I’m a big fan of lists. Inventories of who we are, lists of our favorite things, itemized receipts of what we have done on the way to where we want to be fascinate me because they offer a roadmap to understanding someone. Who they are, the experiences that have shaped them. Even when I lecture, I do my very best to offer lists and bulleted items to help categorize and classify information – always adding, “The human experience is found in-between the details.” Lists are not the stories themselves, but they do offer some pretty good summaries.
One of my favorites is Arthur Aron’s 36 Questions. His general idea was that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness, but later people would claim these 36 questions were what “made” people fall in love with one another. Check out my general, depersonalized answers here. I think all of them are great conversation starters and can produce some very revealing insights. The answers can be dissected on a couple of levels; asking a partner what superpower they would prefer to have, for example, reveals who they are apart from the image they are trying to project. The individual who chooses flight tends to be more of an extrovert. The one who chooses to be invisible is an introvert. Already, we have two levels to understand someone – their public persona, and what motivates them. But, pressing further, we might also tease out what the choice of superpower means for them. What do they intend to use it for? The individual who chooses invisibility, what motivates them to do that? Is it the desire to slip into a bedroom and leer at someone, or perhaps to go unnoticed and rob a bank? If they chose flight as their superpower, is it to travel the world and see new things, is it because they want freedom they are currently lacking, or because they envision themselves saving people from burning buildings? Aron was on to something pretty significant here.
When it comes to sex, the same holds true. Sexual inventories can be profoundly illuminating, challenging us to reconsider how we make choices about our sexuality. Part of the reason the Kinsey Reports caused such an uproar in 1948 and especially in 1953 was because those reports provided widespread, quantifiable data about sexual behavior that no one had previously felt able to admit. Kinsey and his team of researchers went to great lengths to reassure their subjects that confidentiality was a shared priority, and that they were not interested in the sex acts themselves but the variety of sexual encounters people had experienced. In other words, Kinsey and his team depersonalized it – they wanted to quantify and catalogue the acts themselves, not the individuals. Subjects were safe and nameless. When the reports were published, it challenged the way so many of our grandparents understood their world. People could see, perhaps for the first time, that their interests, desires, and experiences were more normal than they had thought. Everyone, it turned out, was more interested in sex than they let on – regardless of age or region or religion, what car they drove, their dental health, financial status, or any other identifier. People liked sex. They still do. But for a host of reasons, we still feel we can’t be honest about it, at least not publicly.
In relationships, this silence persists. Like our grandparents, even our parents, we are afraid to talk about our sexual interests with our sexual partners. It’s overwhelming, the pressure to be honest about this very private side of ourselves that makes us feel so aroused and simultaneously so ashamed. We want to be accepted. We want to know that when we show another person who we really are, that they will accept us. Maybe we tried in the past and were shamed by someone important to us.
What I’ve found, time and again, is that there is someone out there who shares that interest. Even when I hear of sex acts that seem atypical or “strange” to me, there is always a happy part of me that enjoys discovering the variety of sexual experiences and learning those unique parts of someone’s personality and desires. It’s a gift to me, really. And even if their kink seems a bit outlandish to me, I always try to reassure them that they’re not weird or a freak. Their sexual interests are either shared by millions of other people, or are unique and creative. Personally and professionally, I am always amazed.
A few years ago, one of my very good friends and I were hustling during our lunch hour to find something edible. I don’t recall how we got to this point, but we started talking about porn and ethics. It felt like we were both avoiding some important admissions so we both stopped there on the sidewalk, looked each other square in the eye and agreed to drop the act, the nervousness, the social “politeness” we had been hesitating around. Neither of us felt we could have a real conversation as long as we were tiptoeing around who we really were and what we liked about porn. About the fantasies we shared. I admitted to her my fantasies, and she admitted hers. We both good naturedly teased one another as being a “freak” but after that conversation, we never had a problem being honest and upfront with one another. That one conversation changed the dynamic of our friendship and, to this day, we trust each other completely.
Yes/No/Maybe Lists are a great way to start conversations with your partner about what you would like to do, have done to you, or entirely avoid. There are some sex acts that I find interesting as an observer but have absolutely no interest (at least not right now) participating in. And that’s pretty much how most people feel. Right now, it might not seem interesting. This time next year, who knows? Yes/No/Maybes are not bucket lists of things you want to try, but instead are an inventory of things you either enjoy, would be open to, or have no interest in. They are a straightforward sexual communication tool that will help you to get to better know you and your partner’s wants and desires. Because it cuts both ways. You may not even realize you’re open to a sex act until it’s put in front of you. Or you may start thinking about it and have certain conditions. Sex in public? Hard no. Sex on the beach after the sun goes down and no one can see? Mmmmmmaybe. Yes. Yeah, that sounds fun actually. Hunh. Spend time with each question and consider variables and conditions, if need be. Spanking? Only if I’m the spanker, not the one being spanked, and only with a wooden paddle. Nothing that leaves a mark. You’ll be amazed at the intricacies that start to emerge and the way that your lover’s mind works.
I recommend printing off a list like the one below, or one of the ones I’ve provided in the links below. Once you have hard copies, you and your partner(s) need to get in your own space away from each other, then meet up later to discuss it with your partner(s). Or even exchange lists and give each other time to read it over, think, and then come back together. Whatever you think would be best for you and your partner. I admit, sometimes when I’ve given a whole packet of information at one time, I need a few minutes or even a day or two to process before I’m ready to come at it full force.
And you know what? If you have different answers than your partner, that’s awesome! You don’t want to always be on the same page or lie to “play it safe.” You want to be different because those differences (or the conditions under which you might consider a particular sex act), gives you an opportunity to talk about expectations, fantasies, and hard limits. Just like Aron’s questions or that sidewalk conversation with my friend, lists like these open up new levels of trust and understanding between everyone involved because you reveal so much of who you are in such a small area of insight.
Click here for a PDF of the list or check out one of the links provided below! Print them off – as many copies as you want to share with your partners – and get started!
- Scarleteen’s Yes, No, Maybe List: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
- Charlie Glickman’s Yes, No, Maybe List (PDF)
- Polyamory Yes, No, Maybe List
- You Need Help: A Visual Worksheet
- Autostraddle’s Sexapalooza Worksheet (PDF)