When I studied abroad at the start of my junior year and found myself falling in love with a woman on my program, I was caught off guard, but unconcerned. I had grown up with many queer friends and my upbringing and gender studies classes had taught me to accept a huge range of partnerships and attractions. As my girlfriend struggled to rework her conception of herself and to conciliate her attraction to me with the values she had been taught by her family, community, and the Catholic Church, I was comfortable dating a woman, and accepting of myself from the outset.
I went into it thinking that it would be no different from dating a guy. In many ways, it wasn’t. In some, it was. Dating this wonderful person also pushed me to think about some things in new and challenging ways. Here are some of my favorite lessons that I learned dating a woman.
Here’s a situation I have had happen a few times: I would express sexual interest in a guy (physically or verbally) and we'd in some way progress that interest into actions. Maybe that progression meant moving back to my dorm room from a party, maybe it meant stripping off a layer of clothing. At some point, I would realize that I was uncomfortable and ask to stop or cool things down. And the guy might act all sweet about it but then lay there and complain about how he was going to have blue balls forever or, even worse, he might whip out the dreaded phrase: cocktease. This has happened to me in casual hookups and also with boyfriends: every time, I felt guilty and awful.
When we first started hooking up, my girlfriend was still coming to terms with her same-sex attraction and she didn’t have a lot of sexual experience with a partner, of any gender. This meant that things went in starts and halts. Sometimes, she would say she was ready for something and then once we started to try it she would decide we still needed to wait. Some days, she wouldn’t feel comfortable doing something we had already done in the past. There were times when I wanted to be sexual and she just wasn’t in the mood. And yes—it was difficult and uncomfortable for me. This girl is so sexy that once, before she knew I had feelings for her, she leaned up against me in a crowded train and rendered me horny for days. On top of that, I was super excited to be trying new things in bed with a lady. So my libido always pitched an internal fit when my I was left high and dry (or in this case squirmy and wet).
But, you know what? ALL OF THAT WAS OKAY.
In fact, it was great because it meant that she felt able and free to express her limits and boundaries with me. Because I respected her as a person and a partner, I would have felt really awful if she had let me do things, or had done things herself, that she wasn’t okay with out of fear of asserting her needs. When she asked to back off of something, we could either engage in sexual activities that she was comfortable with or I could go home and get myself off. No. Big. Deal.
Of course I don’t ever want to purposefully arouse someone in the hope of leaving them sexually frustrated: but that is something completely different. That isn't this. I refuse to feel guilty for asserting my boundaries, even if they shift. Anyone (guy or girl) who is willing to push me to do something I don’t feel okay with rather than go home and jerk off isn’t someone I want to have sexual interactions with.
In past relationships, I felt like a really empowered feminist by making an effort to split the financial burden of dating equally. Once I started dating a woman, however, I realized that I had always expected guys to fight me on that one and try to pay for things (at least in the beginning). Not because they had higher paying jobs than I did (for the most part, we’ve both always been students). Not because I wanted them to demonstrate that they could support me in a potential future marriage. Just because they had dongs, I thought that guys “should” always offer to pay. Similarly, I was always really uncomfortable when guys cried. I am queen of the waterworks and the people I date have to be highly comfortable with tears, but I needed that to work in one direction. I thought that I would be the eternal crier and I needed a guy to be the perma-comforter.
I was completely comfortable with my girlfriend splitting costs evenly with me or openly expressing her emotions. It made me realize that I wasn’t looking for a partner who was eager to pay or completely stoic, those were just expectations I had of men in particular. I have been so frustrated in the past with the expectations society put on me for being born a woman, and I was forced to recognize the degree to which I did the very same thing to men. In my academic life, I have had a big shift from looking at societal limitations based on being a woman, to societal limitations based on gender in general. In my personal life, I pay more attention to my "turn offs." I’m learning that while there are some traits that I don’t like regardless of gender (meanness, pettiness, etc.) characteristics that simply aren’t aligned with societal gender expectations don’t bother me so much anymore.
I have always been really attracted to guys who I felt like could "protect me" (again: MMA, CrossFit, powerlifter, caveman). I am not really sure what I was looking for protection from, seeing as I have lived most of my life in the suburbs and have never really felt vulnerable to physical attack. Studying abroad in a major city, for the first time in my life my desire for physical protection would have been somewhat legitimate, as muggings were common and the sexual harassment I received from men on the street and in clubs occasionally verged on violence. Don’t get me wrong — my girlfriend was a scrappy tennis player who could have kicked someone’s ass if she needed to — but for the first time I entered into a relationship without the plan to be protected all the time. I realized that being taken care of was not at all the most important thing for me in a relationship. Respect, a spirit of adventure, and a shared love of horrible puns are all higher up on my list of priorities.
I loved feeling like an equal. I loved making decisions on completely level footing. I realized that by expecting a partner to be the protector, I had expected myself to be the protectee. While I have always felt strong and capable and highly independent as a single woman, in relationships I had mentally given up a lot of that power. In any partnership, I want to create something in which we both protect and take care of each other (and even pamper each other for that matter!), rather than building a one-way or top-down power dynamic.
“So how do you guys have sex?” As I told my friends from home about my girlfriend this question came up again and again and again.
One friend forewent words and simply arched his eyebrow at me as he banged two scissors together over Skype. In all honesty, at the beginning of things I was fairly perplexed by this issue as well. I felt like “real” sex had to involve a penis going into someone else's body, and a penis was something we both lacked.
It took me a while to change to this mindset—to let go of the idea that we needed a penis to have “true” sex. And then one day my girlfriend made me come so hard that I lost control of my arms and basically had orgasm jazz hands. No penis had been part of that with me before. Feeling connected to my partner, feeling sexy, occasionally briefly losing consciousness through orgasm: those aspects all became much more important to my definition of sex than a peg in a hole.
Not having a dick in the mix wiped away the standard sexual path to follow. Instead of passing from manual to oral to coital, following that map made by someone else, we were free to do as we pleased. Sex became anything that we wanted, anything that felt good and got us off.
Sex with a girl offered much less opportunity to be lazy. Having sex with a guy, I could kind of just lie there or maybe give the occasional hump and call it sex. With a girl, there tended to be a lot more turn-taking, more of a focus on give-and-take. I had always considered myself a “taker” sexually, a prize to be worshipped and won in bed. With a girl, I learned that I could get just as much sexual pleasure from focusing on someone else.
I’d had fantastic male lovers and relationships full of exploration before, but things had always felt centered around intercourse, like it was the main event to build up to. Sex with a girl didn’t take away my appreciation for intercourse with guys, it just made me give more weight, more sexual validity to other activities. I think that’s something that helps sexual partnerships regardless of gender.
Without realizing it at the time, I think that I had always thought there was some inherent difference in loving someone of the same gender. My sexual attraction to my girlfriend differed in many ways from my sexual attraction to men. I was attracted to different qualities about her, physically and in her personality. My sexual attraction to her even felt different in my body. When I’m first attracted to guys I tend to feel it in my stomach, with her I felt it in my hands. There were a lot of things I liked about her and about being with her that were different from my experience with guys. Some of these ways were delightfully shallow (for example my girlfriend plucked my eyebrows for me and let me tell you they had never looked so good). Some of them were deeper, like talking about our relationships with our moms and our sisters. In many ways I did see differences that I had expected when it came to dating a partner of my own sex.
Those differences made dating a girl exhilarating and fresh and silly and fun. But when it came to falling in love, gender melted away.
The feelings of caring for a person so much that it left me breathless, the growth and learning about myself that can only come through love, the incredible paradox of holding her and simultaneously experiencing firecracker adrenaline and profound serenity: the things that made love love had nothing to do with gender.