What are you into?
I first encountered this question a few years ago when I went to my first sex party. I was chatting to people in the drinks area of the venue and I noticed that once we got talking, pretty quickly people would ask “So what are you into?” It was a question that completely flummoxed me. At the time, I was in my early 30s and a new mum, I was finally “out” as bisexual to most of my friends and family and had been exploring consensual non-monogamy with my now-husband for a few years.
“Oh gosh, where should I start?” seemed to be the only feasible response. It elicited a laugh and a few knowing grins from my fellow partygoers but it failed to actually communicate anything useful to anyone, least of all me.
Actually, what I was really into at that moment, during those conversations, was the mere fact of being at the party. I had put a good deal of effort into my outfit - a slutty 80s-inspired Halloween getup - and was enjoying the feeling, both of being dressed up and of being looked at and admired. Beyond that… fuck knows, quite honestly!
At the time I put this down to being a bit of a sex party ingénue. What I inferred from the question was that I ought to have turned up with a plan, a list of SMART goals that I could communicate clearly and negotiate explicitly. I’ve since come to realise that it is - at least for me - a near-impossible thing to pin down.
I touched on this dilemma last year after I read a column Jessie Sage wrote entitled ‘“What are you into?” It all depends on context.’ She’s absolutely right. It depends on the partner, it depends on the dynamic between you, it depends on your mood that day, and it depends what the occasion calls for.
Enter the sex menu.
I first heard about sex menus about five years ago when this one made its way into a few articles in mainstream online publications. It’s by Toronto-based sex coach Dr Stephen de Wit, and it’s essentially just a list of sexual activities and kinks which you can mark off, depending on whether you have experience of them and also indicate your level of interest in them. At the time, when I discussed it on my podcast, I took it to be something you might fill in together with a partner as a starting point for having a conversation, or even just for fun and flirtation. My husband Rob and I had also recently tried out an app that did a similar thing, for a feature I was writing. Kindu suggests different activities and allows you to say yes, no, or maybe. Sync it up with your partner’s app and get a notification when there’s a “match”. As someone who talks and writes about sex for a living (and at the time, co-hosted my sex podcast with my husband) I wasn’t expecting us to learn anything new from it but we were both pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was.
After that I didn’t really think about sex menus again until a few years later when I met a new partner who told me he had one and asked if I’d like to see it. This was a conundrum. Discussing a sex menu with an existing partner had felt fun and flirtatious but somehow the idea of reading one from somebody I had, at that point, not even met, felt oddly formal. It felt like I was being handed medical notes or a CV. And what if I saw something on there that squicked me out, would it play on my mind and put me off the whole endeavour? I’m all for demystifying sex on a social and cultural level but in my personal life it turned out I needed a bit of obscurity, a bit of romance.
It’s not that I wanted to wade into the unknown, it’s purely that the idea of having all the facts up front wasn’t hot for me. I wanted to play, to flirt, to reveal things to each other slowly, through conversations and suggestions. I declined the offer to read his sex menu.
In the meantime though, I started to think more about the utility of the thing. Here, I realised, was an opportunity to figure out “what I am into” so that I could better communicate it to others in the future.
I instinctively felt that handing over a sheet of paper ought not to be a substitute for actually talking about what you like and don’t like, but I recognised it could be a useful exercise and reference point for me. (I have since heard that, actually, for some neurodiverse people who struggle to pick up on the nuances of people’s reactions and read non-verbal cues, literally having a “cheat sheet” to exchange with a partner can be super helpful and take a lot of pressure off. So I’m not for a minute suggesting you can’t use a sex menu this way, only that for me that wasn’t the appeal of it.)
I began looking up templates and found a good selection here. I liked that they offered the opportunity for more nuance than Dr de Wit’s checklist. I particularly liked the way one person’s menu broke things down into “things I am generally always up for,” “things I’d be up for once we know each other better,” “things I’m curious about,” and “things that help me come.” It sounds crazy but I’d never considered the fact that what makes me come is actually quite a limited list of physical activities, whereas what I’m into is a massive, fluid, evolving collection of ideas and dynamics and feelings. I was obsessed and knew I had to try to put together my own sex menu.
Because I’m a massive geek, I wasn’t content to simply take a quiz and fill it in, I wanted to try to shape my sex menu to my needs and style of communication. I cherry-picked from different examples I’d seen (including my new partner’s because I did eventually read it, a few months down the line, once I knew him a bit better) and put together my ultimate Overthinker’s Sex Menu. I thought I’d share it with you… not the actual filled in one with all my kinks on it, obviously, but the blank template. You can have a read and download it HERE.
I still don’t think a sex menu is something I’d send to a partner outright because it feels a bit cringe to me. My preference is still very much for talking (in fact talking about sex is listed on my sex menu as one of the things that’s really important and a turn-on for me!). But I’d definitely recommend it as an exercise.
These days I have a bit of a better sense of what I might be into on any given occasion but it’s hardly an exhaustive or immutable list. If a partner asks me “what are you into?” I can certainly give a run down of some of the things I like but it’s not necessarily going to paint a picture of what might be fun for us to do together. To me, a sex menu is a very much a means for understanding ourselves, rather than a roadmap for how we might engage with others. But, as always, I feel like this is a pretty good place to start.
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A quick reminder that I am crowdfunding for the new series of my podcast, The Second Circle. Series Four will be all about BAD SEX: what causes it, what exacerbates it, why we continue to have it (even after we’ve realised it’s bad) and what we can do about it.
Listen to the audio teaser here:
I’ve been blown away by the messages of support. I’ve managed to raise 20% of what I need already which is fantastic but the pledges have dropped off a bit and it’s going to be a long, hard slog to hit my target of £5,000 so anything you can spare is very very gratefully received.
What’s on my mind this week…
I was leafing through the Archives of Sexual Behaviour (as you do) and what should I spot but my own goddamn name! It was in a paper entitled “How Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Affecting Our Sexualities? An Overview of the Current Media Narratives and Research Hypotheses”.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen my work cited in an academic paper and I must admit it does give me a thrill but it also hammers home to me the incredible responsibility of doing this work. I joked on Twitter about how I’m contributing to the cultural narrative as though that was an intentional achievement but the reality is, anyone working in media is contributing to the cultural narrative - in good ways and in bad. It was a reminder that, while I can’t personally control the entire media landscape around sex and relationships, integrity has to be at the forefront of what I do. It would be easy, as a sex and relationships writer to bash out titillating articles that question nothing and while I’m all for writing features that are entertaining and engaging, I don’t want to do that if I’m also upholding limiting ideas about sex. I sometimes wonder if I’m making my life harder this way. I end up pushing back against editors and that’s not a comfortable thing to do when you’re a freelancer at the mercy of your next commission. I’m probably not going to get it right every time. Sometimes I’m going to argue too hard and risk damaging a professional relationship. Sometimes I’m going to concede and disappoint my readers. Sometimes I worry I can’t tread this tightrope at all. But then I see my name in an academic journal and realise that I want to be part of this conversation. I want to help shape it and push it, in whatever tiny incremental way I can, towards something better.
A couple more things to (over)think about…
I really enjoyed Sophie Gallagher’s piece in the Indy about coming off the pill
This thread about the history of butt plugs is an entertaining and illuminating read
The Sunday Times magazine ran a big feature on the rise of erectile dysfunction which is v interesting (and also potentially something I want to cover in my podcast)
American sex writer Tracy Clark-Fory offers some fascinating insights into her years reporting on porn.
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