So for a few years now I’ve been very close with my roommate/best friend. We’ve joked about being basically girlfriends before, but recently had a more serious conversation about it and decided that our relationship is definitely not all that platonic (although we’re both ace and struggle with the concept of romance, so what that means is still kinda cloudy). This conversation really needed to happen anyway, but the specific catalyst for it was that we kissed. We’ve been trying to discuss/move forward with a more intimate relationship because we decided that surprisingly, that’s actually something both of us might be interested in, but I feel like it’s being complicated by a lot of road blocks. Neither of us really has any idea what we’re doing, so getting physically close can be really awkward. I don’t think either of us really banked on ever having a sexual relationship of any kind, so this is unknown territory. I have an anxiety disorder and past bad experiences with sexual stuff, so I tend to shut down and be terrified to actually do anything, even when I want to. We’ve tried to talk about boundaries, but since we have no real frame of reference, it’s more like a game of trial and error. I think it also feels a bit like whiplash for me because a month ago, this entire concept felt like something mildly creepy that I should keep to myself at all costs, and now we’re already talking about things that I haven’t even really allowed myself to think about. How do people do this? We’re trying our best to communicate about it and keep the rest of our relationship the same as it’s been, but I’m honestly at a loss for how to move past the sheer awkwardness and anxiety. How do we stop being a mess?
First, the fact that you’re spending the time to be thoughtful and communicative about your desires and boundaries is a very good sign! These conversations are often awkward and anxiety-inducing even if you’ve had a lot of experience. Each new partner and each new relationship brings its own unique sets of needs, wants, boundaries, expectations, desires — and sometimes those change even with the same person or relationship.
Hardly anybody really knows what they’re doing most of the time — it’s so often trial and error, some degree of experimentation, changing tastes and changing minds. Sometimes we think that if something is good it must be smooth sailing and if it’s awkward something is wrong — but that’s not always the case. Conversations like these are hard! And weird! Especially if they’re new! Cut yourself some slack — it sounds like you’re doing the best you can.
I too have had my sense of my sexuality shift over the years: from asexual, to pansexual, to primarily lesbian, to “open to some sort of physical intimacy from certain kinds of guys given very specific circumstances.” Each shift brought about its own terrifying identity crisis, especially when I had just spent years coming to terms with my earlier understanding of my sexuality, going through the process of coming out to myself and others, and even ending or changing relationships. It was like a core part of my identity was broken. Who was I really? Was I wrong about myself? Was I living a lie? Is everything I know wrong? Is my life over? There’s such tremendous pressure to know, sometimes, to always be certain about our identity, that the answer is permanent, that to change it is to admit we were faking it on some level.
If this sounds like you: you, and I, we’re not wrong. We were not living lies, we are not fakes. Our lives are not over, even if certain assumptions or expectations change. We are still ourselves, even if our understanding of who that is was different five years ago, or will be different five years from now, or even if we don’t know who we are just yet. Sexual fludity can come about for so many reasons — trauma, change of circumstance, growing older — or maybe it’s inherent in us that there’s nothing really inherent about us at all. We’re still ourselves underneath.
What’s been helpful with my current shift is to tease apart differing kinds of physical intimacy and thinking about what I would be open to exploring with whom, often on a case-by-case basis. There are many different ways to be physically intimate that don’t have to lead to “conventional sex” or even any genital contact at all. Kissing is one of them, as you’ve discovered — and there are so many different ways to kiss. Other touches, like snuggling, cuddling, caresses, running hands through hair, massage, words, whispers, scratching, biting and more, give you so many options, from the very gentle to the rough’n’tumble, each with their own variations. You don’t already have to know what you like or don’t like before you try something — sometimes that knowledge is useful, but it’s totally fine to try something out just to see how you or your partner feels about it. Communicate with your partner, give it a shot, and see how you feel.
Maybe you don’t like having a certain action performed on you but you like to perform it on your partner and she’s willing to receive, or vice versa. Maybe you’re not entirely against or for that move, so even after trying it out you’re not sure, but you’d like to try again later and see if anything changes. Maybe there are certain zones of your or her body that are no-go zones, or yes-please zones, or huh-that’s-interesting-let’s-explore-that-for-a-bit zones. Hell, maybe you’d be into one thing one day and then later decide it’s not for you. That’s totally fine! It’s all trial and error but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing: as long as you and your partner keep communicating and listening to each other, you’ll be on the right track.
We’ve made a worksheet for partners to help work out and communicate their sexual desires. Some of it discusses intense sexual acts that may be beyond what you’re interested in or ready for right now, but the prompts about how you’d like to be spoken to or drawing lines or finding the intersections between your interests and your partner’s interests can still be helpful regardless. Feel free to adapt the worksheet to your own needs.
You mentioned prior bad sexual experiences shutting you down out of fear even when desire is present. That’s very common and totally understandable. As a survivor of sexual violence, there were some sexual things I couldn’t do for years, until I’d worked through therapy and also found willing and patient partners. Therapy can help you build skills in listening and communication, process your prior trauma, develop tools for boundary setting and owning your desires, and help you manage that whiplash you’re currently facing.
As complicated and difficult as it is, you sound like you’re off to a good start. You’re considerate of yourselves and each other, you’re taking your time, you’re investing time in making sure this experience is good for the both of you. Keep at it! Keep communicating with each other, keep listening to each other. Be open to trying new things, but also don’t feel obliged to try anything you don’t feel up for just because you think that’s what people in sexual relationships do. Even if you just stay with kisses, with non-carnal physical intimacy, if you both are fine with it then that’s all that matters. Embrace the awkward, embrace the anxiety — you’re embarking on new territory here, not just with the relationship but with your understanding of yourselves. Things don’t have to be smooth sailing to be good. We are all just beings of trial and error, shifts and changes.