I have a friend who told me the following story: Back in around 2004, she and her husband flew across the United States to visit some of her family in Boston. Post-September 11, everything was still on high alert, and they spent a lot of time trying to figure out what they could and couldn’t bring on the plane. The issue was complicated because they were both interested in BDSM and wanted to bring some toys with them to play with in the hotel room. My friend ended up with a carry-on full of handcuffs, collars, leashes, and clothespins, while her husband carried their assorted laptops. She nervously stood at the X-ray machine watching the guard’s face as her bag passed through. The agent’s eyes widened, and my friend saw the conveyor belt stop…then reverse…then stop again. After it passed through, the agent held it up and shook it with an audible clink. “This your bag?” she said. My friend, paralyzed with embarrassment, nodded. “Can you explain what this is for?” the agent asked.
Whenever I hear stories like this, I always think of the part in Fight Club when the glittery-eyed security guard explains to Jack that sometimes they find vibrators in people’s luggage, and they’re always careful to use the indefinite article (“a” vibrator) and not the definite (“your” vibrator). Sex and its accoutrements are sensitive topics, and often only get discussed in passing, if at all. And yet, so many people have sexual identities that are integral to their personalities and lives, and if they are living nomadically, or just traveling long-term, these identities are not going to be easy to suppress forever.
I’m not talking about the risk of outing yourself as homosexual in Uganda. I’m talking about swingers. Or kinky people, for whom getting tied up is a really important part of their sexual activities. I’m talking about nonmonogamous people, who might have to find the right way to explain, “Yes, I’m traveling with my husband, and yes, he knows I want to come home with you,” to people from cultures that might never have considered this an acceptable option…or even just to 19-year-old newly abroad backpackers who have never thought outside the Hollywood dream. My polyamorous life partner and I spent almost 40 minutes at a party trying to explain our lifestyle choices to an increasingly irate Russian lady. “I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “Why is your boyfriend not going to marry you? Is he not a man?”
If, like many people, you have sexual preferences that vary outside the usual backpacker bar-beach-bed parade, you will probably need to discuss them before you get engaged in any kind of pantsless activity. This is not to say you will be engaging in full-scale kink-play with everyone you meet; some sexual preferences are not for the faint of heart or the casual acquaintance. But the nature of travel makes all relationships moderately impermanent, and if you want to engage all aspects of your self-expression and sexual identity, you may find yourself having to talk about boundaries and rules, and propose scenarios to someone you just met a few days ago…who you may never see again after the night train leaves Burma next week.
Know what you want.
Most importantly, know thyself. You can’t effectively ask for or talk about things you don’t know. So be honest with yourself: Are you the kind of person that can’t go a month without a spanking? Are you really interested in picking up a travel romance without talking about your polyamorous partner back home? How important is it to you to meet other people who share your interests while you’re on the move?
If you need a spanking once a month and you try to convince yourself you don’t, you may end up feeling sad, lonely, unfulfilled, or otherwise wishing your potential new hammock-mates could just pick up on your “spank me” vibes. Trying to be comfortable with your sexual self is a difficult endeavor — we hear a lot of messages about shame, and internalize a lot of hatred and rejection. This is the first step, but it’s not an easy one, and takes what the people in Alcoholics Anonymous call a “fearless self-inventory” to accomplish.
Use open and honest communication.
Once you know what you want, it seems almost too obvious to say, but: Ask for it. Discussing these issues is much easier if you can calmly and clearly state what you want. Don’t present your preference (or identity) apologetically or passively — use straightforward, concise statements, and offer to answer any questions. In the case of roleplay or BDSM, where an amount of trust in a partner is necessary before beginning, I would say it is essential to ask if your potential partner has experience with this kind of thing. Don’t assume any base level of knowledge about anything, as no one person or cultural group has the same sexual or social rules as another.
Start easy, at an introductory level: So, I’m really interested in using these handcuffs during sex. Have you ever heard of doing that kind of thing before? You can always try to reference Cosmopolitan magazine, which seems to have never-ending quizzes about putting spice back in your relationship with a little light bondage with silk scarves.
If your sexual preferences are more of a lifestyle (like practical nonmonogamy), you will probably be pretty well-versed in discussing your rules. You may want to learn the simplest possible way to explain things (“No, my husband and I have sex with other people. Together.”) instead of trying to explain your entire lifestyle philosophy. Most new partners, especially people from different cultures, are interested in the practical applications of your sexual preferences — what sex with you will look like for them — instead of changing their worldview or revolutionizing their sexual identity.
Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean anything goes.
Being on the move is no excuse to change or break rules. Although everything can feel a bit suspended — “I’m going to Taiwan next month, I’ll just hold off on doing my taxes until I get back” — you still have responsibilities. If you are traveling with a partner, you should always make sure your boundaries and rules are agreed before either of you takes up with someone new. This goes in nonsexual contexts too — nothing is worse than expecting to spend your whole week in Rome exploring back alleys with your travel buddy, to find they would actually prefer to just sit in museums and sketch classical artworks. Being open-minded, experimental, and up for adventure does not mean the regular rules of life fall by the wayside.
Similarly, just because you may not see your new partner again after this week (or month, or year) in paradise, that’s no reason to mistreat them or skimp on the information. If you respect someone enough to want to disclose a personal and somewhat intimate part of yourself to them, you should probably treat them accordingly. Don’t ignore someone’s needs, don’t forget to explain things if someone needs them explained, and don’t treat anyone like they’re disposable. Even if someone is temporary, that does not make them expendable.
Look for locals.
If you’re interested in a particular fetish, lifestyle, or other sexy niche market, consider looking into the local communities that do exactly that thing. I found a flyer for a BDSM club in Prague on the bulletin board at a shop that sold goth pants. With the advent of Google and Meetups.com, you’d be surprised how many groups might advertise the next fun party — or at the very least, a meet-and-greet — for people pre-screened to suit your exact interests. Most cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants have booming alternative sexuality communities…and a lot of smaller cities do too. Seek out like-minded individuals, and you’ll have a lot less explaining to do.
Any new sexual partnership is a lesson in compromise, but especially so when you are broaching potentially sensitive subjects. You might run into new partners you are excited to share your love of rope bondage with…only to have them take a step back when you bring it up. It is anybody’s prerogative to SAY NO. Consent is a fundamental part of any sexual expression, and you don’t want to be that jerk that pressures someone they just met into doing something they’re not comfortable with, just because it’s been a long time since you had a threesome and she has a hot friend and you all have a night free. Don’t be THAT GUY.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is practice. Practice learning what you like and being comfortable with accepting it. Practice communicating exactly what you want and practice having someone say no. Remember: If you clearly ask for something you’re interested in and a partner says no, that’s actually a very successful communication — getting a “no” does not mean you have failed. Similarly, getting a “yes” is not a blanket statement, and you may (and probably will) have to renegotiate in the future…certainly every time you have a new partner.
Every relationship is different, and whether it only lasts for a night of sexy spanking or if you end up traveling together for the next 20 years, you’ll be better treated if you go into it willing to discuss it from every angle. Communication is key! You’ll be happy you tried it…especially if it leads to your having a threesome with a Colombian woman and her husband in Peru.