Let’s say you have a situation. Your sexual/romantic partner has opened up to you about their sexual interests—and it’s not what you expected. Maybe it’s a fetish* you’ve never heard of. Maybe it’s something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you just don’t know what to do with this new information.
Whatever your reaction is, you have to find some way to effectively, constructively communicate that to your partner. But how?
Well, I’ve got some experience on the other side of the equation, so let me give you a few tips based on what my previous partners’ have done and/or what I wished they would have.
Thank them for telling you, and say you need time to think.
Best-case scenario, your first reaction is to remain calm. Remember that kinks—especially “weird” ones—come with a lot of stigma attached. Your partner may feel ashamed of their desires; they may have been shamed by their previous partners. Being honest with you means they trust you, and you want to show them you’re worthy of that trust.
So, avoid language that implies disgust or otherness (even if you’re trying to do it lightheartedly). At the same time, don’t say something like “It’s all fine with me!” just because you feel obligated to. If your positive reaction isn’t genuine, they will probably sense it, and this will hurt them almost as much as saying something like “That’s gross!”
For example, my ex told me after dumping me that she hated period sex, which was one of my things then, and it messed me up for a long, long time. I’m still hyperafraid of a partner telling me “Okay, cool” about a sex thing while secretly hating every second of it. As in every other situation, lying here does more damage in the long run.
Which is why I recommend stepping back, deciding how you feel and what you need, before you address the issue head-on with your partner.
Thus: reassure them you understand and appreciate their trust and honesty (thank them for telling you), and emphasize you need to consider this more seriously before you can respond (say you need time to think).
Your partner may not like this—in fact, it might feel like an outright rejection—but if you’re unsure or flustered, giving yourself time is the best solution, and they should at least understand that.
Of course, like I said before, all of this is a best-case scenario. If you’re reading this after the fact and you already ran away from the conversation/said something hasty/lied/etc….
Go back, apologize for your not-so-stellar reaction, and then say you need time to think.
Humans are impulsive creatures, and when we’re blindsided, we tend to lose our levelheadedness pretty quickly. It happens. Don’t castigate yourself over it. Just accept that you could have done better, tell your partner the same, and then proceed to following the same general advice as above.
Get rid of your preconceptions, and research.
Some fetishes are more well known than others, and some have much, much worse reps. Don’t let what you think you know become a barrier between you and your partner.
Also, don’t let your mind fall down a rabbit hole of what-ifs, leading you to the worst possible conclusions. By that I mean, being into age play or Daddy/little role play does not mean a person wants to engage in underage sex. Being into pet play does not mean a person wants to fuck a dog. Especially if a fetish is really, really unfamiliar to you, you might find yourself plagued by these over-the-top worries. Don’t let them take hold.
So, whatever interest your partner confesses to you, forget everything you know about it—particularly when that knowledge came from TV, books, random internet articles, and so on. To figure out how you feel about a particular sexual kink, you have to get an accurate representation of that kink as possible—from reputable sources, i.e., ones that are not seeking to entertain and titillate the vanilla masses.
What are the most reputable sources? Other people who are into this kink, usually. Fetishists often form communities on online forums, subreddits, web sites, or small corners of social media. A Google search should help you find these places. Something like FetLife—a general BDSM/kink networking site—might be useful too.
Then, just read. Absorb. Your goal is to get general knowledge about your partner’s fetish from others who share it.
That said, everything you read during this research will not always be applicable to your partner. The same way that not everyone who likes vaginal intercourse likes it the exact same way, not everyone who’s into a kink is into it in the same way.
Don’t get too caught up in the details. Instead, look for commonalities, or themes that keep showing up across different users. Maybe a lot of people seem drawn to the idea of losing control. Maybe they seem to get off on the thought of taking care of someone. Keep reminding yourself that you’re seeking a general understanding of the fetish.
(Note: Obviously, you could get this general understanding from your partner themself. If the opportunity presents itself and both of you are comfortable, go for it. But I still think it would be helpful to get other perspectives as well—and I just like research.)
Ask questions of your partner. Share if you want.
Once you’ve build that general understanding, you’ll want to figure out the details of what appeals to your partner, your partner’s experience, and—most importantly—what your partner would like from you.
Like I said above, two people can do the same kink wildly differently. Take the Daddy/little example. For some people, the authoritative/disciplinarian aspect is key. For others, it’s the gentler, care-taking aspect. And for you, how open you are to the idea of engaging in Daddy/little role play might depend on which of those aspects your partner is seeking.
And that’s just assuming your partner wants you to engage with their kink. This whole post is based on that assumption, actually—but it’s not necessarily true. I have kinks I never want to act out in a scene, ones that are reserved solely for fiction and masturbatory interludes. I might share a fantasy with a partner just because I want them to have a better understanding of me, not because I want them to do anything about it.
So, first things first. Does your partner want to share this kink with you? In what way? How often?
Depending on your partner’s personality, and how comfortable they are in that moment, they might be tempted to downplay their hopes or misrepresent their expectations. Be aware of that, and make sure you’re continuing to avoid negative or othering language that could be contributing. Be honest and open with them, and encourage them to do the same with you.
Then ask your partner what appeals to them about the kink. Try to keep your prompts/questions open-ended—at least at first—so you aren’t inadvertently leading them to answer a particular way. Emphasize that you want to learn about their likes and needs, and give them the floor as much as possible—again, at least at first. Once they’ve said what they want, then you can start jumping in more yourself.
Basically, approach it like a class. The expert (your partner) shares their knowledge, and then the audience (you) can ask questions and engage with that knowledge in whatever way would best help you process it.
It’s best if you have a list of questions/things you want to know specifically about before you sit down to talk to your partner, and of course you can add to the list throughout the conversation as needed.
You might feel tempted to ask something like “You’ve liked the sex we’ve had [that hasn’t had anything to do with this kink], right?” It might be coming more from a place of insecurity than anything, but it’s still a good question. Their answer can convey a lot—how much they “need” a particular kink to be satisfied, how important it is to them whether you can “get into” the same kink, and so on.
One thing I’d caution you not to ask is “Where did this come from?” For some people, it’s easy to pinpoint the source of a fetish. Others of us might have some ideas but ultimately no answers. The rest have no fucking clue. Your partner might broach this subject on their own, but if not, I wouldn’t bring it up. It can carry an air of judgment, sometimes coming across as an attempt to diagnose a problem, similar to “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why are you like this?”
Lastly, if you feel comfortable sharing in return, by all means, do so. If the conversation goes naturally in the right direction, it can make some people feel better about having divulged their “secret” if the person they’re talking to divulges a secret of their own.
If something in your research or what your partner said struck you as interesting for whatever reason, you could comment on it. If something bothered you, you could say so.
If something struck you as hot or a turn-on, your partner would probably want to know.
This is still part of the information-gathering stage. If you need even more time to process, that’s understandable. Again, thank your partner for sharing, and communicate that you want to take what you learned into consideration before…
Ask yourself, “Is this a dealbreaker?”
By now, you should have an understanding of a) what your partner is interested in and b) whether they are interested in it with you (or another person) specifically.
Be honest. Are you okay with what you learned? Do you still feel as strongly about your partner as you did before? Do you feel comfortable indulging them, trying out their fetish, if they want to? Do you feel comfortable continuing to do so for as long as you’re together?
If you feel disgusted about your partner’s desires, that’s not a good sign.
If you’re thinking, “Well, maybe they’ll lose interest eventually if I just play along,” that’s not a good sign.
If you’re determined to play along, pretending to enjoy yourself even if you don’t, that’s not a good sign.
(It should go without saying, but if you get the impression that your partner wants you to go along with their desires 24/7 and doesn’t actually care what you want or enjoy, that’s really, really not a good sign. Dump them ASAP.)
And, look. If this is a dealbreaker—if the idea makes you uncomfortable, if you know that you can’t give whatever it is your partner needs—it’s okay. It really, really is, even if it might not feel like it. Sexual incompatibility is a valid reason to end a relationship. If you ignore it and try to force nonchalance or enthusiasm, you’ll only be breeding resentment and guaranteeing a much uglier parting in the future.
If your partner’s kink is a dealbreaker, it doesn’t mean you are closed-minded, simple, or prudish.
I’m one of the most open-minded, “All kinks are valid!” people I know—but I’ve also got serious Mommy issues, and I’m weird about my ears. Calling a romantic partner “Mommy” and having my ears messed with (nibbled, kissed, even whispered directly into) are dealbreakers for me. Even if that partner claimed to be okay with not indulging their ear-loving or Mommy fetish with me, I know I would fixate on my own inability to satisfy them and drive myself nuts with guilt, however irrational it is. So I would break the relationship off and call it preserving my own happiness and health.
Give yourself permission to do the same, if you need to.
If there are alternative solutions, keep those in mind. For instance, if you and your partner are open to nonmonogamy, your partner could seek out another sexual partner or a friend they’d indulge their kink with. Or maybe your partner would be interested in seeing a professional, like a Domina or other sex worker, for their needs, and you would be supportive of that. But note the terms open to and supportive of here. If either of you proceed with an alternative solution with any degree of reluctance, I guarantee it won’t go well.
If it isn’t a dealbreaker, identify your needs and limits, and present them to your partner.
Let’s say you’ve realized you have a genuine interest in exploring your partner’s kink. In that case, you should ask yourself, “In a scene with my partner, what would I want? What would I not want?” Returning to the pet play example, maybe what piqued your interest most was the idea of being in control of your partner’s needs, but the thought of yelling at them or calling them names bothers you. You should communicate to your partner that the power exchange holds appeal for you, but overt humiliation is a limit you don’t want to cross.
Maybe, too, in this example, it’s important to you that pet play only be something you incorporate in your sex life occasionally, to “spice things up.” You should communicate this as well. You might go so far as to note what nonkinky parts of you and your partner’s sex life you particularly enjoy and don’t want to give up.
Hopefully, this will open a dialogue between your partner and you, and the honesty and comfort level between you will grow.
Unfortunately, this all doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory from here on out. Your partner might see that your interests and limits don’t match with theirs, and initiate a split. Or, sometime down the line, you might realize you’re not as open to the kink as you thought you were. Maybe the two of you will drift apart in other ways.
It happens. Just continue being thoughtful and honest about your needs, turn to experts for general knowledge and additional perspectives as necessary, and everything will work out.
If it is a dealbreaker, be honest but not hurtful.
Again, it’s okay. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with your partner. You’re just not compatible, similar to if you wanted children and your partner didn’t.
When you discuss your decision with your soon-to-be-ex-partner, make sure to emphasize that it’s a compatibility issue. The last thing you should do is attempt to pass judgment over them or their interests. Even if you think their fetish is the most disgusting thing you’ve ever heard—especially if you believe that, in fact—keep that to yourself.
That said, you also shouldn’t feel compelled to placate or comfort them if they feel rejected. That could lead to you saying things you don’t mean or saying things they don’t need to hear.
Really, at this point, it becomes just like any other breakup. It’s only society’s hangups about sex that makes it seem differently.
Whatever happens, don’t give in to the tendency to think “It’s just sex” or “This isn’t worth messing up a relationship over.” If it affects your happiness or satisfaction, then it’s important—and that’s true of your partner as well.
*I use the terms kink and fetish interchangeably throughout this post. I realize that, if you want to get really technical, there’s a distinction between the two, but I don’t think that distinction is especially relevant here. My advice doesn’t change either way.