This will be a long, GIFless post. Please don’t kick me off of the internet.
Recently, a partner of mine texted me to let me know that although he was open to continuing to see me, he wasn’t feeling the level of physical attraction that he’d hoped for.
I didn’t react amazingly. I didn’t react horribly, either. I took a few cheap jabs and ultimately told him that perhaps we shouldn’t see each other anymore; being physical with someone who wasn’t attracted to me would not feel good.
Reflecting on the situation, I’m struck most by the fact that throughout the exchange, he operated under the assumption that the most important thing was to be honest with me, that I deserved to know how he felt about my body. When it became apparent that I was upset, he asked me to consider my role as a sex educator – was it right of me to be offended simply because he wasn’t attracted to me?
Of course not. People have their attractions. Sometimes those attractions are (extremely) problematic, and sometimes they’re benign, but rarely can we change them at the flip of a switch, so why did the situation leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth?
I think it’s because those of us who work towards sexual openness are often expected to be unemotional and/or wildly confident. People seem to believe that because we practice talking openly about sex, we are immune to the pain, insecurity, shame, and stigma that is essentially the air we breathe.
It turns out that we are not.
This whole ordeal begs an important question, though: When is honesty kind, and when is it cruel?
The big thing to recognize here is that information changes relationships in two ways. Firstly, it changes the tenor of the relationship. In other words, learning new things about your partner inevitably changes the way you feel about them. These changes can be positive – for instance, hearing your partner say, “I love you,” for the first time might bring you even closer than you already are – or they can be negative – for instance, hearing your partner tell you that they’ve lied to you or in some way violated your trust.
Information can change the tenor of a relationship in more complicate ways, too. Learning that your partner has a mood disorder might change your reaction to certain of their behaviors. Learning that they have engaged (or continue to engage) in sex work might force you to confront your own biases about that profession.
Secondly, information can change the structure of a relationship. Learning that your partner is moving soon will likely raise questions about the longevity of the relationship or the way in which you’ll see and communicate with each other. Learning that they are attracted to other people might inspire you to consider polyamory or openness. In these cases, it’s not only your feelings that have changed, but also the way you go about your day-to-day.
Information is necessary. It’s how we learn about compatibility. This means that hiding, lying, and fibbing aren’t options. If we provide false information or no information at all, we’re liable to end up in relationships that we aren’t suited to. Not to mention the fact that our lies are likely to be exposed one day, and then our partners will learn a new, worse bit of information: we’re liars.
So isn’t honesty always the best policy? Well, I don’t think so. There’s infinite information out there. We choose which pieces of information are important by bringing them up. There are instances in which information is obviously important – you’re moving, you have an STD, you would like to get married, etc. – and there are instances in which information is probably important for your partner to know – you’re in a bad mood, maybe, or you’re very annoyed by something that they’re doing. In these instances, more information will probably help your partner better comprehend where they are in relation to you or if the relationship can even work.
And then there are pieces of information that probably won’t significantly alter the functioning of the relationship: your favorite color, your opinion of pizza, the fact that you’ve knitted since you were twelve. These things might become important conversation pieces or emotional touchstones, but they shouldn’t affect your partner’s opinion of you or the overall structure of the relationship.
And then… well, and then there’s the vast in-between: the things that might be important to one person but unimportant to another, the things that change as time goes on, the things that keep you up at night but that you probably shouldn’t tell other people if you want them to feel good about you or themselves. These are the things that you must choose on the basis of kindness, because when you bring them up, you make them important. And when you make them important, you alter the tenor or the structure of the relationship.
Being a good sexual or romantic partner does not mean being able to hear and say anything with little repercussion; to the contrary, it means exercising judgment and figuring out what information is important to you and your partner(s).
It’s never that simple, of course. Society places different weight on different types of information. Each person holds opinions, shame, fears, and hopes that color how they will interpret the information that you offer. This is why relationships are beautiful, but it is also why they fail.
Also, it is why I advocate for caring comments. If you choose to offer up information that might be negative – you don’t find your partner as attractive as you’d hoped, for instance – you must come prepared with an arsenal of caring comments (or actions) if you would like to remain close to that person. And if you can’t come up with anything that rings true, anything that will help them feel comforted and safe, perhaps it’s time to let them go.
In the end, I doubt I will see this person again – not because he was not attracted to me, but because he made that lack of attraction important. He changed the tenor of the relationship and was not there to make me feel safe while doing so. And I understand why: he believed that I, as a sex educator, was above (or somehow exterior to) insecurity and shame.
But I’m not, and for me, that’s not the goal. I am for honesty, yes, but I am also for kindness.