Showing Off by Rachel A.G. Gilman

In case you were curious, a global pandemic is not the ideal time to have a sexual awakening, least of all that you might be an exhibitionist. Let me explain.

If you’d asked me in March about my kink preferences, I would’ve rolled my eyes and replied, “I don’t have time for this.” I was planning four different social events, working three jobs, completing Master’s degrees in two countries, and avoiding one mental breakdown. As the chaos of managing my schedule prevented me from thinking about sex, it also strangely kept me together. I never enjoy my mind if it’s left idle, hence why I made six months’ worth of plans. 

But, when the coronavirus hit the United States, they all disappeared. I ended up completing my degrees from my parents’ couch, watching a pre-recorded graduation ceremony on my broken laptop in sweatpants and using my newly empty calendar to keep track of days unemployed. The once elusive breakdown was suddenly the only thing within reach. I needed to refocus.

So I baked muffins, read books, wrote the draft of a novel. I also downloaded a dating app. For reference, my romantic life is laughable. I’d been in and out of love with the same person for nearly five years pre-pandemic, never having the energy to explain my weird schedule to anyone let alone attempt what might resemble a relationship. I also didn’t believe people actually connected online, especially not as I scrolled through profiles of men who at worst wore cowboy boots with wife-beater tank tops and at best had prettier hair than me.

Then, I matched with The Poet.

Our conversations started simply. We discovered we’d attended the same graduate writing program and shared samples of our work. App messages soon became emails which then turned into daily texts. The exchange was exactly the brain stimulation I’d craved, full of intellectualism, creativity, and a smattering of flirtatiousness.

A few weeks in, The Poet asked me, “What do you like in bed?” I rattled off a laundry list of “no’s” easily, but when it came to green lights, I froze, realizing my experience—a few, bad drunken, darkened hook-ups—was too minimal to really say. The Poet then had the idea of completing erotic writing prompts for one another. Given the global pandemic straining our proximity (he was in Brooklyn; thanks to unemployment, I was upstate), the thought was it could provide the kind of intimacy we couldn’t engage with in person. I agreed, and so we sketched our phantom zones.

The prompt versions of ourselves hooked up on the kitchen floor of a college party, made passionate love on a balcony, gave head between library stacks, and got fingered in the booth of a raging pub…followed by the backroom of a stationery store. It was all very hot.

After I proposed that latter idea, The Poet replied, You seem like you’re into light exhibitionism lol.

I blinked at the message before Googling the term, clicking on the Cosmo article that first appeared. Exhibitionism—a kink in which a person feels arousal at the idea or reality of being seen by others while being naked/engaging in sexual activities—was actually quite common. A poll the article cited found that 84% of women got off to the idea of public sex. Was I one of them? As my body tingled reading the article’s suggestions of fooling around in the bathroom of a friend’s house or kissing naked in a swimming pool, my nose still wrinkled. I’d never let someone hold my hand in the open, let alone anything else. I ignored The Poet’s comment. I was merely trying on a hat. It was harmless.

When The Poet and I eventually met, it was no surprise that after 8-hours of drinking sangria we ferociously made out. Doing so on Fifth Avenue, though, was unexpected. I’d never kissed anyone in public; never allowed someone to ruffle the side of my dress with their hands as I buried mine in their hair, trying but failing to conceal a moan while staring at a stop sign; never had a strange family pass by and cheer me on as I plunged my tongue into someone’s mouth. It was invigorating. It was one of the best kisses of my life.

After things with The Poet didn’t work out, I chalked up the PDA-excitement to my pandemic-fried brain short-circuiting, nothing more. A month later, I was back in the city full-time, back to being employed, and back, I thought, to my old, prudish self. I re-entered the dating game on a chaste Central Park picnic with a struggling actor having no expectations, least of all that the sober night would end in another public makeout session, pawing at one another on a checkered blanket until a park ranger flashed his light, but alas, it did. As we continued tonguing on a bench and a family passed by with whistful laughter, I realized the rush I felt this time had nothing to do with the actor’s stiff movements or our garlic hummus breath. This time, it really was all about being seen.

In the way I used to enjoy sharing my academic and work accomplishments with the world, I’ve learned I similarly like an audience to show off sexual conquests, at least mild ones. It makes a bit of a sense, I suppose, though I likely never would’ve realized it had I never conversed with The Poet, had the pandemic not eaten away at my other plans. As I try to accept this about myself, I also wonder if the kink will stick around, or if once the universe eventually falls back in line there just won’t be as much excitement in publicly displaying my affections with so much else to do. We shall see. But for now, if you’re in New York and would like to forget about the world for a bit by necking on a park bench, drop me a line.

Rachel A.G. Gilman’s work has been published in journals throughout the US, UK, and Australia. She is the Creator/EIC of The Rational Creature, a columnist for No Contact, and was EIC for Columbia Journal, Issue 58. She holds an MFA in Writing, Nonfiction from Columbia University and she is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She lives in New York and works in publishing. More at

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