Content warning: Discussion of sexual violence.
The origin of this article was a question from a reader who reached out to me on Instagram with a question about her experience of violence and desire as a queer woman currently in relationship with a cis man. She wrote:
“I’m a queer woman who is currently in relationship with a cis man, and I’ve been pondering recently how to manage a shift in sexual practice since going from largely aggressive male partners to a sensitive and respectful one who often waits for me to initiate. I get confused by the lack of quasi-assault, and interpret it as a lack of interest. I’m starting to realize I experience desirability via a violation of my boundaries, and it’s a weird, murky place to navigate. I’m bi/pan/however you want to define it, but I’ve only experienced this kind of thing with cis men. With non-men, sex has been way more…expressive? There’s no dichotomy between violence and desire there, it’s somehow more connected and playful and a level playing field. I haven’t talked to my current partner about how the difference between sex with cis men and sex with other partners, but I have talked to him about the desirability/aggression thing…like after our first date, I wasn’t sure if he liked me, because he hadn’t grabbed me and kissed me, and he was like, ‘I was just being respectful.’ I guess I’m still unlearning this whole idea of, just because he doesn’t make aggressive forward initiations, then he doesn’t find me attractive or sexually appealing. Is this bad?”
Originally, I was going to answer this like any other advice column, but the nature of the question seemed bigger than that, and something that I thought perhaps a lot of queer women could relate to, especially those who from time to time find themselves in relationships with cis men. So, let’s break down some of the themes here.
First is the question of desirability, and how we interpret being desired based on our gender, and the gender of our partner(s). As bi/pan/however-you-want-to-define-it queer women, we often have the uniquely beautiful experience of being able to interact with partners of many different genders, and your assessment of how desire and dynamics shift in response to the various genders of your partners is an astute one. How can it not? We bring all of who we are, and all of the unspoken messages we’ve learned about sex and sexuality throughout the course of our lives, to each sexual or romantic interaction we have. Those experiences and conditioning then interact with the ways our partners’ learned sexuality in order to create unique and idiosyncratic exchanges. We create something new each time we partner with someone, whether that be in a long-term romantic and sexual partnership, a brief onetime encounter, a friends-with-benefits arrangement, a situationship, etc.
I was curious about how other bisexual/pansexual femmes navigated gender, sexuality, and desire, because I was certain that you weren’t the only person who’s experienced this. I put out a call on my IG asking people to talk to me about the social conditioning they received about sex/sexuality being raised and/or perceived as feminine, and how it impacted their own experience of desire. Most people responded with things like, “Oof,” or “where to EVEN begin,” or “how much time do you have? lolcry” – so clearly, the topic resonates with people. But beyond that, the answers I received where many and varied. A common them, though, was primarily one of having to unlearn toxic messaging about who we are. For example, Kit, a stripper, poet, and shit-talk astrologer, said, “I feel like I was taught to fear my femininity and sexuality as if it’d turn against me if I honed it or loved it.” Kit said that she was taught that to own her sexuality would lead to failure or disaster of some kind: “Teen pregnancies or women ‘failing’ because of their sexuality is super, super common in my family,” she said. By contrast, Kit says that she sees her sexuality and desirability as her strength and source of power – a disruptive and transformative narrative not uncommon to those who work in the sex industry. “Now with either gender I’m always told I’m comfortable or confident, so joke’s on you, social norms,” Kit says.
Another person told me that they’re “not great at identifying desire when it’s coming from other femmes” – highly relatable content, as many a meme will attest. They went on to explain that, “cis men are, like, incredibly obvious and often sort of tiresome but sometimes kind of adorable, and there’s this swaggery masc energy that I see in trans masc and butch people. But femmes are like. It’s almost like we’re all too uncertain to make our desire clear to each other?” This description seems to me moderately in keeping with your description of aggression and desire with regard to sexual encounters with cis man – not that swaggery masc energy is aggressive, necessarily, but that masculinity and toxic masculinity are a spectrum, and that one aspect of that spectrum has to do with being the active participant, the pursuer, the subject/protagonist who drives the action in the relationship. This is not to say that femmes can’t ever embody that energy, of course, but that a more toxic version of this is what you’ve felt in your interactions with cis male partners in the past, and it’s relative lack in the relationship that you’re in now might be contributing in part to some of your confusion reading his desire for you.
The fact that there’s a lot more freedom in your interactions with non-men doesn’t surprise me, from the standpoint of thinking critically about conditioning and social norms. There’s a reason that queerness and queer love is radical, and it’s because there aren’t any scripts for it in mainstream culture. Sure, we’ve all heard of lesbians U-HAULing, and lesbian bed death, and the stereotype of gay men only wanting anonymous sex to the exclusion of intimacy and emotional connection. And certainly, queer people suffer from these narratives – as a therapist and sex educator, I’ve worked with both queer women and gay men who express frustration at the way these stereotypes weigh heavy on their dating and romantic lives and serve as boxes from which it seems impossible to break free. But we’re also at the beginning of a very new generation of queer people, folks who are starting to be more comfortable talking openly about and organizing their lives around things like ethical non-monogamy and polyamory; who have more fluency when considering sexuality and romantic attraction and how the two intersect, and also diverge. We are a community for whom asexuality and demisexuality are no longer unnamable experiences but legitimate identities, and one that understands that sex doesn’t have to look a certain way (involving penetration, for example, or even orgasm) in order to be considered valid and worthy expression of authentic sexuality.
This is a distinctly beautiful and powerful place to be, and yet, as with any moment of change, transformation, and newness, it can also be frightening. I know from my own experience as a bisexual femme the pressure I felt to go back to what I had been forcibly taught and had internalized over the course of my life, especially in a fraught and overwhelming political moment. My last relationship was with a cis straight white man from a conservative family (I know, I know) and it started just before Trump was elected in 2016. I distinctly remember thinking about the ways in which identity politics featured heavily in this relationship – my extremely misplaced certainty that my proximity, via my then-boyfriend, to all these markers of power that I lacked (cisness, straightness, whiteness, monogamy, and a stereotypical type of masculinity, the very top of the hegemonic tier) might somehow extend to me, not because I wanted to be powerful by proxy, but because I desperately wanted to be safe.
I’m sure you can imagine how well that worked out.
Our identities are inseparable from the ways in which we relate. S. Tazia answered my IG post by describing how she had been raised to view her own sexuality as something shameful that had to kept secret. “As a young black female, I had several people say or insinuate ‘not being fast’ so I snuck around, kept secrets, and judged females who were more out there and maybe even missed out on great interactions because I believed so many ‘no no’ rules.” When I asked her if she experienced desire differently with cis het men versus people of other genders, she explained, “with cis het men I’m more reserved because I feel there’s always a bigger risk of being in danger…I try to keep physicality out of the conversation so they don’t think or expect sex is happening.” She, like you, reads aggression and danger into desire when it comes to interacting with cis het men, something that I can also relate to, and it informs aspects not only of dating, but even of the preliminary conversations she has with new people: “I always have my guard up to an extend but even more so with cis het men and non-POC individuals. I like to talk about sex and relationships but most men take that as a sign that you desire them and I usually just desire to conversational attention.” Hearing this made me sad at same time as it struck me as discouragingly familiar, and made me wonder at how heavy queer women’s interactions with cis men often tend to be. How can we have good sex if we don’t even feel safe enough to talk about sex with our partners or prospective partners without being on our guard? And how can we ever let our guard down when our entire lives the world has been teaching us that we must keep it up unless we want to earn the violence we all endure?
It sounds like aggression and desire for you have become intertwined because that is the experience with cis men that is familiar to you, and familiarity in our bodies is interpreted as safety. I am sorry that this has been your experience, and I am sorry that it has also been mine. I’m sorry that male aggression is so normalized – for us, and also for men, because I do not believe that it reflects an authentic part of their sexuality either. Nor is it, from my interactions with non-cis masculine folks and butch women, an authentic part of masculinity itself. I am sorry that bi women’s identities are perceived as shapeshifting in response to the gender of our partners – when we have straight male partners, we are read as straight women, even though that is not what our internal experience and identity really is. I’m sorry that we often internalize that projection, incorporate it unknowingly into our own self-concept, and have to fight to remember who we are as separate from the people we are dating and fucking. I’m sorry that sometimes it is harder to fight for the types of relationships we want when we are with men, and that cis men aren’t given the tools to create expressive, collaborative, creative, and joyful sexual relationships with bi women, the way that queer people, by necessity, often must be creative since even now, our experiences are unrepresented and erased.
I don’t think it is impossible, however, for you to begin to heal the ways in which aggression and desire have become conflated for you with regard to cis male partners, and I think having a gentle partner now is actually a great place to start. You’re not the only person for whom cis male tenderness is confusing. Another respondent, Eve Ettinger, noted that it was her own conception of what it meant to be desired that factored into some of her confusion. “Desire for me was so defined by being needed,” she told me. “It’s hard to separate it now – and of course having needs of my own is antithetical, which made me most comfortable in stone/service top kinds of modes. Having tender male desire is hard to relate to unless I put myself in feminine terms in my head and cast myself as more male in the roles — meaning, needing comfort is easy to read as desire and to work with, but tender desire from a man often feels fake to me.”
I would encourage you to do some more reflecting on what desire and being desired means to you, specifically in the context of aggression, transgression of boundaries, and violence. There’s no wrong answer here, but if it feels heavy or frightening to consider this, be gentle with yourself – and perhaps seek the support of a professional if you find that you are working through lots of trauma. If you feel safe enough to do so, talk about how you experience sex differently with your current partner, how it was with previous male partners, and with non-men. It sounds like he has at least a modicum of working knowledge of how his identity as a cis man impacts the way in which he interacts with you. Ask him to tell you more about what he meant when he said he was trying to be “respectful.” Was it rooted in slutshaming ideas about what it means for women to “put out” on the first date? Or was he truly aware of how being more “forward” or taking more initiative might be experienced by you as pressure or aggression? Ask him where he learned that. Is he willing to talk about the difference with you without feeling attacked or guilty about his own identity? Is he the type of partner who is not only conscious of these dynamics, but also curious and willing to engage with them – not only for your sake, but also for his own? Is he willing to critique the scripts of masculinity as they apply to him, and be intentional about his own experience of gender (being a cis man, though often seen as the default, is still just one gender among many and therefore should be intentionally and thoughtfully engaged with!), and the ways that it plays out in your relationship? And if he is not, what would that mean to you?
It also bears mentioning that the interplay between aggression and desire are not, in and of themselves, bad things – though it sounds like in your life, you’ve experienced them mostly as violence and harm. Part of me wonders if, because of this, you judge yourself for sometimes feeling desired mostly in the context of aggression, and I want to let you know that that is not necessarily a “bad” thing, nor does it mean that you have been “broken” by your previous experiences. The energy of aggression, when consciously and intentionally engaged with, can be an extremely potent and erotic energy. It can be exciting. That’s what a lot of kinky experiences play with, after all – a conscious willingness to transgress what our normative sexual scripts tell us are taboo, within the deliberately and explicitly stated bounds of consent. Exploring that, if you choose to, could quite possibly be a healing and empowering experience. (It also doesn’t have to be, though – it just has to be what works for you.)
The question you end on is “Is this bad?” and that stands out to me as significant. I’ll tell you what I tell all my clients who come to me seeking help for sex and sexuality issues: I truly don’t believe that there is any one “right” way to be when it comes to our sexual and erotic lives. So many of us are put in the position of having to ask ourselves if we are “bad” or “broken” for being the way we are, and desiring the things we desire, but to me, whenever I hear a client use the word “bad” to describe some aspect of their sexuality or sexual experience, more than anything else it’s a prompt to explore with them some of the normative sexual scripts they are measuring themselves against. But you don’t need to measure up to any of the things you’ve been taught are the “right” ways to be as a sexual being. There is no way to do sexuality “right” by any objective, external standard. You only have to have the curiosity, and the gentle courage, to explore what feels right, and true, for you.