“Are you sure this is where you want to go?” the Uber driver asked Ella, my girlfriend, and me as we got out of the car in the sketchiest area of downtown Los Angeles I’d ever seen. “Want me to wait or anything?”
“Nah, we’re good,” Ella said confidently. “I think we’re in the right place.”
It was late at night in a rough warehouse district, but we were in an adventurous mood. We knew the address of a reputable sex club that was just around the corner.
Once we were past an industrial gate covered in barbed wire and had passed through an inconspicuous lobby, we were waved into a seductive space full of easy to clean surfaces, plush couches, and low lighting. We repeated our mantra, “Try anything once, maybe even twice,” out loud to each other.
We drank a bit of our BYOB and picked at the unappetizing buffet. The club owner hosted an incredibly cringey dance-off and we scoped out the other guests — mostly average-looking people in their 40s or older.
I’d never been a Casanova. I hadn’t even hit second base before graduating high school. In my first college course, I nerded out on the ancient romance advice found in Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria.” By graduation, my body count was still in the single digits. I hit the jackpot when Ella, then my hot best friend, admitted that she had a crush on me.
We moved from sleepy Colorado Springs to glitzy Los Angeles. We were in our early 20s and wanted to be flirty and sophisticated, but upon moving in together, domesticity hit us like a train. Squabbles over money, careers, plans and cleaning made our lives at home stressful and unsexy.
This was 2016, when it felt like everybody was suddenly talking about open relationships. Non-monogamy was constantly being asked about in online advice columns. Podcasts were quoting “The Ethical Slut” and TV shows made polyamory seem like the new normal. Ella and I took notice and soon began to wonder: Could this be for us? Could opening our relationship bring some adventure to our lives? Was this exactly what we needed to shake things up a bit?
We decided to wade into this unfamiliar new world by attending a sex party. We figured if we had sex with other couples or people together, the chances of us feeling jealous would be lessened.
Before we left for our first event, we drew up a list of guidelines: Bail if it gets weird, practice very safe sex, listen for our prearranged safe word and prioritize communication over becoming distracted or jealous.
Our plan was to hook up as a couple and enjoy the voyeurism/exhibitionism aspect if nobody seemed appealing enough to have sex with them. We found a plush faux-leather couch and started making out. We quickly attracted attention. Most of the party guests were happy to watch and those who ventured to join us but weren’t our types thankfully respected a quick head shake of “nope” and left us to continue hooking up by ourselves.
Eventually, a hot couple approached us and asked, “Want to swap partners?” Ella and I examined this well-groomed pair ― he in a button-up shirt and she in a tight dress with a hint of lingerie peeking out from its top ― and then exchanged a glance and a nod before following them into a private room. Ella and I squeezed hands like we were on the uphill part of a roller coaster ― nervous and excited ― but definitely up for the ride. We were confident we could leave if we needed to, but the jitters were sexy.
The private room had a four-poster bed draped with pink gauzy curtains and a multicolor spinning disco ball. The four of us chuckled, then they moved closer. First the girls kissed. I looked at the man and licked my lips, but instead of approaching me, he just cheered on our partners.
We began to hook up ― me with this new woman at the foot of the bed and Ella with this new man at the top. We positioned ourselves so Ella and I could still kiss and wink, maintain communication and gauge comfort.
My nerves calmed down and soon any inhibitions I had been feeling quickly slipped away. It turns out it’s hard to feel jealous of somebody hooking up with your girlfriend when you’re hooking up with his wife right next to him. As new and strange as this arrangement was, I felt safe in my relationship with Ella because we were doing this together ― literally right next to each other ― and we had communicated about everything.
A part of me was wondering how this looked from the outside. Sinful? Non-traditional? Hedonistic? But another part stopped letting judgments get in the way of a good time. I allowed myself to let go and be completely in the moment and, in that dark room pulsing with loud music, lubricated by booze and sweat, with all of our bodies rubbing and touching, my desire began to move in a direction I wasn’t expecting.
Coming of age in the suburbs in the early 2000s, I identified as a typical straight guy. I joked with my peers about dumb shit and would always say “no, you are!” when somebody called me gay. I bought Maxim and Playboy and watched a lot of porn. Straight porn. Yet there were times when I “accidentally” found myself watching men having sex.
After a minute of seeing two guys go at it, I’d “come to my senses,” go back to female-centered porn, finish myself off, and then erase my browser history. I thought that as long as I didn’t ejaculate while looking at a penis, I was completely ― and safely ― heterosexual.
I was afraid of being gay. There was so much stigma ― amongst my social group, but also in general. This was before marriage equality was legalized, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, before “Glee” or “Modern Family.” Those around me debated whether queer people should be teachers, be allowed to adopt, or marry, and I didn’t think there was any way I could be into guys ― even if I was secretly into guys.
My parents didn’t seem to care one way or another ― the most they ever said to me about the subject was that it seemed like life was more difficult for gay people.
Riding home from the sex club in another Uber, the driver asked us, “So, what were y’all doing down here?”
We ignored the question and began to debrief.
We agreed that everything went better than expected and our new friends had been respectful and attractive. Ella had really enjoyed getting close with another woman. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the other guy. Despite the smutty and open atmosphere, the other man and I barely touched, besides high-fiving and an accidental grazing. He kept a respectful distance the entire time we were together.
I wish he hadn’t. I’d never intimately or sensually touched another man. It was the realization that I wanted to that surprised me the most.
Once home and after a long shower, the club’s music still echoed in my ears. I was uncertain how Ella would respond, but we’d agreed to be hyper honest about all our feelings, so I confessed, “I think maybe I want to try having sex with a man.”
“That’s so hot,” Ella replied. She quickly added, “I want to try hooking up with a girl.”
The next morning, we concocted a new plan with a new set of rules: We would test out a version of our open relationship where we could hook up with same-sex partners without each other present ― women for her and men for me. It would allow us to explore our desires but we also felt there would be less opportunities for jealousy to spring up.
We’d thought going to a sex club would be our way to have a non-standard, non-boring relationship. Instead, we realized it was a catalyst ― an initial experience that had informed a whole new line of inquiry into ourselves and our relationship. We’d be a team conducting independent research in tandem, sharing notes and data constantly. We liked our unique strategy.
The biggest question for me was: What did this mean about my sexuality? I believed hooking up alongside Ella meant that I was safely heterosexual, according to some weird internal schematic I had drawn up. The thought of having sex with a guy by myself made me nervous. If I liked it, did it mean I’m gay? Had I only told myself I liked women because I was afraid of the alternative? And if so, what did that mean for me and Ella? Would we break up? Was I bisexual? I didn’t have any of the answers but I knew I needed them, so I did what any curious guy might do: I downloaded Grindr.
I was instantly blown away by the smorgasbord of meat on display on the hookup app. I wasn’t even sure what or who I’d be attracted to, and having so many options overwhelmed me. Eventually, someone messaged me, and suddenly dozens of requests from men were coming in. In all my years, I’d never had strangers actively hitting on me — it felt strange but amazing. I was still too nervous to actually meet up with anyone, but I was beginning to warm up to the idea.
I was on Grindr a few weeks later when I got a message from a nearby guy. “Into?” he asked.
Unsure of what to reply ― or what I was even really into when it came to hooking up with a man ― I wrote, “Whatever you are!” He immediately sent me his GPS location. Ella and I looked at each other. We’d discussed boundaries, expectations and the importance of safe sex when anonymously hooking up with people outside our duo. Was this the moment we’d been preparing for?
I had the roller coaster jitters again, but Ella, my cheerleader, reminded me, “Try anything once.” I chugged a beer for courage, kissed my supportive girlfriend goodbye, and walked towards my first hook-up with a guy.
I expected a flirty first date, but instead the guy I’d messaged with silently intercepted me outside his house. He was handsome with a firm jaw. I tried kissing him, but he seemed disinterested. I offered a true cliché: “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
I thought we’d go up to his room, have some wine and banter about our lives, but, instead, without saying a word, he dragged me to his parked car and awkwardly shoved me into the back seat.
I wanted to seem sexy and experienced, so I just went with the flow, even though I had no idea why we were in his car. Maybe he had roommates at home? Maybe he got off on semi-public sex? I guess this is cruising? I thought. He unzipped my pants, squirmed onto my lap, and jostled himself around. He unwrapped a condom, placed it on me and then suddenly, I was inside of him. Before I even really realized what was happening, I was doing it!
After a few minutes of uncomfortable and uninspired movement he came and went, leaving me in his steamy car to clean myself up. He hadn’t even bothered to get me off. I felt used.
As I sat in the afterglow of the unsatisfying experience, I wondered what I was now. The sex wasn’t even good, let alone intimate. But I was attracted to him. Was I gay? Was I bisexual? Was I just confused?
When I told Ella what happened, she thought it was so sexy and courageous that it made me excited to try again. She laughed when I told her I didn’t even finish. “Now you know how girls feel when guys use them,” she told me. Touché! We decided to collect more data and search for guys I had more of a connection with. Together we surfed the apps, swiping and researching new dating lingo.
I had several more ― and much better ― hookups before I ultimately understood that I really like men and women. Men were scratchy, smelly and I didn’t love their firm bodies. Women were nice to touch, smell, and kiss everywhere. But there was one thing many women didn’t have: one firm part that I really did like. When it went from soft to stiff, my bi-curiosity became bi-certainty.
I didn’t officially come out as bisexual. I was ― and am ― honest about who I am, but most people just assume I’m straight since I have a girlfriend (even though I have an earring in the “gay ear,” l love show tunes and I live in West Hollywood). But I’m not straight and I feel it’s important for me to say that, which is partially why I wrote such a personal piece and I’m publishing it on such a visible site. There is still a stigma for bisexual men ― even in the queer community. Many believe that we can’t really like women and men. That we’re lying if we say we do. That we’re tricking our partners or that we’ll eventually end up leaving our female partners for men. That’s not true. We do exist. Our sexuality isn’t a lie and I hope the more we talk about it, the more perceptions will change.
Since discovering my sexuality, I’ve educated myself on the LGBTQ+ struggle and learned that it’s not over ― not by a long shot. In fact, things are getting worse. I’ve become aware of my privilege and know that just because a cis white guy on the West Coast can freely experiment at sex parties doesn’t mean everybody can. Witnessing how queer people are still treated ― in the U.S. and around the world ― has disgusted and radicalized me. Seeing anti-trans and anti-gay laws grow new and deeper roots in this country has made me realize that if I don’t come out, then I am just taking advantage of all the efforts of braver people than me and I’m not doing my part to make things better.
I believe the very least I can do is to be proudly bisexual and talk about my experiences in the hope that it might give more visibility to our community and show that queer people come in all kinds of packages. Maybe someone reading this will be inspired to share their own story. Maybe they’ll be less afraid to be who they really are and like what they like.
Things are great with me and Ella. We’re getting married later this year, but we’ve decided to keep our arrangement. Opening up our relationship and embracing our bisexuality has only strengthened our bond. We communicate what we need from each other, we’re open and honest about all parts of our lives and we genuinely want to do whatever we can to make each other happy ― and that includes us getting pleasure from other people. And then, when we’re done, we come home to each other. We continue to experiment and be open to what life ― and our lives together ― might bring us and we continue to live by the mantra, “try anything once, maybe even twice.”