By Nichi Hodgson
Over the years, there’s become this myth that when we refer to ‘open-minded’ in a dating and sex context, it’s shorthand for ‘anything goes’. Certainly, in the personal ads of days gone by, 'seeking open-minded' conjured up sexual adventures that could not be spelled out politely in print. Think someone who would quite literally engage in any sex act going; someone that didn't think about their boundaries or the boundaries of others. Perhaps this someone was a thrill-seeker constantly on the hunt for new erotic stimulation. Or perhaps they were someone that would agree to whatever was proposed to them.
But in actuality, in 2021, being open-minded doesn't mean being absent of values, judgements, or opinions on what's ok or acceptable. It simply means being able to suspend one's automatic assumptions, to question one's unconscious bias, for a few moments, to let in the possibility of another idea, scenario or reality. It means stopping dating in one's own image, broadening the range of people you'd consider forming a connection with, and, where possible, putting your own prejudices to one side.
What's unconscious bias got to do with it?
There's been a growing discussion of late about the concept of unconscious bias and just how much it affects our every interaction. You may have come across it in a discussion at work about how you perceive colleagues that are different from you. In fact, the term 'implicit bias' was coined in 1995 in research done by social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Tony Greenwald. In an influential paper introducing their theory of implicit social cognition, they proposed that social behaviour was largely influenced by unconscious associations and judgments.
Today, there's a whole industry dedicated to ensuring employees don't bring their unconscious biases - which are far greater than our conscious biases, and often in direct opposition to our values - to bear on those around us. So when it comes to love, sex and relationships, it's the case that we all carry forward a similar bias to bear on those we meet in a dating context. Of course, when we are assessing someone as a potential paramour, there are many, many biological and psychological systems at work, making careful judgements about who, how and why someone might be suited to dating us—or us to them. There's more going unconsciously than consciously, even if we reason that we are attracted to a given person because they fulfill every single criterion we nailed down when talking to our best friend last week. You may say reason has very little to do with it at all. But being 'open-minded' has strong socially conditioned associations, whatever the real reason for us selecting a given person to date. And we can influence some of just how open-minded we are, depending on how negatively or positively we perceive being open-minded in the first place.
So, what is being open-minded in dating?
As mentioned, for years, the word 'open-minded' has been used as a euphemism when it comes to dating. But at Feeld, an open-minded person is someone who wants to expand their horizons and to engage without judgement. If you're open-minded, that means you're prepared to communicate with people in fresh ways, ways that are not the norm for you. You'll give someone the benefit of the doubt if they make a request that is framed unusually, or seems unusual—maybe they don't enjoy texting and prefer to voice-note, for example, as you're getting to know one another. When you're first getting to know someone, it's easy to write off people's requests as irritating quirks at best, irrational mandates at worst. But maybe, far from using voice-note over text because they don't want the monogamous partner they're cheating on to see your communication, they have an accessibility issue they've chosen not to reveal to you just yet.
Being open-minded could mean that you don’t immediately say ‘no’ to something somebody suggests as an activity for you to do, simply because you’ve never done it before. Or perhaps they have a passion for horse-riding and you have been brought up never watching or doing it because it was considered elite in your household, and you're not comfortable approaching that activity. In either case, it's your bias that could be preventing you from making an otherwise amazing connection with someone. And it's worth taking a moment to pause if you find yourself in this dating scenario.
What is open-minded in sex?
When it comes to sex, being open-minded isn't simply a case of agreeing to any sexual act going. In fact, if there's one thing that those wary of Feeld misperceive about members of the community, it's that you need to be up for anything in order to participate.
In reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. One of the beauties of Feeld is the openness of many of its members when it comes to sharing their sexual fantasies and proclivities. Have a distinct taste for hand-spanking, but wouldn't go near a paddle? Here's a place to get that granular.
Similarly, here's a place to really explore the bounds of what turns you and someone else. Being open-minded about sex could mean getting curious about someone’s preferences for say, rope bondage, and asking questions about it, rather than immediately coming up with a story about why they like it (‘coming up with stories’ either about our past or someone else’s is something the relationship therapist Esther Perel cautions against). And certainly, open-minded means wanting to understand why someone likes what they like, as opposed to immediately dismissing it. In kink and BDSM in particular, it’s easy to see something you have a preference for as utterly acceptable—say, foot worship—while dismissing something else someone enjoys as strange—say, voyeurism. This effectively is being close-minded. But providing the activities you are into are safe and consensual, both practices are equally acceptable.
It could also mean remaining open to things that you’ve previously dismissed as not for you. So many of our prejudices around sex and sexuality are built up as a result of the interactions and relationships we have over the years with others. Meanwhile, so many of our sexual connections and pleasures are shaped by the specific dynamic between us and the person we do them with. Something you didn’t enjoy with a previous partner might be something you crave with another. And it can be good to be prepared to revisit your list of ‘not for me’ when you meet a new partner or partners. After all, by staying open-minded, you might shift your position from ‘never again’ to ‘possibly, in a completely different setting, with a completely different human.’ And that might lead to a fantastic adventure and a wonderful time.
When is it ok not to be open-minded in dating and sex?
Very importantly, when it comes to being open-minded in dating and sex, this isn’t to say for a moment that you should bypass your strongly held boundaries about specific behaviours or practices. Perhaps you flinch at the prospect of horse-riding because the one time you attempted it, you were nearly thrown off and felt so afraid, you vowed never to get back on another horse. Or perhaps you might have a real distaste for rope bondage because you were previously tied up by an amateur that didn't know what they were doing and it wasn't a fun or safe experience. Of course, that doesn't mean that a knowledgeable person couldn't show you a good time with the same activity, but it might mean you have some lingering trauma that you need to work through very slowly and carefully before you can venture forth again. Or perhaps you just know that if someone were to hand-spank you, it would leave you absolutely cold, and your whole body resists the proposition as much as your mind. In those cases, it's perfectly fine to recognise that you have a boundary there that should not—and need not—be questioned.
But all in all, being open-minded when it comes to dating and sex is about not presuming your first response should be your final one. It's about pausing, considering, and letting some wonder enter the realm of possibility. For in that state, truly new and invigorating experiences—and connections—are born.