Even if you grow up with plenty of sex-positive influences, it still might take you a while to come to terms with your identity.
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It Took Me Until Age 32 to Live Fully As My Polyamorous, Bisexual Self — and I'm a Sex Therapist
Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Wright

Hi, my name is Rachel Wright, and I'm a 32-year-old cis-gender female living in New York City. I'm bisexual/queer, married, and polyamorous. I have a master's degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis on relationships and sex, am a practicing sex therapist — and this year, year 32 of my life, is the first year I can introduce myself honestly.

My Journey

I've decided to share my journey towards becoming myself because I think it's really important to hear each other's stories. Especially as a therapist and educator, people will often look at me and say, "oh, well, she must have it all figured out because she's in this position." Nope. I want you to see and really understand that I don't and I haven't figured everything out, and that that's okay. With that acknowledgment, let's go on a journey through my past. (See: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)

I was 15-years-old when I had my very first crush on another female-identifying human. We flirted a lot at work (which, fun fact, was at Chuck E. Cheese), and I remember thinking how interesting it was that, when I interacted with her, I acted "more like a guy."

For context, I had "lost my virginity" (I can't stand this concept we've created — virginity isn't real!) to my long-term, high school boyfriend about six months before starting my job at Chuck E. Cheese and meeting my crush. As a result, I was definitely in a sexual flow state (at least as flow as you can get at 15).

When this crush blossomed, there were a lot of feelings being tossed around, including shame for wanting to explore being "physical" (at the time, kissing) with multiple people at one time. I didn't think I could date more than one person simultaneously. I thought I was being slutty, and I thought being slutty was bad. So I stayed in this relationship with my long-term boyfriend that I didn't want to be in anymore because I was terrified of being perceived as slutty or "promiscuous," and I didn't want to hurt the other person. (Also read: This Sex Educator Offers a 'Purity Culture Dropout' Program)

Time passed and in that same year, I had my first sexual experience with someone of the same gender as me — yes, with my work friend from Chuck E. Cheese. Now, after this beautiful, intimate sexual experience, I did not tell a soul. Why? I didn't have to. Our societal gender norms made it easy to say to my parents, "Hey, can I go sleepover at a friend's house?" and the answer was, "If her mom is home, then of course!"

But I knew I liked guys too. A lot. I was what some may have called "boy crazy" in the late '90s with posters of *NSYNC, Leonardo DiCaprio, and some motivational quotes covering my walls. I figured that because I had had more crushes and more experiences with males, that must mean that I was going through my "college phase" early, which totally tracked with this running narrative that I "did everything early." (There's a running joke in my immediate family that I've been 35 my whole life, and I'm finally catching up to that point.) I remember thinking to myself, "well that makes sense. I'm almost 16. I must be going through this, like, 18-to-21-year-old "lesbian phase" that I've heard about super early. (Insert eye-roll.)

So, let's skip ahead to when I was 19 years old. Nothing happened between me and my own sexual identity or any other female between 16 and 19. I was 19 years old when I had my second crush on another female. (Isn't it interesting how clear-cut these feel compared to my male crushes, which I couldn't tell you how many I've had or when they were most of the time?) For context, when I was 19, I was working part-time as a waitress, part-time as a teller at a major bank, and going to school full-time for psychology at California State University Long Beach. I also started leaning into and accepting the fact that I was very into sex — I even got involved in selling sex toys. I knew I wanted to get into sex education or therapy and this felt like a great way to learn (and it was!).

But back to my crush — she was my boss at work. I had no idea how to see if she was interested in me as well, so I started talking about a sex toy that I'd sold at a party the previous night, and she made some comment about a type of toy she liked. So, of course, I got one and gave it to her as a gift with some joke like, "let me know if you need a hand" (or something else entirely mortifying). Meanwhile, as this crush blossomed, I had a boyfriend. (Related: What Is Sexual Chemistry, Exactly?)

At this point, I knew I was going to need support from people I trusted, so I decided to tell my best friend Kellie. I called her and said, "I need to break up with the guy I'm dating."

It's important to note here that I thought monogamy was the only relationship option, so if I was having a crush on someone else, I had to break up with the person I was dating because it was wrong and not okay to even think about someone else. And I think that's the only option most of us have grown up with, thanks to our monogamous-centric culture. Looking back, I now realize that I've always had deep relationships with multiple people at the same time, even though I only "technically" cheated twice in my life. The analogy I like to use is that I was put at a buffet of food from around the world and someone said, "You can go try this food, but you then have to stay there for six months because if you try the Chinese section and the Italian section at the same time, you're a slut. So you need to, like, commit to China, try the Chinese food for six months. Then you can break up with the Chinese food and then you can try the Italian food." But I thought, "why can't I put both on my plate?"

And so, I was simultaneously juggling the narrative that I did everything "early" and was "confused" about my sexuality as well as feeling shame for wanting to explore physical relationships with multiple people at once.

What happened next? Naturally, I broke out in hives. I thought I got attacked by spiders, but my mom took one look at me and knew they were hives. I so desperately wanted to explore my sexuality and date this woman, but I was so stressed about ending my happy relationship with this man that it manifested physically on my body.

So I met up with my boyfriend at the time and I told him, "I think I'm gay. I want to date this woman." And his reaction was basically, "go F yourself."

At that moment, I decided that I was going all in; I absolutely hated men, and I must be a lesbian now. I had now had sexual feelings for two women, which felt like a pattern. I remember thinking to myself, "There is not one other plausible explanation for this."

My family was incredibly supportive, and they were very skeptical — and rightfully so, as I'm not a lesbian. They were knowledgeable and empathetic enough to know that they needed to validate my feelings and not just say, "No, you're not. We know you better than you do." They let me sit with my feelings, even though I could tell (curse of an empath) that they were quite skeptical of this newfound lesbian identity.

Their skepticism fueled my curiosity, and I decided (in a very "me" way) that if I was going to try this label on, I was going to fully commit. Over the months that my boss and I dated, I went to lesbian bars in West Hollywood and bought a lot of flannel shirts, two pairs of Birkenstocks, a pair of overalls, and Dr. Martens. I thought that if I was going to join the club, I needed to buy my uniform. (There are social norms in every group, even those that aren't part of the giant "norm" of society.)

When that relationship ended, I immediately started dating men again, and suddenly I noticed I was slipping back into a much more feminine expression of my gender. What I find really interesting is this puts me at about 21 years old, and the narrative of my sexuality at that time was, "I like men and sometimes there are exceptions. But I'm straight."

Enter my third female crush. Let's call her Jessie.

Now, this person happened to be in a position of power in my life at the time, presented a very masculine gender identity, and I was head over heels — and so confused. "I had just figured this out!" I remember thinking to myself over and over again. Why couldn't I just be simple like everyone else?

By this point, I had learned about sexual fluidity and started piecing things together. The first time I heard the definition of bisexual and pansexual, I almost fell over. I couldn't believe that there was a word — multiple words, even — that could describe how I felt and experienced my sexuality. (Related: LGBTQ+ Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Definitions Allies Should Know)

Jessie was the first person to whom, upon expressing interest in her, I said, "I think I'm bisexual, and you're the first person I'm telling." And while that romantic relationship didn't last forever, she helped me own my bisexual identity; she helped me know it was okay.

I didn't know what bisexuality was, let alone that it was "okay" or acceptable. Yet, I grew up in a very liberal home. I had both in-school and private sex ed. My mom took me to a sort of "Mommy and Me: Birds and the Bees" class. But I still didn't learn the true definition of bisexuality until I was in my third year of college. If I didn't learn what bisexuality was until my third year of college with all of these sex-positive factors present, who does know? (See: What Does It Really Mean to Be Sex Positive?)

And I definitely didn't learn about any other committed romantic relationship type that existed besides monogamy. It wasn't until I was in grad school that I learned about ethical non-monogamy. By that point, I had repressed my sexual desires so much that, now, when I look back at that time, I can see that I was a shell of myself.

Now, don't get me wrong, I still had great relationships. I even got married! My husband Kyle and I got married in October 2016, and on our first date we talked about the possibility of being "open." We didn't decide to put that into practice until September 2019 but knowing that it was always there as an option made the decision to marry Kyle a very easy one. I loved him, and he knew all of me and loved all of me — even the parts I was still feeling shame around and hiding away from most people.

I came out publicly on Instagram as bisexual and queer in July 2019 and then in January 2020, came out as polyamorous — with this article about my first pol break up right here in Shape. (Don't worry, my close people already knew.)

When I fully came out as who I am, at 31, two other partners came into my life and have been just everything I could ever, ever ask for.

How to Explore Your Own Sexual Identity

First, it's incredibly important to unlearn, re-learn, and release. You need to set yourself free of the shame, guilt, and other feelings that aren't serving you. When I re-read my diaries and realized that I had been bi and poly literally my whole life — I decided it was time to release some things. I hope that in sharing with you what I released, you can release something too.

Here's what I told myself: "I set myself free from actions I took that hurt other people because I thought monogamy was the only option. I forgive myself for lying to my parents. I was 13 or I was 14 and 34 all at the same time. I set myself free from judgment, all guilt, shame, and apologizing for things that aren't my fault or apologizing for who I am. I'm setting myself free from keeping parts of myself secret to make other people more comfortable. I set myself free from apologizing after expressing my true thoughts and feelings for my family's potential and past judgments or "concerns," and finally, I set myself free from my inner bitch, who has nothing nice to say to me at all." (Related: 6 Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)

Once you've figured out what you want to set yourself free from, you can use these questions to explore your sexuality.

  • Am I physically attracted to the same gender as myself?
  • Am I physically attracted to different genders than myself?
  • Do I feel strong emotional bonds to the same gender?
  • Have I ever been sexually attracted to the same gender?
  • Have I had (or wanted to have) sexual experiences with the same gender as myself in the past?
  • Have I considered having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex?

Accepting Yourself — No Matter Your Sexual Identity

Acknowledging my full polyamorous bisexual self allowed the people I wanted so badly in my life — my current girlfriend, boyfriend, and husband — to come into my life. (Related: Read This If You've Ever Worried That You're 'Not Queer Enough')

And my clothes? I've learned I'm pretty feminine in my expression of my gender! I like to wear sparkly stuff and get dressed up, and I also love to wear no makeup, flannel, and some jeans — and that's okay. I can be both, have both, and do both… it's an "and," not an "or."

Where can you find your "and"? I can't wait to hear and see you be your beautiful self in this world.

Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.FT., (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator and relationship expert based in New York City. She's an experienced speaker, group facilitator, and writer. She's worked with thousands of humans worldwide to help them scream less and screw more.