Alice Walker said, “Sexuality is one of the ways that we become enlightened, actually, because it leads us to self-knowledge.” But what happens when sexuality becomes a site of pain and trauma? For far too many people, harmful experiences can limit the benefits that healthy sexuality can bring.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reports that one in six American women — and one in 33 men — experiences an attempted or completed rape. The federal Office for Victims of Crimes reports that one in two transgender people are sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault may be the most obvious way that people experience harm around sexuality, but it is far from the only way.
“Many of us have been deeply shamed and hurt about how we feel about the bodies we live in, the sex we desire, the sex we have settled for, and our beliefs and opinions about sex in general,” said therapist Jassy Casella Timberlake. “Hardly any of us have escaped our sex-negative world unscathed.”
“Sex therapy can be healing because some of the earliest experiences of shame and oppression occur before or during puberty and center around a person’s body, sexuality and sexual practices,” said therapist Shannon Sennott. “Sex therapy is often early trauma work.”
Such experiences can lead people to sex therapy, but often these same experiences get in the way of seeking that help.
“I think sex therapy is stigmatized somewhat in popular culture,” said therapist L. Davis Chandler.
“Clients tell me that they’ve often made several attempts to pluck up courage to call, or that it took a lot to walk through the door and sit in the waiting room,” said Timberlake.
“Sex and sexuality are very confusing and that makes a lot of people very nervous,” said therapist Brooke Norton. “People often wait to go to therapy until things are really bad.”
In fact, renowned psychologist John Gottman reported in 1994 that the average couple waits six years before seeking help.
“I really enjoy helping couples or folks within polyamorous relationships work on their long-term goals for their sex lives — yet when they get here, they’re really stuck,” said Norton. “I can bring hope into the situation. It’s very gratifying to see folks figure out want they want and need.”
The Northampton area has a number of experienced sex therapists — Psychology Today lists 32 clinicians who offer sex therapy. Timberlake is one of the most established, with 15 years of experience as a certified sex therapist. She founded Northampton Sex Therapy, LLC, based in Florence, in 2010 and provides supervision to other sex therapists. In downtown Northampton, Chandler and Sennott, both graduates of the Smith College School for Social Work, see clients at the Center for Psychotherapy and Social Justice. Norton works with individuals, couples and families in Florence — and is currently at work on a book, as well.
“Some issues that bring people to sex therapy are related to feeling that they can’t function sexually, alone or in a partnership,” said Timberlake. “This may be because of anxiety which impacts erectile and ejaculatory functionality, sexual pain disorders that get in the way of enjoying sex, desire discrepancy or differences in sexual style in a partnership.”
The acronym PLISSIT guides sex therapists in determining how to help a client. Devised in 1976 by psychologist Jack S. Annon, the model includes Permission, Limited Information, Specific Suggestions, and Intensive Therapy.
“Some people are hampered by feelings of guilt — for example, about the idea of self-pleasuring — and having a sex therapist validate this as a legitimate and acceptable sexual health practice can alleviate those feelings,” said Timberlake. “Providing limited information can help dispel myths that a person may have about sex and their own sexual health, while specific suggestions might address how to enhance a client’s sexual experience, particularly if they are having difficulty with issues around performance, communication and anxiety.”
For many clients, those steps are all that are needed to resolve the problems they are having. According to Timberlake, those cases may require only three to six months of treatment.
For those affected by trauma, however, treatment may require the fourth option in the PLISSIT model.
“Intensive therapy is far more in-depth,” said Timberlake. “It means inquiring into a client’s sexual history, their medical and medication history, and addresses any trauma present that may be complicating their sexual functioning.”
“Sexual trauma always adds a layer of complexity and time to the length of treatment,” said Timberlake. “People sometimes show up in sex therapy in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, but often trauma survivors tend to work with generalist therapists initially. They may seek sex therapy once trauma responses have become more manageable and they are able to focus more on healing their sexual lives.”
“It’s never too soon or too late to get help,” said Norton. “There is a shift in the brain that occurs about 90 days after a trauma happens, and the process is different for helping those with new trauma versus old trauma. The ideal time is as soon as someone is ready to seek treatment — and there are therapies that don’t require people to talk about what happened. We don’t have to delve into long explanations in order for things to change. We can process memories in a few different ways — talking is just one of them.”
Often the issues that bring someone to therapy are not the only factors at play in their treatment.
“Many clients present with desire discrepancy as an issue, but with co-occurring sexual problems related to medical issues, such as cancer, auto-immune disorders, sexual pain issues, visible and invisible disabilities, etc.,” said Timberlake. “I love working with people who are addressing issues of aging and how living in an aging body impacts their desire and functionality.”
“I work with people when they are in current medical treatment and I also work with folks who are getting generalized therapy — and I work with people who are not in either of those circumstances,” said Norton.
Timberlake’s sex therapy practice is about 50 percent couples and polycules (polyamorous relationship units) — and includes people who identify as LGBTQ or heterosexual, cisgender or transgender/non-binary.
Sennott’s clients are similarly diverse, including couples, polycules, and families in a variety of relationship structures.
“I’m especially interested in sexuality and sexual practices of people who identify as queer, poly, trans, nonbinary, people of size, and people with visible or invisible disabilities,” said Sennott.
As a nonbinary and trans-identified therapist, Chandler is passionate about providing therapy to people who are marginalized based on gender and sexual identities or relationship practices.
For people interested in exploring sex therapy, Timberlake recommends seeking a professional who is board-certified by the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) or being supervised by a board-certified sex therapist. Since AASECT certification is not required to call oneself a sex therapist, those who aren’t certified range considerably in training and experience.
“If in doubt, ask what specific training a therapist has had that informs their treatment protocols — and don’t be satisfied with a three-hour training or workshop as the answer,” Timberlake said.
Ultimately, the right sex therapist is one with whom a client is comfortable enough to be vulnerable and feel supported in that process.
“Anyone and everyone could benefit from therapy that includes topics of sex and sexuality,” said Chandler. “Sex is relevant to everyone — even folks who aren’t having it.”
Picture this. You’ve arrived to a lover’s house for the first time after a date. It gets hot and heavy, but soon you find yourself overwhelmed by sheer panic at their touch, a comment they made about your body, or perhaps something you can’t even put your finger on. Maybe you’re having a flashback to a previous boundary misstep or traumatic situation. Whatever the reason, feeling triggered can heighten the experience of vulnerability and shame. But there’s nothing embarrassing about having an emotional response during sex. In fact, intimacy is a common flashback trigger for many people.
Hopefully, this new partner will have a high emotional literacy, be understanding in the moment, and support you by listening and being present to your needs. Maybe they’ve even had their own experiences with trauma in the past, or have been with partners who’ve dealt with similar things. Sometimes, however, this isn’t the case, and you might find yourself not only navigating being triggered but also facing a partner that isn’t capable of handling the heightened environment — and the fact is, even if you’re not dealing with prior trauma, communicating boundaries in bed can often be a minefield.
Let’s explore what boundaries are, why they’re necessary for both our everyday lives as well as our sex lives, and how to bring up these delicate topics with sexual partners. Once we have a better understanding of our own boundaries and the trauma that has informed them, it becomes easier to communicate with our romantic partners how to assist us during a flashback — and maybe how to avoid them altogether.
What are boundaries, and why are they important?
Dulcinea Pitagora, a NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist, says that healthy boundaries are a collection of a person’s wants and needs as well as “hard and soft limits that combine to support optimal physical and mental health and strong relationships.” But just because they’re necessary doesn’t mean everyone knows how to assert them. Ideally, we should be able to say no to anything that makes us feel unsafe, used, unstable, or goes against our grit. And unfortunately, boundaries around sex are often only discussed once they’ve already been crossed. Meg-John Barker, a psychologist and the author of Rewriting the Rules, tells Allure that we live in a non-consensual culture. “Very few of us have families, friendship groups, communities, or workplaces which encourage us to tune into — and assert — our boundaries,” they say.
“Much like we can pick up a new instrument, sport, or language later in life, we can retrain our muscles, nervous system, and minds to set and keep boundaries.”
The goal should always be a sexual experience where everyone feels safe and taken care of. Think of each other’s boundaries as a road map for sexual pleasure and emotional wellbeing within a relationship, and remember: Boundaries around sex differ from person to person. For example, I have a hard limit on spankings. I never want to be spanked and I communicate that with any person I have sex with. How people react to the expression of boundaries can also be telling and reveal possible red flags. If someone communicates their yeses, nos, and maybes and the person they’re having sex with doesn’t respect their boundaries, that may be a sign that the relationship should not continue in such an intimate way, at all.
In the #MeToo era, it’s become very clear that many people don’t have a proper understanding of consent. It’s important to reflect on our own sexual boundaries and needs, as well as how we can communicate with our partners effectively. There should be mutual respect when it comes to each other’s needs, from understanding the desire for space, to asking for consent to send nudes, to knowing which sexual acts a person is down to engage in.
What happens when our boundaries aren’t respected?
“If we are discouraged from saying ‘no’ or having a sense of self in general, or if our ‘no’ is violated repeatedly, we learn that we are not allowed to have boundaries,” says Deesha Narichania, an NYC-based mental health professional. “And in turn, boundaries equal rejection, abandonment, violence, or helplessness.” When a child is unable to form a healthy sense of themselves as a result of childhood trauma, they may approach future relationships from a place of hurt and replicate similar dynamics.
The good news is that boundaries can be learned into adulthood. It’s important to remember that implementing them is a skill, albeit one that takes practice. “Much like we can pick up a new instrument, sport, or language later in life, we can retrain our muscles, nervous system, and minds to set and keep boundaries,” explains Narichania. It’s important to assess how you think about boundaries in the first place — if you have been raised to think of them as either a punishment against you or something you didn’t deserve, you may not even realize that you have poor boundary skills to begin with.
It wasn’t until I hit my early 20s that I realized I didn’t have a full grasp on what I needed. There were many times in my early sexual experiences where I’d leave an experience feeling gross and wrong even though I technically didn’t say “no” to what was happening. This feeling was the result of not understanding I could say no while also being unaware of what my emotional, physical, or sexual needs were at the time.
Now as an adult, I’m increasingly aware of the moments I assert boundaries that I probably wouldn’t have in the past. That’s because I’ve taken the time to get to know what my boundaries are and then practice small boundary setting (such as saying no to a kiss at the end of a date), so I’ve become more capable of bigger boundary setting (such as stopping in the middle of sex because I felt unsafe). If you need to create and strengthen your boundaries, Pitagora suggests taking inventory of your wants, needs, and hard and soft limits. Writing out what you need and desire in your relationships may lead to realizing that your boundaries have been crossed in the past, often repeatedly, without you seeing it in that moment.
It’s also important to note that it’s highly possible that you might have crossed somebody else’s boundaries before (which can happen without malicious intent). Holding ourselves accountable for the ways we have harmed others is important, not just for their healing but ours as well. During my own process of grappling with the ways in which my own boundaries had been disrespected, I had to face the ways in which my own lack of understanding of boundaries impacted some of my relationships.
How do we assert boundaries in romantic and sexual relationships?
After understanding our wants and needs, Pitagora says the next step is then learning how to communicate them to others. This applies to all sorts of dynamics, from the people you casually sleep with to those who you’ve had long-term relationships with. It’s not only healthy but necessary in all sexual relationships to be able to say no comfortably and feel as though you’re heard. A well-known example of boundaries in action are safe words, traditionally used in BDSM dynamics, about when people have reached a point where they would like the scene to be stopped. The same idea could easily be applied to vanilla sex as well.
A nice trick I like is the Yellow/Red System, where Yellow means “let’s do something else” and Red means “stop entirely.” These can be helpful both in vanilla and kink scenarios because everyone, irrelevant of what kind of sexual experience they are having, should be able to revoke consent at any point. It’s also important to remember to check in on the other person or people you’re engaging in sex with. Reconfirming consent throughout, as well as asking before beginning a new sexual act at every stage of sex, can be helpful in ensuring that every person feels safe and is having fun.
All sexual experiences should be approached as an act of care between those involved, and the boundaries and needs of all participants should be at the forefront of the experience. When a friend told me about the time a date choked her without asking if it was okay, it became apparent how often people don’t realize how crucial asking for consent is to having fun and safe sex. “It might be useful to articulate boundaries upfront in the form of exchanging fantasies, or yes, no, maybe lists, or having online forms of sex first,” says Barker. While my friend told me that she hadn’t communicated that choking wasn’t okay with her because it was a “very casual relationship,” even in the most casual relationships, affirmation of consent is necessary. He should have directly asked if she was into choking, and what happened is not her fault. In sex, consent should never be assumed.
Okay, so how do I create an emergency plan with a partner?
If you’ve recently entered into a new sexual relationship, you may not want to talk about your experience with sexual trauma just yet. It can be scary — many worry that it will scare someone off to show that side of yourself or create anxiety for a new partner during sex. It’s also a different level of intimacy, and you don’t owe it to anyone to share that part of you. In fact, I recently had an emotional flashback during sex that caused me to stop what we were doing. I started sobbing immediately, and felt I owed my sexual partner an explanation to justify my reaction.
But in hindsight, I realize that I owed them nothing of the sort. No one is entitled to information about your past trauma, and no one should require that of you in order to respect your boundaries. Period. However, stating boundaries and triggers clearly can make it easier (though not fool-proof) for you and your partners to avoid triggers, and help them prepare for what could happen if a flashback does occur. In any healthy partnership, even a new one, there should be space for feeling pain and being supported through it.
It’s important to recognize that everyone enters into a sexual experience with their own past experiences informing them.
That said, talking ahead of time and being upfront about these experiences can create an environment where your boundaries, needs, and desires are heard and, hopefully, respected. The goal is to work toward a dynamic where you are allowed to communicate, feel pleasure and intimacy without fear. Barker suggests discussing ahead of time what a possible trauma response can look like for you, since everyone reacts differently to triggers, as well as talking about what each partner may need in that moment. “Sometimes the person who is going into trauma won’t realize it for a while so it’s great if everyone involved can be mindful of this. If in any doubt, pause and check-in. Reassure everyone that success means that consent has happened — whether or not sex happens,” they say.
After all, sex gets emotional, and feelings may come up — this is an inevitability of intimacy, and it’s okay. It’s important to recognize that everyone enters into a sexual experience with their own past experiences informing them. Be aware of this when thinking about your partner’s sexual needs, both as related to pleasure and in boundaries.
When triggers do happen, if you and your partner have already had this conversation, they’ll be better prepared to take care of you. Narichania recommends slowing down and pausing sex when someone experiences a flashback. First and foremost, it’s important to remain calm and attentive to that person’s needs. “Anything that directly connects to the five senses can be helpful, such as giving them something with their favorite scent or favorite food,” they advise, also suggesting making sure that water is available. In the event that being triggered created a space where the person no longer feels safe, give them space to call a friend or go home if they need to. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege to care for someone in these moments, so treat it as such.
Early moments of intimacy often go on to define a relationship, and if you become someone a traumatized person no longer feels safe to be vulnerable with, it may become hard to have a healthy sexual relationship. Forming a healthy relationship requires communication and a clear expression of boundaries, which traumatized people are capable of learning. They can learn proper boundaries, experience intimacy and pleasure, and communicate what they need. It just takes practice and partners who come from a place of love, patience, and understanding.
Many people find one specific body part especially sexy, like butts, abs, legs, or breasts. For some people, that body area is the foot—and their sexual interest in feet is an attraction better known as a foot fetish.
Where does the word fetish come in? “In general, a fetish is any object, concept, or situation that is sexualized,” Ashley Grinonneau-Denton, PhD, certified sex therapist and co-director of the Ohio Center for Relationship & Sexual Health, tells Health.
Toe kissing and sucking, watching videos of feet, taking photos of a partner’s feet, rubbing someone’s sweaty feet after a workout, genital stimulation with feet, or describing foot odor to one’s partner are some ways a foot fetish can play out, says Grinonneau-Denton.
Subtypes of foot fetishes exist, too, like this one. “Some people love to worship adorned feet, whether with jewels, tattoos, nail polish, feet in heels, socks, stockings, or bare feet,” sex therapist Moushumi Ghose, owner and director of Los Angeles Sex Therapy, tells Health.
Here’s everything you need to know about foot fetishes…and the foot fetishists who focus their desire on this body part you may never think twice about.
How common is a foot fetish?
More common than you’d think. While exact numbers are hard to come by, one study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicinearrived at one. In the study, researchers asked the roughly one thousand participants to rate their fetish interests from a score of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest). About 10% said they had a foot fetish, and the same percentage admitted to having a shoe fetish. Overall, more men than women said they sexualized feet or shoes.
Is a foot fetish, well, normal?
Yes—the word “fetish” just makes a foot fetish sound freaky. “To ‘fetishize’ something is often deemed an unhealthy obsession and is typically borne out of something being taboo or not normal,” says Ghose. “Fetishizing is often not seen in a favorable light.” Yet a more sex-positive approach is to ditch this line of thinking entirely and just consider a foot fetish another variation of healthy human sexuality.
There’s no right or wrong way to have a foot fetish
Just as with any sexual preference, “there are many different forms that foot fetishes can take,” says Grinonneau-Denton. As mentioned above, some foot fetishists prefer adorned feet. Others go for naked feet only. Some people fetishize footwear, such as stilettos or sandals, but others focus on less sexy shoes like sneakers or boots.
If you’ve ever seen Vanderpump Rules, you know that one of the actors on this reality show has a self-proclaimed fetish for sweaty, stinky feet. “I have worked with individuals who are highly turned on by sweaty tennis shoes and may have an inclination toward the smell, the dirtiness, or both,” says Grinonneau-Denton.
Another type of foot fetish is to fantasize about what will happen when the shoes come off, and what kind of foot is under the shoe, adds Grinonneau-Denton.
People get sexual satisfaction from feet because…feet are sexy
Feet are an intimate part of the body and are typically covered up. For these reasons, they are thought of by some people as sensual and erotic, just as other covered-up body areas like breasts and butts are considered sexy. In many cases, the fetish arises from the fantasy of being close to and touching a body part that isn’t randomly touched by strangers, says Grinonneau-Denton, the way a hand or upper arm might be.
Other foot fetishists enjoy the submission aspect. “The feet are at the bottom of one’s body, so you’re worshipping someone from below, which can be seen as a desire to be dominated,” says Ghose. And then there’s the fact that your feet take a lot of wear and tear all day yet don’t get the proper care they deserve. There’s an erotic element here for foot fetishists, too. “The work of the foot worshipper is to worship something that is otherwise seen as less than,” she explains
Having your feet touched feels good, too
If your partner is the one with the foot fetish and you’re on board with it, foot play can be very pleasurable for you, too. “There are a lot of nerve endings in the foot, which makes it a highly sensual erogenous zone,” says Ghose. You probably already know that a foot massage can feel amazing and even be a precursor to other sexual activities. But having your feet touched more sensually—teased with one fingertip, for example, or licked or sucked—can send tingles down your spine.
Remember, there’s no shame in finding feet and foot worshipping sexy. “As a society, we’ve historically gotten far too caught up in what we should and shouldn’t like sexually,” says Grinonneau-Denton.
Bottom line: a foot fetish is completely normal and healthy, so long as it doesn’t become an obsession interfering with regular life, and assuming that a partner or other person involved consents to foot play. If you or your partner has a sexual desire toward feet, don’t be afraid to talk about it and explore it if you wish.
In much the same way that people can identify as asexual and demisexual, gender is just as fluid as sexuality. While some people may view themselves as agender (not having a gender), bigender (some who fluctuates between traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ identities) and gender queer (one who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions), others may see themselves as cisgender.
Earlier this year, for example, singer Sam Smith opened up to actor and activist Jameela Jamil about how he identifies as neither male or female. ‘I think I float somewhere in between,’ he told the British star on her I Weigh Instagram series.
‘The older I get, the more I think that I’m non-binary — I’m gender nonconforming,’ Van Ness told Out magazine in June. ‘Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman. I don’t really — I think my energies are really all over the place.’
As a result of gender dysphoria (whereby a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a perceived mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity), several areas of society – be it a workplace, university campus or public facilities – are recognising the importance of welcoming myriad binary gender identities into their vernacular and practices.
In the ever-evolving terminology of gender identities, it has never been more crucial to understand and distinguish between them.
Here is everything you need to know about cisgender:
What does it mean to be cisgender?
According to the National Health Service’s Gender Identity Development Service (NHS GIDS), being cisgender means that you identify with the gender that you were assigned by birth.
For example, if you are born a woman and you decide that you agree with that definition, it would meant that you are cisgender.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines cisgender as ‘of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth’. Meanwhile, the word itself originates from German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch, who is believed to have coined the term in the 1990s during his work on transgender experiences.
In 2014, trans and bi activist Julia Serano told TIME magazine that defining as ‘cis’ helps some individuals in society, as ‘people don’t go around all the time thinking of themselves as a straight woman or a heterosexual man.
‘But it becomes useful when you’re talking about the ways in which people are treated differently in society.’
It’s important to remember that cisgender applies solely to gender, as opposed to sexuality, and that both heterosexual and homosexual people can be cisgender. As a personal identity category, it is self-defined and not something attributed to a person from others.
Additionally, LGBT rights charity Stonewall states that the term ‘non-trans’ is also used by some people to describe cisgender individuals.
Is cisgender a new term?
Despite its 1990s origins, the term cisgender was only added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013.
While there is no reliable statistic for how many people in the UK identify as cisgender, the number is presumed to relatively large given that the percentage of trans people is estimated at 0.0003-0.0007 per cent of the UK population, according to the Government Equalities Office 2018.
Defining cisgender as the opposite to trans, Transstudent.org states that ‘in discussions regarding trans issues, one would differentiate between women who are trans and women who aren’t by saying trans women and cis women’.
Why can cisgender be problematic?
The term cisgender has caused controversy in recent years.
In 2014, the New Yorker published an article titled ‘What Is A Woman?’ which referenced a dispute between radical feminists and transgenderism.
‘To some younger activists, it seems obvious that anyone who objects to such changes is simply clinging to the privilege inherent in being cisgender, a word popularised in the 1990s to mean any person who is not transgender,’ journalist Michelle Goldberg wrote.
In it, Goldberg alludes to activist Alison Turkos who said: ‘It may not feel comfortable, but it’s important to create a space for more people who are often denied space and visibility.’
Meanwhile, the Sunday Morning Herald states that it the term can also falsely imply that only transgender people feel the difference between their gender and sexual identities, when in fact many queer people are also conflicted with their gender and their expectations in society.
‘Others have identified the term does not properly account for intersex people,’ it explains. ‘Because intersex people have atypical sex characteristics (for example genitals, hormones, reproductive glands and/or chromosomes), it is problematic to define their gender identity in relation to the sex they were born.’
In an interview with LGBT news site Advocate.com, transgender scholar and assistant professor of English and women’s and gender studies at College of the Holy Cross K.J. Rawson, says the word is ‘not meant to be dismissive, but rather descriptive’.
What is cisgender privilege?
According to Everday Feminism, similarly to other forms of privilege (think white privilege or male privilege) cisgender privilege reflects the uniquely advantageous position that cisgender people have as the default gender identity in society.
‘We live in a society which deems transgender people (those who identify as a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth) as being a type of “other,” which results in incredibly unjust obstacles,’ its website explains.
According to the Health Line, gender privilege comes in many forms, including easy access to all forms of healthcare and a government system for official papers that correctly identifies this gender category.
However, remember that just because you are cisgender does not mean that you may not experience other forms of discrimination, such as misogyny, racial profiling or religious discrimination.
While understanding the term cisgender is fundamental, it is also crucial to shine a light on the definition of other gender subjects such as trans.
Stonewall defines trans as: ‘An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.
‘Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.’
– Surprising New Research Shows 3 Main Motivations
ByTexas Tech University
A new analysis from the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences shows three different, equally prevalent purposes behind sexually based messages.
Let’s talk about sext.
Sexting is extremely common among adults — but maybe not for the reasons you think.
New research from the Sexuality, Sexual Health & Sexual Behavior Lab in the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences shows that two-thirds of people who sext do so for non-sexual reasons.
In an analysis of the reasons people engage in sexting with their relationship partner, assistant professor Joseph M. Currin and doctoral student Kassidy Cox confirmed three main motivations found in previous research:
Some people use sexting as foreplay for sexual behaviors later on;
Some sext for the relationship reassurance they receive from their partner; and
Some sext their partner as a favor, with the expectation the favor will be returned later in a non-sexual way (such as a dinner date).
When they began the research, Currin and Cox were curious to see if one of these motivations was the most prevalent. Using data gathered online from 160 participants, ranging in age from 18-69, they performed a latent class analysis measuring sexting motivations, relationship attachments and sexual behaviors. To their surprise, they discovered three nearly equal clusters, suggesting no motivation is more common than another.
“It was intriguing that two-thirds of the individuals who engaged in sexting did so for non-sexual purposes,” Cox said. “This may actually be demonstrating some individuals engage in sexting, but would prefer not to, but do so as a means to either gain affirmation about their relationship, relieve anxiety or get something tangible — non-sexual — in return.”
Also surprising to the researchers was there were no significant differences in motivation based on sexual orientation, gender or age.
“This study highlighted the main reasons to date that individuals are motivated to sext, and it actually normalizes all three types of motivations,” said Cox.
“As it is becoming a more accepted method of communicating one’s sexual desires, we wanted to highlight how adults utilize this behavior in their relationships,” Currin added. “This tells us that sexting among adults is an evolution of how we have communicated our sexual desires to our partners in the past. People used to write love poems and steamy letters, then when photography became more commonplace, couples used to take boudoir photos for each other.”
Currin and Cox noted that their research focused on sexting between current partners in consensual relationships only.
“As with any sexual behavior, it is important and necessary to have consent to engage in sexting,” Currin said. “Individuals who send unsolicited sext messages — such as images of their genitalia — are not actually engaging in sexting; they are sexually harassing the recipient.”
If Hollywood made a blockbuster film about all the common misconceptions about BDSM, it would be called 50 Shades of Grey Area. From outdated ideas to complete misrepresentations, there is no shortage of faulty information out there about BDSM. And while experimenting with kink may not be everyone’s cup of tea, listening to experts spill the tea about BDSM can help everyone stay informed.
“BDSM is something that the general population doesn’t know much about,” Kayna Cassard, sex therapist and founder of Intuitive Sensuality, tells Elite Daily. “So, they make up stories about what it means for people who engage in it.” According to Cassard, the lack of accurate information about BDSM often leads people to stigmatize the practice. “Our stories are often informed by [outdated or limited] belief systems,” Cassard says. “When you have those systems filling in the blanks on something like BDSM, there is a lot of negative judgment about it.” Whether you’re just starting to dip your toe in the kink world or you’re a BDSM babe that’s tired of correcting all the misinformed stereotypes, knowing the real tea about the kink community can be super helpful.
Here are 10 common misunderstandings about BDSM, cleared up by experts.
1. Myth: BDSM isn’t consensual.
Like any sexual encounter, engaging in BDSM requires talking about consent and intentions before getting down to business. “BDSM is 100% consensual and the result of explicit, thorough communication,” Brianne McGuire, host of the Sex Communication podcast, tells Elite Daily. “Activities may include physical contact that appears violent, but really, it’s the manifestation of an agreed-upon dynamic.” As McGuire shares, BDSM is a completely consensual practice that demands transparency from all partners. “BDSM emphasizes consensual play and teaches us tools to communicate our erotic and sexual needs more effectively,” Cassard says.
2. Myth: BDSM isn’t feminist.
For sex educator and “24/7 Sub” Lina Dune, a huge BDSM misconception is that the practice is not feminist. “As a submissive, I have been told all manner of things about why my role in BDSM is not feminist,” Dune says. “But BDSM is the coming together of equals to participate in consensual power exchange. Any way you slice it, that’s feminist to me.”
As Dune shares, BDSM can create space a particularly special space for women, femmes, and assigned female at birth (AFAB) people to reclaim their sexuality and sexual power. “And if there are some spanking, name-calling or ball gags thrown in there? All the better,” Dune says.
3. Myth: BDSM only involves penetrative sex.
Though penetrative sex can be a large part of BDSM, McGuire and Cassard both share that BDSM isn’t only about sex. “BDSM activities often involve no penetration,” McGuire says. “The nature of sharing energy and power in a highly communicated, consensual way goes far beyond sexual release.” Cassard agrees that BDSM can be a “tool in your relationship and sexual arsenal,” helping you and your partner communicate more effectively.
“There’s a misunderstanding that BDSM isn’t accessible because there is a big commitment involved in buying proper equipment,” Gigi Engle, sex coach, sexologist, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life, tells Elite Daily. “You can use anything around the house. A wooden spoon can be a paddle; a scarf can be handcuffs or a blindfold.” As Engle shares, while some may want to build a dungeon or shell out for a special whip, BDSM can just about communicating and exchanging with your partner(s). You can get creative together and have fun along the way.
According to Dr. Jones, while some people are into more extreme BDSM activities, like suspension bondage or masochism, others may be more into moderate or light BDSM, like wearing blindfolds or roleplaying. Whatever the case, BDSM means something different to everyone who engaged with it. “A major misconception is that there is ‘one way’ to do something or that BDSM has to be this strict, regimented thing,” sex educator and mental health professional Lola Jean tells Elite Daily. “There isn’t one ‘right’ style or method or right or wrong. It’s about finding and tailoring what is right for you regardless of the role that you’re in.”
6. Myth: BDSM is only for dominatrices.
The truth is, there no one “type” of person that is into BDSM. While some people are more public about their kinks and interests, others may be into BDSM on the down-low. Whatever the case, Dr. Jones emphasizes that anyone can practice BDSM.
“There are people from all walks of life, various racial, cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds, who take part in BDSM sexual practices,” Dr. Jones says.
“Some couples switch positions,” Dr. Jones says. “Others are interested in BDSM, not because they are masochist, but because they enjoy giving pleasure, or depending on what the BDSM includes, they enjoy their partner’s uncontrollable passion.”
Jean agrees that stereotypes about what certain roles look like can prevent people from really understanding how BDSM functions. “These stereotypes are so limiting, and they prevent us from getting to know the other person as well as ourselves,” Jeans says. “BDSM can look completely different from person to person or pairing to pairing.”
8. Myth: BDSM is all about power.
Jean shares that while some people may engage in power-play or enjoy being dominant or submissive, BDSM isn’t always about the exchange of power. “There is a misconception of power and where that comes from, which leads to individuals wielding that power irresponsibly,” Jean says. “BDSM is not about power exchange for everyone. Fetishes and lighter play can fit within here too.”
If you grew up in a more conservative area or you carry a lot of internalized shame around sex, Cassard shares that it can be easy to feel like BDSM is “wrong” or “dirty.” While you never need to do anything you’re not into, Cassard attests that being into BDSM doesn’t make you a “bad” or “shameful” person — it’s just another thing that you’re into. “[Practicing BDSM] is normal, and there have been studies showing that there are pretty high levels of mental wellness in the BDSM communities,” Cassard says. There’s no reason to keep BDSM a secret if you don’t want to, as there is nothing shameful about partaking in it.
10. Myth: BDSM is all about pain.
“You can have BDSM without any pain at all, and you can have it where you walk away with bruises all over your body. Each experience is carefully crafted and curated by those participating in the play,” Engle says. While some people are into BDSM with more physical contact, Engle shares that BDSM isn’t innately violent or about pain.
Additionally, Dune emphasizes the importance of aftercare and cuddling, as well as checking in afterward. “A crucial component of any BDSM practice is aftercare so that the partners can reset their nervous system and emotionally get on the same page,” Dune says. “BDSM is a structured way of playing with more intense sexual themes and sensation play, but the ritual of it is meant to safeguard against bad outcomes like trauma, abuse, or triggers.”
From ropes and paddles to feathers and ice cubes, BDSM can look different to everyone. Of course, no matter what you’re into, active consent is the most important part of any BDSM practice. And whether you’re suspended in the sky or laid out on the floor, consensual kinky sex means leaving no room for grey areas.
Sexual predators have found an easy access point into the lives of young people: They are meeting them online through multiplayer video games and chat apps, making virtual connections right in their victims’ homes.
Many of the interactions lead to crimes of “sextortion,” in which children are coerced into sending explicit imagery of themselves.
We asked two experts how families could best navigate gaming and other online activity that can expose children to sexual predators.
Dr. Sharon W. Cooper is a forensic pediatrician at the University of North Carolina and an expert on sexual exploitation. Michael Salter is an associate criminology professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Both are internationally recognized for their work in the field of child sexual abuse.
The following recommendations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Set rules for when and how your child can interact with others online
Dr. Cooper: The conversation on online safety should begin with a statement that there will be rules because a parent loves his or her children and wants to see them be safe and have the best that is in store for them.
I empower parents to know that they control access and should always exert that control. Research has shown that parents who mediate online behavior have the most resilient children. It is about time online (not too much), content (age-appropriate and prosocial) and parental empowerment (access is a gift, not a right).
Spend time with your child on new games and apps
Dr. Salter: Gaining some shared experience on a new service helps you identify risks, builds trust and provides an opportunity for nonconfrontational conversations. You can find out more about different platforms by going to trusted sources such as Common Sense Media and the eSafety commissioner website in Australia, which provide useful summaries of new apps and their safety features.
Talk to your child about online safety, and listen
Dr. Salter: You can start by talking about our rights and responsibilities online. You can emphasize that, online, we have an obligation to treat people well, and a right to be treated well by others.
You can brainstorm with your child the kinds of situations where they might feel unsafe, and the strategies they can use to stay safe. Set reasonable rules, but keep the conversation open so they feel comfortable coming to you if something happens that concerns them.
We’ve had situations where children have stayed silent on really major sextortion cases for months because they were already in trouble online and didn’t want to be in trouble for breaking the rules, too. Groomers and abusers rely on silence.
Encourage your child to raise any concerns with a trusted adult
Dr. Salter: Red flags that an online “friend” can’t be trusted: They tell the child to keep the relationship secret; they ask for a lot of personal information; they promise favors and gifts; they contact the child through multiple platforms and services; they initiate intimate discussions about the child’s appearance; and they insist on meeting face to face.
The first thing is for children to raise concerns with adults they trust. They should know never to send a nude image on the internet and remember they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Their most common mistake is not listening to themselves when they feel uncomfortable.
Be on the lookout for warning signs of abuse
Dr. Cooper: We try to avoid making children feel they are wholly responsible for their safety because if they fail, they develop significant guilt and self-blame. That being said, the most important warning signs are too much time online and angry reactions when parents put in a cease-and-desist order. Others are contact with a “voice” they do not recognize, and contact with someone requesting inappropriate behavior, including duping their parents.
Educate your child about blocking users who make them uncomfortable
Dr. Salter: While exploring a platform or app with your children, find out how to report and block users who make them feel unsafe. Encourage them to use this option if they receive unwanted or uncomfortable contact. If the user persists, contact your local police.
Don’t blame your child if abuse arises
Dr. Salter: The first step is to remain nonjudgmental and reassure your children that they are not in trouble. Groomers rely on children feeling too ashamed to tell, so it’s important to be supportive.
The most common mistake parents make is embarrassment — being unable to create a space in their relationship with their children where it’s O.K. to discuss their emerging interest in sex. It’s really hard to talk to children about their sexuality.
Take charge as your child’s online protector. No one else will.
Dr. Cooper: The industry is not about the business of promoting safety. I have yet to see a new cellphone purchase accompanied with a “How to keep your children safe with this device” pamphlet. We should empower children and show them how to report to trusted authorities.
Safe sex is something that everyone who is sexually active should be aware of, but sadly, some of this vital information can get lost in the shuffle.
Whether you’re in a long term relationship, hooking up, or somewhere in between, keeping yourself safe is vital.
Condoms are the thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear the words ‘safe sex’, but there are options out there that prevent STIs and pregnancy that don’t get the attention the condom does.
That said, the good, old, reliable condom is a good place to start.
Condoms for safe sex
These are, by far, the easiest to get access to, and are available at just about any grocery store or pharmacy. They’re useful for vaginal, anal, and oral sex, though you might want to get un-lubricated condoms for oral sex, since the lube on most brands is not very tasty. There are flavoured options, but they’re usually listed as novelties and aren’t recommended for vaginal or anal use.
“The sugar in some flavorings can cause yeast infections,” said Ellie Goodwin, a local sex educator.
Condoms are the most effective way to avoid STIs and pregnancy, though if you or your partner have a latex allergy, do keep in mind that sheepskin condoms are less effective against STIs.
So, the old rule still stands true. No glove, no love.
Often referred to as “female condoms,” these come with a very detailed instruction manual, mostly due to the fact that many people are not familiar with them or how they work.
Basically, the internal condom goes into the vagina and leaves a bit hanging out that covers everything on the outside of the body.
While they say you can insert one hours before you have sex, many said that wasn’t really a comfortable option.
“It’s not exactly uncomfortable,” said Danielle Park, about the one time she tried one.
“I was just super conscious of it the whole time. It’s hard to be in the moment with a deflated balloon between your legs.”
Despite being marketed as a way to have more control over one’s sexual health options, the internal condom is not widely available.
But, if you don’t mind hunting for them, and you follow the instructions, they are an effective option.
No, we are not looking for plaque with these. Dental dams are square or rectangular pieces of latex that work as a barrier between the mouth of one person and the genitals of another while performing oral sex. They protect against all the same STIs that condoms do, but they are woefully unheard of for many people.
“I don’t know if it’s because we don’t want to talk about oral sex that doesn’t involve a penis, or what but too many people don’t know what they are or what they’re for,” said Goodwin.
Woefully lacking too, are places to buy them in Calgary.
But, never fear, it’s super easy to make your own.
All you need is an unlubricated condom. Unroll it, cut through it from the bottom to the tip and, voila! You’re ready for safe oral sex.
Keep yourself safe
No matter how you protect yourself during sex, it’s important to use the method as instructed and consistently.
“It’s your health on the line, and even the best sex isn’t worth risking that,” said Goodwin.
Exploring sexuality with others can be scary, confusing, and thrilling, and digital devices make every interaction more consequential. Consent must be given in person, during sexual activity, and whenever a new form of sexual activity is initiated. Many young people communicate and establish relationships through technology. This may provide a false sense of knowing someone, intimacy, or readiness to engage in a sexual relationship. With all of the abbreviations young people use (hu = hookup, wbu = what about you, dtr = define the relationship, etc.), they are in many ways abbreviating relationships. It is important to consider that the only way to truly know if you are comfortable and ready to be sexually active with someone is to actually spend time with them.
As adults, we can talk to teenagers about knowing whether they can trust someone and are ready to be more intimate. This means considering whether they are comfortable discussing issues such as consent, how far they want to go, what they are ready to do, etc. If their partner pressures, manipulates, or guilt-trips them into activities they don’t feel ready for, they should consider whether this is a relationship they want to continue.
Sex educator, speaker, author, and my personal rock star, Emily Nagoski, has a beautiful garden metaphor I use with my students to deepen their understanding of consent within the context of their sexuality. It goes like this: When you’re born, you’re given a little plot of rich, fertile soil, slightly different from everyone else’s (a.k.a. your brain and your body). Your family and culture (the immediate and broader communities you’re a part of) plant seeds and tend the garden. They also teach you how to tend it. Those seeds are the language, attitudes, knowledge, and habits about love and safety, bodies, and sex.
Each garden is unique and has different needs depending on the vegetation those seeds yield. Some gardens may require extra sunlight and water, some may need extra fertilizer or shade, some may be drought-tolerant or need extra vigilance when it comes to weeding out toxic and invasive species. Over time, as you become an adolescent, you start to take on the responsibility of tending your own garden. While discovering what’s in your garden, what it needs, and how to take care of it, you get to choose what gets pulled out and what gets to stay.
Consent is having the agency to decide who gets to enter your garden and what will happen while you’re there together. It’s the option to choose whether someone comes in and how they behave while they are there—do they play and frolic, or stomp and trample? Consent determines how long they get to stay, and whether they get to plant something or take anything with them when they leave. You should ask before entering someone else’s garden. Honor it because it’s theirs. And anyone you let into your garden should help it thrive.
Parent–Teen Conversation Starters
My students give me the best advice for how to approach conversations with teenagers. Be concise and focused. Allow your teen to guide the conversation. Talk less and listen more. It’s OK to say “I don’t know.” Stay open to different perspectives. Avoid letting the conversation become a family debate. Worry less about what your teen is doing and more about how they feel about it. Have many smaller conversations over time in different contexts. My students also emphasize the importance of selecting questions from the list below that will resonate with your own teenager. Every teen is unique and up to different things and dealing with different issues, so be selective with the questions you choose.
In your own words, what is consent? What are some examples of consent that come up in everyday life?
What’s the value of consent? How does it relate to healthy relationships?
What are some examples of asking for consent?
What does it feel like when someone doesn’t respect your right to choose for yourself? How do/can you respond?
How can you connect your understanding of everyday consent to sexual consent?
Why are some people trying to change the notion of consent from “no means no” to “yes means yes”? What is the difference, and do you agree or disagree?
What are some examples of consensual questions for the following: asking someone out; deciding how you’re going to spend time together; or being sexually intimate with someone?
What are the circumstances in which consent cannot be given?
What are some important characteristics of a sexual relationship beyond consent?
Resources: Everyday Feminism magazine has a helpful online comic strip titled What If We Treated All Consent Like Society Treats Sexual Consent?
Straight Answers to Teen Questions
Why is “yes means yes” better than “no means no”?
“Yes means yes” comes from the media’s coverage of recent affirmative consent laws (“affirmative” is the legal language used that requires someone to ask for agreement to initiate a level of intimacy). Until affirmative consent laws were created, the phrase “no means no” reflected widely held thinking around consent and sexual assault. It meant that if someone said no to a sexual act, the person initiating the activity should respect that boundary and stop what they are doing. This is still important. If someone doesn’t want to engage in a sexual act, they can say no and the other person should stop or it might be considered sexual assault.
“Yes means yes” is an improvement on “no means no,” because “no means no” assumes yes until that person expresses their discomfort by literally saying the word no. Ideally, all people would feel comfortable and confident enough during a sexual encounter to say no. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, especially with young people. Asking for affirmative consent, if the question truly allows for either answer, expresses respect and care for a partner’s sexual experience. It is also more positive because it affirms desire and hopefully leads to better sexual communication. It is the kind of communication that ideally should happen during sex and in healthy relationships. Beyond yes is enthusiastic consent, which means not only does the other person agree to what you’re doing together, but also they genuinely desire it and they’re excited about it.
What would be considered “another level of intimacy”?
An example of another level of intimacy might be going from making out with someone to taking their clothes off, or when two people are feeling each other up and one reaches into the other’s pants. Another example is when someone goes from intimate touching to moving down the other person’s body to give oral sex. Different people experience different levels of intimacy in different sexual situations. Some people may feel that kissing is more intimate than genital touching. Others may think that genital-to-genital intercourse is more intimate than oral intercourse. It depends on the person, so ask and pay attention to how your partner responds.
Do I have to ask for consent even if I’m really close to the person?
Yes, you must ask for consent even if you’re really close to your sexual partner. A preexisting relationship does not equal consent. There are many benefits to knowing your partner. In a healthy relationship, trust and care are built over time. This allows for both partners to communicate without fear of being judged. Sometimes, consent is wordless between people who know each other really well. Communication happens with body language, facial expression, and pleasurable sounds. Still, paying attention to context is important for everyone. The context or circumstances that surround the sexual activity can change within moments and may influence how someone feels sexually, and it is important to understand that context may influence consent. And if the consent is wordless, the partners involved must be attentive to each other and make sure that whatever is happening between them is something they both want.
When do I have the right to say no? When is it socially acceptable?
You have the right to say no at any time in a relationship or within a sexual experience. The answer to the second question will likely vary depending on who you talk to. We live in a sex-negative culture (one that focuses on objectification, sexualization, sex stigma, and body-shaming) that doesn’t always promote healthy perspectives on sexuality, especially for young people. It may seem and feel like you have to say yes because that is what you see in the media or what you hear from your friends. A sex-positive and sexually healthy society would make it socially acceptable to say no to sexual activity whenever you feel you want or need to. Remember that you are under no obligation to engage in behavior you don’t feel ready for, no matter the circumstances.
There are different ways to say no that you may want to consider. Within any type of relationship, be clear with your no. If you are in a healthy relationship, engage in a conversation with care and respect, so you can talk through what you’re both thinking and feeling. What your partner wants matters. Being a considerate and generous lover is mature and responsible. Encouraging people to talk openly about consent, and the ability to say yes and no, benefits everyone. Everyone deserves that kind of respect from a partner, and it makes for a healthier relationship.
If you are saying no in a hookup situation, be clear and assertive. If you and your partner are engaged in a respectful sexual encounter and care about each other’s experience, it should be OK to engage in open and honest dialogue. You could say, “I’m not comfortable with that but would be comfortable with [activity].” If your partner only seems to care about getting off physically and doesn’t consider your experience, then be clear and direct with your no and end the hookup. Bottom line: you have the right to say no.
Can someone give consent if they are drunk?
No. The legal language of affirmative consent legislation for being drunk or intoxicated is “incapacitated.” A person cannot give consent if they are incapacitated, which means they aren’t able to think clearly because they are under the influence of a substance or drug (alcohol is considered a drug). The point at which someone becomes incapacitated is different depending on many variables, including genetics, size, tolerance, how much of a substance they consumed, what kind of substance they consumed, when and how they took the substance, if they had recently eaten, or if the substance had an additional substance in it. If someone reports a nonconsensual experience and the people involved were incapacitated, the police or authorities on a school’s campus (if it took place at school) will investigate to determine whether the people involved were incapacitated and if this impacted the situation.
If I send a nude or “dick pic,” does that count as consent?
No. You cannot give consent to sexual activity over a phone or other digital device, especially if you are under the age of eighteen. Nudes do not equal consent. In fact, unless someone asks for a nude photo, it can be considered sexual harassment. And if you’re under eighteen, taking sexually explicit photos of yourself and “sexting”—sending nude photos—is considered trafficking in child pornography and is against federal law. Some states have teen sexting laws to deal with this common issue because the consequences for teens who violate federal law can be severe. Remember, too, that what is on your device and what you send to others is essentially public. Just because the photos disappear from your phone doesn’t mean that someone didn’t screenshot and forward or save them. If you send a nude photo, you should expect that it will probably become public at some point and may be circulated. Would you want your family, employer, college admissions officer, or future romantic interest to see it? Probably not.
What if I’m comfortable doing something sexual with a guy but not a girl?
Your body belongs to you; you get to choose how to touch and be touched. The guidelines are the same for managing what’s going on while you explore sexuality with someone, regardless of gender. No matter the person and how they identify, it’s important to communicate your desires and limitations and to listen and ask for theirs. Mutual respect doesn’t depend on how someone identifies. Communicate with a potential sexual partner in the moment. If they are safe and OK to be with you sexually, it’s OK to do what you want and don’t want. Period.
Isn’t it OK to push just a little to try to persuade someone to go further? I’m not going to force someone, of course, but what if they just need a little convincing?
Nope. Not OK to push even just a little. The need for any sort of persuasion makes the situation nonconsensual. Coercion, or saying things like “C’mon, it’ll feel good,” “Just relax, don’t worry about it,” “If you like me you’ll do this,” or “Everyone does this, what’s wrong with you?” is not consent. Adding social power or leverage to the dynamic is also not consent. Saying things like “C’mon, don’t you want to be first pick of the team next year? You know I’m the captain,” “If you don’t do this, I’ll have to post those pictures you sent me,” or “You don’t want everyone to know you’re gay, do you?” is not consent. It is coercive and exploitive. It is manipulative, unhealthy, bullyish, and disrespectful to pressure someone into second-guessing themselves and compromising their emotional and physical safety; if taken too far it can even constitute assault.
Can consensual sex be regrettable?
Yes. If consent is asked for and given, without the influence of substances, the impairment of a mental or physical disability, coercion or age disparity (one partner is over eighteen, the other is under eighteen), then the sex is legal. Just because the sex is legal, however, doesn’t mean it’s right. If it isn’t consented to for the right reasons—for instance, someone wasn’t ready, the sex wasn’t physically or emotionally safe, or someone else’s well-being is impacted (like a friend is betrayed)—someone may regret having participated in it. Legal sex is not necessarily ethical or “good” sex. Ethical sex is legal and takes into account the well-being of the participants and others who may be impacted by their actions. Good sex is legal, ethical, and feels pleasurable and satisfying for both partners. To avoid regrettable albeit consensual sex, make sure you choose to engage in sexual activity for your right reasons.
The authors of “NSFW” argue that safety has, in myriad ways, become a euphemism for the policy of filtering out or limiting access to sexual content online.
By: The Editors
The hashtag #NSFW (not safe for work) acts as both a warning and an invitation. NSFW tells users, “We dare you to click on this link! And by the way, don’t do it until after work!” Unlike the specificity of movie and television advisories (“suggestive dialogue,” “sexual content”), NSFW signals, nonspecifically, sexually explicit content that ranges from nude selfies to pornography. But Susanna Paasonen, Kylie Jarrett, and Ben Light, the authors of “NSFW: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media,” argue that when applied across the board to all kinds of sexual images and formations, “the tag NSFW flattens crucial differences between them under the opaque blanket of offensiveness, riskiness, and unsafety that it connotes.” They maintain that if we are to envision social media ecologies capable of accommodating sexuality as a field of pleasure, communication, occupation, and world-making, it is crucial to resist categorical effacement of sexually suggestive and explicit content.
We asked Paasonen, Jarrett, and Light about how subjectivity and politics contribute to the nuances of what is designated “not safe for work,” how the hashtag reinforces our culture of heterosexism, and about its effects on the careers of sex workers across social media platforms.
The MIT Press Reader: Invariably, the topic of “dick pics” comes up when discussing content marked #NSFW. But all bodies — and body parts — are not treated equally, as you demonstrate in the book. For example, male bodies are commonly used for humorous, gross-out content while female bodies are objectified for pornographic consumption. How else does the NSFW tag reflect heterosexism, and how does this relate to other interactions online?
The Authors: There is a very binary, heterosexist division concerning what bodies, and which parts of them, are seen as “sexy” and hence what is considered “NSFW” and needing policing. For example, image recognition software is developed to recognize bits of female bodies (and, in particular, those of white and young women) as NSFW; Tumblr banned “female-presenting nipples;” and Facebook of course has been battling displays of female breasts throughout its history, but topless images of men have never been subject to governance. These different designations as gross or titillating reflect and reproduce traditional gender and sexual norms and their troubling politics. The book also digs into sexism and online misogyny at some length when talking about forms of online labor (of the non-sexual kind) and how it turns unsafe. One of our central aims is to shift discussions concerning safety from sexual content to issues of consent and agency more broadly. A dick pic, for example, may come across as gross and offensive to some but it can equally amuse, bemuse, or sexually arouse. It can appear from virtually thin air or be connected to playful flirtation with someone very specific. Considering all this in a default framework of normative conceptions of heterosexual desire doesn’t quite cut it.
The Reader: Hunter Moore, creator of the revenge-porn website “Is Anyone Up?,” came under heavy criticism for the distribution of non-consensual content. Yet, despite its problematic format, the website generated enough monthly ad revenue for Moore to quit his job. How can we govern safe, consensual NSFW content without employing the tricky boundaries of surveillance that defines sex as the inherent problem?
The Authors: We are very much concerned with consent: who consents to what content being available to whom, and so forth. This is where ethical discussions concerning sexual representations and exchanges need to start rather than in rigid taxonomies based on a puritanical idea of what is “normal.” The DIY generation of NSFW content is mundane, widespread, and we’d be hard-pressed indeed to label it as a problem as such. The concern lies in the shaming attached to nude selfies — or, in the case of revenge porn, to their use as weapons of humiliation and blackmail. The questions as to why “NSFW” is so concerned with sex over violence or hate, for example, and how risk becomes inextricably tied in with sex by default may seem simple but are actually rather complex. One very practical way forward is for us all to continue to educate ourselves and others about sex, gender, and sexuality, how it operates in society, and the diversity and complexity of this for different groups of people at various stages in their lives.
The Reader: You mention the controversy over Illma Gore’s painting of a nude Donald Trump — that, despite concealing his genitalia, the image was removed from Facebook and the artist was accused of violating eBay’s service policy on nudity. In what ways do subjectivity and politics also contribute to the nuances of what is designated “not safe for work”?
The Authors: It is likely that Gore’s portrait was flagged by offended users, and that this happened multiple times on more than one platform. Whether these users were offended by the image per se or its implicit politics is not clear. The boundaries of offensive content are porous at best and Facebook, for example, tends to filter more rather than less in the name of a very particular definition of safety and community standards. The content policies and standards articulated, by necessity, are ephemeral and allow plenty of room for interpretation. But from our analysis (and personal experiences being banned for trying to share material for this book), on Facebook these standards tend to be particularly conservative about sexual content. The politics and impacts of having political content banned are more complex. Technically, public status should make people easier targets for critique and satire and there certainly isn’t anything in community standards to suggest otherwise. The Trump “micropenis” portrait was a provocation, but it was also a very successful one, not least because of its NSFW status. Recurrent news of Gore being banned and the image removed circulated broadly an added to the project’s overall visibility. Having your content flagged as NSFW can also attach an extra frisson to the image and thus, ironically, ensure its greater circulation. This is a well-known maneuver associated with media historically. For example, in 1983, the U.K. band Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s release of the sexually provocative single “Relax” was accompanied with advertising in the U.K. press which led to it being banned on BBC Radio and on the BBC TV show, “Top of the Pops,” for some time, while simultaneously reaching number one in the U.K. Charts. These ongoing examples of strategies and tactics viz NSFW content illustrate the importance of considering how agency is wielded by ‘all sides,’ with significance for how we might understand the circulation of contemporary online political content such as online petitions, hate speech, and fake news.
The Reader: Another interesting issue you bring up with this tag is how it affects the careers of sex workers across social media platforms. Such obstacles include locked or deleted Google Drive files, Patreon’s refusal to support pornographic channels, and Microsoft’s prohibition of nudity on Skype. How are sex workers and companies addressing this problem that labels sex as “not safe for work” when it is, in fact, their work?
The Authors: Sex workers, in general, have little say in any of this. Data giants articulate their own policies (where sex and porn are mostly framed as problematic, offensive, and best removed) while the U.S. FOSTA/SESTA bills in particular have given rise to serious legal limitations for platforms in connection with commercial sex. Patreon used to be central in the economy of amateur and micro porn, yet the bills forced a change to this policy, just as it has forced platforms to close down sex worker ads and discussion forums on sex work safety. Sex workers, though, do continue to work politically against such laws and to organize and provide support online. Working outside U.S. law, Uglymugs is one such example, which allows U.K. and Irish sex workers to share information and support resources, including the generation of bad dates lists. Sex workers are very active in challenging and circumventing policies that impact their work.
The Reader: Tumblr recently did a massive purge of anything they deemed “explicit content.” A lot of users are unhappy with their profiles being policed in this manner, especially when arguably tame content — like a bare shoulder — can be flagged as NSFW. Given how quickly information can spread across the Internet, do you think it’s necessary to be cautious and implement these algorithms despite their flaws, or is there a more pragmatic approach?
The Authors: The main rationale behind Tumblr’s content ban was to have it available through the Google Play and App Store that do not allow for sexually explicit content. Tumblr had been having degrees of trouble with child porn, though, and not enough had been done to weed it out (which is ironic, in a way, since effective image recognition tools are available for this and broadly used). In response, they abruptly went the other way, filtering anything from images of sea life to ones with Donald Duck reading bedtime stories to his nephews, or black women posing fully dressed. Most importantly, the diverse sexual and gender-nonconforming communities that had thrived on Tumblr suddenly found themselves ousted and their archives inaccessible. The decision has made no sense financially as Tumblr’s value has since plummeted parallel to the drop in its user base. Ironically, NSFW content was making the site more economically secure. The recent history of Tumblr exemplifies the arguments of our book really well as the ban centered on a view of sexuality as lacking in value but, at the same time, revealed just how important it is to the flows of attention that comprise the digital economy.
Same-sex sexual behavior might have started out on an equal footing with different-sex sex.
Evolutionary scientists have been thinking about same-sex sexual behavior all wrong.
That’s the implication of a new study on same-sex behavior in animals. Instead of asking why animals engage in same-sex behavior (SSB), researchers should be asking, “Why not?” the authors said.
If they’re right, same-sex sex may not have evolved independently in different animals for adpative reasons. Instead, same-sex sex may have emerged very early in time and could persist simply because engaging in it doesn’t cost animals much, evolutionarily speaking.
“Usually, when evolutionary biologists see a trait that’s really widespread across evolutionary lineages, we at least consider the idea that the trait is ancestral and was preserved in all those lineages,” said Julia Monk, a doctoral candidate at Yale University, who co-authored the new research. “So why hadn’t people considered that hypothesis for SSB?”
In evolutionary science, same-sex sexual behavior has long been viewed as a conundrum: Why would animals spend time and energy doing something sexual that won’t pass along their genes to the next generation? And yet, same-sex sexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species, ranging from lowly squash bugs to humans.
(To avoid anthropomorphizing, the researchers don’t use the terms “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “gay” or “straight” to refer to animal behavior.)
“We can’t assign sexuality to animals — we’re trying our best to learn about them by observing their behaviors,” Monk told Live Science. “And those behaviors shouldn’t be mapped onto human cultural and societal contexts.”
The assumption that there must be an evolutionary reason for all this same-sex sex has led researchers to search for possible benefits to same-sex behavior. For example, in humans, researchers have found that having a gay son or brother seems to be associated with a womanhaving more offspring in total. Other studies have posited that same-sex sexual behavior is a side effect ofother genes that have reproductive benefits.
In evolutionary biology, the ability of an animal to reproduce given its environment is called fitness. It’s entirely possible that in some species, same-sex sex could have fitness benefits, Monk and her colleagues wrote in their paper, published Nov. 18 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. But these evolutionary benefits may not be required for same-sex sexual behavior to exist.
Imagine, instead, that the earliest sexually reproducing animals simply tried to mate with any and all members of their species — regardless of sex. This might have been a logical pathway for evolution, because all the bells and whistles that distinguish males from females are energetically costly to evolve. So any effort expended on mating with the same sex would be compensated for by not spending energy evolving and maintaining distinctive secondary sex characteristics, like differing colors, scents and behaviors. Those sex-distinguishing traits may have all come later in the evolutionary chain, the authors argued.
In this formulation, same-sex and different-sex sexual behavior would have started out on an equal footing, early in animal evolution. This could explain why same-sex sex is so common throughout the animal kingdom: It didn’t evolve multiple times independently, but was instead part of the fabric of animal evolution from the start.
The new hypothesis undercuts old assumptions about same-sex behaviors, said Caitlin McDonough, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University and a study co-author. Much of the research done on these sexual behaviors assumes that same-sex sex is costly for animals and that different-sex sex is not costly, she said.
“You really need to go through those assumptions and test the costs and benefits of both behaviors in a system,” McDonough said.
If same-sex behaviors go back to the roots of animal evolution, the fact that these behaviors are so common today makes sense, Monk said.
“If you assume a trait like SSB is a new development and has high costs, it’s going to be really hard to understand how it could become more and more common from those low initial frequencies,” she said. “It would have to have really large fitness benefits, or be otherwise impervious to natural selection, for that outcome to be probable.
“On the other hand, if you assume a trait is ancestral and was originally common, and it has low costs, it’s much more likely that it would remain widespread to this day, even if it doesn’t seem to contribute much to fitness.”
One piece of evidence supporting this hypothesis is that some echinoderms, including sea stars and sea urchins, engage in same-sex sexual behavior. Echinoderms evolved early in the history of life, likely in the Precambrian period more than 541 million years ago.
But other evidence is slim, largely because scientists haven’t systematically studied same-sex sexual behavior in animals. Most observations have been accidental, and biologists have often viewed sex between two animals of the same sex as irrelevant or improper to note, Monk said. Sometimes, researchers automatically assume that same-sex behavior isn’t really about sex but instead is about dominance or bonding. And often, if two animals are observed having sex, they’re assumed to be male and female without any confirmatory evidence, McDonough said.
“The science that we do is really informed and influenced by cultural biases,” she said.
Thinking of same-sex sexual behavior as a standard part of the animal repertoire would change how researchers approach the study of the evolution of these behaviors. The next step, Monk said, would be to gather more data on the prevalence of same-sex behavior in animals. Then, researchers could compare species from across the tree of life to determine if all linages show same-sex behavior. If so, it would strengthen the argument that same-sex sexuality was part of life for the ancestors of all of today’s sexually reproducing animals.
It’s the second meeting of the Informed and In Charge program at Western High School, and today’s activity is called the “sexuality wall.”
The gist is pretty straightforward: At one end of the classroom is a big sheet of paper with “Sexuality?” written in blue marker. “Write down as many different terms regarding sexuality, regarding identity, regarding gender, as you may have heard,” the instructor, Sinai Torrejon, asks the class.
A mix of around 20 students from different grade levels — wearing tank tops and wide-legged pants, ripped jeans and hoodies, false eyelashes and no makeup — grab markers and get to work. They chat among themselves. “I wrote pan — pansexual,” one says. “Asexual means you don’t like nothing, you don’t have those feelings,” explains another.
The students seem calm and comfortable. Though they take the activity seriously, they’re also having fun with it: One of them uses several different markers to write “bisexual” and “lesbian” in letters that look three-dimensional, like they’re popping off the paper.
In fact, the whole classroom has a relaxed feel. The students sit on plastic chairs, not traditional desks. A table at the front holds prizes the teens can win in icebreaker games, like makeup brushes and stickers. One girl casually eats from a container of instant ramen. This is Southern California after all, where open-mindedness and chill are branded exports.
When they’re finished, Torrejon helps the students — all part of a dropout prevention program at Western called the Independent Learning Center — define the terms on the wall. LGBTQ+, she explains, “is a term that is trying to be inclusive of all the other identities and sexualities that there are.” Queer, she says, “can be used as a slur or as a derogatory term,” but now some in the LGBTQ+ community are “taking ownership of that word.”
Next, they move into a discussion of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sex.
“Can someone else tell you what your gender identity is?” Torrejon asks.
“No,” several students say.
“Is it okay to not be 100 percent sure yet?”
“Yes!” is the enthusiastic response from the class.
A bit later, Torrejon tells the class, “You are your own person. You are unique. You are perfect the way you are.”
Welcome to the future of sex education in America. California wants to lead the way.
But even in one of the bluest of blue states, where just about 32 percent of voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2016, programs like the one at Western are getting backlash. In 2016, the state passed a law requiring that schools offer LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed with lessons on gender identity and expression as well as materials on HIV prevention and healthy relationships. Last year, the state released draft guidelines aimed at helping schools put the law into practice, and since then, parents have been pushing back — with some even taking their kids out of public schools so they don’t receive the new sex ed.
The day before Torrejon gave her lesson about gender and sexuality, parents, advocates, and even students protested outside their legislators’ offices around the state, demanding a repeal of the law. One parent, Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, called it “a cognitive behavior modification program to sexualize and groom your children” at a protest not far from Western.
What’s happening in California is a version of a conflict that’s likely to ramp up around the country in coming years. What some parents and conservative groups call “indoctrination,” sex education advocates call changing the world: teaching students to respect each other’s identities and autonomy in ways they hope will lead to less sexual assault, harassment, and homophobia in society at large.
As Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at the nonprofit SIECUS (until recently known as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), told me: “We like to frame sex education as a vehicle for social change.”
The movement toward an education based on acceptance over abstinence
For many people in their 30s and older, the phrase “sex education” probably conjures up images of an awkward assembly in a high school gym, if it conjures up any images at all. Picture Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years, watching his gym teacher trying to draw a diagram of the female reproductive system, but instead scrawling something that looks like a cow.
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic inspired states to get more serious about sex ed, and by the 1990s, most states required some form of HIV/AIDS education. But conservatives almost immediately pushed back, calling for sex education to focus on abstinence, and the messages students got about sex could be confusing — even in California.
As a high school student in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I remember getting a classroom visit from a man living with HIV who helped demystify the virus and talked about prevention. I also attended an assembly led by a woman who said that every time you have sex, it’s like putting a piece of tape on your arm and ripping it off, until the tape — which represents you — is covered in hair, disgusting and useless. This, I later learned, is a common abstinence-based lesson.
One big problem with abstinence-only, though, is there’s no evidence that it works. As Aaron E. Carroll reported at the New York Times in 2017, several studies have found no effect of such an approach on teen sexual activity. It also doesn’t teach students what they need to know about contraception and sexual health if they do decide to have sex.
That’s why sexual health advocates around the country have backed comprehensive sex education for years. Truly comprehensive sex ed should include information on abstinence, but also on sexually transmitted infections and contraception, Driver told me. Lessons should be inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. And it’s not just about avoiding pregnancy and STIs — comprehensive sex ed, Driver said, should also include lessons on healthy relationships, consent, and decision-making, as well as analysis of cultural norms and values around sex and sexuality.
Sex education can be a “powerful vehicle to change societal norms,” Driver said (SIECUS recently made this concept part of its name, rebranding as SIECUS: Sex Ed For Social Change). For example, the rise of the Me Too movement has sparked “a lot of conversations about consent,” she said. But “very few people can articulate what consent looks like.”
By contrast, “what would a world look like if everyone had comprehensive sex education?” Driver asks. “How would the Me Too movement look very differently?”
California might be about to find out. The state has been on the forefront of the movement toward more comprehensive sex education for years. In 2003, the state passed a law requiring that HIV prevention be taught in public schools, and that all sex education materials “be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.”
But critics said the law was too vague, and in 2016, the state implemented the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), which requires that students get sex education that includes information on HIV and pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, gender identity, and more — including abstinence — at least once in junior high and once in high school. All course materials must be medically accurate, and discussions of relationships must be inclusive of same-sex couples.
Since then, school districts around the state have been updating their curricula to comply with the law. For example, Anaheim Union High School District, which includes Western High School and about 16 other junior high and high schools, added lessons on human trafficking and gender identity expression to its high school health curriculum to comply with the law, said Patty Hatcher, a health curriculum specialist with the district.
In many districts, like Anaheim Union, California students get sex education from their health teachers. But some districts also bring in visiting teachers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Girls Inc., a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to fostering the health and education of girls. In many cases, the visitors supplement what the district is already doing. But when there’s no one trained on staff, the outside groups may provide all the sex education required by the state.
Over the course of about 12 class periods, the Girls Inc. program teaches students about menstruation, birth control, STI prevention, sexual harassment, consent, dating violence, and more. Classes are open to anyone who identifies as a girl, no questions asked, according to Jessica Hubbard, director of program services for the Orange County branch of Girls Inc. The organization doesn’t offer an equivalent program for boys, but at Western Independent Learning Center, where most classes are online, students of all genders may also take an online health class that includes sex education.
About 25 miles away in Irvine, also part of Orange County, the district adopted Teen Talk, a research-based curriculum for students of all genders that covers anatomy, STIs, pregnancy prevention, and body image, among other topics. It also includes one lesson specifically devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, which “does a great job in dispelling myths and stereotypes” like the idea that being gay is a choice, Kelli Bourne, who is in her 14th year of teaching health science at Lakeside Middle School, told Vox. But it also uses language throughout that’s inclusive of all orientations and identities: “Teen Talk does not favor one type of relationship over another,” she said.
Overall, the goal of Teen Talk is to “drive home to kids that there is a range of values” when it comes to sex, Bourne said. And values — whether something is okay or not okay — are at the root of a lot of questions students ask in class, she said.
When it comes to sex and sexuality, Bourne explains to students, some people believe one thing, and others believe something else. Ultimately, “it’s up to you to decide what you believe,” she said, “with input from your parents and your family.”
Conservative pushback is mostly about LGBTQ inclusivity
About a month into the school year, around 20 people gather outside Assembly member Tom Daly’s office, about 10 miles from Western High School. These are the families in Orange County who feel that, despite what programs like Teen Talk say, they’re not getting enough input. They feel their kids are learning values at odds with their own.
At the latest of several “Sex Ed Sit Outs” to protest the law, parents hoist handmade signs with messages like “education not indoctrinate” and “no gender ID ideology.” Some have brought their kids, who play on the grassy median strip next to the sidewalk. A few older students take a more active role.
One first-year high schooler, for example, holds a cardboard sign reading, “AB 329 is a sexual grooming program.” He is here with his mom, but he tells me he also believes that the sex education law violates freedom of religion. “It’s either you’re a girl or you’re a boy,” he says. “That’s what I agree with.”
Meanwhile, many parents say CHYA violates their parental rights. “This law doesn’t respect our beliefs and rights as parents to teach our children how they should behave and live,” one mom, Ofelia Garcia, tells me.
“Even if I didn’t have any grandchildren or children, I would be doing this,” Garcia says. “As a daughter of God, this is to speak for my faith.”
Garcia says she’s against “the gender ideology” put forth by CHYA, and that she hopes the law will be revoked because “because otherwise our children are going to be against us.”
The fear that sex education will pull kids away from their parents is a common theme. So is a concern about lessons involving gender identity.
Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, for example, tells me she started homeschooling her son, a third-grader, after she found out his Anaheim elementary school was planning a Diversity Week but had not notified parents of content involving LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming people.
Students were going to read Jacob’s New Dress, a children’s book about a boy who wants to wear a dress to school, she said. “They had a whole series of things that they were going to do with the children but they were not going to disclose to the parents.”
Ellsworth-Lobatos also said teachers had been told “if a child is struggling with gender identity, not to notify the parents.” On the whole, she said, the school was “lack of transparency” and “parent alienation.”
The Anaheim Elementary School District (separate from Anaheim Union, which includes only junior high and high schools), however, says alienating children from their parents is the opposite of what it intends. “Clear communication with our families is paramount,” Elsa Covarrubias, the district’s director of communications, told me. She said it was absolutely not district policy to keep parents in the dark about children’s gender identity. “We are in contact with parents regarding anything that impacts their children,” she said.
Girls Inc. says it encourages students to talk to their parents about what they learn, and the group hosts evening events where parents can be more informed about the program. Also, CHYA requires that sex education in California encourage each student “to communicate with his or her parents, guardians, and other trusted adults about human sexuality.” And the law allows parents to opt their children out of sex education if they choose.
But parent protests have continued, heating up last year with the release of a state document called the Health Education Framework. The framework isn’t law or a required curriculum — instead, it is intended as guidance to help school districts develop curricula in line with CHYA. But parents soon began protesting My Princess Boy, a picture book about a boy who wears dresses and a tiara, and S.E.X: The All You Need to Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties, a book by the founder of the popular sexual health information site Scarleteen. Parents said the material was too explicit, and objected to teaching younger children about gender identity.
In May, the state removed six books, including My Princess Boy and S.E.X., from the framework, a final version of which is slated to be released early next year. But some parents were unsatisfied, and with the start of a new school year, protests began again.
However, Orange County is changing — the county went for Hillary Clinton in 2016; in 2018, Democrats flipped four congressional seats there, turning the county entirely blue. But in some ways, Anaheim feels more like middle America than like Los Angeles, less than 30 miles to the northwest. Near Assembly member Daly’s office, a Hooter’s restaurant advertised “Military Mondays.” And as protesters against the sex ed program lined the sidewalk, more than a few passing drivers honked in approval.
Orange County has always a specific brand of conservatism, though: It’s not the type of place where overtly anti-LGBTQ messages are always spoken out loud. Residents are used to having to curb their language for surrounding progressives. And Republicans in California aren’t known for holding particularly socially conservative views — residents sometimes use the term “California conservative” to refer to someone who’s liberal on social issues but favors low taxes and small government.
All that is to say that some of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by Republicans around the country — like former Virginia attorney general and recent Trump appointee Ken Cuccinelli, who has said that acts of homosexual sex are “against nature and are harmful to society” — are less common here. Aggressiveness is not the norm.
For example, most of the parents on the sidewalk on this September day say their opposition to CHYA is not about homophobia or transphobia, but about their desire to choose what their kids learn. “It’s not about hate or disliking or anything like that,” Ellsworth-Lobatos says. “It’s about my parental rights and what I want to teach my child.”
Then again, there is a minority that imparts a more direct message. At a forum on CHYA held by the Anaheim Republican Assembly the night before the protest, Arthur Schaper, an activist with the “pro-family” group MassResistance, referred to the law as the “California Unhealthy Perversion Act.”
“There has to be a culture shift in this state,” he told the crowd of a few dozen at a German restaurant not far from Daly’s office. “Being gay is not okay. Yes, I just said that. If I can’t say that in Anaheim, we’ve got a problem.”
The benefits of comprehensive sex education are well-documented
What proponents of laws like CHYA have on their side is research and numbers. In California, a large majority of parents have historically supported comprehensive sex education — 89 percent, according to one 2006 survey. Nationally, most parents also support comprehensive sex education.
According to one 2017 study, more than 93 percent of American parents think it’s important to teach sex education in middle school and high school. Meanwhile, 92 percent of Democratic parents and 75 percent of Republican parents said high school sex education should include discussion of sexual orientation.
Unlike the abstinence-only approach, education like the kind students at Western and Lakeside get is also supported by research. Comprehensive sex education programs have been shown to reduce sexually transmitted infections and increase use of contraception — as well as reducing sexual activity, the goal of abstinence-only programs, Carroll reports at the Times.
And the benefits go beyond those typical markers of sexual health. “We know that comprehensive sex ed can help people develop healthier relationships” as well as helping them have “honest conversations with their parents about values,” Driver said.
There’s also evidence that sex education can help reduce sexual assault. One 2018 study found that students who received sex ed that included discussion of how to say no to unwanted sex were significantly less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault once they got to college. Abstinence-only sex education did not have the same effect.
While anti-sexual harassment advocates often emphasize teaching people not to commit harassment and assault, rather than teaching people to avoid it, there’s evidence that education can help in this way too. A 2015 study found that a middle-school program that taught communication and emotion management reduced instances of sexual harassment and homophobic name-calling at school.
Sex ed can also help to dismantle gender stereotypes. “With comprehensive sex ed, young people are able to reject or unlearn the harmful stereotype that depicts boys as constantly working to ‘score’ by having sex with girls and, conversely, depicts girls as non-sexual beings who are responsible for managing the behaviors of boys,” SIECUS communications manager Zach Eisenstein told me in an email. Some abstinence-only programs, he said, reinforce these stereotypes by comparing girls to Crock Pots (because they supposedly take a long time to “heat up”) and boys to microwaves (which heat up quickly).
When students learn that there are a variety of gender identities and expressions, they “are better suited to identify, question, and reject feeding into harmful gender stereotypes from the start,” Eisenstein said.
After the students at Western wrote terms on the sexuality wall, the class moved on to a discussion of the idea that girls like dolls and boys like action figures, or that girls should be pretty and boys should be strong.
“That language really does have an effect on us,” Torrejon told the class. “We absorb that and we internalize that, and then as we get older we kind of put those stereotypes on other people.”
Inclusive sex education can be especially protective for LGBTQ young people, Driver said. Research shows that when a school has an LGBTQ-inclusive sex education program in place, LGBTQ students are less likely to experience depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and bullying, she added.
Such education has benefits for all students, Driver said, including those who don’t identify as LGBTQ. “Students learn to value other people’s perspectives,” she explained. “They learn to value and have empathy for people who are different from them.”
For proponents of inclusive sex ed, this is the goal: for students to learn not just to protect themselves from STIs and unintended pregnancy, but to treat each other — and themselves — with care and respect. And if they get education like this now, the thinking goes, maybe when these kids become parents, they will be more accepting of their children’s identities and help them make informed choices. Homophobic views like those expressed by Schaper will be less common in the future.
While most parents are in favor of comprehensive sex ed, change is slow.
Despite the research supporting it, and the parents who want it, comprehensive sex ed still isn’t the norm in many places around the country. In part, that’s because education in America isn’t federally controlled. Even with a more supportive president than Trump, the White House only has so much influence over what goes on at the state and local levels. And at those levels, there are enough parents opposed to sex education — and enough conservative groups to back them up — to block a lot of attempts at change.
In other words, implementing comprehensive sex ed remains an uphill battle, but one a growing number of states feel is worth fighting.
Then again, if California has taken years to fully implement its 2016 law, change elsewhere in the nation is likely to move even more slowly. For example, when an Arizona school district considered implementing a comprehensive sex education curriculum called Rights, Respect, Responsibility in 2018, the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel sent the district a cease and desist letter. The group said the school district was in violation of an Arizona law banning HIV/AIDS education that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.” The state repealed that law earlier this year, but such restrictions are still on the books in several states.
Because schools tend to be locally controlled, “there’s so much variation among what young people will receive” not just from state to state but from district to district, Driver said. In California, for example, while Anaheim has been on board with CHYA from the beginning, other nearby Orange County School districts delayed implementation, according to EdSource. And while Girls Inc. used to teach sex education across the county, districts started dropping the program when protests against CHYA started heating up. Now Anaheim is the only one left.
For opponents of CHYA and of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education more generally, these delays are a good thing. Education about sexual orientation and gender identity “should be done in the privacy of your home,” Ellsworth-Lobatos said.
But supporters of inclusive sex education say they’re not teaching kids ideology. They’re just respecting who their students are: nonbinary, male, female, gay, straight, asexual, or any of a variety of the above and beyond.
Sometimes sex education is a two-way street. During the class I visited at Western, students taught Torrejon the meanings of several terms, including “demi girl” and “demi boy,” which refer to people who are nonbinary but with some identification with the female or male gender. People who identify that way “use she/they pronouns or he/they pronouns,” a student explained to the class.
Torrejon says she sees the impact of the Girls Inc. program on the students she teaches: “They’re just so much more confident and comfortable within themselves” after the program, she said.
Like Bourne’s class, the program includes an anonymous question box, but students sometimes leave positive feedback instead. “Just hearing how appreciative they are for being able to learn all this, when they know the stigma on it otherwise, is the best feeling ever,” Torrejon said.
After the September class, I asked a few students what they’d learned. “I learned different types of sexualities and different pronouns,” one told me. “I didn’t really know that there [were] that many.”
Another student, a 17-year-old senior, told me he’d done a lot of online research about gender and sexuality in previous years because for a time, “I wanted to be male.” Today, he uses he/him pronouns but says, “I don’t label myself right now.”
Talking about sex and gender identity always makes him nervous, he told me. After class, he was still “a little bit” nervous, he said — “but a lot less.”
My first foray into BDSM left me covered in bruises and smiling like a moron. I had been in recovery for opioid addiction for 18 months. It was okay. I felt stable. I also felt unbelievably bored. Dealing with my problems in healthy ways was a major joykill. Partying had been a pretty big time killer for me, and without it, life felt a little too smooth jazz. Kink quickly transformed those instrumentals, spinning them into a welcome chaos of pain and pleasure.
There was hair-pulling and roughhousing and ropes tugging and restricting me in all the best ways. My brain lit up, sending danger signals to my body. Adrenaline pulsed. For me, it was exactly the right amount of scary. For the first time in ages, I felt alive.
I was glad to not be strung out on pills, but I was also scared that I had burned out my joy receptors in some irreparable way. Life was a vast grey expanse of whatever. I was a freshly single sober adult living in New Orleans, the drunkest city on earth. It felt like not getting fucked up was really fucking up my life. Life felt serious and hard and I needed a jolt of excitement to remind me why my life was worth getting sober for. I found it in kink.
I purposefully dated others who’d gone through recovery and were sober, but that was unbearably awkward. Sober folks can be really neurotic. I know, because I’m one of them. When you stop blunting all your emotions with substances, you really start noticing how often you’re anxious. And there’s no pink wine to take the edge off of dating and having sex with a new person. I was fine with kisses and make-outs, but when things got hot, I would start to shut down.
Once my clothes came off, I would get locked in to a self-conscious mind loop. Honestly, I had had sober sex so rarely in my life at that point that it seemed like it might be impossible. How was I supposed to get naked with strangers without liquid- or pill-fueled courage? I was pretty sure that my sober life was going to be a sexless and joyless purgatory.
When I first started seeing a sober person who was into kink, I was kind of scared. Like actually frightened of injury. I’d never had particularly kinky sex before. My neurosis looped, full-force, in relentless questions. Was he violent? What if I let him tie me up and he really hurt me? Do people really use whips and chains? What if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t know how to do BDSM right? But, like I said, I was bored, curious and I liked him, so I went for it.
You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.
Most of the things that I did with that partner wouldn’t seem that kinky to someone into fetish, but it was all new to me. My partner loved rope and showed me enough to whet my thirst for knowledge. I fell in love with Shibari, Japanese rope bondage. It’s methodical and beautiful. Ropes are tied, checked, re-tied. You must be careful not to compress nerve bundles. Because there is some risk of injury, rope play requires deep communication skills. You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.
But Shibari is only one modality among many styles of rope play. And rope play is only one practice in the giant world of BDSM. And BDSM is only a subset of kink. What I’m saying, is that there’s a whole sexual world out there that I didn’t know about.
It’s not just me; this is a bona fide trope. Folks in the recovery community are forever extolling the virtues of kink. “BDSM is a way that I can get all the chemicals in my brain revving. It’s somewhat risky but it’s surrounded on all sides by boundaries and negotiations,” Keener, a kinky sober person in NYC told The Fix.
BDSM gave me a way to channel my sexual anxiety into a power negotiation with another person that, in turn, reshapes some of my anxiety into excitement. Sex went from being stressful to being a dopamine rush, which is how it’s supposed to be. Addiction acclimated my brain to higher levels of risk and relief than the average non-addicted person. I didn’t want the actual risk that goes along with using, but I didn’t want to hate my life either. Finding kink showed me a world that was shiny black leather instead of existential grey.
For many of us, sex ed doesn’t end in high school. It’s not unusual to have to do some serious work decades after the first mention of the birds and the bees––often to try to repair the harm that was done back then.
That’s the focus of a recent study, published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education, which asked nearly 200 women to share the types of messages they’d received about sex and sexuality when they were growing up. And the vast majority of them had only negative experiences to report.
Think of all the crappy messages you’ve received about sex and your body over the years, and you’ll relate: you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, having sex during your period is disgusting, masturbation is shameful. Those messages may come from direct conversations with parents, educators, or religious leaders, or they may come from the mass media, such as Facebook, YouTube, or chat rooms.
Wherever they stem from, their impact can be long-lasting. It’s not too much of a leap to connect negative messages about sex to difficulty reaching orgasm, body image issues, a lifeless libido, and less satisfying sex in general.
For the study, participants were asked to share memorable messages they received about reproductive and/or sexual health, and their responses prove just how crucial those early messages about sex are.
One participant said they “…wish that I wouldn’t have been taught about sex as if it were a bad thing, from my school.” Another revealed that her first encounter with shame around sex came when she had chlamydia in her early 20s, and the reaction of a family member made her feel “ashamed and disgusted.”
Several participants shared negative experiences connected to strong religious-based abstinence messaging around sex. “‘Don’t have sex. If you have sex, you’re going to get pregnant and we’re going to kick you out.’ This was my sex talk from my parents,” said one. “This stuck with me for years and still does.”
But the sole aim of the study wasn’t to remind women of just how much negativity they absorbed about sex. Study authors also share different ways to combat any unfavorable lingering feelings. When the women were asked what helps them develop more positive attitudes to their sex lives, here are the four main takeaways.
Having open dialogues about sex
Many participants said the “main catalyst” for a more positive attitude toward their own sexuality was having honest conversations with friends and family, as well as hearing more discussions about sex in society in general. One participant said she had “lost some of the shame associated with menstruation and sexual health” as a result of “growing older, educating myself, and falling into fairly liberal, well-educated friendship circles.”
Getting more (and better) sex ed
Many interviewees said their perceptions of sex, health, and their bodies improved thanks to further education about sex, menstruation, fertility, and reproductive health. “This education was often initiated by the individual and included conducting independent research, asking questions of friends, family, and medical practitioners, and reading further into topics on websites, blogs, and in books,” the researchers write.
Becoming body positive
A big part of sexual empowerment for the study participants came from working on developing body comfort and acceptance and autonomy. “This paradigm shift toward empowerment often stemmed from participants educating themselves about their bodily functions,” the researchers write.
“My perspective about menstruation and reproductive health has changed over time,” said one participant. “I now see them as amazing biological functions that are a testament to how impressive the human body is, thanks to friends who have empowered me to embrace my own fertility.”
Ditching gender stereotypes
The women in the study felt more positively about their bodies, sexual health, and sex in general when they questioned traditional beliefs about womanhood and femininity, as well as challenged stereotypical gender roles.
It’s undeniable that young women need positive messages about reproductive and sexual health as part of their upbringing. Perhaps a good starting point would be for every parent, educator and religious institution to get a copy of this study.
Research presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality annual conference last week found that bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships who are out to their parents have lower rates of sexual satisfaction than if they aren’t out.
The study also found that rates of sexual satisfaction and romantic satisfaction were actually higher for the partners of bisexual people who feel “more negative towards their identity.”
Researchers suggest that this sexual and romantic dissatisfaction comes from the fear of bi-erasure — or the “unique form of minority stress related to the erasure of their identity” as a bisexual person.
The myth that bisexual people don’t exist might seem absurd, but is more commonly accepted than you may think. And when bisexual people engage in relationships with people of different genders, that myth can contribute to the erasure of their identity entirely.
For example, a bisexual woman dating a man might face a common form of “minority stress” called bi-erasure — or the fear that someone’s identity as a bisexual person might be ignored and they might be thought of as straight — just because she is in a relationship with a man.
While bi-erasure can have a variety of negative social impacts on bisexual people, including exclusion from LGBTQ spaces, isolation, and a feeling of invalidation, researchers found that it can have a tangible impact on their sex life as well.
New findings presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality annual conference last week found that for bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships, rates of sexual satisfaction were actually lower if they were out to their family, friends, and partners. However, the study also found that partners of bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships reported higher levels of sexual and romantic satisfaction when their partners were out.
Researchers tie these results to the internal conflict bi-erasure creates for bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships.
Bisexual people in mixed-gender relationships who were out to their families had lower rates of sexual satisfaction than those who weren’t
The study surveyed 142 mixed-gender couples, each composed of one bisexual person and one person who does not identify as bisexual. The couples on average had been together for 5 years, were 30-years-old at the time of the survey, and were primarily white.
Participants answered a series of questions about overall levels of sexual and romantic satisfaction with their partners. The results showed that factors such as whether bisexual participants felt their identities were recognized, whether bisexual partners were out to their families and friends, and how they felt about their own identity all had a strong impact on the level of sexual and romantic satisfaction of both partners.
Bisexual participants who felt that their identities were not seen reported lower rates of sexual satisfaction. Those who were out to their families also reported lower rates of sexual and romantic satisfaction.
Researcher Laura Vowels said the link between participants being out to family members and lower rates of sexual satisfaction could possibly be attributed to family members being unaccepting of participants’ identity as bisexual, which in turn leads to sexual and romantic dissatisfaction.
The study showed surprising results about the level of sexual and romantic satisfaction for non-bisexual participants
While bisexual participants across the board reported lower rates of sexual satisfaction when they were out to their families and felt that their identity was not seen, Vowels was surprised at the findings about their non-bisexual partners.
“If the bisexual partner felt more negative towards their identity, then their partner experienced higher levels of sexual satisfaction,” Vowels said.
Vowel said this might be connected to non-bisexual partners feeling insecure about their partners leaving them due to the stereotype that bisexual people are promiscuous and always looking for another relationship.
While the study is relatively small, the conclusions illustrate the tangible impacts that biphobia may have on the lives of bisexual people and their partners.