Why coming out is not a one-time thing for many of us.
The personal & non-linear journey of affirming one’s sexual preferences for non-heterosexual cisgender women.
Sexuality is personal to each and everyone of us, and nothing or nobody should deny us the right to discover our sexual selves and preferences. We asked sexologist Kassandra Mourikis to breakdown the pressure we feel to conform, and share ways in which we can support ourselves and each other in coming out.
This is an important read to not only empower those of us coming out for the first time, or exploring our sexual preferences, but for allies too. We can support everyone’s journey to be their authentic self by learning to give each other space to discover exactly what that really is - without assumptions.
What gets in the way of affirming our sexuality?
We live in a society that attempts to define what our sexuality, our relationships and our pleasure should look like, leaving little room to explore, understand or define these desires and identities for ourselves, in our own time and as part of our own journey.
There is infallible social pressure for people with diverse sexual identities to strive for perfection and to conform to the white, cis, heterosexual and patriarchal norms. Those that do are rewarded with safety, resources and inclusion – basic human rights that are denied to many.
Internalising this pressure to be perfect or a “normal heterosexual” can be a survival strategy that increases someone’s chances to remain within their community, avoid displacement and abandonment from their families and relationships. It may feel like only option to avoid workplace dismissal or discrimination and seem like protection against homophobia, queer-phobia and other forms of oppression and violence.
However, internalising these stereotypes results in shame, internal conflict or the concealment and denial of one’s sexual identity or sexual desires. This may leave people feeling lost, stuck, self-critical, judgemental or biased towards themselves and others with similar experiences. In this, society fails to recognise that an affirming sexuality and sexual journey contributes to safety and overall wellbeing.
There are also few stories and voices centred in society that are queer, with sexually diverse desires and multiple shared identities. These social systems consistently deny language, diverse expression, the understanding that sexuality is fluid and exists beyond the binary and fail to acknowledge that rarely is it ever a straightforward or linear pathway.
These in turn lead to astronomically high rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, suicidality, psychological distress and chronic health illnesses in queer and sexually diverse people caused by oppression, discrimination, violence and social rejection for being authentically themselves. This is exacerbated for people with multiple intersecting identities like those that are also size +, trans, disabled, Black, Indigenous or people of colour who are desexualised and dehumanised by society, restricting their access to safety and opportunities for sexual discovery.
It makes sense then why feeling safe enough to explore and affirm your sexuality or sexual desires is not accessible for all, despite it being a basic human right. Sex and relationship coach Dawn Serra says “safety is a prerequisite for pleasure”. We know that safety is also a prerequisite for connection, sexual discovery and self-expression as these all include aspects of pleasure, vulnerability and the unknown. Without safety, one’s priorities are forced towards surviving without thriving. In these moments, curiosity, exploration and pleasure are not possible.
The journey to sexual self discovery.
Many sexually diverse people come into queerness or acknowledge their sexual desires at different stages of life and multiple times in their lifetime. Discovering one’s sexual identity or preferences is a lifelong voyage full of twists, turns and roadblocks.
The heteronormative stereotype attached to the queer and sexually diverse journey says that coming out only happens once on a straight timeline. This belief magnifies pressure and shame when the reality is far more nuanced.
Coming out is a process of learning and acceptance. Folks may acknowledge different desires or attractions at different times of their lives and come out to different people in different contexts across this journey.
Folks may try out new labels until they find the one that fits them best for wherever they’re at. This might look like trying on the label of being lesbian or gay. This term might fit for a while or it may start to feel as if it doesn’t fully encompass who they are and so they may go on to explore other terminology or create new definitions for themselves without having to take on someone else’s meaning. This might include identifying as bisexual or using the much broader, umbrella term of being queer.
They may also come out many times, to different people, at different periods in their life. Folks might come out each time they identify with a new label to their most trusted communities or when they advocate for themselves and ask others to refer to their identity correctly or asking someone to use their correct pronouns.
There also might be moments when the barriers to being queer or having desires result in hiding or pushing those parts away and again changing the way they refer to their sexual identity, only to find ways to hold space for those parts of themselves later on.
Like numerous other life experiences, whether it’s a career pathway, mental health or healing journey, sometimes the reality of discovering one’s sexual preferences or identity can feel like one step forward and two steps back, or at times, like a rollercoaster with no clear beginning or end. Acknowledging and recognising that this variability is common and expected for the majority can be a supportive practice in challenging stigma and shame.
Though sexual orientation and kink identity are two different things, a recent study on the former can provide some useful insights regarding the self-affirming journey of sexual discovery. The 2018 study on kink identity illustrated that developing sexual desires and sexual identity is a non-linear process that occurred over five main stages. A small group of 292 people was asked to share their experiences on when they first realised they became interested in kink and when they identified as a kinky person.
- The first stage of this journey was through early encounters. This might include an interest or attraction to kink or a fetish but without the language or concept to understand it.
- Following this was the exploration with themselves. This typically involved discovery through fantasies, masturbation, erotic media and exploring physical pleasure with touch or other material sensations.
- Stage three was evaluation of these preferences. This was often the point where people began to learn about the meaning their preferences held in society and where stigma is recognised and internalised that lead to feeling abnormal or ashamed. Within this stage, people also began to resist or challenge the narratives around their identity and learn about their experiences or seek support to better understand themselves.
- In stage four, researchers noticed people began to realise they were not alone and started seeking out communities with similar lived experience. Folks were more frequently challenging the stigma and shame through their connections with others or going to events to prioritise their pleasure.
- The fifth stage was the exploration and engagement in kinky play or sex with others. Many believed they could identify as kinky when they could share experiences with other people.
While the findings from this study offered insight into a process of discovery, by no means is this linear. The majority of folks move backwards and forwards through these stages over their lifetimes depending on the communities they have access to, their opportunities for continued discovery but also based on how much oppression, stigma or trauma they were facing.
It highlighted a common question that tends to arise on these journeys: “Is my sexuality or sexual preferences only valid if I’ve experienced it with another person?”
Sexuality and sexual preferences are defined by each person for themselves so their identities and desires are valid regardless of experience or history of sexual partners. Experience or evidence is never a prerequisite for an identity to be valid.
3 ways to affirm our own sexual preferences.
1. Find your community:
Surviving and thriving in an oppressive society should not be the job of an individual alone, despite the messages around self-care and doing your own internal work. Oppression, stigma and compulsory heteronormativity are systemic issues that need to be addressed through collective change. Finding a community is not only about finding a safer space to explore and be supported by people with similar experiences, but a place to see representation, learn about other non-linear journeys and to give and receive reciprocal community care, share resources and express acts of compassion.
2. Self-kindness and resisting urgency:
Practicing self-kindness and self-acceptance are often challenging for those who experience high levels of internalised sexual stigma. Self-kindness is the practice of being non-judgemental and curious towards one’s thoughts, experiences and beliefs.
- This might look like reminding oneself that it’s okay to have a non-linear sexual pathway and actively resisting the urgency that the process should be fast through accepting all the reasons why this might be a slow, difficult path that takes time.
- It might be validating all the times it felt too difficult or unsafe to come out. It could be about giving yourself permission to not know what label fits best, and to define your own sexuality and sexual preferences.
- Or it might be the reminder that you don’t have to have all the answers about identity or desires, and that those things can change.
- This could also include showing oneself kindness and care when you feel nervous or unskilled, reminding you that your identity is valid regardless of past experiences, current or future relationships. Experience is not a requirement for something to be true and valid.
3. Pleasure & exploration:
Prioritising pleasure can affirm both sexual identity and desires. Pleasure is everyone’s right, despite the obstacles, oppression and injustice that exists to limit access and opportunities to an affirming sexual life. There is great power, liberation and resistance that can be found here.
- This could look like listening and trusting the body when it's communicating what it wants and doesn’t want.
- It could be using pleasure to challenge oppressive systems that teach certain folks they aren’t entitled to pleasure.
- Finally, pleasure can be one of the best ways to connect deeply with yourself and find safety and joy in your body and experiences, regardless of what they are.
LGBTQIA+ Health Australia. Health Report: Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTIQ+ People. April 2021. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/lgbtihealth/pages/549/attachments/original/1620871703/2021_Snapshot_of_Mental_Health2.pdf?1620871703
World Association for Sexual Health. Declaration of Sexual Rights. https://worldsexualhealth.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Declaration-of-Sexual-Rights-2014-plain-text.pdf
Trajectories of Kink/Fetish Identity Development. Samuel D Hughes. 2018. University of California, Santa Cruz. https://altsexnycconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Sam-Hughes-Developmental-Trajectories-of-KinkFetish-ID-Devt.pdf
Community Care https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care
Radical Acceptance https://mashable.com/article/too-much-going-on?ck_subscriber_id=938327870
Resisting Urgency https://www.dawnserra.com/resisting-urgency