rambling thoughts on identity, relationships, and fan fiction

warning: navel-gazing ahead!
For the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how we, as a culture, conceptualize identity -- particularly sexuality as part of identity -- and how it relates to our real-life experiences in relationships: how our understandings of self shape the possibilities we see for relationships, how relationship experience shapes our notions of identity, and what stories we tell each other about how sexual identity and relationship inform one another.

These aren't new thoughts for me, but being engaged to Hanna -- planning our marriage, talking to other people about the cultural and personal meanings of marriage -- brings me back once again to the twin topics of identity and relationship. Being engaged -- actively defining our relationship to the outside world -- also prompts me to notice more keenly the stories we tell, as a culture, about sexual identity and relationships. In this instance, the way in which sexual identity and relationships are theorized in erotic fan fiction (which, many of you know, I read regularly and passionately).

There's a lot of fic out there in which character X discovers they are attracted to character Y who is of the gender they didn't think they had the hots for and ohmygod identity crisis ensues! This is a plot/relationship narrative that -- just like any other dramatic tension -- can be handled really well or handled really poorly. But I'm less interested in the deftness, in this instance, than I am in the assumption that experiencing desire for someone of an unexpected [insert identity characteristic here] stops the desiring character in their tracks because their feelings of attraction don't match up with their self-understanding.

On the one hand, I completely understand that sometimes, falling in love "against type" so to speak precipitates re-evaluation of who you thought you were or what it is you understand yourself to desire. I won't lie: falling in love with Hanna required (or at least prompted) me to think more seriously than I had before about how my sexuality worked. I've written about this in the past (see here, here, and here). Sexuality is one thing in the singular, another thing in the relational.

So, yeah, there was adjustment.

But here's the thing that I've been thinking about lately: my sexual identity in the abstract was most urgently important before Hanna and I were actually in a relationship. I worried about how to convince her with evidence that no, really, I thought she was hot. I worried about what might count as evidence of same-sex desires in the past (which, in turn, could be brought forth in support of a pattern into which Hanna-desires fit neatly, rather than being the exception to the rule). I worried about whether I was worrying too much about marshaling the evidence and therefore reading back into my personal history sexualized feelings that hadn't been there at the time ("did I like her, or like- like her?").

Basically, I worried a lot.

There was massive angst.

I wrote my own life into an angsty, identity-crisis fic to which, appropriately enough, there was ultimately a solution in the form of sexytimes.*

Here's the "on the other hand" thing, though. The moment -- and I'm talking the moment -- we touched in a way that undeniably conveyed to each other "I want to get in your pants as quickly as possible"?

Worry totally gone.

In that moment, I had absolutely all the evidence I needed that whatever-and-whoever-the-hell-else I might be interested? I was interested in Hanna.

End of story.

Well, okay, not totally end of story. 'Cause within that story I got to think a lot about what sex meant to me, and what I enjoyed, under what circumstances, the space between fantasy and real-world interaction, all of that. It's an ongoing conversation. And a really hot one.

(Have I mentioned intellectual stimulation is a turn-on for me?)

But the question of identity became kinda ... irrelevant. Actually, super-irrelevant. Because no matter what I chose to identify as, whatever I called myself, in whatever contexts I named myself, in practice I was Hanna-sexual. As in, sexually attracted to Hanna. All the other attractions I may or may not have moved into the realm of "theoretically interesting but not that practically relevant."

Because I could have said I was doorsexual and still when I put my hands on Hanna I would have wanted her.

And in my book, experiential evidence trumps theory every time.

So when I read these fics in which character X is enjoying sex with character Y -- and I mean seriously enjoying sex -- yet simultaneously freaking out because this isn't sex they should be enjoying? I think about the issues we've created for ourselves by imagining that sexuality and sexual identity is the quantifiable, identifiable, constant thing.

That we can, that we should, understand what we want prior to actually having it, prior to coming across it in the wild, this beautiful, breath-taking being in our path. Prior to knowing and being known, in that moment of intimacy, of home-coming (or, conversely, that moment of escape-from-the-body, of clarifying distance; sex is, after all, what we make and want of it).

What I'm saying is: Aren't we simply what we are?

And if we stumble into love, into desire, into oh god you feel amazing under my hands and please never stop touching me there does it really matter so frickin' much to our notion of the self whether or not the body, the person, in question is the same shape as the last body, the last person, who felt this way under, within, around us?

At what point in our history did the body of others become so central to the constitution of ourselves? Because that's how the think of sexual identity these days -- it's about the self, yes, but it's about the self in relation to the bodies that one finds desirable. It constitutes the self in some pretty fundamental ways but pre-emptively narrowing who we imagine ourselves capable of getting down and dirty with.

As I type this, my internal antagonists are arguing with the words on the page, pointing out how much all of this is colored by my subjective experience of fluid, person-centered sexual attractions, and my claustrophobic reaction to closing doors of possibility when there's no imminent need to do so. So obviously this is only my own particular reaction and all, but really ... why do we make it so difficult for ourselves?

Wouldn't it just be easier if instead of an existential crisis, falling in love with an unexpected person was more like, "Oh, you mean I like this too? That's cool."

*Someday, maybe I'll write it into an actual smutty fic. Hanna and I keep threatening to do this in turns, but so far neither of us has made the time to follow through and do it.


  1. I often think about certain characters in the ancient Greek and Roman world, people who had lots of sexual freedom and no concept of sexual orientation. There are plenty of men, especially, where it would be simply impossible to categorise them gay, bisexual or straight.

    Having sex with other men (and alas, boys) was completely normal, so normal that straight men would have done it, almost as a form of masturbation. Having sex with women was kind of obligatory as you were expected to be married and have children. So it's really only when men appear to have had a lasting loving relationship that we have a clue, and then, well, that doesn't say a lot.

    In fact, it says more about us that people speculate and argue about men who we know had sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women. People say Emperor Hadrian was definitely gay, because he hated his wife. People say Alexander was definitely bi because although the love of his life was a man, he treated his wives very well. People say Julius Caesar was straight, because he was smitten by Cleopatra, even though he was said to be "Every woman's husband and every man's wife."

    But the thing is, you kind of wonder whether, living in a world where there was almost no concept of sexual orientation (almost, because the Romans strongly believed that whatever the circumstances, real men did the penetrating), these guys would have any clue how to class themselves. All they could tell you was who they loved, if they loved.

    I often think that the identity stuff belongs to other people, to society, who are ultimately in charge of our labels. After all, as you describe, we can spend a lot of time worrying about what we should be called, but very little time worrying about who we want.

  2. After all, as you describe, we can spend a lot of time worrying about what we should be called, but very little time worrying about who we want.

    I love the way you put this! YES. I really think it would be a wonderful turn in collective sensibility if we would stop focusing so much on affixing a label to everything and instead encouraged our children, ourselves, and one another, to recognize the different contours of desire. And to think deliberately before we act on those desires.