Power and Options: A Bit of Backstory

Heather Edwards

When I was sixteen, I stumbled across something that lit me up. Sex… sort of. The power to say no to parts of sex and yes to others fascinated me.

It was an accident, this discovery. He was several years older than me and was very sexually experienced. I was (by design and because of family history with teenage pregnancy) cautious and very slow to add to my sexual repertoire. This gap in both age and experience created a power dynamic whether we meant for it to or not.

My 16-year-old self considered her options:

OPTION 1: This could be the summer I actually have penis-vagina intercourse for the first time and it would be with a guy I'm crazy about. I'd have to be super careful and would still  be risking pregnancy. I don’t think I would have an abortion if I become pregnant and I really don’t want to be pregnant OR have a baby right now. This option comes with life-changing consequences.

OPTION 2: I could just see how things go and decide later. I don’t think I want to have penis-vagina sex, but I’ll just deal with it when the situation becomes more imminent. I don’t know what he expects but maybe we shouldn’t talk about it because I don't want him to leave if he knows I'm probably not going to want to have sex. He knows I’ve never done the penis-vagina thing so I’m sure he’ll respect that as a boundary because he’s a nice guy. Right?

OPTION 3: I think that the risks of intercourse are far more than I can manage right now. Pregnancy would be an absolute train wreck. I don’t even want to have to go through the process of considering abortion and I absolutely do not want a child. This guy is going back to college in a couple of months so this is not likely to be a thing that’s going to last which could be emotionally brutal for me. I need to set my boundaries very clearly with him so there is no grey area about what “might” happen. If he respects them and I can trust him, maybe I can relax and enjoy sexy time a little more without feeling the need to  gatekeep every step of the way. 

I chose option three. Unknown to me at the time, this was when I uncovered a deep part of my erotic self and psyche. This guy was not the first guy I had been sexually explorative with, but it was the first time that I wasn’t just bumbling through and dealing with the constant push-pull of wanting and regretting. It was so damn freeing! I could trust and let go and FEEL. Managing expectations on the front end allowed me to let go of my inner judge-gatekeeper and it was glorious. What I understood later was that this was my first experience of the power of submission and my ability to set terms in order to access that state.

From then on, I moved through the world as a sexually empowered human who never struggled with sex again because I had unlocked the power of… umm... power?


Shoutout to you closeted kinksters

This is where I want to shout out to all you kinky people who don’t actually understand that you are kinky and who consequently keep being baffled by why “normal” sex is so damn frustrating. 

I didn’t realize for YEARS that I was kinky. I didn’t realize that the way that I understand sex is a little different than our cultural norm. I just knew that these things were true for me:
  • Sex is exceptionally powerful
  • The source of that power is the reason why we have sex at all
  • People are deeply afraid of the power that sex represents
  • I wanted to know it all and feel it all

In my naïve, young mind (in my 20s and into 30s), I assumed that anyone I would partner with would have also arrived at these truths and we’d be off on our  adventurous explorations together. Because why the hell not? 

What I understand now is a little different. I know that there are people who enjoy the comfort of sex not being challenging. It’s nice, romantic, and can feel really good. And that’s what it is. Most of time. Though I would absolutely add this caveat: until someone's body stops working right and then it’s a disaster and they come into my office feeling broken and dejected.

Do you enjoy going to same beach every year?

To speak in metaphor (and totally impose a false binary for sake of simplification), some people want to know that each summer they’re going to go to the beach and have a lovely time because it’s the beach! They’ll go to their favorite beach and eat at the same restaurants, and stay in the same place and they love that. They don’t have to really plan it, discuss it, or think about it. It’s just the simplicity of the pleasant default. And the beach is lovely. I love the beach! 
But for those of us who feel pretty certain that there are places we want to visit that are not the beach, the unspoken default of the beach can be maddening. And attempts at trying to vary the beach experience or going to a completely different landscape, or go to the beach with someone else… these are direct threats to the stability of the pleasant beach vacation. So the longing for a different kind of experience has to be either shunned, kept secret, or build until it explodes because the desire to experience more in this life is just too strong. 
Ideally, beach people would partner with beach people. But many of us love the beach and don’t realize that we’re not beach-as-automatic-default kind of people until we’ve already gotten into a relationship with a beach person. Likewise, a beach person might think that they want to do all the other vacations too, in theory, but in practice it’s just too risky because “the beach is always so nice! Why would we go anywhere else”?

What is the solution to this conundrum?

Part of the conversation that we have as part of our sex education, whether it's with parents, in schools, friends, with medical providers, or mental health provider needs to be that is there not one solitary default for what "sex" is. 

Imagine having part of your understanding of sexuality be, from a very early age, that:
  • Pleasure (of all kinds) is important 
  • Sexuality can center pleasure
  • Pleasure can be independent or co-created
  • Boundaries and expectations are absolutely the key the mutual co-creation of pleasure
  • You can't actually say YES in the absence of feeling safe to say NO

That's kind of revolutionary, isn't it? 

Then "the beach" can absolutely be an option and two people who both want the beach to be their automatic default can absolutely make that decision and enjoy the heck out of it. And if one person wants a beach default and one person wants more variety and they decide to partner together, then they can choose to go to the beach and also figure out how they're going to meet the adventurous appetite as well. Furthermore, two adventurous people can have those conversations of what kinds of adventures they want to have and see if they would be good travel-buddies. 

Makes sense, right? 

To clarify and ditch the metaphor, "the beach" serves to represent what is generally known as "vanilla sex".  The lack of default with many options as possibilities (and the need to figure out what kind of experience you want to enjoy together) would be considered "kinky sex".

The power dynamics that I learned early on fit into the category of "kinky sex" in that we discussed and set up boundaries and then were able to play and have fun within those boundaries with a clear shift in power and roles. However, power dynamics of some sort are present in EVERY sexual activity and so these concepts apply to ALL sex. Not just the kinky stuff. Think about these dynamics that are present inside or outside of kink:
  • Who wants sex more?
  • Who make more money?
  • Household roles?
  • Does one partner depend on the other for personal care?
  • Religious beliefs about marriage and submission?
  • Expectations of gender roles?
  • Sexual experience levels?
  • The list can go on and on?

It's hard to always know exactly what you want. It's important to understand that those things can change throughout your experience of life. But I believe that if we can acknowledge that there are actually more options available to us than the "default", then we can better meet each other's honest needs and desire and steer clear of boredom and resentment. All the flavors are great as long as it's the flavor you want. 
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