Culture has a script for how romantic interactions work. Part of this script is not really talking about what you are doing, before and during, and maybe not after either. This is completely baffling to me, because I don’t expect my partner to read my mind. That would imply I can read her mind! What an absolutely terrifying prospect. Yes, I can read her body fairly well, but I can’t read her mind. We’ve also talked extensively about our likes, dislikes and limits. As a grey-a, this was really important to me, and really the only way I would engage in sensexual cuddles. (But everyone should talk about those things for reasons I will discuss below)
I’ve done the not talking to my partner thing, and well…it resulted in him following the cultural script of kissing me on the mouth as step 1. He was a gentleman who didn’t want to push my boundaries, so he took the romantic/sexual action that was considered the least invasive.Now, to be clear, I love that he didn’t push my boundaries. I hadn’t come out as ace yet, but he knew I was inexperienced and not comfortable with sexual things. However, I hate that like the idiot teenagers we were, we never talked about what we were doing, so I couldn’t tell him that I thought kissing him on the mouth was kinda gross (all that saliva exchange) and wouldn’t he like to try kissing my neck instead? He was supposed to read my mind, and I was supposed to read his. So we didn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t fault him for doing what he was “supposed’ to do and I didn’t want to insult him by telling him kissing him was not really fun at all. So what was the message here? The script says that everyone in a relationship enjoys kissing and it is first base. For absolutely everyone kissing is considered a fairly low-level sexual activity. Talking before or during is not sexy.
Now, let’s contrast it with a recent discussion I had with my partner. I am going to be paraphrasing because I don’t actually feel like sharing our private things with you all, but the point, I hope, will still be obvious. My partner shared with me that she wanted to explore sensations on a body part we had thought in the past might be too tickly for her. I agreed that sounded like fun, and asked her if there were any sensations she was particularly interested in or ways of touch she would like to try. She told me what she had already tried and said she hadn’t really thought about it yet. I proposed a few things, which she enthusiastically approved. We then had a short discussion on the topic, covering what else we might be interested in for textures and touch and context. The end result is that both of us are a)excited to try something new together b) knowledgeable about what each of us is interested in, and c)had a chance to share anything about the situation that might make us uncomfortable. Furthermore, insomuch as I find things sexy, talking comfortably about what my partner would like to do with me is pretty sexy and definitely romantic. It reaffirms for me that my partner is comfortable with me, interested romantically in me, and interested in making me happy.
So, I am a little bit confused as to why people wouldn’t want to talk with their partners about romantic, sexual or whatever they call their physical interactions with their partners. I get why it is scary and why it might not happen, but I think that if we got more messages that it was a useful tool for a relationship, then people would be more willing to do the work to make it possible. As you can see above, I clearly thought it was scary. It can still be scary to be that open to someone, but it is totally worth it. Sometimes it feels a bit embarrassing (okay, okay, a lot) to talk frankly about what you want, but it makes for a much closer relationship.
There are some serious cultural barriers to open communication between partners about a lot of parts in a relationship, not just the physical bits. There is the myth that love is magical and your partner will just know what you want romantically and sexually and how to make you happy. Well, I think love can be magical, but it isn’t the kind of magic that rises up by itself, and it doesn’t come with mind-reading skills. There is the myth that talking during anything intimate is going to break the mood. However, we have already established that telepathy doesn’t come with being in a relationship. So, if you can’t read your partner’s mind, how are you going to do everything they really want you to do? How are you going to avoid touching them in a way or spot they might really not like? You can talk beforehand (as I campaign for above), but you still might need to ask about/for something while you are in the middle of things. Perfection shouldn’t be a requirement to be intimate with someone, and might be impossible, but the closest option available to perfection is going to involve a lot of communication before, during, and after successive times of intimacy. There is the fear that if you ask about something, and your partner says no, you won’t get to do it. Well…if you just did it without asking, and they were emotionally or physically hurt by that action, isn’t that worse? There is the perfectly understandable fear of sharing or just being uncomfortable with being that frank about the topic, and that is okay. But it is still worth at least working up to talking about some of the basics.
Now, I am biased because my relationship runs on open communication. We talk a lot about everything and it just makes sense for our sensexual cuddles to be something we talk about. However, I think that everyone really does need to talk to their partner, regardless of whether they are engaging in any physical contact at all. The social aspects are important too. Does your partner mind the use of pet names in front of other people or prefer you didn’t use them at all? How much do they still want to be seen as an individual as their social image or are they okay with people saying your names together like a unit? What is unacceptable PDA? How much time is too much time together? How much time is too little? So on and so forth. Some of this will fall into place naturally, but if you don’t feel like you can talk to your partner, how do you tell them to change something before it becomes a problem?
I think that for aces, whether in a relationship with another ace or a sexual person, communication about touch is really important. Aces come in a lot of flavors with all different levels of comfort of touch. (Just like sexual people, but I am going to focus on aces for the moment.) For example, I am grey-a and completely comfortable with platonic cuddles, really interested in different sensations, and happy to do some sexual things that fall within my realm of fun sensations and please my partner. We’ve talked about it and come up with our own term, sensexual cuddles, that acknowledges that there are sexual aspects to our cuddles, but also a heavy focus on the sensual, the textures and sensations of being with another person without any real goal of sexual release. This is a result of us talking about it. We know each other’s limits and likes and will sometimes talk in the middle of things about how something made us feel. If we hadn’t talked about it, she would have no way of knowing what I meant when I said, “I am okay with some sexual things….” “Okay, so what sexual things?” Other aces are not okay with anything sexual or prefer not to be touched. Even between aces (or really any two people), there could be a differing level of physical contact that they want/are comfortable with.
I spent a really long time thinking I couldn’t possibly date because I love physical contact, but I don’t really care about sexual contact. In my mind this meant I couldn’t date other aces because what I wanted might be too physical or borderline sexual-feeling for them, and I couldn’t date sexual people because I really had no idea how I would react to sexual contact. It took my partner (prepartnering) going, “…but why wouldn’t people date you? I think you’re awesome!” multiple times for me to really truly think it was an option. The way that our relationship works is communication. Talking about what works, what both of us want out of our relationship, emotionally, romantically, and physically. I can’t imagine my relationship working without these open and frank lines of communication. The heteronormative script, the sexual pleasure-focused script…they don’t work for us. So we wrote our own.