Off the Beaten Path

When I was growing up, I often turned to my mother for relationship⁠ advice. We had our differences, but we were close, and I valued her opinions. However, I also found myself grappling with many of the things she said, because in all of it one thing was clear: for her, the only kind of acceptable sexual⁠ relationships are monogamous⁠ , heterosexual⁠ , long-term commitments.

We first started having these conversations when I was around 14 years old, which was also when I first started to question my sexuality. From the start, I had some questions about this concept. What if I did not want to sleep with men at all? What if I did not feel interested in the marriage-and-kids thing?

A few years later, after two failed relationships (with the same wonderful person) and a lot of angst, I was fairly certain about two things: 1. I was pretty darn queer⁠ and 2. I wasn't cut out⁠ for monogamous, long-term relationships at the time. I did not feel comfortable within a relationship, no matter how awesome my partner⁠ was. It made me feel smothered, it made me feel responsible for someone in ways I wasn't ready and willing to be responsible, and it made me feel like I had to choose one side of myself and lock the others away for later.

Here's the thing: While I had a tough time coming out to my mother about being queer, I always knew that it was perfectly okay for me to be queer, and that if my mother couldn't accept that, it was something that she needed to work on. I understood, from the start, that being queer wasn't a pathology, it wasn't a character flaw, it wasn't the result of a dysfunctional childhood or the consequence of having grown up without my father around for much of the time.

My sexuality didn't have a root - it just was, and that was okay. I also understood, without anyone having to explain that to me, that my sexual orientation⁠ did not taint me, and it did not ruin me for anyone. If anyone was ever going to look down upon me for that, then it wasn't someone that I would want to be with, anyway.

I was not blessed with the same understanding about my second realization.

For some reason, it was hard-wired into my brain that not being interested in a monogamous relationship meant that I was unable to commit, and that meant that there was something wrong with me. Not being able to commit (I thought) means not being ready for a relationship (any relationship), it means having unresolved issues, and it means being flawed in some way.

When I once dared to mention to my mother that I thought it sounded kind of boring to be with one person for all your life, she told me that it was just because I was still young and hadn't met That One Person yet. I was inclined to agree. Sooner or later, I'd meet my Someone and change my mind. Because, surely, there was no other way?

The possibility of what a lot of people call "casual" sex⁠ didn't really enter my mind at the time. I had the (mis?)fortune of growing up relatively sheltered, and few of the people I knew in high school were having any kind of sex at all, much less sex outside steady romantic⁠ relationships. Most of my closest friends did not start dating until they were 17 or 18 years old, and they did not become sexually active⁠ until college. Those who did have sex in high school were in long-term relationships, and many of those relationships lasted for years. Casual sex just wasn't really something that was happening around me.

I knew it was a possibility, but I didn't really feel it might be one for me. I mean, women who have casual sex are into partying and drinking and revealing clothes, right? They certainly aren't tomboy-ish college students who write papers about The Awakening and don't even like the taste of alcohol. I was too well-adjusted for casual sex. Too well raised, too sheltered. Too--well--good.

Then my boyfriend of two years and I broke up. We had been in a monogamous relationship despite my reservations about that relationship-model, but it had been working out for me because the relationship was long-distance and I still had all of the freedom that I needed in my day-to-day life. I was upset about losing him, and not interested in starting a new relationship. But, lord knows, I was interested in discovering what else was out there.

During the same time, I started an internship and became friendly with a co-worker, A., who was just getting separated from her husband. Together, we decided to see what the nightlife had to offer for us. I had not expected to meet someone on my first night, to engage in any sexual contact at all. At 20, I had had only two sexual partners, and I was still only just starting to grow into my body and my sexuality. It seemed to me like I was still at the Beginner's level, and casual sex was definitely Advanced. But I decided to just go with the flow, do what feels good, and see where that led me.

I can still remember the way I felt after that first night. This is what I wrote in my journal the next morning:

I wonder how much we really need to know about people, and how much we can know, and why we think that knowing their name and birthdate and occupation is more important than knowing what their hands feel like on our bare skin, or why knowing the first three should at least be a prerequisite for the latter. Because last night I felt more alive than I have in a long time, and I don't care that I could not understand the man's name because the music was too loud and that I could not properly see his face because the lights were so dim. The things that mattered were the way he smelled and the way his stubble tickled my cheek when we danced close, what matters was the way his hands felt on my hips when he grabbed me to pull me closer, and the taste of his lips on mine.

I loved that feeling. It was incredibly empowering for me, and made me feel like a million bucks. And it got me hooked on hooking up. During the 8 weeks of my internship, A. and I went clubbing almost every weekend, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I went back to college after my internship was over, and eventually got back together with my partner. I told him about my experiences with the people from the club, and he appreciated my honesty. It did not change his feelings for me, or his desire⁠ to get back together with me.

Looking back on that time in my life, it doesn't seem like my experience had anything in common with the way in which hooking up is generally portrayed in the media now. I had neither fled into casual sex because I was unhappy, nor had I felt pressured into casual sex because my peers were doing it. I had been curious about the experience, given it a try, and found I liked it. I had had absolutely no role model in this: no one in my circle of friends had ever engaged in casual sex. I also was not driven to casual sex because I was profoundly unhappy.

True, I had been upset about the break-up. But it was still a very exciting time in my life: my internship was my first brush with "real" adulthood and living independently, working regular hours and experiencing a taste of what I hoped my future career would be like was exciting to me. There was nothing I would have needed to flee from.

I did not “bond” or fall in love with any of the people I was with sexually during that time. I never spent more than one night with any of them, and I only gave one of them my phone number. I did not miss them or wish to see them again.

This experience also did not, as far as I can tell, taint me or ruin me for any future partnerships. It did not influence my then-partner in his decision to rekindle our relationship, and had nothing to do with the end of our relationship another two years later. Since then, I have gone on to have other relationships, some open, some monogamous, with people who knew about my history, but either did not mind, or had similar backgrounds. I have certainly also met people who have expressed that they would not want to date me but, quite frankly, none of them were people that I would have been interested in being with.

The most important thing that I have learned in the years since, however, is that the strict binary⁠ division between casual sex and committed relationships is often blurry at best.

The world isn't neatly divided into slutty people and monogamous people. The world is full of people who are diverse, who change their minds, who grow and develop, who fall in and out of love or in and out of bed(s), who need and try different things at different times. And as long as we are always as honest as we can be with ourselves and others, the choices that we make and the bonds that we forge are just fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with any relationship model, nor with opting out of any relationship model, and opting into something that's really no kind of relationship at all. How good it is or isn't for us and how healthy we do or don't feel in it is contingent only on us and our specific context, and it is a choice only we can make and no one else.