About six months ago I noticed a change in my game. Before sending a text or reaching out, I started thinking to myself, "What would a normal girl do? What would a nice, normal girl who has never studied the art and science of intimate relating say to her crush right now?"
I'm risking the good opinion of a lot of my friends and the goodwill of my community by writing this. But I'm going to call this like I see it: the sex and relationship educator community is running the risk of completely isolating itself from the normal population.
In 2012 I began my journey into the study of intimate relating. I started meeting educators who weren't pickup artists, I became a proud sex geek, I eschewed the deception prevalent within (but not necessarily inherent to) PUA culture in favor of the straightforward, positive, thoughtfully crafted, formulaic communication styles of the relationship elite.
It was early 2013 when I was walking down the streets of NY with my mentor Reid Mihalko (who asked to be named in this post rather than referenced vaguely), and I was complaining about figuring out how to communicate with a man I was seeing. "Could you teach a class on dating muggles?" I asked him excitedly. "I feel like that would be so helpful to single people in the community!"
"Arden," Reid replied to me, "maybe you should just stop dating muggles."
Reid famously coined the phrase Date Your Species, which suggests that people should only date those who are similar enough in ideology to them that a relationship will run smoothly. The idea of finding your pack or your tribe has been with me since my early twenties in the BDSM scene, implanted firmly by Flagg, my first kink mentor, and I still reiterate that principle to my students today. However, there are some deeply problematic assumptions in the idea that I should stop dating people who aren't, if not sex educators, at least very dedicated sex students.
First of all, there's the assumption that I only belong to one tribe. I do belong to the sex educator tribe, and even within that, I am probably one of the only people who fits in equally across the gamut between pickup artists and tantrikas. I've hung with the guys wearing fuzzy hats and I've hung with the white people wearing bindis. But I also have a band, and in my band I have a tribe, not just in my own collaborators but in the social scene that supports it, in the parties and goth clubs I frequent. I have a tribe in the fetish scene, which somehow forms a spectrum between my sex educator friends and my goth friends, with the former clan geeking out on different ways to tie rope on a person and the latter going to parties to dress up and dance to industrial. I also have friends in the occult community, which blends the spirituality of tantra with the goth culture of the music scene and often throws a bit of comics geekery in for good measure. In New York I had parkour and krav maga friends, people who chose to focus their intelligence far less on linguistics and far more on the use of their physical bodies. And all of these people have had just as much heart and humanity as the people I know in the sex geek scene. If you want to make the argument that everyone should be learning the skills of intimate relating, you will get absolutely no fight from me on that -- pretty much everybody intimately relates, and pretty much nobody attempts to learn how to do it well. But if you try to tell me that my friends are somehow less worthy, somehow not good enough because they've chosen to focus their efforts on a different skill set that they're passionate about in the way that I am passionate about relating, then we are going to have some words.
Another issue here that my friend Ashley Manta pointed out is that suggesting one date only within the sex geek community is classist, because most of the trainings available to sex geeks are fucking expensive. Ashley and I agree that we have been very lucky that as educators ourselves, we add enough value to our community that we are often invited to participate for free when we're not getting paid to present. I've audited weekend-long courses by volunteering my time; I've sat at the backs of crowded auditoriums full of people who paid hundreds or thousands of dollars a ticket for the same information I've gotten just for showing up and being Arden Leigh (granted, being Arden Leigh takes a lot of time and money in itself). To insist that I only date people who can afford to be participating members of the community is to rule out a very large economic class, when my dating history has run the gamut from literal billionaires (okay, ONE literal billionaire) to people who turned to sex work out of poverty. True, most sex educators I know post free content on the internet, which you only need wifi to access, but cutting out the expensive social aspect of the community means that I am probably not going to meet those people in my sex geek tribe and so they're irrelevant in the face of the suggestion to stop dating muggles.
Further, let's remember that it's not easy to seek out help with sex and relationships, even if the money is available. We live in a culture that expects us to just intuitively understand sex and communication, and which, if we seek education in it, shames us for either being inferior or broken, or for being too sexual, too desirous, possibly perverted and dangerous. How many people can actually turn to their coworkers and say that they're going to a weekend-long training about relationships? Participating in a training is a silent admission that we're not already good at something that's supposed (air quotes) to come naturally. To only date people who participate in this community is to show a lack of compassion for how difficult and stigmatized that participation so often is.
The solution lies in better sex and relationship education on a public, infrastructural level, starting in high school, or even earlier for subjects like nonviolent communication and active listening. Yeah, we all should be better at this. But we can hardly blame people if they're not. The word "muggle" in this context shames and others anyone who doesn't put effort into educating themselves about sex and relationships, which is literally almost everyone.
And the problem with learning relationship as a skill set in our community, especially as a single person, is that when you do inevitably meet and perhaps even fall in love with a muggle, your knowledge has the potential to create an immediate rift in your intimacy. Back in the fall I wrote an entry about how devastating it is to lose people because they aren't having the same growth experiences you are and they feel insecure trying to keep up with you. Even when you try your hardest to be positive, complimentary, solution-oriented, even when you try your damnedest to use your skill set to work out issues in your relationships rather than further tangle them up in knots, there's still so often this sense of othering, this feeling that only one of you is competent at the thing you're both attempting.
I thought it was funny how my friend Conner, the same person who told me last year that he imagined my lovers must feel humiliated and resentful dating someone who's smarter than they are in the very arena in which they have to relate to them, described LA-based vegan/organic/holistic lifestyle restaurant Cafe Gratitude as a place that "makes you feel so good about yourself and so bad about yourself at the same time" because it immerses you in a healthy lifestyle that is likely impossible for you to maintain when you're not eating there. "Holy shit, Conner, that's just it," I muttered, stunned. "I'm the Cafe Gratitude of girlfriends."
As sex geeks, we create language around intimate relating that is designed to foster communication, resolve conflict, and increase sexual intimacy. We learn formulas, sometimes literally step by step, for how to talk about safer sex, for how to ask your lover how they like to be touched, for having difficult conversations. We have catchphrases that we use as shorthand to communicate larger sentiments, like the way we say "Thank you for taking care of yourself" when someone denies our request, which is essentially a way of acknowledging that their honoring their "no" is better for both of us than giving a "yes" they don't mean. And I love and appreciate my sex geek friends for how much they want communication to be that easy, I love them for believing that these solutions can work across the board. Trouble is, when you're talking to a normal person and they tell you that no they can't, say, make it to your birthday party, replying "Thank you for taking care of yourself" makes you sound like a sarcastic asshole. And having a step-by-step conversation about safer sex that's any more detailed than "we need a condom!" with a band dude backstage makes you sound like a weird sex robot, possibly one who's too bizarre or high-maintenance to even be worth fucking when there are so many other willing girls out there who don't make sex sound so dour.
In retrospect I think it was really cute of younger me that I thought that the way to achieve my relationship goals of being desirable to all the cool goth rock dudes I wanted to date in NY was to go off and learn the art of relationships from a tribe of sex geeks. It's risible, in hindsight. But it was cute. I wish literally anyone besides me appreciated how goddamn adorably naive that was.
It's a pipe dream to imagine that creating an entire new language to communicate in that the people you're dating don't speak is actually going to create more intimacy. We created this language to help dispel shame in our partners, but so often we just end up inviting more shame, shame that they're not as good as we are at the thing we're both doing together.
And yeah, it's often a gendered shame, it's a shame that the mostly-heteronormative men I tend to date feel more strongly perhaps than persons of other orientations, because thanks to the toxic masculinity rampant in society, men are just expected to be better at almost everything. As the jokes go, it's hard enough for your stereotypical man to ask for directions in the car let alone admit that he is comparatively ill-equipped to talk about important relationship issues like emotional needs or sexual satisfaction. For what it's worth, I don't see the same struggles in the relationships of male sex educators (which, granted, doesn't mean they don't exist). The guru-disciple dynamic, while not necessarily the pinnacle of relationship health, is far more prevalent in examples where straight men get to be the gurus.
It's the unsolvable puzzle, because in order to talk about it, I'd need to talk about it, and in talking about it I'm stepping into that arena where I'm the expert and they're not. "Hi baby, I need to have a Difficult Conversation with you. What I'm afraid is going to happen is that you're going to feel shame and leave me. What I want to happen is that you'll appreciate how hard I'm trying to get things right because I just want to feel worthy of being loved. And the thing I'm afraid to say is, well, is it weird that you're dating a sex educator? I fear that having dedicated my life to the study of sex and relationship communication actually makes me a liability to you, because you have dedicated your life to other worthwhile pursuits and yet we are not in a constant situation where your skill sets are relevant the way that mine are when we are literally just talking to each other." I don't know. Maybe it's just me but I don't see that going over well.
The difficult conversation that happened in autumn with my last departed significant lover involved him telling me that he didn't want to be wrong all the time, even though the subject he didn't want to be wrong about in that conversation was my own self-reported feelings, and even though that meant that he was telling me I was wrong instead. I called up my bestie, dating coach Adam Lyons, to vent about how hurt and frustrated I felt and how unfair it all was, and he replied with both sympathy and tough love: "It's always easier for people to date us than it is for us to date them, even though we're the ones who have put the work into studying this. As experts we know more, because we've studied. Others aren't as informed. But since dating is about emotions and feelings, they're just as right to follow their feelings as we are to follow ours. Our knowing more actually means we have more responsibility with our actions, which invariably means taking the blame even when we know we shouldn't."
Like me, Adam comes from a background in pickup artistry, and for all the flak that much of PUA culture deservedly receives, I will give it credit in that it expects its targets to know absolutely nothing about relationships. If anything, pickup errs on the side of insulting the intelligence of the people it's trying to engage, which is why it condones so many made-up stories and silly canned routines. But even negging, the reviled PUA tactic of criticizing a target in order to disqualify oneself as a potential suitor, actually sounds pretty harmless in comparison to expecting them to play on expert level in a highly stigmatized and deeply personal field: the former is a superficial comment on something we perceive they're lacking, while the latter is a physical demonstration of what they already know they're lacking.
"Our skill set is supposed to be in meeting people where they are," Ashley said, "when in reality we're actually asking people to meet us where we already are, which has a pretty tough barrier to entry."
I think the education in the sex geek community is an amazing resource, if two people in a relationship are willing to learn it together, or if two people come together who already know it. When that happens, magic can take place, breakthroughs can happen, and years can pass by without a conflict that doesn't get resolved in a few sentences. My relationship with my girlfriend Ela Darling is like this. We'll be at two years next month, and we've had maybe two fights, both of which were resolved in under five text messages. (Disclaimer, as non-primaries, we interact far less often than most standard primary couples of two years, but it's still pretty impressive by any metric.) I feel ridiculously safe with her, which means we can just chill and enjoy each other without all the usual anxiety that happens in relationships where communication feels stunted or lacking in awareness.
But when it comes to new people in my life, I find myself asking Okay, what would a normal girl do in this situation? What is the best way to make this person feel at ease when the act of making someone feel at ease is in itself potentially disquieting? How do I make someone feel safe when it's my attempts at making them feel safe that are making them feel unsafe?
I tried so hard to be good at relating that I lost the ability to relate. It would be funny if it weren't so fucking sad.
I love our community, I love my friends, I love that I was able to call up Reid and have a Difficult Conversation about publishing this piece and that it ended in our telling each other how much we appreciate each other, I love the positive changes we make in the world and in people's relationships when we give them the skill set to navigate the treacherous waters of intimacy. But sex geeks, we need to get a little less exclusionary and remember that people are people too.