This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
I was eating sushi the other day, and it sparked a mini-revelation about trying new things — and about re-trying old things I think I don’t like. And it’s occurring to me that this mini-revelation could apply to lots of things other than food. Like — oh, say, just to pick one example completely at random — sex.
I’ve been trying of late to expand my horizons about food. I’m a mildly picky eater, and I really don’t want to be. There’s a huge world of food out there that millions of people take tremendous pleasure in, and I don’t want to be closed off to it. (You can start drawing parallels with sex anytime.) And if other people are enjoying some culinary delicacy, then… well, that’s certainly no guarantee that I’m going to like it. But it’s a pretty good guarantee that I’m not actually going to die from it.
So I’m trying to expand my horizons. Which means trying new things, obviously. But it also means re-trying things I’ve tried before, and decided I didn’t like.
And I had a mini-revelation about a specific strategy for doing that… a strategy that I think can be applied to sex as well.
So back to the sushi. I was eating sushi the other day; my dining companion wanted to order a sushi variety with salty plum paste (ume, I believe it’s called); and he asked me, “Is it okay if we order that? Do you like it?”
My immediate instinct was to say, “No.” I’d tried salty plum paste; I hadn’t liked it one bit. But then it occurred to me: I hadn’t actually tried the stuff in years. And my tastes have changed since the last time I’d tried it. More specifically, my tastes have broadened since the last time I’d tried it. I like stronger flavors, and stranger flavors, and a wider variety of flavors, than I did when I was younger. (Again…you can start drawing parallels with sex anytime.)
So instead of saying, “No, I don’t like that,” I said, “I don’t know if I like it or not. Let’s try it.”
I mean — what was the worst that could happen? I wouldn’t like it; my dining companion would eat all the salty plum paste sushi; I’d eat the other sushi. Big freaking deal. Little to be ventured; potentially a new pleasure to be gained.
None of this is the revelation, by the way. This is all just preface. The revelation is this:
On first taste, I didn’t like the salty plum paste. It was really strong, and somewhat bitter, and salty as hell (obviously), and just… weird. Like nothing I’d ever tasted before. Which my lizard hindbrain was interpreting as, “Bad, bad, bad!”
But instead of just choking it down and refusing any more (and glaring at my dining companion for foisting this vile stuff on me), I thought, “Let me just sit with this for a moment.”
My lizard hindbrain was telling me that this was new and weird, and therefore probably poisonous or rancid and I should spit it out immediately. But I knew that my lizard hindbrain was almost certainly wrong. The chances that this stuff was actually poisonous or rancid were minimal. My dining companion was munching away on it happily. Clearly, this was what the stuff was supposed to taste like.
So I just sat with it. Let myself experience it. Let myself engage with it, and explore it. Let my tongue get familiar with it. Let myself think, “This tastes kind of nasty” — without immediately following that up with a reaction of, “I must therefore immediately push it as far away from me as I possibly can, and never eat it again as long as I live.”
And I found, after sitting with it for a few moments, that I rather liked it.
I don’t think I’ll be running out and buying a jar of the stuff and spreading it on everything I eat. But I rather liked it. It had a sharpness that woke up my tastebuds, like fiery whiskey or hot pepper. Once I got past the strong, salty bitterness, it had a richness and complexity that was very satisfying. And once I got past the “This tastes weird and therefore might kill me” lizard hindbrain response, the strangeness itself became a pleasure: a way of waking up my tastebuds all on its own. I won’t be eating the stuff at every meal… but I’ll be happy now to include it in my repertoire of occasional pleasures.
And I’m really glad that I decided to just sit with the flavor, instead of letting my first visceral “Ew!” reaction be my final one.
And that’s the revelation. That’s the philosophy I think I’ll be applying to sex.
I’ve written before about trying things twice: about how first times with a new kind of sex often don’t work, and if we want to keep ourselves experimenting and open to new pleasures, we need to be willing to try them, not just once, but at least twice. I’ve written about how there’s often an awkwardness with new kinds of sex, a learning curve; how we often try new things when we’re younger and not as informed about sex or as skilled at communicating about it; how our high expectations of sex can make any disappointment with it feel devastating and not worth risking again; how our shame and negativity about sex can lead us to reject experiments as failures far too quickly. And I’ve written about how important it is to get past these reactions — or to just be willing to sit with them and let them be without immediately basing final decisions on them — if we want to keep our sex lives from falling into a rut.
But I think this mini-revelation adds a new dimension to this idea. If my initial reaction to a new kind of sex is, “Hm, no, I don’t think I like this” — but it’s not actively excruciating or nauseating or traumatic, it just seems at first to be not exactly my thing — then maybe I need to sit with it for a few moments, before making up my mind. Maybe the “This isn’t my thing” reaction is just a reflexive rejection of the newness itself; just my lizard hindbrain, reacting with fear to the unfamiliar. Maybe I need to let myself engage with the new experience, explore it, let my tongue get familiar with it… without immediately pushing it away, and deciding that I never want to try that again.
(P.S. to regular readers: No, I’m not going to apply this philosophy to broccoli. That stuff is pure fermented essence of evil. Don’t even ask.)