Learning Openness

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

When I was 24, I was talking with a friend when she said:

quote: Juliette Siegfried

That pretty much sums up why I’ve been informing myself more and more about sexuality in the past three years.

As a teenager, I lived a divided life. I stole, lied and was a different person dependent on where I went. Everyone who knew about it asked me why I behaved in such a way and pleaded me to stop being self-destructive. I didn’t listen. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I just didn’t know how to be honest or authentic. I needed tools to get myself out of the hole I had dug myself in, but I didn’t know where to get them.

There are three versions of everyone: who you are, what you want to come across as, and what actually comes across. The more disconnected they are, the more drama you’ll get.
Michael Sheen

Lying and being dishonest to everyone around me, including myself, made sure I didn’t know who I was. Not knowing myself led to not knowing how I wanted to come across. Which in turn led to always presenting a fractured self. All of this made it impossible for others to know me, which increased my anxiety, and feelings of having no control over myself.

Our senses are all extroverted. The eyes open outward, the hands move, spread outward, the legs move into the outside, the ears listen to the outside noises, to sounds. Whatsoever is available to you is all opening to the outside; all the five senses move in an extroverted way. You start searching there — where you see, feel, touch. The light of the senses falls outside, and the seeker is inside.
This dichotomy has to be understood. The seeker is inside — but because the light is outside, the seeker starts moving in an ambitious way, trying to find something outside that will be fulfilling. It is never going to happen. It has never happened. It cannot happen in the nature of things because unless you have sought the seeker, all your search is meaningless. Unless you come to know who you are, all that you seek is futile because you don’t know the seeker. […]
Not knowing where to go, not knowing what it is all about, leaves a gap inside, a wound, a dark hole, and constant fear will arise out of it. That’s why people live in trembling. They may hide it, they may cover it up, they may not show it to anybody, but they live in fear. That’s why people are so afraid of being intimate with somebody — the other may see the black hole inside you if you allow them too close an intimacy.
The word intimacy comes from the latin root intimum, which means your interiority, your innermost core. Unless you have something there, you can’t be intimate with anybody. You cannot allow intimum, intimacy, because they will see the hole, the wound, and the pus oozing out of it. They will see that you don’t know who you are, that you are a madman, that you don’t know where you are going. That you have not even heard your own song, that your life is a chaos, not a cosmos. Hence the fear of intimacy.
— Osho

After years of living in a weird in-between state of ‘being there’ but not being present, I finally had enough of it. I wanted to be done with dishonesty in all its forms. Looking back, there were three main things which helped me go from fractured to whole.

Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love is the discovery of reality.
Iris Murdoch

The first major influence was being with Jemma. We were in the same class for our last five years of school. During the first two years, we didn’t really notice each other. The third year, we grew to like each other just before the Christmas holidays, after which she stopped what started to bloom, afraid we might lose our friendship if it didn’t work out. Finally, in our last year, we acknowledged we did feel something for each other and started an intimate relationship.

When she looked at me she saw the man I wanted to be.
Paul Allor

Jemma helped me become honest because she was one of the most authentic people I had ever met. I felt safe with her. I could tell her anything. She was, and still is, down to earth, kind, loving, happy, and excited about life. She showed me I could improve myself. I wanted to be with her. I wanted her to trust me, and to never be dishonest with her. Being with Jemma taught me what I had unlearned, to be honest, open, and intimate with someone.

It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.
Alain de Botton

The second thing that helped was a change of cities. I had lived in The Hague for ten years, and had some deep roots in the city of which some of them didn’t contribute to me living an honest life. I love The Hague, but it is still the city of my teenage years, to which I attach a lot of good memories, but also a lot of negative ones. The move enabled me to reinvent myself. Where Jemma had helped me see the right path, Breda put me on it by being able to present myself anew, as I knew myself to be: open and loving. I got a new school, a new home, a new group of people around me, and an opportunity to live as I wanted to.

So I am moving on. It is how I am staying alive, how I am attempting to fight time. San Francisco has been my home for eighteen years, and my habits there have etched a deep groove in me. Repetition can be exquisite and change disquieting. But I need both, even if it means riding a pendulum towards excess on either side ‘Neither root nor dust’ — that’s how I summed up this tension in one of my school projects. Not enough inertia to say, ‘This is the place,’ but not enough freedom to skip along the surface. My life tips between trying to leave and trying to remain. It is the charge of electricity between change and stasis, hope and resignation. And like everything else, it is beautiful… then gone.
Martin Venezky

The third event which finally allowed me to discover who I was, who I wanted to be and how I wanted to present myself to others was coming into contact with a world of knowledge about sexuality.

Our authenticity lies most in our sexuality. Your sexuality is your self-esteem, your body-esteem, it’s the accumulation of experiences you’ve had with others and the world, your level of value in general, your ability and tolerance for intimacy and closeness, your communication skills, your boundaries, all of your social skills, your family traumas, everything is in our sex lives. So I think authenticity can best be found from within there.
Chris Donaghue

I had been deeply interested in everything sex-related for a long time, for similar reasons many of us are attracted to the subject: a search for satisfaction, maturity, and knowledge. Being more and more open towards others and myself, and having moved to a new place with nobody I knew gave me the time and space to explore those interests. I listened to podcasts on sexuality, read books and blogs, spent countless hours on the subject.

Self-knowledge is possible only in deep aloneness. Ordinarily whatever we know about ourselves is the opinion of others. They say: ‘You are good,’ and we think we are good. They say: ‘You are beautiful,’ and we think we are beautiful. They say: ‘You are bad’ or ‘You are ugly’… whatsoever people say about us, we go on collecting. That becomes our self-identity. It is utterly false because nobody else can know you — nobody can know who you are except you, yourself. They know only aspects, and those aspects are very superficial. They know only momentary moods; they cannot penetrate your center. […] There you are utterly alone, and only there will you come to know who you are.
— Osho
Most youngsters never get the chance to enjoy the luxury of prolonged and often fruitless metaphysical speculation. They are whisked out into the world and made to assume responsibilities before they have had the opportunity to identify themselves (in the heavens of thought) with those who consumed themselves wrestling with the eternal problems.
Henry Miller

Learning more and more about sexuality presented me with great people I now consider to be mentors. In them, I found a community of people with immense self-knowledge and highly developed communicative skills. Growing up, I had a lot of difficulty with both, so these people became role models I could learn from. Being aware of such people allowed me to seek out whatever I was interested in, thereby learning more about who I am.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Marianne Williamson

In the summer of 2015, I was in Los Angeles for a three-month internship. My time there confirmed there is no need for shame when it comes to an interest in sexuality. I knew this previously, but it was more of an intellectual knowledge than a lived, practical internalization of that knowledge. Once more, my slate was wiped clean. I could present myself as I have become: sex-stuff and all. I was surprised and immensely happy to be fully accepted as such. The people I met there have become family, I think about them every day, and I am grateful for their welcome, community, and love.

Naturally, my interest and theoretical explorations into sexuality didn’t only result in a paradigm shift in the way I think about myself and others in general. It also changed how I thought about relationships and how they ‘should’ work. Having spent so much time listening to people discuss all kinds of alternative sexualities, it feels like I have conditioned myself to be more open and tolerant when it comes to sex and sexuality. This led me to notice I felt attracted toward other women, two years into having been with Jemma, which eventually led us to change our relationship from monogamous by default, to open by choice.

J’suis artiste et pas perroquet moi.
— Stromae

I had no points of reference when it came to what I felt and I struggled with my feelings towards multiple people for a long time. Everything we know is informed by what we have previously seen, which were mostly extremes when it came to relationships for me. Things always either seemed to go very well, or very painfully. In the cases where the relationships seemed stable, I didn’t know what was happening behind the scenes to make them work. And in the examples where things were difficult, troubles and hardship were very visible, people oftentimes acted explosively, and the result was regularly a termination of the relationship.

As there is little open cultural discourse about relationships in general, and more specifically on how to deal with difficulties within relationships, this polarized relational visibility resulted in the belief that if things aren’t going smoothly, we were doomed to ‘fail.’ Coming from a family where cheating has been an issue, I beat myself up for even thinking about others, scared I’d cheat because it was ‘in my nature.’

That kind of love that you’re describing is not necessarily a human universal. I remember an anthropologist talking about the tribes she was with in the amazon. The people spoke a little Portuguese, and she brought in a radio and they were listening to the Brazilian radio, and they were like: “What is all this love, love, love? It’s ridiculous, this is children’s stuff…” They were like: “What are they talking about?” And there are lots of cultures like that, where that sort of romantic love that we celebrate as the pinnacle of human experience is either unknown, or seen as an absurd thing. […]
I think our culture has a very infantile sense of what love is. […] do not make any sort of decisions based on those feelings. It’s like: “I love that house. Let’s buy it!” Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Check the plumbing, look at the roof, do your budget, talk to the bank… There’s a lot of stuff to do before you go into a relationship. And I think that, because our culture is oriented this way, so many people think that relationships are about that sensation you’re describing. But that sensation is temporary. In the best of conditions, that’s a temporary thing. And the problem is, if you’ve got a good partnership, if you’ve got a really solid relationship and you think that that feeling is what it’s about, then when that feelings wears off, you start thinking your relationship is a failure. Then when you get that feeling with someone new, you think: “Oh, that’s the one I love!” So, you leave your wife or husband and kids and whatever you’ve built together in search of this thing that is constantly out of reach.
Chris Ryan

I had just begun informing myself more about sexuality when I noticed these feelings towards other people, which meant many of my beliefs were rooted in heteronormativity since I hadn’t come in contact with many ideas about alternative sexuality and relationships. I didn’t feel equipped to handle these feelings, or capable to open up to Jemma. After a while, I had identified four possibilities. All four of them scary and difficult: I could either cheat, leave Jemma, suppress my feelings, or talk about it.

I had experienced backlashes of cheating through my family and didn’t want to breach Jemma’s trust, so cheating was never a realistic option. Leaving her, to see what might become of other possible relationships was another option, but I loved her and didn’t see how parting ways would make things better for us. I knew myself too well to know the third option of suppressing my feelings wasn’t a real possibility. As much as I am interested in facts and logic, I feel too much and too intensely to be able to discard my feelings. Also, I was afraid that if I didn’t address what I felt, I’d end up being regretful. I didn’t want to look back and see someone who didn’t allow themselves the possibility of love on their terms.

Talking about it with Jemma was the fourth and scariest option because I would have to open up and be vulnerable in a way I had never been before. There was the possibility she wouldn’t understand or want to spend time dealing with me in this way. I knew it would hurt and I might lose her, which was the last thing I wanted, but it was the only option where I was able to stay true to myself and honest towards her. In the end, there was no other choice.

Sex and sexuality lie at the heart of everything we are and everything we do. This fact cannot be overstated. Society’s conflicted attitude toward sex — we all enjoy it but we don’t talk about it — means that sex is defaulted in the public consciousness to an act, a thing we do. But sex is personality. Who we are sexually informs everything to do with how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about others; it informs our relationships, our lives, our happiness. No other area of human existence is hedged around with so much shame, embarrassment, guilt and self-torment. […] This is important because in a broader context the failure to openly discuss, address, solve for and improve sexual issues lies at the root of many social ills. From sex trafficking, sexual abuse, rape, sexual violence, intolerance of alternative sexualities, through sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, to unhappy marriages and relationship breakdowns — all can be positively impacted through initiatives designed to change the way we think about and behave around sex.
Cindy Gallop

I struggled with these thoughts for a couple of months, after which I found myself typing a long email explaining my situation to a sex educator: what I felt for Jemma, what I felt for others, how much it hurt, and that I feared that whatever I did, one of my innate traits was to hurt the people I loved. After I had typed the mail, I read it again and realized it wasn’t the answer. The only thing that would help was to talk about how I felt with Jemma. I might have felt a momentary weight off of my shoulders after sending the mail, but it wasn’t going give me the answers I was looking for.

[…] boundaries between noise and sound are conventions.
All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended.
One may transcend any conventions, if only one can first conceive of doing so.
Cloud Atlas

A couple of weeks later, Jemma and I spent a weekend in Belgium. We walked, and we talked. I talked and I cried and she cried. She asked questions I didn’t know the answers to. We cried together, walking on a cold day, holding each other’s hands as firmly as we could, afraid it might be the last time. I remember sitting across from a cemetery, on a crooked bench with Jemma next to me. It felt like we were there to bury our ‘us.’ But we weren’t. And we didn’t.

When I am passionately in love, lots of dopamine is released in my brain. This high dopamine level, the very same chemical change induced by cocaine and heroin, is not sustainable over time. It has to and will come down, usually between 6–8 months.
If, after spending half a year on cloud nine with a girl, I suddenly notice that my feelings for her might have been out of proportion, this is because they have been. Research psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes two clear distinctions between passionate love and companionate love.
Passionate love is much stronger than companionate love, but it only lasts half a year. And passionate love does not automatically turn into companionate love. When I was younger I thought true love was passionate love that would never fade, and I was wrong. In fact this is biologically impossible.
Stefan Sagmeister

Jemma has always been intelligent, and not just intellectually. She also has a high emotional intelligence. She is very much in touch with her emotions, it’s not too difficult to make her laugh or cry. When I told her I was attracted to other people, she was very, very sad, but not angry. She never screamed or lashed out at me in any way. What I needed the most when I opened up to Jemma was someone to listen and show me I wasn’t broken or evil-spirited. At the time, even in pain, she didn’t push me away. She pulled me in, ever closer. She showed me that no matter what, she loves me. She tried to understand me, what I wanted and what I needed, and for this, I am eternally thankful.

I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such
Although I liked a few folk pretty well
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch
for brave men died and empires rose and fell
For love, girls follow boys to foreign lands
and men have followed women into hell
In plays and poems someone understands
there’s something makes us more than blood and bone
and more than biological demands
For me love’s like the wind, unseen, unknown
I see the trees are bending where it’s been
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown
I really don’t know what “I love you” means
I think it means “don’t leave me here alone”
Neil Gaiman

Having just started to educate myself about sexuality, I hadn’t heard much about non-monogamy. All I knew was I tended to feel attracted to more than one person at the same time. After discussing my feelings with Jemma for over a year and trying to identify what it was I felt, wanted, and needed; I came across a group of people that got together once a month to talk about open relationships. We attended the next meeting together, since Jemma was also interested in opening up and wanted to explore what it meant for her. I was excited to have found other people who dealt with similar feelings or who had experience with alternative relationship models. The people we met at the first meeting were a beautiful mix of ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and they were all happy to share their stories and listen.

I don’t necessarily see it as breaking tradition, as much as creating traditions. Creating things that work for me, things that work inside of my values.
Robyn Emerson

Our relationship has been open for about a year now. We don’t want to rush into anything, so it has been more theory than practice, which is a good thing. Momentary pleasures aren’t worth months of regret. We have had crushes, but otherwise, we’ve put more emphasis on our current relationship and on feeling strong, comfortable, and confident before starting to see other people. It might never happen, but that’s not the most important thing for me. Right now, I’m happy to be with Jemma and to be able to figure myself out with her by my side, and I know she feels the same.

A truly revolutionary moment is like love; it is a crack in the world, in the usual running of things, in the dust that is layered all over in order to prevent anything New. It is a moment when air becomes thick and at the same time you can breathe more than ever.
[…] the very moment when you really fall into something, when you are lost… but you still know your way better then ever.
Srećko Horvat

What I have gained from this experience until now is a more developed sense of how I feel. I have learned a lot about how to talk about emotions and relationships, and I have gained many friends. I can’t be everyone’s shoulder to cry on, but having been through such a whirlwind of emotions, I am saddened to know many others will go through similar painful journeys after me. The reason I want to put our story out there is so it can reach others, so it might serve as a point of reference. I am not saying everyone should follow my lead, but I do think that a bit of perspective is often very helpful.

Jemma and I have been together for the past five years now, ups and downs included. Since opening up about how I feel towards other people, I have had over a dozen crushes. I enjoy being able to feel how I feel without shame, and to open up to others. Even if none of those crushes have developed into sensuality, telling someone I like them always feels like a nice compliment to give. Being aware I don’t have to be afraid of Jemma leaving me just because I feel is one of the biggest benefits I have gained from opening up.

Honesty is kindness is compassion is love I think. All the same word for the same all-encompassing thing.
Ales Kot

I am happy to say we found a community of like-minded individuals through the open relationship meetups and I am proud to call myself polyamorous, which is how I feel now. It took me two years to fully be comfortable with this label, who knows how I will identify myself in another two years… Change is the only constant; to stay the same, I have to change.

I carry this label of “polyamorous” as a badge, as something integral to who I am as a person — and it is, in the sense that it is inextricable from me. But the focus is all wrong. It’s not about romance. It’s not about physicality. It’s not, in the end, about polyamory at all. It’s about human connection in whatever shape it may take.
Jasna Todorovic

Ultimately, what I have come to realize is that to me, the ‘open’ in open relationship doesn’t mean I’m allowed to do anything I can’t do in a ‘closed’ relationship. What it means is I feel empowered to be fully open, safe, and seen with a partner. There is no need for mind reading. Whether I feel sad, happy, or beautiful, I can say so and fully embrace and embody that space. Being open isn’t being promiscuous, or even necessarily non-monogamous. Being open is allowing yourself to feel how you feel and to show your true self to another, and to yourself.

This brings us to one possible proposition about love: to truly know love means to come to the level of universality.
Srećko Horvat

Entering the last year of my graphic design bachelor’s at St. Joost in Breda, the Netherlands, I wanted to work on a project around the theme of intimacy and sexuality.
Since sexuality is a subject that is wrapped in stigma and intimacy is rarely talked about, I didn’t want to constantly have to defend why I thought I was qualified to approach the subject. Which is how I started to write this story.
What started as a short piece gradually grew over the course of the year and eventually became one of my thesis projects.

About half of the writing in this story are my words. I use excerpts and quotes from other people for context and to paint a prettier picture. I claim no ownership over their words, they have only helped me on my way and I hope they can help others by spreading them some more.

Love & Thanks.
To my family, for always supporting me. 
To Jemma, for always being calm and patient with me, especially in moments of emotional tension.
To Jemma’s parents, for always being there for us.
To my Californian family, for showing me a special kind of golden light.
To all of my teachers that are dispersed throughout this story, for the love and knowledge you put out into the world.
To Juliette Siegfried and the whole Leiden Open Relationships meetup, for always being there for us, once a month ;)
To my proofreaders: Eleonora Foddai, Kiko Luijten, Jemma Middleton and Rozemarijn Oudejans.
And to my editors: Eva Salman and Juliette Siegfried.

When it comes to love, self-care, and sexuality, societal consensus seems to always know what is best for everyone. After being a love letter to Jemma, this project is to give you a way into a world of nuanced information about sexuality, in the hope that one day everyone will be able to make informed decisions when it comes to their bodies and sexualities. It is not a manual, or rule book on what to do, what to think, and what to feel; it is a story, to be dismissed or heard.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the ideals put forth by the status quo are inherently evil, but they are always present and limiting — by definition.

I believe that there are very little universals when it comes to how one should behave. Most things are fine by me if they are consensual and non-damaging to the people involved. Truth and openness are two of my primary guidelines, but I don’t feel the need to push that upon others. As Brian, our Messiah has decreed: ‘You’ve got to think for yourselves.

That was a joke. Kind of.

Image sources
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© 2016 Hector Pahaut