This blog entry returns to my How Sexuality Works series which uses the metaphor of a river to help explain sexuality and eroticism. For prior posts in the series click the links below or skip below to read about sexual compatibility.
Are We Sexually Compatible?
At the beginning of a relationship the question of sexual compatibility is an exciting one to explore as anticipation mingles with the newness of the relationship. You wonder if this new person could fulfill all of your wildest fantasies. In a long-term relationship, you may approach the question with feelings of dread. What if you aren’t compatible? What do we do then?
I’m going to use the metaphor of a river again to present a tool for opening a conversation about sexual compatibility with nuance that goes beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer. First, I’m going to invite you to identify the sexual behaviors and interests you do and don’t have. Before you can identify whether you and your partner are compatible, you each need to understand your own sexuality. Second, I’m going to present you with a way to compare your sexual interests with your partner’s. So, print off the Sexual Compatibility Record (.pdf here), give one sheet to your partner and keep one for yourself, and read this entry and fill out the sheet. This is an interactive blog entry.
Your Sexual Topography
Essential Sexuality (Dark Blue)
The first task is to identify the essential elements of your sexuality and write those down in the dark blue Essential Sexuality section. Don’t make this just the bare minimum that would prevent you from depression. Do identify what behaviors or partners make you feel like your sexual expression is full and complete.
Some Elements to Consider:
- Sexual Orientation: Most people cannot be healthy and happy if they are not able to find a way to express their sexual orientation. If that fits your experience, write it down in the Essential Sexuality column.
- Love: You may need a loving relationship with your sexual partner and without that, even if they are doing all the right sexual things, the sex would feel stale. Write that down.
- Sexual Frequency: Maybe if you have sex less than once a month you feel like something is dying inside of you. Write that down.
- Kinks: For many people there are certain kink dynamics, roles, or practices that feel as essential to them as a sexual orientation.
- Relationship Styles: For some people monogamy is essential. For others, there are non-monogamous relationship forms that are important.
The only caution I have is that if you are considering putting something here that you are also ashamed of, you may have a different experience of the central nature of that desire if you ever remove that shame. It may feel less essential without shame supercharging the eroticism.
Good for Vibrancy (Light Blue)
Many people have sexual fantasies, desires, positions, roles, or partners that they enjoy but which they don’t feel are essential. Maybe a dominant partner feels essential but spankings are a bonus. Maybe a loving relationship is essential and romantic words would be gravy but not necessary. Write down anything that feels like a joyful abundance on top of an already full and vibrant sexual life.
Interested but Unnecessary (Dark Green)
Beyond the joyful abundance of the prior category, there may be a group of sexual behaviors that you aren’t quite sure what to think about but you’d like to try. Whether this is a sexual position that looks compelling if you could just get your ankle to the right place or that toy at the adult store that you keep thinking about with curiosity, “What does that feel like?” This category is probably the one that is the easiest to change. When you try something and you like that experience, the sexual behavior will probably goes into one of the earlier categories, if you don’t like it, the behavior may land in a category below.
Uninterested but Willing (Light Green)
There’s a great set of scenes in the movie “Analyze That” where Billy Crystal’s character, a therapist, is working with a couple. The man wants the woman to do some sexual-cowboy roleplaying because it turns him on. At the end of the movie, Billy Crystal, says something like, “What’s the big deal? You put on the hat and the chaps and give it a try. It isn’t going to kill you.” This is the category of things that just don’t do much for you sexually. Though, they aren’t a turn-on, if a partner was really into it you could be a good sport, be generous, and do that for them.
This is the category for sexual behaviors that you do not want to do. It might include words you don’t want to use or to be used for you, as well as positions that would hurt, things an old lover did that you now have bad associations with, or things that are just on your “no” list because that’s how you work.
The term “squick” comes from the BDSM community and refers to sexual interests or behaviors that gross you out or give you the creeps. This category is for behaviors that generate that feeling in you. This category is not a way for you to shame your partner for their interests. It is a subjective experience. When someone has a squicked-out reaction it is probably hard to even have a discussion about the possibility of bringing it into your sex life together. If one partner squicks to another’s essential sexuality, the squicked partner probably doesn’t want to hear about that interest.
Now that both partners have filled out their own sheets, sit together and put Partner 1’s sheet on the left and Partner 2’s sheet on the right so the two dark blue “Essential Sexuality” columns are next to each other. You might want to note which sexual interests are on your partner’s sheet but not on yours and then add that interest to your sheet in whichever column it fits for your interests. What I want you to do now is to imagine that you are looking at a topographical map of a river valley from the air. The two dark blue columns are the river’s baseline level. If the river doesn’t fill this river bed, there’s a bit of a drought in the sexual relationship. If the river is full like the spring flow of a river it will reach the light blue areas. In that case, there is a lot of erotic water in the river for nourishing the members of the couple in this case and gratitude and abundance results. Sometimes a couple might be able to foray into the “interested but unnecessary” dark green territory like a river that branches out and supports copses of tress and forests. Maybe in very good times a couple is even able to explore areas of “uninterested but willing” like branches of a river that reach all the way to plains and fields. But if the river is flooding the “unwilling” or “squick” areas of the map, there will be difficulty living in harmony with the river. Many times sexual conflicts between couples come when one member is trying to push their partner into that brown or black territory and they haven’t understood that their partner is different from them sexually. Your partner is always very different from you sexually because our sexuality is so unique.
Difference, Compatibility, and Incompatibility
Keep in mind that the two sides of the river valley for any couple almost certainly aren’t the same. One person’s side might get more easily flooded, the other person’s is harder to fill up. One person’s dark blue “essential sexuality” could be enough to flood the green areas of the other partner. Conversely one person’s “good for vibrancy” might not be enough to fill the other partner’s “essential sexuality” river basin. But an apparent difference does not equal incompatibility. In fact, I can’t imagine any two people having the same map.
There’s good news if you are seeing differences looking at these two maps. The first is that you have been honest enough to share the truth of the differences. The second is that you may begin seeing the adaptability of sexuality working as you talk. One person might say, “Well, I did list that as essential, but actually, I’ve done fine without it for years. I guess it really is just ‘good for vibrancy’”. The other partner might say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that sexual behavior was so important to you. I’d like to talk about it more. I know that I put it under ‘unwilling’ but now that I know how important it is to you, I guess I can at least learn more about it. Maybe in time I can shift it to ‘willing but uninterested’ or even more.” Maybe you work out a kind of seasonal flooding agreement where something special to one partner in the essential sexuality column gets filled on a birthday as the other partner allows the erotic waters of the couple to reach their “uninterested but willing” plains.
There’s even more good news, these sexual topographies can and often do change across the lifespan. Whether we’re talking about sexual orientation fluidity as identified by Lisa Diamond (link to her book) and others, or the way that experience and aging change our interests, you need not view either your own or your partner’s map as a fixed given. If you want to have a conversation about it, especially if you are interested in finding out whether it might be possible to shift something for your partner from a brown or black column to another, I recommend a simple process. Start by separating any actual or potential sexual activity from the discussion. So, maybe at a coffee shop or in the dining room alone you ask, “Hey, I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your ‘unwilling’ category from the sexual compatibility exercise we did. Would that be alright?” Then you try to do some active listening to understand more about the reason the behavior is there. Was there a bad experience with it in the past? Does your partner not understand something about it? Then, rather than shifting from listening to becoming a sudden apologist and advocate for the behavior(s) in question, ask if they have any willingness to change the category of that behavior. If yes, then ask how they would like to go about the process and if you could help or participate. Maybe somewhere in the conversation you find a place to identify why you are asking by pointing out that it would mean a lot to you because that behavior is “good for vibrancy” for you and then restate your desire to respect their boundaries and needs about it. Remember, it is a conversation. A dialogue. Not an opportunity to harangue your partner into giving up their sexual boundaries.
In the end, maybe the title of this post is a little deceptive. This tool doesn’t tell you whether you and a partner are sexually compatible or not. It is really a conversation starter. With this tool you can find the inevitable differences between your sexual topographies and begin to figure out how to consciously direct and navigate the sexual energy in your relationship, the flow of the water in your collective river, to create compatibility.