In over a decade of relationship coaching and sex ed, I’ve talked with thousands of people about why they don’t ask for what they want. Reasons include: not knowing what to want, not having the language to ask, and “why rock the boat when it’s good enough?”
But by and large, the main reason we don’t ask for what we want is fear.
Fear of rejection, humiliation, and judgment.
Fear of disappointment, shame, loss, or guilt.
Fear of repeating the past, missing out, hurting your partner, or feeling like a failure.
Fear of “what they will think,” not getting what you want, or putting too much at stake.
Fear rules our desires.
You know to be afraid of these things because you’ve experienced them.
The look of disdain on some adult’s face when you expressed curiosity about masturbation.
Being laughed at for your youthful eagerness and enthusiasm.
Hearing someone say “Ewww” after you shared a vulnerable truth.
Watching helplessly as a friend got judged for wanting something that seemed just a little “outside the box.”
Seeing people’s hearts be torn apart on reality TV, and their imperfections shredded to bits on the internet.
The world is hostile to the sweet, fumbling, imperfect nature of desire.
And so, to cope, we hide our desires from ourselves and from the people we love. And in the process, we become desire smugglers.
Desire Smuggling: Hiding what you really want from yourself and/or a loved one, then, finding covert strategies to get (at least pieces of) what you want.
We do it to stay safe. It’s a reasonable response to a toxic environment of shame and judgment.
At the same time, desire is powerful. Even in the face of fear, rejection, guilt, loss… we want what we want. And through better or worse means, we will try to get it.
Desire smuggling is something that we all do. The stakes are high around what you truly want, and being direct can seem outright terrifying in the face of these (often well-justified) fears.
What does it look like?
How to Spot Desire Smuggling
When I teach about smuggling desire, a class of 20 people can easily come up with 50-80 examples of ways we try to get what we want when we think it’s not available. From the merely annoying to the truly toxic, techniques of smuggling desire are endlessly creative.
Desire is persistent and will not be denied. When it doesn’t feel safe to want what you want, you will try to get it anyway. Here are some things you might do:
Get drunk/high to remove inhibitions
Ask if the other person wants the thing you want
Send articles about the thing
Give statistics about the thing
Say “people like…” (instead of owning it yourself)
Try to convince
Try to get the other person to say it
Complain that you don’t get it
Be “nice” and hope to be rewarded
Make unspoken deals
Tack on obligation to a “gift”
Minimize by saying “just” or “only”
Want the other person to guess
Wait for the right time
Wait for a sign
Buy into a romance myth (“If you really loved me…”)
Assume they should “just know”
Be loud and bombastic
Punish your partner for not giving it to you
Attack/judge someone asking for what you want
Attack/judge someone getting what you want
Look for other, less-scary places to get it
Shame yourself for having that desire
Shame others with the same desire
Avoid it altogether
Make sugar-coated demands
“Purchase” it by doing other things
Get needs met without owning them
Tell a story about the thing desire
Martyr yourself in hopes of getting it
Substitute something else
Don’t explore internal dissonance
Criticize after the fact
Play options roulette (where one option is the one you want)
Desire smuggling is a clue.
Looking at this list, it’s easy to criticize, blame or shame yourself (or your partner) for doing these things. After all, some of them are pretty shitty behavior, and others are just not terribly effective for getting what you want.
When you catch yourself (or someone you love) smuggling desire, the last thing you want to do is to criticize. Instead, have some compassion for yourself, and recognize two things:
These behaviors are a totally sane and rational response to an environment where desire is discounted, rejected, ridiculed, shamed and otherwise devalued.
Desire smuggling is a cluethat there’s something you want.
When you catch this clue, then you can do something more effective with your desire. You can ask for what you want. You can bring it into your relationships. You can share with a community of trust where your desire will be celebrated. You can explore it safely. You can apologize for not being straightforward and find new ways of creating connection with the people you love.
When it’s safe to have desire, you no longer have to smuggle it.
photo credits: OUCHcharley, Ray_from_LA
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