I sat on the bed opposite my partner without saying a word. I was the one who wanted to have this conversation, but once it was finally happening, I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words.
It wasn’t that I was keeping secrets on purpose. I’d only recently realized there was a word for the way my body felt, the way I walked through the world.
The space between my partner and me on the bed seemed larger than it ever had before. I’d never felt like I couldn’t be close to him in our bed: the bed we’d picked out together when we bought our house, the first new bed I’d ever owned, the bed where we’d cuddled with our dogs every night and fought over the covers and cried together over the death of my father.
He reached a hand out toward me and let it land in the no-fly zone between us. I wanted to reach for him, to touch his hand and make him feel what I wanted to say so I didn’t have to say it.
“I’m always going to love you,” he said. It was a refrain I’d heard from him a thousand times, a promise whispered when I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed, a comfort communicated when being a survivor of sexual assault made it hard for me to be intimate.
“I love you, too,” I said. “And I don’t want to talk about it, but I think I’m nonbinary.” The words that followed tumbled out as if pausing to breathe might mean I’d never speak again. “And I guess I just don’t think I can keep having sex the same way.”
He pulled his hand back to his side of the bed. I waited for him while he waited for me. “Do you still want to have sex with me?” he asked.
My gut dropped. “Of course,” I said. “Of course, I want to have sex with you. I love you so much. It’s just me, how I am, right now.” I started to weep. “I don’t know what I want, but I want you to be there with me.”
My partner breached the no-fly zone to pull me into his arms. “There are so many ways to have sex and fuck and be together,” he said. “And I want to do them all with you.” He held me the way only he could, the way no one ever had before.
Sitting on our bed that wintry day three years ago, we began a conversation my partner and I are still having today. A conversation heavy with words and awkward pauses and hurt feelings, but also moans and gasps and sighs. Together we are learning not to make sex something obligatory, but rather an expression of our love, of our desire, of our commitment to explore and grow and become who we want to be together.
Just before I started to question if I was nonbinary, I quit dieting. As my body changed and grew, I was learning that there had never been anything wrong with me, and that the only responsibility I had was to make amends to myself and my body for everything I’d put myself through.
I had to tell my partner something scary about myself, something I feared would make him not love me anymore.
Today, I live in a fat, trans, nonbinary body that refuses to fit inside the boundaries others have set for me. Most days, I revel in this experience of being fundamentally outside, illegible to a society filled with hatred toward the undefinable. Some days, I question if I’m nonbinary enough, if any of this is really worth it. But then I remember what I felt when I grew breasts as a child, how I wanted to strap them down, cut them off, or just die instead — I had no idea how common this feeling was for AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans and nonbinary folks. I think about the friends I can call now, the way I can talk to my partner and my therapist, the community I have found by sharing these vulnerabilities without shame or regret.
But before I shared any of this with my community, I didn’t have any clue of all the good that awaited me. All I knew was that I had to tell my partner something scary about myself, something I feared would make him not love me anymore. I didn’t realize that he was experiencing the same fear, concerned my gender would mean I would want to be with someone less cis. (We laugh about this moment now, not just because we’re okay but because my partner now uses he/they pronouns.) We were both terrified about what my change meant for us.
We have since learned that change is not only inevitable, but almost always for the better. When you choose to build your life with someone, to stand up in front of all your friends and say, “This is my person,” you are committing to a lifetime of change, to a lifetime of choosing to fall in love with the changes that come. As Octavia Butler put it in Parable of the Sower:
Everything you touch you change
Everything you change changes you
The only everlasting truth is change
God is change
Of course, as our relationship changed, as our genders changed, as our commitment to one another changed, our sex life changed, too.
Early in our relationship, my partner and I would fuck all the time. We had a white-hot passionate sex life on the tail end of what we proudly like to call our slutty phases. J had been sleeping with a lot of cis women and I had been playing the bountiful bisexual fields of Boston. We’d separately honed our sexuality into performances, acts to be played out for an audience.
We both thought we owed our sexual partners orgasms — that it was our job to give people mind-bending sex, whether for a night or a relationship. J tried to show me that he wasn’t like other “guys,” that he could be an attentive lover. At the same time, he felt immense pressure from toxic masculinity to be the virile, strong provider for his “woman.” For me, the pressure was different. I was frequently the first bisexual person my partners had slept with, regardless of their genders, and I thought I had to be good enough in bed to fulfill the role of the voracious, insatiable bisexual who could fuck all night and always, always make their partners come. I felt like a sexual chameleon, contorting my body and sense of self to be the submissive woman men were looking for or the aggressive top women were looking for. I'd never stopped to ask myself who I wanted to be.
We both tumbled into our relationship carrying all this baggage. And the first time we had sex, it was bad. Not scary bad — not dangerous or cruel — just not what either of us wanted from one another or ourselves. That night, our sex was a kind of power struggle. J felt he needed to be in control, and though I wanted to take the reins, I tried to be the submissive woman I thought he wanted. It was…weird.
The second time we had sex, I knew my partner was my person. Maybe that sounds shallow, but I’m a sexual being — as is my partner — and more than once in our relationship, our ability to fuck each other’s brains out has saved us from breaking up. When we could connect about nothing else, we could connect about how fucking good our fucking was.
I felt like a sexual chameleon. I'd never stopped to ask myself who I wanted to be.
One afternoon while we were still in the fucking-like-bunnies phase and were the only ones at his apartment, I rolled over and gave him my sultriest eyes. “Wanna bone?”
“Always,” he said.
“That’s not true,” I said. “No one wants to have sex all of the time.” I laughed. “And, dude, you aren’t a machine. You don’t have to want to fuck.”
He sat down on his bed, the one I’d slept in almost every night the last month. I moved to sit next to him and put a hand on his back.
He shook his head. I think it was the first time I saw him cry. Just a little, just a few tears whisked away from the corners of his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex.” He didn’t tell me until years later — until I was writing this essay — that I was the first person who told him he was allowed to turn sex down.
In the wake of that moment, J and I decided to never have sex because we should, to never have sex if one of us gave anything short of a “FUCK YES.” That commitment laid the foundation for the years ahead, when things would become more difficult.
Five years into our relationship, I started to realize my gender wasn’t quite what I’d been led to believe. As I grappled with the fears inside me and J trudged away at a job that was killing him, we began having less sex.
Every time I took my clothes off, I felt wave after wave of gender dysphoria coupled with body dysmorphia wash over me. If I caught sight of my body in a mirror I would be pummeled with self-hatred: Are those new stretch marks? Am I getting fatter? Is that even what breasts are supposed to look like? Why did I even have to get any in the first place? Especially a pair that are so big and lopsided? Would I feel better if I had a penis? When did my ass get so big?
The questions would hit me one after another and I would start to cry, tears rushing down my face until I got the baggiest, most ratty clothing I could find in my closet to hide my disgusting body beneath.
I thought I hid this experience from J, but he could tell — not just from how I dressed, but by how I retreated into myself, pulled away from being sexual with him.
Three weeks before I sat across the bed from my partner and told him I thought I was nonbinary, I tested the waters. I waited until we were drunk one Saturday night and getting into bed. As I took my shirt off, I asked as casually as I could, “Would you divorce me if I transitioned?”
Asking serious questions only after we’ve been drinking was an old habit of mine from before I had learned to trust J, and it seemed ridiculous to be resorting to such juvenile measures. (Not ridiculous enough to stop my drunk self from utilizing the same tactic, mind you.)
My partner laughed, took my hands in his, and smiled. “I’m always going to love you.”
After I came out to him, sex between J and me shifted. Before we’d still been operating with some of the performative baggage we’d brought into our relationship from our pasts, but afterward we began to explore what felt good. We’d always enjoyed a little dirty talk in bed, but now our sex and our words were just one long conversation, a series of yeses and nos and “oh, right there” and “a little softer, please.” Consent has gone from the dry, almost contractual conversation we had at the beginning of our relationship to a form of constant dialogue where we turn each other on by talking about what we want to do to one another — or to someone else.
Instead of focusing on giving out orgasms in equal measure like some kind of fucked-up sexual barter system, we focus on pleasure, on how it feels when we’re together. Sometimes I want to be dommed or penetrated, and sometimes I want to be the dom and penetrate, but most often I, and we, want to be on equal footing, wrapping our bodies up in one another, pushing and pulling, giving and taking, forming a closed loop of shared power coursing through both of us.
This new relationship to sex also means we’re kind of always having sex. I know that sounds strange, but as my therapist put it, “Everything is foreplay.” That means that I will sometimes grab my partner’s tush in public or he will grab my hand and pull me under a streetlight for a smooch. He’ll see a peach in a grocery store and show it to me, mimicking taking a bite of what is implied to be my ass. A great song will come on and I’ll come up behind him and start grinding on him. Sometimes these moments lead to more, to kissing or fucking or mutual masturbation, but more often than not, they’re just simple moments of teasing, touching, and creating pleasure.
Instead of focusing on giving out orgasms in equal measure like some kind of fucked-up sexual barter system, we focus on pleasure, on how it feels when we’re together.
Sex is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself. So if orgasming isn’t the point of sex, then what is?
In her New York Times bestseller Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown argues: “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
What my partner and I get from sex when we don’t focus solely on orgasms is pleasure, shared joy, and a connection that helps us understand what there are no words for. This emphasis on sex being a ubiquitous connection, not a single act, brings to mind a journal entry of mine from around this time last year:
“J just came in and handed me a fresh, piping hot slice of his sourdough loaf dripping in butter. It tastes like home, like another chance at life after having resigned myself to only a certain kind of contentedness. But ecstatic love? Stable, reliable love? The love you build a life on?
“I am constantly in awe of what I feel for J and my breath catches when I think they could feel about me how I do them. It is stunning to get to live in a healthy, mutual, loving relationship. And that, among many things, counterbalances the heaviness of the world.”
What I couldn’t have known when I came out as nonbinary was that it would create space for my partner to change, to find identities that didn’t keep them boxed in by toxic masculinity. I also didn’t know it would create the breathing room our relationship desperately needed, nor that it would help us find a community of queer people who love us not despite who we are, but precisely because we have the audacity to be queer, nonbinary, and polyamorous in a world that undervalues or even punishes those things.
Our bed, temporarily a no-fly zone but almost always a haven, has now become a laboratory: a place for innovation and exploration, a place to test hypotheses, a place to play with lube and toys and harnesses and strap-ons. It’s also become a place we feel safe inviting others.
J and I recently locked eyes over the naked person in our bed. I mouthed “All good?” when our new lover wasn’t looking. J nodded, and we submerged ourselves in the ecstasy of entwined bodies thrusting, laughing, and sweating as darkness wrapped itself around the three of us. In the past, I would have stopped, pulled J aside, and insisted they tell me they’re okay in so many words. But as I’ve come out and they’ve come out, we’ve learned to trust one another rather than being constantly consumed with each other’s needs.
We’re constantly growing and constantly changing. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes it is exciting. But one thing is for sure: Our sex life is only just beginning. ●
This story is part of a weeklong series about how we have sex now.
S.E. Fleenor writes novels, stories, and articles centering on queer identities, feminism, pop culture, and literature. Managing editor at Bella Media Channel, co-host of Bitches on Comics, and editor of Decoded. Words appear them.us, Electric Literature, SYFY WIRE, and right here.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.