How to Do It

I Just Opened a Long-Term Relationship. Do I Have to “Come Out”?

What if friends see me out with a new sexual partner?

Couple holding hands overlaid with an animation of a heart that then becomes many hearts.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Jenny Marvin/Unsplash

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions to howtodoit@slate.com. Don’t worry, we won’t use names.

Every Friday, Stoya and Rich will answer one bonus question in chat form. This week, a matter of disclosure. 

Dear How to Do It,

My long-term partner and I opened up our relationship a while ago, but we’re not sure how (or if) we should disclose this new facet of our lives to our friends, families, and anyone else. We live and work in a small city, so we are worried about being seen by people we know with someone else in a romantic context. How should we play this?

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—Open and Closed

Rich: I certainly can relate to this question as someone who has been gay for as long as I can remember, who for years tried very hard to suppress and then obscure it, and who finally reached a point where I am able to discuss all of this in public (in this very forum, for example). Stoya, have you wrestled much with the question of when and how much to keep parts of yourself closeted in civilian life, and whether that’s even possible?

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Stoya: I can definitely relate to the disclosure question, specifically regarding my career in porn. Sometimes stating a fact (of employment, of relationship status, of sexual orientation) offends people in ways we’d rather not deal with.

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Rich: And the high school student in me feels like: good. Maybe those people deserve to be offended.

Stoya: But we’re (presumably) all adults here.

Rich: Yes, the kid in me is an idealistic kid who leaps before he looks and flips people off before he’s considered how that may affect his comfort or personal safety.

Stoya: I think the first question for both members of this pair to ask themselves—presuming they haven’t already—is how much life-unsettling they’re prepared to accept. Rich, in high school, did you come out to anyone?

Rich: No. In high school I hadn’t come out to myself. I mean, I’d watch gay porn, but somehow convinced myself that … wasn’t gay. To call that mental gymnastics would make my brain sound way more agile than it deserves. I was just flopping around in a state of delusion.

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But then in my senior year of college, I did hook up with a few guys, and then more little by little, and then a whole bunch. And you know what happened? People found out about me. The problem with keeping your sexuality a secret is that it will almost always inevitably involve other people—those you have sex with, namely—and other people talk.

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Stoya: When I started performing in porn, I was specifically afraid of one particular person from the neighborhood I grew up in finding out, because they’d been kind to me but were super religious.

Rich: Was it like a protective thing? Was your fear less about their reaction to you and more about how they personally would feel?

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Stoya: I’m still not sure. There was definitely a concern that they’d feel I’d wasted their efforts to be a Good Human Example or something. And for sure a fear of judgment.

In my late teens, I had a pretty intense attitude of “If they don’t like [thing I do], then they just don’t like me.” Regrettable.

Rich: It can be really hard to compartmentalize and not take things personally, especially when those things are reactions to traits that make you you.

Stoya: Definitely. And the sexual nature of all of this—your coming out, my coming out, the question writer’s coming out—tends to make everything feel more combustible. That particular neighbor and I spoke in the past couple of years, and they seemed genuinely full of love and care. What happened when people found out about your sexuality?

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Rich: I was really lucky: not much. It didn’t change relationships with my family or close friends, from what I could tell. And then I went on to write about it way beyond what anyone in my family needed to know (for example, I discussed being sexually versatile) and that still didn’t alienate anyone, to my knowledge.

All of this is to say that while I relate to aspects of the question at hand, I am privileged in that the potential consequences of being out are now well outside of the realm of affecting my quality of life.

Stoya: So we agree the pair with the question are almost certainly going to be seen by people they know in a romantic context?

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Rich: Yes, it seems like it. It seems to me that for them to function in a way that satisfies them sexually and romantically, they will almost certainly be found out by someone, if not everyone. Again, I can be really idealistic about this stuff, but as someone who is already out … I’d come out if I were them. I’d choose satisfaction. I know it’s not a simple choice, but as long as you don’t tell anyone and you’re conducting an open relationship, you’re always going to be looking over your shoulder in fear, and that’s no way to live.

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Stoya: I’m mostly on the same page but am having a qualm: I’ve come out about a lot of things, over and over. And I still look over my shoulder in fear of the repercussions. Both paths involve uncertainty, and that uncertainty can cause fear.

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Rich: That’s a great point. It can be rough, that coming out over and over (and I hate when I find myself in a situation that requires me coming out in some completely inessential interaction with a stranger that I’ll likely never see again, lest I straight-up lie, and it does feel hard because it’s been almost 20 years at this point and it should be easy). I guess ultimately, life is hard. There are very few situations that allow you to have your cake and eat it too; consequences abound.

Stoya: Given that they live in a small city, and that even in a big city everybody you know ends up knowing your business, I’d definitely suggest giving family and close friends some kind of preparation. Drawing on my own hard-won knowledge from past mistakes, have the talk sober and think ahead of time about how to approach the subject based on the person.

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Rich: The only other compromise I can think of is for them to push their sexuality underground and only express it in venues that cater to other people in the same situation (for example: swingers clubs, if that’s even what they’re into). But that seems like it would be hard, too.

Stoya: If they can afford to go out of town for their sexual adventures, that would help reduce the chances of being seen by someone they know at home. (But frequent travel does raise questions, too.)

Rich: I think that no matter what, inconvenience is going to come into play. When I have to choose between hard situations, I try to choose the one that allows me to live authentically. That way, even if I don’t have other people’s support, I at least have my own.

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Stoya: Also, one of the tricky things is that because sexuality isn’t discussed much—or is only recently being discussed much—there can be the shiny distraction aspect. I find myself wanting to talk through a life issue that seems pretty mundane, but the specifics (three women! a squirrel suit!) can feel so novel to whomever I’m talking to, they end up being the focus. This pair may benefit from being direct, affectless, and brief when they tell family and friends, lest they inspire questions they don’t want to answer.

And yep, I just outed myself as having once had a sexual interaction with a person in a squirrel suit.

Rich: I love that that’s a real example and you weren’t just being hypothetical.

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