There’s a great question in the most recent Savage Love from a reader who has a harmless, if a bit eccentric, fetish, and wonders what he should do about it. Savage provided some advice which I thought was pretty good: meet someone you like, start dating for awhile, get comfortable, and then bring it up.
Normally, that’s not actually advice that I would endorse. I think that being up front about fetishes is pretty important, because they can be a big part of who you are. And because people can be nasty and judgmental, and I know that I personally wouldn’t want to be dating someone who was repulsed by something that I like to do. (For example, I really like reading trashy women’s magazines in the bath tub. I don’t really want to date someone who has a problem with that. Although I wouldn’t mind dating someone with a bath tub, because I don’t have one.)
But I think that Dan Savage made a good choice when he offered that advice, because he was distinguishing between a fetish and a personality characteristic. Not telling someone that you were queer at the start of a relationship would be pretty shifty, because queerness is so integral to identity. Likewise, if you have an intense attachment to a particular fetish and you can’t get off without it, that’s the kind of thing that should be disclosed, straight up, up front.
But if, every now and then, you kind of enjoy being pelted with ripe fruit while naked, or having sex with women in swim fins, or whatever, that’s the kind of thing that could be a dealbreaker early in a relationship, but not after some time had elapsed and both parties had gotten to know each other. Rather than ruining a chance at a great relationship, it really does make sense to hold back on the full disclosure until you get a sense of the direction the relationship is taking.
On the flip side, though, I think that people have a responsibility to be more receptive when people talk about personal things such as fetishes, or when they disclose their disease status. People hide these things because they are afraid, and often because they have been shamed or humiliated in the past. If we were all open and relaxed when people made relationship-critical admissions, we’d probably be living in a world with more honesty, because people wouldn’t be afraid to be frank.
I’ve always said, and I continue to maintain, that hiding disease status is pretty high on my list of bad things that people can do, as is hiding sexual orientation. I think that it’s profoundly disrespectful to a partner to not share a rather critical detail like that, but I also know how hard it is to be frank with someone when you don’t know how they are going to react to something.
In the long term, though, it’s better for everyone. The one time that I was less than frank with someone about my sexual identity, that person turned out to have very wrong, very offensive, and very frustrating preconceptions about members of the queer community. In fact, he was the kind of person that I probably wouldn’t really like, let alone date, now that I am more confident in myself. I could have saved us both a lot of time right from the start, but instead I waited. As it turned out, the experience just turned out badly for everyone, because he got to maintain his erroneous and stupid ideas, since I inadvertently reinforced them, and once bitten, I was twice shy about being open with people.
I remember that lesson now when people disclose things to me which I find distasteful, or shocking, or deeply strange. Rather than reacting in a judgmental and ultimately non-productive way, I try being more open to what they have to say, explaining that I don’t know much and I’m curious and I would like to know more. I’m trying to do my part for society by showing people that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world when they talk about potentially hot-button issues with people.
My first response to Savage’s answer was “noooo! DAN! What are you doing!” When I sat and reflected on it, though, I realized that I was being kind of inflexible. Information comes in degrees and classifications, and everything about someone doesn’t need to be discussed at the earliest possible stage in a relationship. The important things do, but maybe it’s better to unpack things as they come up. I guess that’s why Dan Savage is the advice columnist and I’m the nitpicking critic.