This will probably needs some context. First, I’m polyamorous; I’m married, have a long-term girlfriend, and still occasionally go out with new people. Everyone knows and consents, it’s all ethically done, and it’s going great.
The second important part is that I was raised in the evangelical tradition of purity culture; more specifically the relatively egalitarian I Kissed Dating Goodbye tradition, where both men and women are pressured to avoid any proximity to anything even vaguely sexual. Obviously I don’t cling to that still — I’m a progressive feminist who’s dealing with more anger at my faith and upbringing than fondness at the moment — but I clung to it long enough that my first sexual encounter was on my wedding night, in my mid-20s. Polyamory was something my wife and I transitioned into after a few years of marriage and a looooot of research and soul-searching.
But I think some part of me still assumes that sexual advances are unwanted unless it’s been made explicitly clear to the contrary, which means I never make the first move and lots of connections just never go there. I know that women enjoy sex too, and it’s possible to express my sexual interest without being creepy about it, but I don’t feel confident I know how, and my anxiety about accidentally coming across wrong keeps me from making any advances.
I’d love to hear your perspective.
A Purity Culture Survivor
You’re right, APCS: those would probably have gone somewhere if you’d been more openly interested. Part of the reason why so many conversations on dating apps dry up is because people just talk ’em to death. The whole point of online dating is the dating part. You’re both there to find love and/or get laid; what profit is there in pretending that this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for?
Well… that’s where your anxiety comes in. You’re afraid of creeping someone out. That’s admirable. The problem is that you’re so anxious about it that you’ve paralyzed yourself.
Your particular anxiety — being afraid to flirt, being afraid of coming on too strong — isn’t exclusive to purity culture, APCS; hell, it’s probably one of the most common anxieties I hear about from my clients and people who write in. Lots of folks are almost terrified of coming on “too strong” to the people they’re interested in, to the point of paralysis and inaction. Many, many folks — mostly guys — have taken the fear of being creepy or creeping someone out so to heart that they’ve basically locked themselves into not doing anything that has even the barest hint of sexuality, for fear of setting a toe wrong.
Meanwhile, the supposed “bad boys” and “assholes” who don’t have those anxieties are running around hitting on everything that moves and a few things that don’t. And thus the cycle of “women only like assholes” continues.
And while the more hesitant folks blame everything from cancel culture to #metoo to… well, just about anything you could imagine, really, the answer tends to be much simpler. It’s a combination of fear and self-limiting beliefs.
Just about everyone who deals with the fear of coming on to strong, pushing to hard or otherwise being a creepy by being too overtly interested in sex are all coming from the same place: they’re uncomfortable with their own sexuality. The reason why they’re afraid of showing any amount of interest is that they feel that their being sexually attracted to someone is something that they have to apologize for. Their being attracted to somebody is an inconvenience at best for the other person, at worst a thing that would make that person run screaming into the night because HOW DARE YOU think that this person might ever want to actually be naked with you?
When you combine this with the equally common idea that women want/like sex less than men do and thus control “access” to sex, you get a whole bunch of people who think that women have to be eased into the idea that the anxious person would be interested in maybe, possibly, if you’re sure you’re ok with it, having a romantic or sexual relationship with them.
Sometimes this comes from moments of bullying or casual cruelty, often in middle school or high-school. Other times it comes from having made a mistake and over-correcting to the point of creating a neurosis. Sometimes it comes from folks who, like you, APCS, came from a sex-negative culture that sees any form of sexual expression as suspect. But it all ends up in the same place: your sexuality is an imposition on others and you should be ashamed for even thinking of imposing it on other people.
(Which makes purity culture especially bitterly entertaining; sex is dirty and wrong and it irreparably damages you and thus should only be shared with the person you love under the bounds of holy matrimony.)
The way you overcome this is both deceptively simple but also difficult to do: you have to learn to accept yourself as a sexual being. Your desire for sex is perfectly natural and normal; it doesn’t make you a pervert, a weirdo or a creep. Similarly, your being attracted to someone says nothing about you or your worth as a person other than you’re a mammal with a sex-drive. Acting on that attraction isn’t, by definition, an inconvenience, an insult or an otherwise negative indicator of who you are as a person. It all comes down to how you express it and — importantly — what you do if the person you’re interested in doesn’t return your interest.
Easy enough to say, but hard to pull off. That sort of conditioning runs deep, after all, and your jerk-brain is very good at dripping poison in your ear about it.
Part of how you learn to overcome this is to simply work on being more open and honest with your partners; let them know that you appreciate blindingly clear signs that hey they’d like to bang out because you get anxious about pushing people into things they’re not interested in. Hearing from the people you’re in relationships with that yes, they’re warm for your form can help ease the idea that sex is something you’re imposing on others.
Another important part, however, is learning to become comfortable with yourself. Most of the folks who are anxious about making women uncomfortable also tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that they could be attractive. The idea of, say, dressing in a more stylish or attractive manner, is something that happens to other people. They might get there eventually, but first they have to cross a particular milestone. That milestone might be their weight, it might be putting on muscle… but the important part is that this milestone never comes. If they ever actually reach that milestone, they’ll come up with a new and different reason why they can’t dress the way they want.
However, simply skipping the milestone and choosing to start doing the things that make you feel like a sexy-badass now helps you come to terms with the idea that yes, you are desirable and your interest in others isn’t something to apologize for. After all, our brains take their cues from our bodies. If we start acting like we feel sexy… we end up feeling that way. This is why “fake it ’til you make it” works.
You also want to start working on getting used to expressing your interest. The only way to do that, however, is to just go out and practice. This is where flirting for fun and the sake of flirting becomes invaluable. When you start to get used to flirting in general, it becomes much easier to flirt with people when it counts. You want to take time to just have fun little conversations with people, ones where “it doesn’t count”. Are they not interested in you? That’s cool… it doesn’t count. All you’re doing is just limbering up your social muscles and getting back into the swing of things. Did you mess up? That’s fine; it doesn’t count. Now you know what not to do next time. Plus: you’ll realize that mistakes aren’t going to destroy you.
By giving yourself permission to flirt without intent, you’re giving yourself permission to fail. You’re allowing yourself to practice and learn without the feeling that doing this will somehow “ruin” your chances with someone you’re into. This way, not only do you learn which flirting style works best for you, but you also learn how to calibrate your flirting. You’ll start having a better grasp of where the line is and how not to overstep it. The more you practice, the more you turn flirting and sexual expression into muscle memory, and the more natural it feels over time.
I also suggest that you find more sex-positive communities and start talking with folks who are more comfortable with sex and their sexuality in general. This doesn’t mean you need to join the local swingers group, but having places where you feel like you can express yourself freely can help you gain more acceptance for yourself, your desires and your interests.
The more comfortable you get with being a sexual creature, the easier it’ll be for you to put it out there for the folks who’re interested in what you have to offer. And the more practice you put in, the less you’ll worry about making irreparable mistakes.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
Big fan here. I’ve been married to my amazing husband for just shy of a year now. Everything’s going great except for…
(wait for it)
…his taste in movies.
When we first started dating, he’d show me his favorite films like Lost Boys, Hook, Star Wars, Rocky, The Warriors, etc. Knowing full well that they were nostalgic films for him, I’d watch them and try really hard to find things I’d like about them (“0oo I like his costume” or “That’s awesome background music”). Trouble is, he wants to watch those films again, and I don’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t like them in the first place. The thought of sitting through them a second time has me wanting to tear my eyes out.
(Yes, I know it’s blasphemous to hate Star Wars, but come on, it’s the Hero’s Tale with some puppetry and basic PowerPoint transitions thrown in).
I love reading and I know how hurt I’d be if he thought my favorite novel was lame, so I don’t know how to honestly, but politely, tell him I’m just not interested in watching his movies for a SECOND time (don’t I get credit for watching them in the first place??).
His last love interest would watch sports with him (which he loves), so a part of me is super self-conscious that I’m not that “cool girl” that he can sit on the couch and “geek out” with. Please help. Should I just muscle through and try REALLY hard to hide the absolute boredom that his films invoke?
The “cool girlfriend” concept is overrated, NSGW. It’s a fantasy character that doesn’t always play out in reality the way people think.
One of the mistakes that geeks often make is that they want a partner who loves all the same things they love. In theory, it’s amazing; you all can bond and geek out over all the same things, love all the same stuff and be in perfect sync in your tastes.
There’re two main problems with this. The first is that there’s such a thing as too much togetherness and similarity. This leads to boredom, and boredom is the relationship killer. It minimizes the chances of surprise and novelty, of learning something new about your partner, even years down the line.
The second is that this desire tends to only go one way. The folks who want their partners to love all the things they love, very rarely express the same willingness to try the things their partners love. The folks who want their partners to love Star Wars or the Marvel movies or Halo or what-not are frequently less willing to give Riverdale, Outlander, This is Us or Stardew Valley that same chance.
(There’s also the possibility of when you break up and now you can’t watch your favorite shows or movies because they remind you of your ex… but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely).
Now from the sounds of things, you’ve done your part. You gave it the ol’ college try and made a good-faith effort to see if there was anything about his favorites that you could enjoy and you found out there wasn’t. And you know? That’s fair. That’s legit. As long as you can understand why he loves them and accept his love of them that’s fine. It’s only an issue if you can’t respect his love for them.
And that goes both ways. If he hasn’t made the same good-faith effort to try the things you love, then it’s his turn to give it a try. And just as you should respect his love for his movies, he should respect your love of yours, even if he doesn’t share that affection. After all, fair is fair. His movies aren’t inherently superior just because they’re his. He might discover a side of himself by trying yours… or he might confirm that he’s not into them. Just like you weren’t into his.
The magic words here are simple: “This just isn’t for me” or “It’s not my thing”. Tastes, after all, vary. Your not liking his movies doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them; they just don’t speak to you the way they speak to him. Hopefully he’s mature and understanding enough to get that and not lose his shit over it. If he absolutely needs you to be in the room when he’s watching The Lost Boys… can he be cool if you’re just in the room, not actively watching? Can he be ok with your reading a book or spending time on Facebook or Instagram while he’s enjoying watching Michael eat maggots again?
If not… well, that’s what his friends are for. Here’s the other thing you can bring up: having separate interests is a good thing for the relationship. Having a life beyond the two of you is an important part of how you keep a relationship fresh, alive and vital. This way, you aren’t forcing each other to depend on one another exclusively for both your entertainment and your emotional and social support. He can have his friends who love Star Wars and Hook and Rocky and you can have yours who love the things you love.
And then the two of you can come together and find the movies, shows and games that are both of yours.