5 essential lessons in LGBTQ+ sexual wellness

Number 3: Don’t assume a partner’s sexual role

Written by Dr. Justin Lehmiller

Most LGBTQ+ folks have to learn everything about sex on their own. They’re certainly not learning about it through school-based sex education! In fact, just 8.2% of LGBTQ+ students today say they’ve received any kind of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed and, sadly, that figure is probably the highest it’s ever been.

When you factor in parental discomfort with sex ed in general and the fact that not everyone who is LGBTQ+ is out to their families, the unfortunate result is that the weight of the burden falls on the individual when it comes to learning about sex. This is why many LGBTQ+ people learn through experience or rely on porn or other sources to fill in the gaps. 

Many in the community therefore never learn what they really need to know or end up following heteronormative scripts. In this article, I’m going to share some of the lessons you probably didn’t learn in sex ed that are essential for improving LGBTQ+ sexual and relationship wellness. 

Sex isn’t just one thing

When cisgender, heterosexual adults are asked to define “sex,” they tend to define it pretty narrowly, seeing it largely through the lens of penile-vaginal intercourse. Some LGBTQ+ folks engage in this behavior, but others do not, and that necessitates taking a more expansive view of what sex means.

However, heteronormativity often creeps into the definitions of sex adopted by LGBTQ+ persons. The idea of sex-as-penetration is steeped in the world of gay and lesbian porn, with gay male porn frequently revolving around penile-anal sex, and lesbian porn revolving around vaginal and oral penetration with strap-ons and dildos. This tends to give the impression that sex isn’t really sex unless someone is penetrated with a penis or penile facsimile. 

This view of sex fails to reflect the broad diversity in sexual expression that we see in the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ sex isn’t just one thing, and it might look very different across various segments of the community. 

That said, the other problem with following heteronormative scripts for sex is that they can be very limiting. It assumes that there’s one “right” or “best” way for everyone to have sex, experience pleasure, and reach orgasm. The reality, though, is that these things are highly individualized. What feels good to one person might or might not feel good to the next. 

We may miss out on certain pleasures when we restrict ourselves to a specific script, and this leads nicely into the next point…

Explore your body early and often

How do you know what pleasurable sex feels like? Coming-of-age queer cinema often portrays the protagonist’s first sexual experience as this mind-blowing thing where their partner just automatically knows what they want and what feels good to them. 

While it’s certainly possible for a partner to accidentally stumble onto what brings us ecstasy, the truth is that the most pleasurable sex tends to come from partners being able to tell each other what they want. 

This is particularly important for LGBTQ+ folks. It can be hard to know what feels good if you haven’t taken the time to fully explore your own body. For example, if you’ve never tried anal play, how do you know which activities and/or role(s) you might enjoy? Likewise, if you’re trans or intersex, how do you know not only what kind of touch is pleasurable, but also what feels affirming?

The answers are different for everyone, but you can get some clues by trying different things during masturbation. What do you like and dislike? What facilitates versus hinders orgasm? Keep in mind that discovering your pleasures doesn’t have to focus exclusively on genital touch. Explore the rest of your body. Watch some porn and/or read erotica. Figure out what works for you so that you can have the kind of sex that feels best.

Don’t assume a partner’s sexual role

LGBTQ+ folks know all too well the harm that can arise from stereotyping when cis/het folks assume them to be a certain way; unfortunately this doesn’t seem to stop LGBTQ+ people from stereotyping one another. Case in point: as a sex educator, I’ve received many questions from LGBTQ+ folks who have encountered a major discrepancy between what they personally enjoy during sex and the assumptions partners make about their wants based on their appearance. 

For example, I’ve heard from some gay and bisexual men who are perceived as feminine and are assumed to be submissive in bed when that’s not actually what they want. Similarly, I’ve heard from some lesbian and transmasculine persons who are perceived as sexually dominant when that’s not who they are in the bedroom. 

In these cases, people often feel compelled to conform to their partner’s expectations and, in the process, have been deprived of pleasure. Fixing this problem necessitates dropping the assumptions about what you think your partner wants and, instead, communicating your desires. At the same time, however, this also means that all parties need to feel empowered to say what they really want.

Write your own relationship script

LGBTQ+ folks often have few role models when it comes to navigating their sexual and romantic lives because LGBTQ+ representation has historically been lacking in popular media and many members of the community come of age in areas where they feel alone or isolated. 

The result is that many LGBTQ+ individuals feel pressure to follow heteronormative relationship scripts that involve marriage, lifelong monogamy, and children. Of course, if those are the things you want in life, great! However, it’s important to recognize that there isn’t just one “correct” way to approach relationships. 

An important question to ask yourself is whether the kind of relationship you’re pursuing is what you really want, or whether it’s what you think is expected of you, or what you think will help you to fit in better in a heteronormative society. When people try to subvert their sexual and/or romantic desires to fit in, that doesn’t tend to work out well, whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not. 

Just as it’s important to explore your body and figure out your path(s) to pleasure, it’s important to explore (or at least consider) different relationship styles. As with so many other things in life, it can be hard to know exactly what works for you until you try it out.

Be open to change

Lastly, recognize that things can change over time. Sexuality is fluid for many people. For example, in Dr. Lisa Diamond’s pioneering book on sexual fluidity, she found that some of the women she studied over a 10-year period experienced shifts in their sexual and romantic attractions, behaviors, and even identities, with some alternating between identifying as lesbian, bisexual and unlabeled. 

Sexuality is often assumed to be static, but it isn’t always that way. Let’s be clear about something, though: the fact that sexual fluidity exists does not mean that we consciously choose our sexual attractions or our orientation. Whether your sexuality is fluid or not, it’s valid.

Some people also fluctuate between dominant and submissive sexual roles. Not every man who has sex with men sticks to a stable “top” or “bottom” role for their entire life (and, of course, some aren’t into anal sex at all, which is why some identify as “sides”).

What feels good during sex can change. How you define “sex” itself can change. What kind of relationship you desire can change. Some people experience fluidity in their gender expression as well.

In LGBTQ+ sex and relationships, you get to write your own script. Embrace that. And recognize that you might not necessarily know how the story ends, either.

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