January 31

Loving Myself v1


by Jennifer Rahner in collaboration with Bodysex.com

“So, let me get this straight,” I started, meeting his eyes to be sure I understood.  “What you’re saying is that I can be in a committed relationship with you, but I can fuck other people – do I have that right?”

I’m sure my face showed my incredulity.  The year was 1992, years before accessing information on the internet became a thing you could do, and I was a bit dumbfounded about what my then-boyfriend was proposing.  

He’d started out by telling me he’d done a bit of sexual exploration with his former girlfriend, and wanted us to do the same.  Then he showed me personal ads in the back of an X-rated magazine and explained further that these were other people who wanted to ‘swing’ or ‘swap’ and we could answer their ads to plan trysts with them.  Additionally, there were parties and venues where we could meet others, and many of these others were also couples wanting to explore beyond their committed relationships.

Perhaps my naïveté sounds a bit quaint now; many, many more people are aware of consensually nonmonogamous relationships in their various permutations these days.  But at 22 years old, at a time when we all did a lot more wondering than knowing, I was entirely blown away that this was a thing – that there were other people like me.

Even in my earliest dating in middle school, I didn’t quite understand why once you had a date with someone you were suddenly in a relationship with them and only them.  Dating wasn’t really a thing – you were either single or you were “going with” someone.  If you held hands with Johnny at the roller skating rink on Friday night, you could not be seen with Paul at the Mall on Saturday – cheater!  It seemed the world wanted you to choose, and choose now, who you wanted to spend time with, and once you chose you were stuck for a bit.

I never wanted to choose.  In fact, when I was 19 I had an arrangement with my then boyfriend who was going off to the Coast Guard.  When he was home – we were a couple.  When he was not, I led my own life and he led his.  I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but now I know it was an early experience with consensual nonmonogamy.

So, fast forward to 1992, after a year with my then-boyfriend (and soon to be husband) he proposed this idea.  Once I verified that I understood what he was saying, I was all in!  Finally!  Another someone who wanted to taste all that life had to offer sexually, just like me. I was excited to get started.

I still remember that trip to the adult store to pick up more magazines with ads and information.  There was one printed on newsprint that was kind of like a Pennysaver or Auto Trader for swingers.  Grainy black & white photos with accompanying ads, and PO Boxes to respond to.  We pored over them and picked out a few people we might want to connect with, and sent off our handwritten letters with polaroids.  And then we waited.

And waited.

You see, before the internet and online dating, finding others who shared your interest was a practice in patience.  You mailed off a letter and waited until you received a reply, either by return mail or via phone call – to your landline!   

Our first adventure together was terribly exciting!  I didn’t know that I enjoyed watching and being watched.  I loved the attention I was getting along with all of those delicious feelings of discovering someone new.  I remember on our way home from the swingers event, we had to pull over under an overpass on the highway and fuck like bunnies in the back seat because we were both still so excited from the night before.

Fast forward a few years, though, and that sort of excitement was gone.  More often than not, I was asked to “take one for the team” to satisfy my partner’s urges, and each time I did, I felt awful afterward.  Not ashamed, exactly, but left with this nagging ick in my stomach because I’d done something my body was not 100% on board to do.  

It’s also important to note that my self-esteem suffered in this relationship.  Though we’ve made our peace now, my ex-husband often harped on changes he saw in me; changes that felt positive to me threatened him.  On our honeymoon, he told me I was getting fat when I weighed 70 pounds less than I do now.  This exchange affected me so much that I put off having lunch with him 20 years later because I could not bear seeing that same look of disgust in his eyes if he saw me now, most certainly fatter than I’d been then, despite feeling quite confident and comfortable in my skin.  Old wounds cut deepest, I suppose, and those stories stick in our heads unless we take the time to reevaluate them with new eyes.

Which I have, now.  Through therapy and self-work (in the form of a class I now teach, REVEALED) I’ve realized that I was walloped by the perfect storm of divorced and largely absent parents, raging hormones, and early childhood trauma, which made me susceptible to seeking approval from my intimate partners.  Of course, we all want our lovers to find us alluring and desirable, but this went a step beyond that, to tying myself into a pretzel to become something I wasn’t.    

Looking back now with the wisdom I’ve gained, I’m not sure how I found the courage to tell my husband I didn’t want to swing anymore.  Don’t get me wrong – I was not at all opposed to an open relationship, but not the way we were practicing it. By then, I’d found some early books on polyamory – Love Without Limits by the late Deborah Anapol and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.  What I read rang so true to me.  I wanted not only the opportunity to be sexual with other people, but also the freedom to allow connections to grow however they might.  I wanted true intimacy with more than one person.  I wanted more love in my life, not just more sex.  While there were things I appreciated about swinging – voyeurism, exhibitionism, being able to easily find others who felt similarly by attending events – there were more that did not fulfill what I truly yearned for.  

I know now, though, that conversation was the start of me loving myself enough to assert my autonomy, and asking for what I truly wanted.  It was also the beginning of the end of my first marriage.  There were other reasons, but ultimately it came down to my emerging need for autonomy.  Though it would take me 20 more years to ultimately build the precise kind of consensually non-monogamous relationships that I longed for, with a loving nesting partner of 13 years, it might never have happened without stretching to love myself enough at that moment in 1996.

You know the best part, though?  While I know there is always room for growth, I feel like I’ve finally gotten to the point where I might be able to be a happy swinger!  I’ve realized that so much of what dampened my enjoyment of mutually consensual sexual play was my inability to assert my needs and desires.  Now, with half a lifetime of experience behind me, I believe I could walk into any sexy space, have a fantastic time, and not feel like I’ve been coerced into doing something my heart (and pussy) weren’t 100% into doing.

The journey to self-love starts with one thing – just one.  What are you going to do today?


Memoir, Start Where You Are

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