So you have a new person and you’re trying to suss out whether not it’s a good idea to spend some naked time together. What do you ask each other?
Well, you’re both responsible people. You know to ask if they currently have other partners, and when the last time they got tested was, and how thorough their testing regimen is (because you know that you also need to get site-specific swabs done to be safe). You know to ask if they have any illnesses or injuries you need to be aware of, or any traumas or triggers you need to mind.
Having established that you each have a risk profile acceptable to the other, what’s next? Well, probably you talk about preferences and kinks — who’s into power, and who’s into pain, and who likes blindfolds or restraints or chastity play or being electrocuted, and who likes their lovemaking sweet and gentle, and so on. That sort of conversation is really important to have; there’s a number of people in my life that I’m very attracted to but with whom I’m completely sexually incompatible, and that’s very useful information for us to know.
Okay, so now that you’ve concluded that your risk profiles align and you’re into the same (or appropriately complementary) stuff, is it finally time to drop trou?
For a lot of people, the answer is “yes” — you get busy and see whether or not it works. Unfortunately, I think most of us have had an experience or two where the attraction is there, but the chemistry just… isn’t.
The thing to remember is that chemistry isn’t magic — it’s science. If it’s not working, it’s because you’re missing data. And if you’re missing data, it’s because you haven’t asked the right questions.
When it comes to sex and relationships, we spend a lot of time asking “What do you like to do?” and no time at all asking the critical “How do you like to feel?”
There’s a lot more nuance here than a “Do you like the lights on or off?” or a “What’s your favorite position?”, but here’s an illustrative list of questions we should all be asking of ourselves and our partners:
Do you like to feel safe or scared? Do you like to feel respected or degraded? Do you like to feel seen or objectified? Do you like to feel desired, or used, or worshipped? Do you like to feel in control — of yourself, of your partner, of the situation? Do you like the feeling of power, or trust, or devotion? Do you like to approach your partner as a caretaker, or a servant, or a supplicant? Do you like the feeling of struggle and contest — and do you like to win or to lose or to take turns? Do you like to be praised or insulted? Do you like to wait in anticipation? Do you like to be rewarded or punished? Do you like to be treated with tenderness or with contempt?
This is obviously not an exhaustive list — and one clearly informed by my own predilections, which may not be yours — and none of those “or”s are at all exclusive. Maybe you like all of those feelings, or none of them, or whatever. If your answer to “How do you like to feel?” is “Seen, respected, and treated gently as an equal,” that’s 100% valid — and really important for you to know about yourself and articulate to your partners!
Even so, that question is one that we really need to sit with for a minute, because the exact same activity can elicit very different feelings in different people.
When I grab a fistful of a partner’s hair, that can feel to them like I’m saying “you don’t have to worry about making decisions” or “I’m indifferent to your comfort” or “You now have my full attention” or “I am overcome with desire” or “I’m fully in control of myself as well as you” or any number of other things. The exact same spanking can feel to different partners like a punishment and like a reward and like just a pleasant (or unpleasant!) physical sensation.
Our ability as humans to interpret and process the same inputs differently is so robust that there’s just no way to guess your way through what’s happening in your partners’ minds. That’s why the way we get to chemistry — to alchemy — is by talking about it enough to make sure everyone is feeling the way they’d like to feel, that we’re giving our partners the narrative building blocks to tell themselves the kind of story they like to star in.
For the same reason, it’s also critical that we’re self-aware and intentional about the kinds of stories that we like to tell ourselves about our encounters. If we’re not being careful, it’s very easy to go from “I like tying my partners up, spanking them, and calling them names because that makes me feel powerful” to “This new person I’m talking to likes being tied up and spanked, therefore they must also like being called names to make their partners feel powerful,” which is a huge gamble to take with your partner’s safety and trust in you, not to mention your own ethical standing. And even if nothing dire happens — even if you don’t stumble into a trauma trigger or otherwise harm your partner — you’re both much less likely to have had a good time if your respective stories don’t cohere. If you’ve had encounters with people that looked perfect “on paper” but turned out kinda meh in practice, I suspect this is a big part of why.
That’s not to say that you always have to be telling yourself perfectly identical or complementary stories. If you like feeling vulnerable, that doesn’t mean that you’re only a good fit for partners who like feeling predatory or intimidating — you’re also a good fit for partners who like to feel trusted, who like to feel like caretakers, and so on. But again, you really only get there by talking expressly about how you and your partners like to feel.
So that’s my advice to you: add “How do you like to feel?” to your compatibility checklist instead of trying to draw conclusions about that from the things that people like to do. Be honest with your partners about the feelings that do it for you, and stay open to helping them experience the feelings that do it for them — both in and out of the bedroom. I’m confident that the quality of your connections, whether with new people or existing partners, will improve.