I spent Memorial Day weekend reading submissions for the latest edition of Best Lesbian Erotica, the annual anthology I edit. Each year, I like to spot the trends in storytelling; it's like taking an informal poll of what queer women (and others who write about them) are jerking off to. There was a year when lots of stories were about butch/femme dynamics in the bedroom. Another year, everyone left the bedroom—literally—for erotic escapades in unique settings. Then I got an overwhelming number of strap-on stories with lots of genderplay and cock-sucking.

Last year's edition

I have stepped down as editor, so this collection will be my last, which has had me thinking about what, if any, themes have remained constant in the 14 years I've been doing it. One narrative tops the list by a mile: sex with a stranger. This theme really stood out this year; it seemed like about half of the stories were about women getting it on with someone they'd just met. Of course, most of their strangers—in addition to being drop-dead gorgeous—were sexy, available, and highly skilled lovers. Many of the scenarios were romanticized: the “she knew just where to touch me” or “it was like she could read my mind” kind of thing. In other words, no awkward silence in the conversation, no insecurity or doubt, no fumbling with bra straps—everything was smooth and perfect. (Well, they are, after all, fantasies.) Stranger sex is not just a dominant fantasy among lesbian-erotica writers or dykes themselves—it's pretty universal regardless of gender or sexual orientation. So what is it about sex with someone you don't know that gets so many people so hot and bothered?

Before I go there, I want to acknowledge that there is a spectrum when it comes to how people define “stranger.” Some are purists and want a truly anonymous hookup with someone they've never seen before, whose name and history they don't know. Others have a looser definition of “anonymous”: They will exchange first names, and maybe a few pleasantries or e-mails, but then it's right to the sex. Still others need to have just enough information to feel comfortable that the person is sane and safe.

“My favorite thing about sex with people who are new to me is that it's so fraught with possibility,” says Katie, a 30-year-old software consultant who lives in Vancouver. “It is based almost entirely on chemistry, not on what their job is, or if they meet my criteria for a 'real relationship.' You have no idea what's in front of you, and it has the potential to be every amazing thing you are looking for.” The charge of the unknown and the possibility for pure bliss can be powerful aphrodisiacs for many people. Plus, when an encounter is free of emotional investment or baggage, you're free—free to be yourself, free to be someone else, free to express yourself in any way you want because the other person doesn't know you. On the flip side, you can create a fantasy about who the other person is, project your desires onto him or her, tune in to the sexual dynamic, without worrying if you'll be compatible with your clothes on.

“Sometimes it feels like gambling, in the sense that I'm walking into an intimate encounter without enough information to predict how it will culminate,” says Rita Seagrave (KinkMogul. com), a sex and BDSM educator from Columbus who teaches a popular class called “Playing With Strangers.” “I know there's going to be some sort of jackpot, but I don't know what that's going to look like.” Andrew, a fiftysomething guy from New York City, likes anonymous sex for different reasons: “It often lacks a certain depth, and that can sometimes help me focus all of the energy of the encounter right there at the conjunction of two groins. No preconceptions, no expectations: 'Put it here, pal!' It can simplify the act of getting off.”

Winston Wilde, a therapist from Los Angeles with a doctorate in human sexuality, says that many of his clients engage in some form of stranger sex. The majority of the gay men he treats do, but they also seem to have greater access to potential partners, whether it's cruising in public places, going to bathhouses, or hooking up through the Web. “Most people look at anonymous sex with morality and judgment and rarely talk about any positive aspects,” he notes. It's true: Before you finish telling them about the hot chick in the bathroom stall last night, most psychologists (armchair and otherwise) will cry intimacy issues and fear of commitment. Dr. Wilde has a different take: “Because there is no emotional investment in a relationship, there is no history and no future. The experience can be all about the here and now. It's not about attachment. It's very Zen.”

Katie, who's bisexual, says it's very easy to find sexual hookups online (via Craigslist or dating sites), at sex and kink events, or just at the grocery store. But like most women, she acknowledges that safety is an issue.

“Some people get off on the danger,” Dr. Wilde says. “There's a thrill and a rush that goes along with the sex, whether they admit it or not. Women are usually more cautious and need a sense of safety.” Rita tries to walk the fine line between knowing enough and knowing too much: “It's difficult to find safe hookups with strangers. While flirting, I am trying to find out as much as I can about this person, but not so much that we don't feel like strangers. At the very least, I want to figure out if we are compatible, and be alert about any red flags that pop up. I want to make sure they will respect my boundaries before, during, and after our encounter. I want to make sure they understand that I'm not looking for a new boyfriend or girlfriend.”

But is it always just about the sex? Rita believes that there is an emotional connection in all her encounters, even the ones with strangers: “With people I love, there is, of course, that deeper sense of intimacy and connectedness. I think sex with strangers is like taking my shirt off and walking topless in a warm summer rainstorm, while sex with my long-term committed partner is like sharing an umbrella and pulling each other close.”

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