For such a primal act, sex can be really complicated — and it can feel super awkward to ask for help with problems between the sheets. That’s why we’re here to answer your questions, with just the right mix of experts, thinkers and ordinary people who’ve faced similar issues. This is Basic Sex: A column for people who want to nail more than just the fundamentals.
The Basic Concern
I’m a mostly heterosexual man in a relationship with a woman who has crippling anxiety, exhibitionist tendencies and who wants an open relationship without kids. Personally, I’d prefer something more nuclear, and with kids. I’ve tried open relationships and polyamory before, but I’m just not into it. I’m not against healthy expression of interests — I want people to have what they want, whether or not I’m invited — but, honestly, it’s not for me.
With that in mind, I want to understand the drive behind exhibitionism: Does it have roots in a fear of being seen, physical factors like adrenaline and dopamine or maybe the thrill of the taboo? Does it often present alongside anxiety, as it does in my partner? Her anxiety is so awful that she can’t operate a motor vehicle. I understand that genius and anxiety are “comorbid,” and there are all kinds of connections between dopamine, addiction and hypersexuality, but I’m wondering if it’s a type of trauma that makes people poly?
I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to understand my partner’s mindset better so that I can figure out how I’d like to proceed. Should I try to make this work, or are we just too different?
The Expert Advice
Zahra Stardust, porn star, artist and academic: First up, it’s fantastic that you have identified your preferred relationship model and know what works for you — this takes time, practice, trial and error. It sounds like she’s done the same. But if she wants an open relationship without kids and you would prefer something nuclear with kids, it may be that in the future, one or both of you will need to compromise dearly. You might share a beautiful connection as your individual lives overlap, so I recommend enjoying this without expectations, rather than looking to her to fulfil your relationship needs, especially when she’s been clear about what she can offer.
Secondly, I’d stop searching for causal explanations for your partner’s interests in polyamory or exhibitionism and think of them as preferences rather than pathological problems. Would you ask someone whether their desire for a nuclear family with kids was a result of anxiety, fear or trauma? Polyamory isn’t a disease, affliction or even a fixed condition — it merely provides philosophies and tools for building a plethora of different relationship models. You can pick and choose what works for you!
Thirdly, some exhibitionists are extroverts, some are introverts. There are multiple joys of exhibitionism, from creative self-expression and pleasure in being watched to transgressing public/private boundaries. Selecting which parts of yourself to share with strangers — whether it be onstage or in public — can be affirming and release endorphins, just like sex. Exhibitionism allows you to enjoy people enjoying you! Treat it like a gift.
So instead of deliberating over whether polyamory or exhibitionism are healthy, this is a chance to think differently about what (selfless) love and (poly) family could look like. But if you know what you need and this relationship isn’t feeling like the right fit, the kindest service to both you and your partner is honesty.
Sunny Rodgers, certified sexologist and ambassador for the American Sexual Health Association: At the heart of your relationship are two individuals heading in two different directions. I know you want to understand her desires and decisions, but any explanations I can share with the limited knowledge I have of your relationship aren’t going to change the fact that she wants something different than what you want. If you both want to go forward together in your relationship, you’re going to have to be committed to some deep, honest conversations and should find a counselor who can help mediate your partnership conversation.
Gordon Nichols, musician, kinkster and polyamorist: Directness and candor are excellent qualities in any relationship, open or otherwise. Have you asked your partner what she experiences with exhibitionism? Every person, kinky or vanilla, is unique, although you can safely bet there are both physiological and psychological drivers at work. Regardless, trying to find out why smacks of pathologization, which isn’t going to help your situation.
But let’s move on to you — what difference will it ultimately make why your partner is kinky, open and exhibitionistic, and you aren’t? Are you asking in order to accept this, or hoping to change it? One benefit of having multiple relationships is the opportunity to learn, repeatedly, that hoping a lover will change a fundamental part of themselves to accommodate you is torture for both parties. I suggest you assess how you feel about your partner in her entirety — kinks, anxiety and all — and then structure your relationship around the whole, rather than hoping to change her to form a more ideal relationship.
Nina Hartley, sex educator, author and legendary porn star: A person doesn’t “become poly” because of trauma, though some people self-harm (including sexually) as a reaction to trauma. Healthy polyamory, like healthy monogamy, is a sexual orientation based in self-awareness, kindness, honesty and open communication. There is no way to know, from here, what the relationship is between her sexual behaviors and her personal history. All that you know is that it’s not the right fit for you.
So the short answer: Gently end this relationship so you may seek out a partner who wants what you want — i.e., a monogamous partnership with parenthood as a shared desire. The reasons why a person is non-monogamous aren’t as important in this case as the fact that your sexual orientations don’t overlap in a way that would support a healthy, long-term marriage.