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Sex, Labels, and Cataloging


I've been thinking about labels a lot lately. Mainly because my muse has refused to let me write anything but multiple partnered stories and I'm wondering how the hell I'm going to market my next short story collection when the time comes to publish it. The book is erotic romance, yes, but the multi-partner thing is still not really a given—most readers expect a pairing.

I could just go on to say the stories feature multiple partners, but that doesn't really solve my problems. Because for many readers, there is a major difference between reading a M/F/M, F/M/F, M/M/M or a F/F/F story. And since all the stories I've drafted so far are a combination of M/F partners (F/F/M and M/M/F mostly) I pretty much cut out readers who are ONLY interested in hetero pairings or ONLY interested in same-sex pairings.

Perhaps, then, do I bust out my good old Bisexual label and say I write multi-partnered Bisexual erotic romance? Well, that would be nice, except in one of my stories a Bi lady hooks up with a lesbian and a straight guy and in another story the characters don't really get into their orientations, they're just fluid and/or kinky. So, there's that.

I then thought about using Polyamorous as an identifier, which I'm fairly happy with, but that also has its limitations. I’ve found that the term is not well known outside of the sex positive community, and the fact that the eroticism is a central factor in my stories contributes to the oversexualized stereotype of Polyamory that the community has spoken out against.

At this point my marketing plan is: Hey, read this book, people have sex in it! (Everything will turn out fine, I'm sure.)

Well, this conundrum is not limited to my writing. Art reflects life, and lately I've found myself cycling back into questioning and trying to give language to my own sexual orientation. As I've written here and elsewhere, I've known I was a fetishist/kinky since I was ten or eleven years old, but didn't have the language to place my sexual expression until college. I secretly identified as sexually fluid when I first heard the term when I was 14. But through high school and college, I joined various PRIDE groups as a straight ally, not as a Bi or sexually fluid person. After college and after I got married, I finally had the experience, resources, and kind people in my life to start the process of bringing my sexual secrets into the light. I did a stint as heteroflexible for a while and came out as Bisexual when I was 28. Now at 30 I'm back to feeling more at home using the terms kinky and sexually fluid.

The main reason I waited so long to start openly identifying as Bi/Sexually fluid/Kinky was because I was overwhelmed with the feeling I was faking it. Other people would think I was just trying to get the perks of the community without any of the hardships since I was, on the surface, a cis-gendered femme married to a man.

And to a certain extent, I get that. I really do. I draw a lot of parallels to the fact that though I have a visible physical disability, in certain situations, I pass very well as able-bodied. And it's the same with my queer/kinky life. It's a huge part of my life that impacts pretty much every part of my life... but I pass in a lot of ways.

Which brings me to question whether we should use labels to express our authentic selves or if we should use them for social reasons.

Because I personally identify as sexually fluid. But no one I've met outside the sex community knows what that really means and it can be confusing. So in social contexts, I use the terms Bisexual and Kinky because they are recognizable and help me find other people who are groovy with doing the same things as I am.

Unfortunately, these labels can at times be limiting. Instead of uniting, labels can be a source of divisiveness. And while these labels help me find people who are into the same things, we ultimately have different experiences and different ways we relate to these labels which can lead to policing of who is “real” or authentic and who isn’t. And people who feel they AREN’T real enough of something get left out, leave communities, or are prevented from finding the resources and people they need to be happy.

So what are we to do? Whether it’s erotic fiction or expressing our sexuality with ourselves and others, how do we label ourselves? Well, if you ask me, we don’t need to label ourselves. We should CATALOG OURSELVES.

K… I’ll explain…

In libraryland there is a difference between labeling and cataloging.
Libraries catalog all their materials, but I’ll simplify my example here by using books.

Every book is cataloged so patrons can look books up and find what they are looking for. Author, time period, themes, subjects, and other information is put in the record to show up in searches.

Labeling refers to actual labels that are put on books. Some labels in fiction include Young Adult, Romance, or Mystery.

There are some controversies over labeling books in libraries. Some people want more labeling. They know what kinds of fiction books they want to read and it would be easier to find those books if they were labeled. To use as example, LGBT+ books and Christian books. Some patrons want to read LGBT+ fiction and some patrons want to read Christian fiction and they would be able to find them better if these books were labeled.

But both Christian books and LGBT+ books have been targeted by groups to be labeled in order to keep the books separate from the rest of the collection. The desire of these groups to label these books is to get people to NOT read them, to mark them as different, to segregate them.

Thus I’m in agreement that labels like these aren’t good things in libraries. We catalog material so people can search and find subjects and themes they want. But in presenting our general collection, we respect fair access to non-fiction and fiction.

In our non-fiction sexuality section, for example, there are books I love and books I loathe. But they all deserve to be on the shelf, because people deserve access to a variety of views and access to as much information out there as possible.

This is how I feel right now about labels regarding my sexual expression.

If you dig into my own personal cataloging, you would find all kinds of things: Kinky, Sexually fluid, Bisexual, Fetishist, Sapiosexual… My Dewey number would probably be like, 306.7542 or something.

Which is great if you get to know me and build a real, nuanced relationship with me. But as a label? Really not effective. I don’t want to go through life being a 306.7542 only ever looking for other people who match my exact number or having others feel they can’t have a relationship with me if they don’t have the exact same number.

Now, I'm all about Bi visibility and you’ll notice I’m wearing a Bi pin in my header picture and that pin is now on a bag I use quite often, so what I’m about to say is probably completely hypocritical: but it is my opinion that many of us rely too much on labels in our lives. It reminds me of the Myspace days where everyone had their badges and bands and themes and you knew what group everyone was in because each lunch table had its own dress code.

I worry that the over importance of labels keeps us from doing any real work to get to know people. Just like seeing a label on a book would make us look right over it or dismiss it without even looking at it, we do the same with people. If someone has a label we don’t like (“Libertarian” “Christian” “Queer”) we just dismiss them. We use our labels as shields against the people we don’t like because they’re using labels to shield themselves against us.

I get that in sexuality labels are an easier way to communicate what we need. Some people just aren’t into certain people and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But what’s wrong with getting to know someone first? Do we all have to enter a room and loudly announce who we are and what we are into so that only the people that will be attracted to us will talk to us? That’s… odd, don’t you think?

And, yes, when I say this, people do tell me that dismissing labels is a form of erasure. But I’m not trying to erase the essence of what we are, our expressions, our symbols, our language, or our words. I just want them to be used in a less shallow way.

In my real world experience living in a small town, I have seen people having wonderfully sensual, diverse, erotic, sexually fluid experiences without any labels. I’ve been wonderfully surprised and enchanted by what happens when we dig beneath the surface. When we build trust, offer friendship, and share vulnerability. Sometimes it feels odd not having the exact words I’m so used to reading in sex books and on the sex positive twitter and blogs. But the freedom to experiment and experience without boundaries can be an amazing experience to share and grow.

And I understand that it's harder for those of us living in the "grey" areas, the no-man's land between certain categories. Growing up as a disabled person who could pass, I feel stuck between the able-bodied world and the disabled world. As a freaky sex-radical who grew up in a small Midwestern town, I empathize with and support both liberal and conservative causes. As a person who grew up poor but often found myself savvy to art and museum institutions, I also understand the blurred lines of socioeconomic class that often gets overlooked in certain discussions. Thus for us stuck in the middle, labels can be something that gives us focus and security. 

Which is why I don't want to eradicate these terms or labels. I don't want to do away with visibility or advocacy. If there's no structure to how we relate to our sexual identities, important coherence will be lost.

But if we go too much in the other direction, labels can and do interfere with connections, and lose their meanings when we try to apply them rigidly to nuanced situations. By drawing too strict of borders we keep others out, others who need us and who we also need.

I used to think I had to wear my labels to get the experiences I wanted. But my life experiences have shown me that being a living Myspace page just gets in the way of making genuine connections.

Here’ the deal. It’s all still there. The Kinky Bisexual Fetishist that I am. It’s in my coding, my cataloging. But from now on I’m just excited to enter a room and get to know people. Take time to browse, reflect, converse. I don’t need labels to nurture new experiences, or to invite other people to share them with me.

And at the end of the day, I think there’s lots of people out there of all kinds of orientations who will enjoy reading my hot multi-partnered stories when I publish them. So instead of getting all bent out of shape about what to label it, I’m going to write it and see who reads it through to the end. I bet I’ll be wildly and pleasantly surprised.

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