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Labels: a shortcut to sexuality, and a box to keep you there

A Facebook friend messaged me last week with a question. Actually, there were a few questions and a lot of self-questioning that roughly boiled down to “what am I?” Sometime this week I’m going to turn her question over (anonymously) to my FB network to discuss, because I’m still not always sure about my ability to handle advice moments online. Like, what do I know, I’m a loudmouthed pervert and a former phone-sex operator. Do you really want me giving you relationship advice?

But her question did get me thinking, about how do we know what we are, and where do labels come in, and where do we as adults learn more about interesting sexual things, and how do we do that in ways that are safe and exciting and move us along quickly to more satisfaction and clarity in our own sexuality, quickly, as in NOW?

That is one of the hardest parts about this line of questioning, wanting to take care of stuff now. The older we get, the more we are aware that time is passing and we don’t have forever; this deeply internalized existential fear is only exacerbated by the passage of time. Our tits sag more, the wrinkles begin, and WHO IS GOING TO LOVE US AND/OR WANT TO FUCK US WHEN WE ARE OLD AND GRAY AND DYING WITH WORN-OUT PARTS. So, yeah, go ahead and try to get empowered, but you are pushing against that for sure. It’s a biological clock that most everyone hears.

Lots of times we hope that finding our labels will help us get there faster. And they do help, in some ways. Labels can help us to narrow our search and filter possibilities. With a properly clear identity, we can find the right workshops and munches and FB groups; we can put down the right acronym in the online personals, we’ll be able to weed out the people who just Aren’t Right for us. Sometimes this label is literal, even. When I was just coming out in college as a lesbian, having that label—I mean, actually having a badge on or a t-shirt that said “lesbian”—felt like my easy way of signifying to others, sending out the beacon. It was a flare sent up to the skies: this is what I am, come find me. I want to get laid, or at least feel less alone.

Ultimately, labels in the realm of sexuality bring with them a whole set of assumptions, about what you do and don’t do, what you want and don’t want. It’s a way to shorthand it. We look to our labels as a way to convey the whole package, to convey us.

Except labels don’t always… let’s say they rarely work like that. To a lot of people, dom means hard, cruel master, with whips-and-chains on tap 24/7… unless it turns out to be a caring loving Daddy who checks that you’re eating well. Dyke means women only… but what if you occasionally like playing with dick? These are just two really high-profile labels, but all labels work like this. They are paradoxically useful and ludicrously inadequate for two or more people trying to figure out how to get down with one another in a mutually satisfying way.

The labels, the “what am I” part of exploring our sexuality, they’re an okay starting point, as far as looking up chat groups online, but you have to be ready to look beyond them, allowing them to be descriptive of where you are in this moment in time, rather than prescriptive of your sex life going forward. Don’t stop with the word or the badge. Get into the details, as deep as you can, as deep as feels okay in the moment. Talking will not help someone else finally “grok” you, but it'll take you down a better path toward that end.

So my first recommendation for my FB friend, and anyone worrying about “what I am” has to be: think about what you like to do, instead. Think about how you like to touch or be touched, where you want to meet, how you want to laugh or be silent, how deep you want to go and with what. It might take a little longer to explain, but it gives you more room to breathe.

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