Drugs and alcohol complicate sexual consent,

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but context can make things clearer

High time to talk about consent.

By and

Sexual consent is an important, complex and often awkward topic to talk about. And when people have been consuming alcohol or other drugs, it makes negotiating sexual consent even more complicated. Indeed, drawing the line between consensual sex and assault when a complainant is heavily intoxicated is a particularly difficult area of law.

What is clear though, is that context matters. The gender of the people having sex, their sexuality, the nature of their relationship and how they became intoxicated – whether willingly or unwillingly – all shape the judgements that we make about intoxicated consent.

The importance of context was brought to the forefront in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the so-called “feminist sex wars” divided Western academics who were interested in gender equality. The debates were dominated by arguments over pornography and sex work, but the issue of sexual consent – and what it means for women living in a patriarchal society – was always present.

Context and consent

Influential legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon drew attention to society being organised in such a way that men hold the power; women’s consent and sexuality is, to some extent, conditioned and controlled by these power structures. MacKinnon’s contemporary, Andrea Dworkin, took this argument further. She claimed that women’s subordination underpins male sexual desire.

So, to give and receive consent meaningfully, there needs to be an awareness of the power dynamics at play, and the impact they have on the relationships among people. This raises questions about just how meaningful women’s sexual consent can be under patriarchy. When women are not on an equal footing with men, are they really “free” to make choices about sex with those men?

Others have highlighted the role that sexuality plays in shaping mainstream views about sexual consent. For example, anthropologist Gayle Rubin has argued that historically, sexual consent has been a privilege afforded only to those who engage in socially accepted (or even socially encouraged) sexual behaviour – that is, heterosexual, monogamous, procreative sex. In the UK, as recently as 1997, the age of consent was higher for same sex sexual activity than it was for heterosexual sex. So, even if individuals were freely choosing such sexual activity, their consent was not legally recognised.

Assumptions around gender and sexuality also affect the way people think about intoxicated sexual consent today. For example, consider the public response to the so-called chemsex phenomenon: chemsex refers to the intentional use of drugs – often methamphetamine, GHB and mephedrone – to enhance and prolong sexual encounters between men who have sex with men.

Chemsex has largely been portrayed as a public health crisis, with an emphasis on the potential for the transmission of HIV. Yet little attention is paid to the sexual violence and exploitation men might well experience in chemsex settings. By contrast, when chemsex is discussed in relation to heterosexual people, the issue of sexual consent moves to the forefront.

A worldwide survey

It’s useful to reflect on how categories such as gender and sexuality – and indeed race, ability and social class – might affect the way intoxication and sexual consent are talked about and understood. But while these categories are important, they are not enough to explain why certain intoxicated sexual experiences are perceived by those involved as consensual, and others not.

Based on an earlier project, for which Aldridge spoke with a diverse group of people who had had sex on drugs, it seems that in order to understand the complexity of intoxicated consent, it’s necessary to probe further into the specific contextual elements of sex on drugs. That might include the settings in which this activity takes place (sex club, house party, music festival), the type of drug being consumed (MDMA, cannabis, alcohol) and the nature of relationship between those having sex (one-night stand, long-term relationship, group sex).

Intoxicated consent can be negotiated successfully, but understanding how these other contextual factors affect sexual relationships is vital to addressing situations where it’s not. At present, only a fraction of sexual assault incidents are reported and even fewer result in convictions.

In 2013, the Global Drug Survey began to explore people’s experiences of intoxicated sexual consent. Out of 22,000 people, 20% reported having had been taken advantage of while intoxicated, while 5% said that this had happened in the last year. What’s more, 14% reported that they had been given drugs or alcohol by someone who intended to take advantage of them.

This year, the Global Drugs Survey is delving deeper. Researchers will be collecting contextual information from people who have been taken advantage of while intoxicated, including where they were, who they were with, their relationship with the person or people who took advantage of them and the type of drug they were using.

Cultural norms and tolerance for such behaviours vary between countries. Because the 2019 survey is translated into 22 languages, researchers will be able to compare outcomes across regions. The aim of this survey is to give a voice to those unable to speak out. The findings will be used to shape interventions that minimise harm and maximise support for people who have experienced sexual assault, while ensuring that perpetrators are correctly identified, and held responsible.

Take part in the 2019 Global Drugs Survey by clicking here.

Complete Article HERE!

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Sex Ed before college can prevent student experiences of sexual assault

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Students who receive sexuality education, including refusal skills training, before college matriculation are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college, according to new research published today in PLOS ONE. The latest publication from Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that sexuality education during high school may have a lasting and protective effect for adolescents.

The research found that students who received about how to say no to sex (refusal skills training) before age 18 were less likely to experience penetrative in . Students who received refusal skills training also received other forms of sexual education, including instruction about methods of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Students who received abstinence-only instruction did not show significantly reduced experiences of campus sexual assault.

“We need to start sexuality education earlier,” said John Santelli, MD, the article’s lead author, a pediatrician and professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “It’s time for a life-course approach to sexual assault prevention, which means teaching young people—before they get to college—about healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships, how to say no to unwanted sex, and how to say yes to wanted sexual relationships.”

The findings draw on a confidential survey of 1671 students from Columbia University and Barnard College conducted in the spring of 2016 and on in-depth interviews with 151 undergraduate students conducted from September 2015 to January 2017.

The authors found that multiple social and personal factors experienced prior to college were associated with students’ experience of penetrative sexual assault (vaginal, oral, or anal) during college. These factors include unwanted sexual contact before college (for women); adverse child experiences such as physical abuse; ‘hooking up’ in high school; or initiation of sex and alcohol or drug use before age 18.

Ethnographic interviews highlighted the heterogeneity of students’ sex education experiences. Many described sexuality education that was awkward, incomplete, or provided little information about sexual consent or sexual assault.

The research also found that students who were born outside of the United States and students whose mothers had lived only part of their lives or never lived in the U.S. had fewer experiences of penetrative sexual assault in college. Religious participation in did not prevent sexual assault overall, but a higher frequency of religious participation showed a borderline statistically significant protective association.

“The protective impact of refusal skills-based , along with previous research showing that a substantial proportion of students have experienced before entering college, underlines the importance of complementing campus-based prevention efforts with earlier refusal skills training,” said Santelli.

Complete Article HERE!

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How Sexual Assault Can Impact Your Physical Health, Even Years Later

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The body’s natural reaction to dealing with the trauma of sexual assault can have negative effects on a person’s long-term physical health.

Sexual assault can affect a survivor’s health in a number of ways.

by Leah Campbell

When Amber Stanley was 23 years old, a friend’s boyfriend raped her.

They had all been at a party together. She had fallen asleep in one of the spare rooms. When she woke up, he was on top of her.

“There were children asleep in the house, so I was afraid to scream,” she told Healthline. “I didn’t want to scare them or for them to see what was happening if they woke up.”

She told her friend what had happened the next day, and then went to the police. But there, she was essentially revictimized when the police officer with whom she filed her report questioned her story and credibility.

“He flat out told me that if he could prove I was lying, he would press charges against me. My rapist was in the army, a ‘national hero,’ so my word wasn’t good enough and he was never prosecuted,” she said.

Stanley says she’s been in therapy on and off for the last 13 years, trying to deal with what happened to her that night. And she still struggles with anxiety today.

“I don’t like feeling like I’m not in control of things. And I don’t like being around groups of people who are drinking, or alone at night doing things like shopping. I’m highly suspicious of strangers, even more so now that I have three daughters,” she said.

For Stanley, one of the worst nights of her life has turned into a lifelong struggle. And she’s not alone.

The many effects of sexual assault on health

A recent study presented at The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in October revealed that a history of sexual harassment was associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and clinically poorer sleep quality.

For survivors of sexual assault, there was an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, and sleep issues consistent with clinical disorders as well.

In other words, experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault contributed to negative long-term health outcomes for survivors.

Sexual assault survivor advocates also report that survivors may be more resistant to going to the dentist and doctor, as both can require a fair amount of trust and invasiveness. This can contribute to health complications as well.

Out of 300 study participants, 19 percent reported workplace sexual harassment, 22 percent reported a history of sexual assault, and 10 percent reported having experienced both.

In light of the recent #MeToo movement, those numbers are only surprising because of how low they are.

A national study on sexual harassment and assault released by the organization Stop Street Harassment in February 2018 reported that 81 percent of women would experience some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetime.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also reports that 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of contact sexual violence, and nearly two-thirds of college students will experience sexual harassment.

This means there are a lot of women potentially susceptible to a host of long-term health complications.

What experts say

Lisa Fontes, PhD, is a researcher, activist, author, and psychotherapist. She told Healthline that sexual assault and sexual harassment are both considered trauma. During trauma, the body releases hormones that help a person cope with the emergency.

“The body releases cortisol to avoid pain and inflammation, and it raises our blood sugar to help us flee from danger. Unfortunately, these physical responses become long-lasting for many survivors of sexual assault and harassment, contributing to poor health,” she said.

She explains sexual harassment is considered a “chronic stressor,” because it’s typically sustained over time. Child abuse and intimate partner sexual abuse also often involve repeated assaults, leading the survivor into a constant state of hyperalertness.

“Even a one-time sexual assault can produce long-term consequences as the survivor copes with intrusive memories that make her feel as if she is enduring parts of the assault again and again,” Fontes added.

Healthline also spoke to Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist. She talks about the repeated trauma that occurs even with singular assaults.

“You have the trauma at the time the event happens,” she explained. “Then if it’s reported, there is repeated trauma because you are talking about it and dealing with it again and again throughout the process of pursuing charges.”

But even for those who don’t report or press charges, the trauma can continue.

“For people who have children, we often see a flare-up of trauma when the child reaches the age they were at the time the assault occurred,” Ducharme explained. “And even for women who think they are fine, years down the line they may see a movie with a rape scene and suddenly feel like they want to throw up.”

A recent national survey estimates 81 percent of women will experience some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetime.

For many women, the recent #MeToo movement has proven to be empowering and healing. But for some, it’s resulted in having to relive those memories and experience the trauma all over again.

For those women, Ducharme suggests taking a break from media and considering a return to therapy.

“They may need to learn ways to manage the anxiety that can be triggered by some of this, and using mindfulness can be helpful,” she said. “I’m a huge believer in working with my clients to help them settle themselves down and be mindful and in the moment, trying to learn to stay present.”

“I don’t blame the #MeToo movement for the fact that we are hearing more about sexual assault these days,” Fontes added. “I blame the assailants and the years of cover-ups.”

Getting help

When asked what advice she would have for women struggling with the mental and physical health implications of their past experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault, Fontes said, “There is power and healing in numbers.”

If you’re currently struggling, Fontes suggests the following:

  • See if your local women’s crisis center has a discussion group you could join.
  • Seek psychotherapy.
  • Speak with trusted loved ones about how you’re feeling.

She says those who return to therapy may not need a lot of sessions — just a few to figure out how to cope with the new landscape.

“Sexual abuse is so common. There is no reason any woman has to feel like she is alone, or to suffer alone,” Fontes said.

Organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) can also provide resources and support. You can call RAINN’s 24/7 national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-4673 for anonymous, confidential help. You can also chat with them online.

Complete Article HERE!

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What the BDSM community can teach us about consent

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By Olivia Cassano

In heteronormative porn scripts, enthusiastic consent is about as common as a real female orgasm.

However, there’s a fringe of mainstream society that actually knows how to practise affirmative consent, and one from whom the general community could learn a thing or two: BDSM enthusiasts.

As it turns out, kinksters are the ones who have been doing sex right this whole time.

According to a recent survey conducted by the sexual health charity FPA (Family Planning Association), 47% of the 2,000 people surveyed think it’s OK for someone to withdraw consent if they are already naked, and only 13% said they would discuss issues of consent with a partner.

Too often in sexual encounters, consent is considered implicit: it’s rarely asked for, and sex continues until someone – usually the woman – says no.

However, in BDSM scenarios, only a clear, enthusiastic and ongoing ‘yes’ constitutes consent. There’s a big difference between our mainstream ‘no means no’ mentality and BDSM’s ‘yes means yes’ approach.

Speaking to Metro.co.uk, sex educator, queer porn maker and BDSM provider Pandora Blake explains that the absence of a ‘no’ isn’t enough to constitute consent.

‘We’re conditioned from a young age to not say no,’ Pandora tells us. ‘Women are socialised to be people-pleasing, and when you get into the habit of people-pleasing it can make it hard not only to say no but to even be in touch with what we want.’

Because BDSM is an umbrella term that encapsulates a wide spectrum of different activities, Blake explains that you can never assume what your partner will be keen on.

‘Saying “I’m into BDSM” doesn’t mean you’re going to know what the other person actually likes, and you have to talk through it to find out if you have any kinks in common.

‘In mainstream sex people think they know the script, and actually that script doesn’t work for a lot of people, but there’s this assumption that they know what sex is.’

In the BDSM scene, partners explicitly negotiate specific sex acts beforehand, rather than assuming it’s kosher until somebody says no. Because BDSM can be risky and push people’s comfort limits, those who practise it don’t just assume a partner will be okay with a certain act just because they haven’t said ‘no’.

‘Everybody who plays BDSM games has their own ways of keeping themselves safe, and there are different community standards which different people subscribe to,’ says Blake. ‘One of the mantras that people use is Safe, Sane and Consensual, which is the idea that any riskier activities are done in a way that minimises risk and is as safe as possible.

‘Sane refers to people’s abilities to give informed consent, so: are they in a state of mind where they’re able to look after themselves? Are they sober, for example? Are they going through a crisis in their life right now where they’d be inclined to make bad decisions?

‘Another system people use is Risk-Aware Consensual Kink, which makes slightly more space for risky activity, if they consent.’

BDSM is a subculture where consent and negotiation are normalised and accepted. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that compared to vanilla people, the kink community had significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming.

Another survey published in 2012 by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom also found that 85% of BDSM practitioners polled agreed with statements such as ‘a person can revoke consent at any time’, ‘consent should be an ongoing discussion in a relationship’, and ‘clear, overt consent must be given before a scene’. Over 93% of respondents endorsed the statement ‘consent is not valid when coerced’.

‘From pre-negotiations to post-mortems – just talking about things before, after and all the way throughout – it really just comes down to communication and making sure that everybody is on the same page,’ explains Blake.

‘Most consent violations happen because people are selfish and don’t have the communication tools to find out what’s going on with the other person, but most of us want to be having sex with people who genuinely want to be having sex with us.

‘There is nothing sexier than getting that information from your partner.’

Pleasure plays a huge part in consent, and heterosexual women are the ones who get the sh*t end of the stick in bed. While 95% of straight men regularly orgasm during sex, only 65% of straight women do. Society discourages us from talking about sex (ahem, prudes), making it harder for women especially to explore what they like in bed.

If we don’t encourage women to speak up about what they want in bed, how will we ever normalise affirmative consent?

‘This idea that consent is a contract is really pernicious,’ Blake says. ‘Consent is revocable and ongoing, and being encouraged to change your mind is necessary for consent. By saying you’ve changed your mind, you’re helping your partner respect your boundaries.’

‘Consent isn’t about just avoiding negative situations, it’s not about getting permission to do something, it’s an active process and collaboration between two people who respect each other to create the best experience for everyone involved.’

The same rules of engagement the BDSM community respects can easily be applied to vanilla encounters. Talking about what you want before, during and after a sexual encounter isn’t just necessary, but can be incredibly sexy too.

Asking and giving consent doesn’t have to be a formal sit down where you lay out all the things you’re ok and not ok with (although, if you want to do it that way, it’s perfectly cool).

In fact, foreplay and dirty talk are perfect ways to practice explicit consent. Asking things like ‘can I do X?’, ‘do you like it when I X?’, ‘I want to do X to you, do you want that?’ not only make the experience that much hotter, but they make sure you’re respecting your partner’s boundaries.

The only reason some people think of consent as a formal request for a sex, something that ruins the mood, is because in heteronormative, vanilla sex scenes, consent is rarely given as explicitly as it should be.

Explicit consent has a number of advantages over the implicit consent practised (or better yet, not practised) in traditional sexual scripts because everyone is required and encouraged to ask for what they want.

Boundaries and acts that are off-limit are clearly discussed, there’s no intimidation or coercion, and there’s no ambiguous silence that can be exploited. Just because you’re not keen on a flogging session, doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from BDSM.

Complete Article HERE!

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The XConfessions app

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Erika Lust’s new app is making it easier to talk about kinks and fantasies

By Marianne Eloise

The XConfessions app lets users swipe left or right on sex acts they’re willing or not willing to try

Erika Lust is currently making five films at once – no small undertaking, especially as her erotic films are cinematically beautiful; often feature-length, with professional crews who work on styling, location, cinematography, and everything else to make it visually arresting.

But that’s just a small part of the filmmaker’s mission to promote and create feminist pornography that centres women’s experiences and desires. Lust believes the most important thing with sex is communication and consent; clear rules that many people seem to skim over. She’s serious about promoting those values, too – she is determined to maintain an ethical work environment where all actors are comfortable, which she tells me goes from “feeding everyone on set” to “performers being able to stop shooting anytime they feel uncomfortable”.

Lust’s series XConfessions, which saw her win a Feminist Porn Award in both 2014 and 2015, is based on crowd-sourced erotic stories and fantasies from confessions that viewers can leave on her website. Now, she’s released the XConfessions app, an app which presents users (either playing alone or in a couple) with kinks: each person swipes left or right depending on whether they’re willing to try it. It’s billed as an inclusive app, taking into account all genders, sexualities, and types of relationships.

The XConfessions app takes the most awkward and complicated part of kink – the fear that your partner mightn’t want to try what you do; the fear of exposing yourself only to be embarrassed – and makes it disappear. We speak to Lust about the app, her work, and the ever-evolving porn industry.

One of the options on Erika Lust’s XConfessions app

I think the best thing about XConfessions is that – with trying new things sexually – there’s always the fear that your partner won’t want the same thing and it’ll get awkward. Was that your primary motivation?

Erika Lust:
It was designed for exactly that – to open up conversation and take away some of the pressure of broaching the topic of fantasy with your partner. I think the fear of embarrassment is really common. It can be very difficult to open up about your fantasies, even to someone you’ve been with for a long time, but these conversations can potentially take your sex life to the next level and intensify your bond and relationship with your partner. It’s really important in a relationship to have strong, open communication and I believe that this is part of it. Sexual fantasies are perfectly healthy and normal, and sharing them can be a really fun experience.  

Where do you think that embarrassment comes from?

Erika Lust: I think a lot of it stems from the shame tied up with sexuality. Unfortunately shame is cultivated in the society we live in and the sex education (or lack of) we receive growing up. We’re also taught to view sex in a very narrowly defined heteronormative way, which makes it seem that anything outside of this is deviant or weird. Women especially have to confront shame within their sexuality because they’re fed the message from a young age that they shouldn’t enjoy it too much.

Do you think that’s the most important thing in both kink and sex – communication?

Erika Lust: I think there are two equally important things, communication and consent. When we don’t communicate about sex, our wants and our needs aren’t met. A lack of communication means that we don’t try things that interest us and we will go along with things that we may not necessarily want to. We must always be aware of consent when having sex – ongoing conversation or clear non-verbal cues.  

It baffles me that the kink community has a bad reputation in ‘mainstream’ circles when they have such a strong model of what it means to obtain consent and speak about what they’re comfortable doing. It’s the norm in kink situations to speak about what sexual activities you want to do. I’m not saying that the kink community is perfect or that boundary violations don’t exist, but I think there is a lot we can learn. I think it’s also important to remember that consent and communication are not one-time conversations.

The app takes away something that can be common in kink – a perceived pressure to comply. If your partner says ‘I want this’ and you say ‘well, I don’t’, you can feel ‘boring’ or like you’re depriving them of something they want. This makes the conversation more positive and takes away that fear, while prioritising pleasure.

Erika Lust: I wanted to make the app in a way that users can play individually, as well as with their partner. In part, to take away some of the pressure to comply, specially when fantasies are spoken about during sex, there can be a pressure to say yes to avoid making things uncomfortable.

I think it’s a good idea to first have the conversation of fantasy with your clothes still on with a fun app. This is where the app works well, by going through the cards individually, and thinking about them alone you can decide if the fantasy is something that interests you. This also allows you to develop your sexuality and fantasies independent from your partner.

What is it like for you looking back on your career?

Erika Lust: I often tell people about the book that influenced me which was Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’. It gave me my lightbulb moment and I realised that pornography was a genre, a specific cinematic trend with its own history. It wasn’t just ‘porn’ to me anymore, it was part of a discourse on sexuality making a statement and expressing ideologies and values on sex and gender.

I shot The Good Girl when I moved to Barcelona, which was a humorous take on the classic pizza delivery boy porn trope. To be honest I can’t really watch it now without cringing but it was a start and it changed my life! That’s when I realised there were other people out there looking for alternatives to mainstream pornography, and I decided to start making adult films that reflected my own ideas.

What drives you to make these films?

Erika Lust: My mission was, and always will be, to show that women’s pleasure matters. I want to show that women have their own sex drive and desires, and are not passive objects exclusively focused on pleasuring the men. XConfessions is adult cinema that is smart, sex positive and respectful to women. It offers a representation of women’s pleasure and sex on screen that challenges the unchecked misogynistic attitudes, racist categorisations, and degrading narratives of mass-produced porn. Gagging, slapping, vomiting… some women may like it. But it is not a niche, it has become mainstream. That is extremely problematic. Studios produce it as it is the alpha and the omega of sex while it is content made with a very misogynist male-centric standard. It seems it is not arousing unless it is degrading to women. In my cinema, I show women enjoying themselves while receiving and giving pleasure in relatable scenarios. Women have their own sexual agency and take ownership of their bodies.

I also want to fight the fetishising and categorising that the mainstream industry does. Performers are categorised by their race, age or body type. I am really concerned with such ‘othering’.

What else are you doing to change the industry?

Erika Lust: With my ongoing guest directors open call I also have that community of new filmmakers. There are more female filmmakers in the industry who have loud voices and who stand by their work, and it’s great to be able to get more depictions of sex and sexuality, and more people doing something different to a lot of the mass produced stereotypical porn on the free tube sites. 

What sets your work apart?

Erika Lust: I think working with a female team really shapes my films. From the moment I created Erika Lust Films I knew I wanted to get more women in positions of power in all aspects of the business. I have a mostly female crew when I’m working on set, it can vary slightly but it’s usually 80 per cent women, with women working as camera people, producers, editors, runners. The female viewpoint is vital for me and to really get that I need to have a predominantly female team. With tube sites and the vast majority of studios, you don’t know who made those films. We should be asking ourselves who is making the porn that we watch.

You can download the XConfessions app and find out more about it here

Complete Article HERE!

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Talking about sex is awkward, so how can teenagers ‘just ask’ for consent?

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The topic of sexual consent seems to be in the news on a daily basis, especially since #MeToo went viral one year ago. From posters to podcasts, there are endless resources promoting the importance of getting and giving explicit consent. Many suggest that a “yes” must always be enthusiastic, and that partners should “ask first and ask often”.

In principle, these are good messages. But my research with more than 100 young people aged 13 to 25 indicates that they understand the importance of consent, yet find it hard to put this advice into practice. They want opportunities to figure out how to manage desire and rejection. But very often conversations about consent – especially in schools – tend to start and finish with legal definitions and very black and white examples.

A key finding from my research is that doing explicit and verbal consent is awkward. It is important to acknowledge and talk about this awkwardness, rather than simply present ideal examples of consent, as though everyone will suddenly be able to “just ask” or “say no” without doubt or confusion.

It’s important to talk about the “grey areas”; those contexts where differing assumptions mean getting and giving consent can be confusing or difficult. For example, when sex doesn’t follow the progression often portrayed in porn, films and series, or when young people are learning to navigate the different dynamics that emerge with people they know well, and people they don’t.

This is especially important for people who have little or no sexual experience, and few opportunities to discuss the complex and emotional sides of sex without fear of judgement. Clearly, navigating sexual intimacy is more complicated than mainstream media and educational messages would suggest. Especially when many people (women in particular) aren’t well practised at saying “no” – even in situations that aren’t sexual.

The difficulties with saying ‘no’

It’s well evidenced that – particularly in middle class British society – it’s rare for people to say an outright “no” to anything. From a young age, people are encouraged to be polite, avoid making situations awkward or embarrassing and to please people in more powerful positions.

If we do say “no”, we are encouraged to say “no, thank you”, smile sweetly and more often than not to provide a reason for the “no” so that the person doesn’t feel upset or rejected. And it’s clear that people fear rejection in romantic and sexual situations.

It’s all very well to encourage people to “just ask” someone if they want to do something sexual. But the realities of doing this are complicated and go against the societal and cultural norms that make talking about sex awkward – if it’s even discussed at all.

If only things were always this simple.

One young person, Becs, said: “You do want consent, but you’re too scared to ask for it.” There were comments about “ruining the moment” and seeming like you “don’t know what you’re doing”. Jamie noted:

It’s really hard for someone to actually upfront ask someone if they want to do specific things with them … it might be a really massive impact on your self-esteem.

I don’t for one moment think that anyone should go along with sex they do not want for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings. Yet it is understandable that people who are earlier on in their sex lives might worry about getting it wrong, or avoid a situation where they invite rejection. These worries are a problem when they stifle open communication between sexual partners, such that it becomes difficult to express readiness and desires, and to establish the readiness and desires of a partner.

Discuss and demystify

The young people I worked with related genuine and understandable arguments about why it was not socially safe or acceptable to explicitly seek or express consent to sex. But they all expressed the importance and value of what we might term “mutual consent” – even if they did not use that specific phrase themselves.

While everyone needs to be taught about consent, it needs to be done in a way that focuses on how more communication – although awkward to begin with – is likely to enable more pleasurable experiences in the longer run, rather than simply teaching that consent is important so that you don’t get in trouble with the law.

Talking and teaching about the grey areas may seem a difficult task, but this research shows that by engaging with young people’s uncertainty and awkwardness about wanting, being ready or being open to sex, society will be helping them build the skills they need to be able to be clear and to communicate their choices.

It’s crucial for young people to discuss, learn about and demystify the actions, emotions and experience that might fall into the grey area. And the discussions need to focus less on whether these experiences should be considered legal or illegal, and more on how they can be navigated in an ethical and communicative way, resulting in positive pleasurable experiences, or positive decisions to change or not pursue sexual interaction in that moment.

It’s quite right that we, as a society, seek to improve the way that young people learn about sex and relationships, and to have more open conversations about consent and sexual negotiation. But campaigns and sex education might have more meaningful impact if they address the awkwardness of sex and intimacy, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Complete Article HERE!

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Building Strength And Resilience After A Sexual Assault: What Works

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Psychologists find that cognitive processing therapy — a type of counseling that helps people learn to challenge and modify their beliefs related to a trauma — can be useful in healing the mental health problems some experience after a sexual assault.

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The wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault years ago, raises questions about the long-term emotional and physical toll this kind of trauma takes on survivors and how our society responds to those who come forward long after the assault.

Emily R. Dworkin, a senior fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, studies how the social interactions of trauma survivors can affect their recovery. She was also the lead author of a paper published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review in 2017 that looked through more than 100,000 studies conducted in the last 50 years and found nearly 200 relevant ones on the relationship between sexual assault and mental health to analyze.

What she found, Dworkin says, is strong evidence that sexual assault is associated with an increased risk for multiple forms of psychological harm “across most populations, assault types and methodological differences in studies.” Too many survivors still face stigma and internalize that blame, and that can make it harder to seek help. And while some types of therapy have been shown to be helpful, she says, more information on evidence-based treatments for survivors “is critically needed.”

Dworkin talked with NPR about her research findings and offered her perspective on where society and science need to go next to prevent assaults and help survivors heal. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

You looked at a lot of studies about the mental health impact of sexual assault, but it’s not an area as well-studied as say, heart disease. So what do we know?

Sexual assault [any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without the consent of both people] began getting research attention in the ’70s as society as a whole was going through a feminist awakening, and it kind of developed at the same time as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which was then known as “combat trauma.” Many things can lead to depression or anxiety. People with PTSD relive the trauma in the form of intrusive memories, nightmares, or even flashbacks. They avoid things that remind them of the trauma.

The symptoms that people were showing when they were coming home from war were the same as victims of rape trauma — recurring memories and a wish to avoid triggering them.

These days, lots of people are doing research, but there’s still a lot left to understand. What we do know is that sexual assault is associated with a higher risk for a lot of different mental health problems, including PTSD [and depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality] … especially PTSD.

What do we know about how ethnicity and education affects the mental health of survivors of sexual assault?

We need to know more. Some of my past research on queer women shows that ongoing forms of stress can compound stress. And we know that people from marginalized groups are just at greater risk for sexual assault [and a number of other health problems]. So it’s likely that these groups experience more trauma — but I don’t think we can completely say for sure.

How does sexual assault compare with other forms of trauma, in terms of effects on mental health?

We never want to have the Olympics of trauma. But compared to other types of life-threatening trauma, survivors of sexual assault do seem to be more likely to get PTSD. In my preliminary look at the data from 39 studies on this topic, it seems like 36 percent of survivors meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD in their lifetime, versus 12 percent of people who don’t have a history of sexual assault.

My thinking is that sexual assault is a unique form of trauma. It is highly stigmatized, and when people go to seek help for it, unlike in a car accident — well, the police are not going to ask you if you’ve really been in a car accident.

Also, people don’t always do the most effective job of supporting sexual assault survivors. Sometimes they do things that can actually compound the trauma. In the ’70s it was known as “the second rape” when you tell the police, undergo a rape kit exam and explain it to family and friends. They don’t always know how to help.

What can survivors who are feeling overwhelmed, depressed and traumatized do to recover, and how can friends and family help?

It’s important for survivors to know that they can regain a sense of power over those triggers, and that the most natural response is to push away the triggers. Self-care isn’t about turning off those bad feelings, but feeling those feelings so that they can subside naturally.

It’s kind of a counterintuitive idea, and it’s not what we usually think to do for our loved ones. When somebody’s in pain, all you want to do is to take that pain away. It’s understandable to try to distract them, take them out for a drink, but it’s better to be a shoulder to cry on. You don’t need to cheer somebody up in the moment. Be there for them as a witness to their pain.

What about the professionals — the police, the lawyers, the therapists — that survivors need to talk to? How can they do a better job?

This all comes back to … dealing with the false beliefs we have around sexual assault — blaming the victim, challenging the victim’s choices. Changing these cultural norms is important.

One of the evidence-based treatments for PTSD is overcoming the trauma by sharing the story. That’s a very different thing than being forced to tell it in public.

I don’t want to imply that it’s the survivor’s fault they have PTSD. And they feel like they don’t want to relive it again, which is totally natural. But our bodies can’t sustain that intense emotional response for long — those feelings come down naturally.

In my clinical work, a woman came to me with her story of sexual assault. The first time she told it, she was crying. By the fourth time, she was almost yawning. Her story is not one that has power over her anymore. She has the control over whether she’s going to have her life altered.

Has the public’s perception of sexual assault changed since the Kavanaugh hearings?

I think about this stuff every day. I’ve been thinking it about every day since I was 18 and beginning my research. It takes me awhile to catch up and realize that everyone else is thinking about it now.

My hope is that we’re changing some of the cultural conversation around this.

It’s important to know that most of the disorders are very treatable conditions. I do feel like if survivors can get connected to evidence-based treatments, they can be helped — even years later.

What are the resources and treatments that work best for survivors who are experiencing PTSD or other mental health symptoms?

First-line options should be things that we know work well. What I recommend is prolonged exposure therapy [helping people gradually approach trauma-related memories and feelings] or cognitive processing therapy [a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps patients learn how to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma]. Both have been around since the ’80s and were developed to treat survivors of rape. They have really strong evidence of reducing symptoms or eliminating the diagnosis [of a mental health disorder].

For resources, look for a good therapist who offers cognitive processing therapy. Also, you can check out the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies [for more information about the treatment].

As a society, what should we focus on to help survivors of assault?

Ending some of our stigmatizing beliefs about sexual assault and our mistrust for people that come forward is huge. It’s always up to survivors as to whether they disclose. The fact that we’re having these conversations in the public sphere gives me hope.

In schools, [to prevent unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in the first place] we can teach respect for others and their autonomy. We’re not comfortable with the idea of hearing about these sorts of assaults. Our cultural norm is to avoid uncomfortable experiences. … But we need to keep talking.

Complete Article HERE!

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The New Birds and Bees:

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Teaching Kids About Boundaries and Consent

What we can learn from the Dutch: Talking openly about bodies helps keep shame at bay, and may help a child speak up if there is a problem.

By Bonnie J. Rough

As a growing number of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories have put a new focus on childhood sexual abuse, parents may have an urgent sense that they should frame conversations with their children about their bodies as safety lessons.

But doubling down on warnings is the opposite of what children really need. In researching my new book about how gender equality begins with great sex ed, I learned that teaching what’s good about bodies, sex and love is actually what gives children a secure sense of body sovereignty, boundaries and consent.

Children who feel confident in their body knowledge may be quicker to identify when something is awry, and those who learn empathy and egalitarianism less likely to cross another person’s boundaries.

Here are three essential lessons parents of children under 6 can follow to help kids stay safe, confident and shame-free in their skin.

Begin with body positivity

When my oldest daughter turned 3, a certain worry started to keep me up at night. I sensed that her risk of sexual abuse was increasing with her age, and I needed to teach her more about her body in order to keep her safe. Here’s what I know now that I didn’t see then: My motivation to start the birds-and-bees talks was fear.

But after living in the Netherlands with my family and learning how the Dutch approach to sex education in homes and schools produces some of the world’s best sexual health outcomes and highest levels of gender equality, I discovered the problem with fear as motivation: When children learn that certain body parts are dangerous and invite trouble, they learn sexual shame. And shame, in turn, is the mechanism that perpetrators of sexual violence rely upon to keep victims silent.

According to the Dutch approach (and many American sexuality educators), risks and warnings should not dominate our body conversations with kids. Instead, teaching body positivity — the joy, fun and privilege of living physical human lives — helps keep shame, secrecy and silence at bay.

“Tell your children sexuality is something beautiful and should be enjoyed but only if both people want it in the same way,” says Sanderijn van der Doef, a Dutch psychologist and the author of a series of children’s books on bodies and sexuality popular in the Netherlands. “For young children, you should be clear that sexual intercourse and sexual relations are especially for adults.”

Teaching body positivity means letting babies and toddlers freely explore their own bodies. It means avoiding grossed-out faces and language (try calling a diaper “full” instead of “dirty”) in teaching hygiene. It means talking about reproductive body parts cheerfully, with correct language and affirming tones. And it means helping children discover what they like and don’t like: Is tickling on the arms O.K., but not the feet? At bedtime, does this sleepy preschooler like her back rubbed, scratched or traced over? Does the toddler want to be picked up by Grandpa, but not Auntie? We can help children to recognize the gut feelings that reveal our individual boundaries.

Don’t treat body parts as shameful

Shame about body parts, Ms. Van der Doef says, comes from a child’s environment: they learn from their caregivers when to be squeamish and embarrassed. By normalizing all body parts and speaking of them regularly and straightforwardly with correct language, we send the message that every part of a person’s body is healthy, wholesome and worthy.

As I learned from the Dutch example, normalization goes beyond talk: day-to-day nonsexual nudity — in homes, picture books, mixed-gender school bathrooms, kids’ television programs, and public changing areas and wading pools — reinforces the tenet that bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and nothing we can’t discuss (in words any caregiver, teacher or health provider will recognize) if need be.

As we respond to kids’ natural, healthy curiosity about the human form, we can instill in them the idea that all people are born with wonderful bodies capable of feeling pleasure and pain.

Teach the importance of consent

It can be daunting to explain the emotional and relational aspects of human sexuality. Yet this is our richest opportunity to instill empathy, consent, inclusiveness and egalitarianism.

Preschool is the age to teach children the hallmarks of a healthy, trusting friendship. Children at this age can be made aware of the gender-role stereotypes they’ve absorbed (for example, girls like pink and boys have short hair). A simple role-play with stuffed animals in which a “girl” teddy bear wants to play football and a “boy” animal wants to wear a dress can teach it’s hurtful to limit one anther’s opportunities.

Preschoolers and even toddlers can learn rules for playing contact games with friends such as tickling, chase and “doctor”: everyone must agree happily to the game; no hurting allowed; anyone can say “no” or change their mind. As adults, we can model the importance of consent when children want to climb on us by reminding them to ask first. We can model respect for the importance of consent, too, when a child is reluctant to give a high-five, hug or kiss — especially to an adult, and this does include Grandma — by suggesting a contact-free alternative like a verbal greeting or a wave.

Elsbeth Reitzema, a sex education consultant and curriculum author for the sexual health institute Rutgers in the Netherlands, says it’s impossible to warn children of every scenario and impossible, too, to protect them 100 percent of the time. Specific scenarios such as the lap-patting relative or lollipop-offering stranger can be good to mention, but it’s most important to instill an understanding of consent. This goes for friends, relatives, teachers and even physicians. When children expect to ask, give and deny consent at their own discretion, sexual transgressions stick out as clear violations.

Teaching consent has a protective effect against child sexual abuse by showing children that they can trust their instincts: When a grown-up or anyone else touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t have to cooperate. They have the right to say no.

Even a young child, Ms. Reitzema says, can tell the difference between a safe secret like a sister’s birthday surprise and an unsafe one that must be told to a trusted adult: Bad secrets don’t feel fun or happy.

Adults who promptly respond to a child’s report of abuse by believing, guarding and reassuring them they did nothing wrong help protect young victims from long-term trauma. One of the most supportive messages parents can give to kids, at any age, is: “If anyone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can always tell me. I’m here to help.”

If you have concerns about possible sexual abuse, resources include the National Child Abuse Hotline, 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453); the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.

Complete Article HERE!

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What even the most vanilla among us can learn from the BDSM community

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by Natalie Benway

“Sex is not what you do, it’s a place you go.” —Esther Perel

Americans carry a lot of anxiety about having an exciting sex life. This anxiety inspires Cosmopolitan, Redbook and the like to publish a steady stream of articles flouting “100 ways to spice up your sex life!” and “The top six ways to add more color to vanilla sex!” Shame about having “boring” sex is used to sell magazines as well as drive sales of sex toys, fluffy pink handcuffs and sexy nurse costumes, bought in half-hearted attempts to “spice things up.”

But these articles and products usually fall short of providing real avenues for change because they don’t address the mindset we need to have a fulfilling sexual experience. Many of us are afraid to ask our partner for what we are interested in exploring, or don’t know how. We need to feel safe in order to have a positive sexual experience, and sometimes “safe” can be limiting to sexual expression.

Insecurity around sex is a common issue I see in my psychotherapy practice. My friend Alison Oliver (sex educator and all-around epic woman) and I discussed the results of an exercise she has asked her students to complete in which they describe an average sexual encounter from start to finish. The formula was most often as follows: touching, kissing, light petting, heavy petting, oral sex, penile/vaginal contact, coitus, orgasm.

A common frustration among more vanilla folks is the pressure felt to spice up a basic or “boring” sex life. There is absolutely nothing wrong or pathological about wanting a vanilla sexual experience, but if you’re not satisfied, don’t have the skills or feel pressured to get kinky, what do you do?

“The frustration of vanilla — this constant quest to kinkify normative sexual relationships — seems to be the result of people’s actual sexual practices and desires butting up against the idea that there is one unified, normative way that ‘most’ people have sex,” Gawker’s Monica Heisey wrote in the 2014 article “Vanilla Sex: A Perfectly Fine Way to Fuck.” “If I’m supposed to be the default, the married man wonders, why do I want my wife to peg me sometimes? If I’m not kinky, a 22-year-old straight woman who only watches lesbian porn asks, why am I so interested in the idea of a threesome? The danger of vanilla is seeing it as ‘default’ when it’s as amorphous as any individual kinky person’s sexual preferences.”

How do we reframe our expectations so we are not constantly critical of ourselves or our partner? Let’s move away from who-does-what-to-whom and towards a curious and honest exploration of guiding principles that impact mindset. How do I get into the mindset of sex being a place we go, instead of what we do to each other? How do we explore our sexual appetite without anxiety or the pressure of an outcome?

It starts with pondering what we like — what brings us pleasure, and what mood we must be in to explore it — and being open about this with our partner or partners. When we reframe the erotic experience to focus on presence as opposed to performance, we can draw on erotic communication tools within the kink/BDSM community.

The guiding principles of kink/BDSM make no assumptions about what your appetite might be and are not limited in the menu of possibilities. Kink culture is grounded in safe, sane and consensual communication.

Oliver draws on kink/BDSM principles by supporting her students in communicating their sexual boundaries, interests and erotic preferences with an exercise in which they divide sexual menu items into three columns:

  • Yes, please — Favorable activities you’re always or often in the mood for in a sexual/erotic encounter.
  • No, thank you — Activities that are out of bounds for whatever reason, and are off the menu.
  • Maybe? — Activities that have conditions necessary, or you would enjoy under specific circumstances. These are menu items you are curious about and might be open to trying.

These erotic communication tools allow us to express, negotiate and explore our appetites. We can also access the tools of mindfulness to explore presence as opposed to performance. In mindfulness, we are not eating to get to the end of the meal, but to enjoy and experience the food. This can easily be translated to an erotic or sexual experience.

During a mindful eating exercise I do with clients, they are asked to eat a raisin or a nut and act as if they are an alien from another planet and have never seen or experienced the object in their hand. They are prompted to explore it with all their senses and notice not only what they see, hear or smell but also what they think. If their mind wanders, as it often does, they are prompted to gently bring their awareness back to the object of attention. Then they are asked to put the food in their mouth and explore it without biting it, then chew and swallow it and notice how many stages of the experience are automatic or intuitive.

What if we had this kind of presence of mind during a sexual encounter, instead of being distracted wondering if the other person is looking at the size of our ass or critiquing our performance? What if we could be brave and vulnerable in expressing our yes, no or maybe interests to our partners?
Sounds kinky.

Complete Article HERE!

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Well-Timed Study Shows the Lasting Consequences of Sexual Assault

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By

This week, a study affirming the lasting impact of sexual assault and harassment on middle-aged women’s mental and physical health was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Its timing is remarkable, published amid an ongoing national conversation and controversy surrounding the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings — specifically, allegations that he assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, now 53, when both were in high school.

For their study, researchers surveyed 304 women (all nonsmokers) between the ages of 40 and 60, 19 percent of whom reported a history of workplace sexual harassment, and 22 percent of whom reported a history of sexual assault. (Notably, both figures are significantly lower than national estimates, which hold that 40–75 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, while 36 percent have experienced sexual assault.) While previous research has established a link between sexual harassment and/or assault with poor health outcomes in women, many of those studies relied on self-report of the individual’s health, among other limitations. For this study, though, researchers assessed participants’ health themselves (by measuring their blood pressure, discussing medications and medical history, etc.), allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of these events’ specific impact.

The study’s authors found that both workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault had lasting, negative effects on women’s health. Women who reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment had significantly higher blood pressure and significantly lower sleep quality than women who didn’t. The former group was also more likely to suffer from hypertension. Women who reported having experienced sexual assault were more likely to suffer from depression and/or anxiety than those who didn’t, and were also determined to have poorer sleep quality.

Beyond the fact that their reporting rates are considerably lower than national estimates, the authors note that their experimental group is the best-case scenario in other ways, too: by choosing nonsmokers, for instance, they eliminated a factor likely to amplify those negative health effects. And by surveying participants who volunteered to share their difficult experiences, they were perhaps limited to only the best-adjusted, best-supported survivors. If a highly educated, married, and upper-middle-class woman like Dr. Ford experiences trauma symptoms decades after the assault, one can only imagine how those effects, mental and physical, might be compounded in women with fewer resources at their disposal.

Complete Article HERE!

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The Kavanaugh allegations show why we need to change how we teach kids about sex

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By Sarah Hosseini

When I was 13 years old, I met a guy at the gas station right outside my suburban neighborhood in Upstate New York. Other neighborhood kids and I would go there to buy sodas and smoke cigarettes behind our parents’ backs. He was a friend of a boy I went to school with. He flirted with me and said I looked “so mature.” He was 20 years old.

He started regularly showing up at my house after school while my mom was at work. I don’t remember ever inviting him there. I told him my mom didn’t allow boys in our house. “But I miss you. It will just be for a few minutes,” he pleaded.

I shared a red metal bunk bed with my sister. We had matching comforters and stuffed animals neatly placed next to our pillows. He crouched under the low beams and jerkily groped me up and down, including beneath my underwear and training bra. I implored him to stop and pushed his hand away, but he whined, “A few more minutes.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And so, these encounters continued for weeks. I never told anyone until typing it for this article.

There were more violations of my body, with different boys and men, in varying situations. One was when I was as young as 7, and they continued all the way up through adulthood. Some were more terrifying than others.

While watching and listening to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, my own sexual attacks played in my head. The harrowing details she recounted are familiar to many women: nonconsensual groping, mouth-covering, the fear of rape, the fear of death and the laughing. The indelible memory of laughter.

This is the sexual landscape faced by girls and women in our country, but it doesn’t have to be. We have unprecedented access to information about sex thanks to the Internet, yet sex is still a taboo topic, especially with children. As a mom of two daughters, ages 7 and 8, I used to cringe thinking about sex talks with them. Now, I can’t think of anything worse than not starting the conversation.

“Parents sometimes think they’re ‘protecting kids’ innocence’ by avoiding sexual topics and questions when they come up. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t mean kids don’t get sexual information; it means they get it from less reliable sources like peers and unhealthy sources like pornography,” Connecticut-based marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney says in an email. Whitney also writes for the website Keep the Talk Going, which provides “talk starters” and tips for parents.

One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). One in five women in college experience sexual assault, as reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“When young people are taught by omission that prowess on the sports field is more valuable than negotiating a mutually fulfilling sexual relationship, we realize we have our priorities wrong and women bear the brunt of such disorienting tactics,” New York City-based therapist Cyndi Darnell says in an email.

Many experts have ideas on how to combat sexual violence, but one particularly compelling option is the call for more comprehensive sexual education. A 2014 study from Georgetown University shows that starting sex education in primary school reduces unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and STDs. Several psychologists, clinicians and educators also believe early sex ed could perhaps help reduce sexual assaults and rapes.

So where do we start?

Fundamentally, we must believe access to sexual health information is a basic human right, as outlined by the World Health Organization. We must also believe that sexual health extends beyond reproduction and disease. It needs to encompass the physical, emotional and social construction of sexuality. And it has to start when kids are young.

“The power and majesty of human sexuality must be respected and taught with the same reverence we use to teach children about how electricity works. It can be used to power our homes or destroy lives, it’s the user that determines its outcome,” Darnell writes. She believes that in our culture, the burden is unfairly placed on the individual to know better, rather than on society to support, care and educate.

“This is a systemic problem that must be changed,” she adds.

The current standards for sexual education in America leave much to be desired. Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and the curriculums are highly variable. Many programs are abstinence-only and omit crucial information about contraception, sexual orientation and consent. They don’t even touch the topic of pleasure.

“Unfortunately, sex education is largely approached in a fear-based, sex-negative way in U.S. schools, and the curricula are rarely honest with children about the reasons people have sex,” says Brianna Rader in an email. She’s a sex educator and founder of the sex and relationships advice app Juicebox. “We teach young girls that they are more responsible for sexual mistakes and that men are going to one day give them their sexual pleasure instead of empowering them to claim it for themselves. We don’t even discuss the clitoris,” she writes.

The United States has a long way to go toward establishing an all-encompassing model. In the meantime, there are great private sector and nonprofit resources to help parents fill in the gaps. Scarleteen is a website providing inclusive sex information for parents and teens, including message boards where users can anonymously ask questions and seek advice. The site is also highly dedicated to gender identity and sexual orientation topics. Our Whole Lives, or OWL, is a sex education program founded by the Unitarian Universalist Association, which operates under the belief that informed youth and adults make better and healthier decisions about sex. Their curriculums and workshops start in kindergarten and continue to adulthood.

Preparation is great, but what if you get caught off guard by a curious little one?

“When little kids ask about something sexual, they’re just trying to learn about the world. They’re curious about how bodies work, just as they’re curious about everything. We adults may freak out — omg! this is about sex! — but for young kids, it’s just a matter of fact,” Whitney writes.

She suggests answering their questions with simple but honest facts. Which is really the basis of all sex talks, no matter the age.

I can’t say for certain whether more comprehensive and honest sex education would’ve prevented what happened to me. But I can say that I wish I had been empowered with self-knowledge, because it would’ve given me what I didn’t have in those moments: assertiveness, alternatives and options. I deserved more, and our kids do, too.

Complete Article HERE!

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3 Experts on What’s Missing From the Consent Discussion

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By Kasandra Brabaw

In 1990, a group of women gathered at Antioch College to talk about the growing problem of rape on their campus, drafting the very first version of the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). In doing so, they created what we now know as affirmative consent, decades before anyone else began using the term. The policy required that Antioch students ask for consent at every step of sexual encounters, from the first kiss, to taking off clothes, to oral sex or penetration. In short, the group who created the SOPP flipped the widely accepted “no means no” definition of consent to a “yes means yes” definition. They were then mocked mercilessly by everyone from their classmates to Saturday Night Live for challenging the status quo.

Nearly 30 years later, people are finally seeing the wisdom of affirmative consent, and attempting to push the concept even further; the most popular consent definition of the moment, for instance, is enthusiastic consent,. It encourages people to ask for a verbal yes at every step of intimate interactions, but also recognizes that someone may feel coerced into agreeing to sex. So, in addition to the yes, enthusiastic consent encourages people to also notice nonverbal cues, such as whether or not their partner is kissing back, moaning, arching their back, or doing any number of things that makes it clear that they’re really turned on.

The conversation about consent took another turn when the #MeToo movement arose late last year. Now, people are talking about how masculinity factors in. Instead of just demonizing men for not understanding consent, we’re asking why they’re struggling with the concept in the first place. Mothers of young boys are starting to think about how to raise men to be good allies and to understand that they have to both ask for what they want and graciously accept when someone says no. Maybe it sounds simple, but it’s a difficult task for a culture that tells boys and men that sex is, essentially, their birthright.

We’re just starting to deconstruct the concept of masculinity that makes consent so confusing for cisgender men. But we haven’t really touched upon how the narrative of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent change depending on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, financial background, ability, or other marginalized identities. Those conversations are happening, but they’re often relegated to minority groups, instead integrated into the mainstream conversation. As the consent conversation continues to evolve, we need to consider and address how sexual harassment and assault impacts various communities. Ahead, we talk to three leaders in sexual education — Bethany Saltman, who co-wrote Antioch’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy in the 1990s, Ted Bunch, the co-founder of the violence prevention organization A Call To Men, and Bianca Laureano, foundress of the Women Of Color Sexual Health Network — about the evolution of consent, what’s missing in mainstream conversations about consent, and what the next steps are to make consent unambiguous to all.

Bethany Saltman, co-writer of Antioch College’s SOPP

Bethany Saltman

Tell me a little about being at Antioch in the 1990s. How did your group start talking about consent?

“We heard the stories about women who had been raped and nothing was being done, and so we decided right then and there that we were going to do something. So in the conversation about what we wanted to change, we thought about how the current understanding of whether or not a rape had occurred was always looking for the woman saying no. That was the narrative. So, kind of in our innocence, we said, ‘Well why don’t we just turn it around and say that you have to actually say yes?’ Not only to intercourse, but every time you escalate the interaction.”

It’s only recently that people are starting to see how amazing SOPP was. How long do you think it takes for radical change to happen?

“Generations. There are still so many people who think that [affirmative consent] is insane and ridiculous. The legal definition of rape and sexual assault is changing — but slowly.”

Is there anything missing in the conversations we’re having about consent right now?

“There are some conversations happening that are about the joy of consent. And that’s the conversation I would like to bring forward; consent is a path to kindness and pleasure in our bodies and in ourselves. We shouldn’t be looking at sexual delight as something that needs to be hidden in these dark recesses of desire. There’s definitely something to mystery, but I think that the more enlightened we become as a culture, the more we’ll see that we can be really honest with ourselves and allow for all the variation that is part of human sexuality and and still have a rockin’ good time. And what it means to be joyful and really saying yes to ourselves, especially as women. Because in order to say ‘yes’ you have to really want sex.”

Do you think the voices of men have a place in the conversation?

“Definitely. I’ve been teaching my daughter about what it means to consent her entire life. She gets to say who can touch her and who can kiss her, and I think we need to do that with all of our children. It’s really not even about boys and girls. You’re born with certain karma and a certain bag of tricks, and you need to know how to wield them respectfully. So 100%, every single one of us needs to be part of this conversation.”

How does intersectionality play in? Do you think different populations are having different conversations about consent?

“Absolutely. Black women are sexualized in ways that white women are not, and white women are sexualized in ways that Black women are not. I like to approach all conversations with the posture of listening as much as possible.”

So where do you think we go from here?

“It depends on who the ‘we’ is. I think people who are already engaged in conversations about consent should keep listening and asking themselves the tough questions when they get stuck. ‘Where do I feel the line drawn between myself and someone else? Where do I get violent? Where do I get rigid? Where do I objectify? Where do I steal someone’s agency?’ The better we know ourselves, the better we can know other people, too.”

Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men

 

Ted Bunch

When #MeToo was in full swing, a lot of people started talking about how we raise men. Do you think that’s important in the conversation about consent?

“Oh, yes. Huge. One of the questions we ask high school boys in our workshops is ‘Can you define consent.’ Only 19% of those boys could actually define consent. Eight out of 10 boys did not know what consent was, which explains a lot. It explains why girls and women between 16 and 24 have the highest risk of being sexually assaulted. Boys actually think ‘no’ means try harder. They think ‘no’ means get her drunk or that they’re not approaching it right and they have to change their approach. Boys are taught messages around conquering women and girls. They’re not even supposed to have an interest in women and girls unless it’s about sex. If a boy has girls who are friends, most of the time the men in his life are going to question why he’d spend time with a girl he didn’t want to date, because it’s against his paradigm. Just being friends with a woman is against this man box that we teach boys to be in, which stipulates that girls and women are sexual objects.

“Now, we have conversations with our boys all the time about going away to college, going out on dates, but most of the time it’s about wearing a condom. Not about boundaries. Not about respect. So yes, [how we raise boys] needs to be a big part of the solution.”

Do you think enough people are talking about including men into the consent conversation right now?

“I think the beauty of the #MeToo movement and this moment in time is that we all have had to look at how we impact other people. I don’t think there’s a man who exists who hasn’t done something, said something, or witnessed another man committing sexual harassment or some sort of discrimination. So what’s happening with men now is that we have to realize that, ‘Oh wow, being a good guy with the women in my life is not enough. I have to look at how else I’m impacting women and girls, and how can I do better.’”

Do you think intersectionality plays into these conversations?

“It certainly does. When we look at the intersections — race, class, gender identity, sexuality, and [so] on — we can’t address one without addressing the other. When we look at sexism, we also have to look at racism, and we have to look at class, and we have to look at heterosexual-ism, and how that plays out with homophobic messages and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming community members.

“We have this saying at A Call To Men that the liberation of men is directly tied to the liberation of women. We really believe that, because we know that as we increase and promote a healthy and respectful manhood, we decrease the presence of domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, homophobia. It all would drop away.”

How long do you think it will take to change how people are seeing consent?

“I’m very encouraged because we’re developing the next generation of manhood right now. Historically, we’ve addressed this issue through intervention, right? Something has to happen to someone and then we respond to it. And now we’re working toward prevention, where it never happens in the first place. So that’s why these conversations are essential. And this is the first generation of men being held accountable for something men have always gotten away with.”

Bianca Laureano, Foundress of Women Of Color Sexual Health Network

 

Bianca Laureano

What do you think is missing in the mainstream conversation about consent right now?

“People always put consent in a sexual scenario, which is great, because it needs to be there. But it also needs to be in every other aspect of our lives: when we go to the doctor, when we’re out in the world, when we’re at school, when we’re at home. Every human has the right to make decisions about what happens to their body, no matter if they’re having sex or having a breast exam. And a lot of people don’t always put those two concepts and realities into conversation with each other. So the consent conversations that we’re having are very one dimensional and only focus on sexuality. And the sexuality conversations we have are very narrow, and they really only focus on ‘Okay, how do you not be a rapist?’

“Consent is required in many different situations. Asking my sibling if they’re done in the bathroom before entering, for example, involves consent. It’s about communication and feeling comfortable enough to be direct and clear about what we need and want, and listening and respecting what others need and want.”

Some people say that we should be teaching bodily autonomy from birth. Do you agree with that?

“What’s important there is the rejection piece. If you hear no, why do we call it rejection instead of self-determination? We’ve given the person an option and they’ve made a choice for themselves that’s very concrete, so why aren’t we celebrating that?

Is there anything that you think needs to change in the culture at large before we can change the way people are thinking about consent?

“I think having a clear definition and understanding of accountability and responsibility, and how those two things are essential to being a member of a community, a part of your family, an employee, a citizen of the world, whatever. When I say that, I think of bystanders. We hear a lot about bystander interactions and responsibilities.

“I’ve been at a crowded airport, crying, hysterically heaving, and everybody just stared at me. Then, Joe Schmo from the end of the line walks up to me and says, ‘Do you need help?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he was like, ‘What do you need?’ And I said, ‘Here’s my airplane information. I need to change my flight. They just canceled it, and my mom just died.’ Meanwhile, everybody continues to stare. People don’t know how to act when they’re confronted with certain things, whether it be tears, violence, or even laughter and joy. And I think doing that hard work of learning understanding, responsibility, and accountability could make a huge difference.”

Are you seeing different conversations around consent happening in different identity groups? Are white women having a different conversation from women of color, for example?

“Oh, for sure, and there are definitely similarities, too. All of the communities that include people who identify as women or femmes talk about misogyny and how it impacts their lives every day. But the way that they talk about it and the examples that they use are very different. Black women might talk about when somebody calls them a ‘Black bitch,’ for example. And that being both racism and misogyny. White women might be complaining about being called a bitch, but they’re not being called a white bitch. So the conversations around consent and misogyny are very color-free in certain communities.

“And in communities of people where there are mixed financial backgrounds or that are more impoverished, conversations about consent are rooted in conversations of power. Going to work with people who have been harmed at their big Fortune 500 company, they’ve talked about power in a very covert way. So people talk about the same things, but they talk about it very differently.”

Do you think that those separate conversations need to start melding together in order to make any real change?

“Sometimes we do need to have isolated conversations that are free from the people who represent the groups that harm us. That can be essential to being able to understand and affirm that what you experienced really happened. Because if you’re the only Black woman and you had a confrontation with a white woman and everybody else was white and didn’t do anything, the feeling of rage is boundless. So, if you can’t talk about that with other Black people then you might think: ‘Am I making a big deal? What is happening?’ It becomes a form of gaslighting where the silence makes us question our existence in our reality.

“But the world that we live in requires us to interact and engage with other people. So we eventually have to have interracial, inter-ethnic, and all the other inter-conversations with different people, so that we can begin to understand what’s happening from others’ perspectives.”

What do you think needs to change about the mainstream consent conversation right now?

“When people say things like ‘enthusiastic consent,’ that drives me bananas. It’s ableist, and people can perform enthusiasm as a safety tactic. If I say to a young person, ‘I know you’re having a bad day, but I really need you to put on a happy face and act like you enjoy being here just for 20 minutes,’ my students know exactly what to do. They sit up straight. They raised their hand. They call me Miss Whatever. They know how to perform. And that’s a danger, I believe.

“Because then what happens to the neuro-diverse people who don’t perform enthusiasm the way we expect them to? If people have in their head that enthusiastic consent does not look like how I’m behaving, then I’m not going to get what I need. It’s difficult to find definitions that aren’t ableist, but I define consent as: Direct words, behaviors, and actions that show a voluntary agreement to engage with others. Someone who is consenting is comfortable and aware of their surroundings and options. They are not being coerced or manipulated and are not debilitated by drugs or alcohol.

“I would just love for us to get to a point where asking for what we want is so common and so comfortable that it’s not some big thing people are afraid of.”

Complete Article HERE!

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How To Make Consent Sexy, According To A Dominatrix

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By Kasandra Brabaw

When Mistress Velvet, a BDSM dominatrix in Chicago, spanks a client, she demands that they tell her how much it hurts on a scale from 1 to 10. “I have to be careful and not just ask them, ‘Do you like this?’ Because I need them to feel submissive to me,” she says. That means she’s continually asking clients for their consent to hit them and tie them up, which can be tricky when the whole point is that they feel submissive to her. “When I ask for a scale, I’m gauging where they’re at so I know how to play with them next time.”

Mistress Velvet calls covert questions of this sort “consent training,” because even though people seek her out to dominate them in a sexual manner, getting consent from her clients is paramount to everything that she does. People who don’t engage in BDSM may assume that consent isn’t a huge part of bondage and masochism. How much can you really care about what a person feels if you’re intentionally causing them pain, the thinking may go. But purposely inflicting pain is a delicate task, especially when struggles, shouts, yelps, and begging someone to stop are all part of the experience. That’s why dommes and their submissives establish safe words before a BDSM scene even gets started, and why consent is so vital to the work Mistress Velvet does. It ensures that both she and her clients have a safe and satisfying experience. The argument that asking for consent “ruins the mood” is infuriating to her. There’s never a reason to risk someone’s bodily autonomy, she says, and it’s 100% possible to ask for consent while keeping the sexy mood alive — in fact consent can heighten the erotic energy in both BDSM and non-BDSM exchanges in ways you might not expect.

Just because someone let you put your hands up their shirt, doesn’t mean that they want you to put your hands down their pants.
Mistress Velvet, BDSM Dominatrix

In both Mistress Velvet’s work and personal life, she’s a huge proponent of affirmative consent, the idea that you should be asking for a verbal “yes” at every step (from kissing to caressing to penetration) of intimate and sexual encounters. “Just because someone let you put your hands up their shirt, doesn’t mean that they want you to put your hands down their pants,” she tells Refinery29. “Just because my client is okay with me spanking them in some ways doesn’t mean they’re okay with me spanking them in other ways.”

Similar to sex, consent should be fun, even if you’re not into BDSM. Asking someone, “Can I kiss you?” isn’t a mood killer, it’s an important step for intimacy to continue in a way that confirms everyone is on the same page, comfortable, and safe. You can also get creative with how you say it by lowering your voice or throwing some sexy eyes your partner’s way. As long as you remain clear and give the person you’re being intimate with the space to object or say “no,” asking for consent shouldn’t be much different from other communication during intimacy.

You can use the same kind of language throughout a sexual experience — saying things such as, “I’m going to rip your clothes off now, okay?” or “What do you want me to do to you?” — so you don’t have to stop having sex in order to obtain ongoing consent.

“If I was having sex with someone for the first time, I wouldn’t want them to assume that I like to be choked,” Mistress Velvet says. “But there’s a way to ask when they’re pounding me and they’re like, ‘Do you like to be choked? And then I can be like, ‘Yes, choke me daddy.'” The same scenario works in the reverse if you want to offer consent. So, if you like to be choked, but aren’t sure that your partner will ask, then you can say, “Can you choke me?” during sex. Asking for what you want — whether it’s choking, oral, or a simple ass grab — won’t ruin the moment, it’ll make things even more steamy.

If I was having sex with someone for the first time, I wouldn’t want them to assume that I like to be choked.
Mistress Velvet, BDSM Dominatrix

Of course, you might feel as if you’re being thrown out of your sexy headspace at first if you or your partner aren’t accustomed to asking questions before, during and after sex. But practice makes perfect, and eventually you’ll not only get used to it, but also come to appreciate the benefits of getting exactly what you want, and being able to give someone else exactly what they want.

Mistress Velvet says that she struggled to make consent sexy at first, too. “Definitely at times [in my vanilla sex life], people would say, ‘Why are you asking me so many questions?’ and it would sometimes pause things,” she says. In those moments, she would explain that she has a history of sexual trauma, and so it’s important to her that her needs are being heard.

Maybe there’s no trauma in your past, but it’s still important to ask for and give consent regardless of your sexual history. When you’re first starting to have these conversations, you’re likely not going to be good at it. And there’s a chance that starting the consent convo will take you out of the mood, or that someone might no longer want to have sex with you because they feel that you’re making it too complicated. Those are moments to ask yourself: Is it more important to have sex or more important to learn how to stand up for my needs?

“If someone doesn’t make the space to have that kind of conversation with you, I would question if they’re a person that you feel safe with,” Mistress Velvet says. “A conscious and aware person would be like, ‘Yeah, this feels really awkward and I don’t have experience with this. Let’s just try it out.'”

Complete Article HERE!

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Marriage and #MeToo

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Behind the millions-loud movement, there’s a quiet fringe of women not comfortable posting the hashtag—because to out their perpetrator would be to out their husband.

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After the half-hearted foreplay, but before the lousy sex—that’s when the argument happened. It was nearly midnight on a Tuesday and Jess T. was just getting home from work. “I was going for a promotion and putting in really long hours at the office,” says the 33-year-old from San Francisco, California. “I felt so exhausted, I crawled into bed without even washing off my makeup. As I laid down next to my husband, who I thought was asleep, he started rubbing my thighs, pulling up my shirt—I knew.” For the next minute she debated two things: Should she take off her mascara after all? Should she have sex? No. No.

At first, her husband of four years tried to sway her by softly whispering in her ear (“I’ll make you feel so good”), but when she reaffirmed she wasn’t in the mood, his tone hardened. “He told me that he has needs as a man and that if I didn’t fulfill them he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate at work the next day,” Jess says. “As a woman, I’ve been socialized to put other people’s happiness before my own. I guess I feel responsible for their emotional wellbeing, and so I ended up consenting. Not because I wanted to or found it enjoyable, but because I felt I had to. It’s a very unsexy threesome—me, my husband, and the guilt.”

Been there, done that, says Marni Z., 35, from Phoenix, Arizona. “If I’m tired or just not into it, my husband will sigh with disgust, grab his pillow, and sleep on the couch,” says Marni, who has been married for eight years. “Or he’ll expect things from me—like coming to bed naked—and get irritated when I don’t comply. Sometimes I just numb myself into having sex so I don’t have his cloud of anger hanging over me.”

If domestic labor is a woman’s second shift, the gray-zone, on-demand sex sessions that they feel obligated to have with their partners is the third. After interviewing couples across the country, one study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that many husbands expect their wives to perform sexually, and cited additional research that this causes women “to become disconnected from their own sexual desires” and experience feelings of resentment. Many participants in the study were only compliant to “reduce marital conflict…and to help a spouse feel better about himself.”

It’s something that Ian Kerner, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy, has certainly seen play out. “When people get married, their views on sex tend to shift a bit,” he says. “Some men feel that they now have constant access to sex, while women take on an obligation that they have to be sexual even when they don’t want to be.”

It’s not that married women are docile damsels of the domestic kingdom. They’re strong enough to set boundaries—and often do—but that doesn’t prevent men from plying, prodding, and pushing them. One study out of the University of Nebraska in 2005 found that men used comments like “you would have sex if you loved me” to gain sexual access to women. While separate research found that men relied on verbal tactics of repeated requests until women gave in to sex. The pushy, supposed primal instincts of men are deeply threaded into our sheets—and our scummy sexual culture.

mAnd that, perhaps, is the more dispiriting reason why wedded sex has such an antique flavor: Marriage may be the last frontier where the belief that sex is mandatory still somewhat rings true, and where consent has been flattened and pushed to the edge. While a single woman’s right to say no to sex is championed and society-approved (damn, right!), once you’re married, it becomes all about saying yes. In fact, in order to decline sex, women in long-term relationships have been socialized to believe that they need an excuse: I have a headache. I’m not feeling well. I’m on my period. They aren’t allowed to opt out of sex because, you know, they just don’t feel like it (damn, wrong!). “I’m lusty, I like sex,” Jess says. “I just don’t like that I always have to like sex.”

In fact, when Jess went searching online for advice on how to deal with the bang-it-out sex sessions her husband sometimes pressured her into, she found “a blog post from a psychologist that told me I should have sex anyway because I would eventually get turned on—not true, by the way, I just got mad. And then a first-person article from a woman who never said no to her husband when he asked for sex for an entire year. The author painted herself like a goddess with an 24/7 vagina. Everything I read just made me feel that, as a married woman, I was no longer the sole boss of my body.”

Muddying the situation more: Unlike when you’re just dating, when you’re married there’s no ghosting, submarining, or sending screenshots of your shitty date to your friends. There are bills to pay and a dog that needs walking. “I was in a long-term relationship where, even when I wasn’t physically responsive, my partner would continue with sex and make sure his needs were met,” says Sarah W., 38, from New York City. “I was confused about what rights I had to sexual boundaries. We lived together, were engaged, shared finances.”

Sweet sex. Hot sex. Sucky sex. It all seemed like part of the marital knot.

But then came the shift. The ‘Cat Person’ story in The New Yorker went viral, and shortly after, a piece that detailed one woman’s account of a bad date with Aziz Ansari did, too. Suddenly the #MeToo movement had ballooned beyond sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, floating the idea that women should have the right to good sex and shouldn’t feel pressured to suffer through a sexual encounter they don’t want or find pleasurable. Suddenly, there was a term for bad sex: bad sex. But this time, with context.

“Women started to have these soul-searching conversations that were really important,” says Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in Los Angeles, California, and creator of The Passion Project, an online course for couples with mismatched sex drives. “I think it’s a woman’s obligation to be respectful of her partner’s desires and to take them into consideration. It’s her obligation to have conversations about her partner’s intimate needs. But it is absolutely not a woman’s obligation to have sex with her partner when she does not want to. Every woman gets to decide what she wants to do with her own body. Any advice to the contrary is really outdated.”

And out of the good-sex revolution has come better advice. For starters, the notion that sometimes rejection is involved in the sexual process, even when you’re married. “Initiating sex does take a lot of vulnerability,” Marin says. “That’s why in addition to sexual desires and needs, couples need to talk to each other about how to turn each other down gracefully. If you aren’t in the mood for sex, explain why, making it clear it doesn’t have anything to do with your partner—it helps show that you aren’t rejecting them. Also, while it’s normal to feel sad if your partner isn’t interested in being intimate with you, it’s each partner’s responsibility to soothe their own hurt feelings.”

Kerner agrees. “Men feel rejected, women feel bullied, but what we’re missing is this emotional vulnerability that both partners feel,” he says. “Talking through those emotions and connecting to that underneath space can be really intimate and can help you get back on the same page sexually.”

In the post-Weinstein world, so much changed. And yet, so much hasn’t.

“I’m so glad that we’re having these conversations and that women feel empowered to demand good sex,” Jess says. “But I do wish the conversations around the movement didn’t just include coworkers, bosses, bad dates, and strangers on the street. Sometimes, for change to happen, these conversations need to include the people who we are most intimate with—even if those honest conversations start just with ourselves.”

So better sex for everyone? Yes to that—every time.

Complete Article HERE!

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What It’s Like to Reclaim Your Sex Life After Sexual Assault

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Survivors share their stories.

By Zahra Barnes

When she was 16, Lindsay Marie Gibson was raped. After her assault, life continued, as it does. Years later, in college, she met the man who would become her husband. She fell in love. They got married. Life was good. Yet her assault from years before still wreaked havoc, here and there. If Lindsay, now 34, didn’t flinch when her husband reached for her hand, it was only because she didn’t realize he was touching her in the first place. Her mind-body disconnect, which had come about as what she calls a “self-protection” of sorts after she was raped, was that powerful.

Many people struggle to feel connected with their bodies after experiencing an assault.

Lindsay is not the only survivor to unintentionally rely on this coping mechanism in the aftermath of sexual assault. “It sounds odd, but sexual abuse actually makes you forget that your body is yours and not property or an object,” Lauren*, 26, a survivor who often thought of herself as a “body-less soul” after her rape, tells SELF. “The minute you realize your body is indeed your own, you are instantly reminded that it was forcefully taken from you

This physical numbness stems from an emotional one, and it’s a natural impulse after undergoing something as horrendous as rape. But it is also an intimidating force blocking many survivors from what they say is one of the most empowering parts of reclaiming their lives after rape: Enjoying sex again, or for the first time ever

The yawning chasm between mind and body can make it impossible to fully connect with another person, says Lindsay, who was only able to fall in love with her husband mentally at first: “In my head, I knew I loved him, but I couldn’t feel it in my body.”

Integrating the mind and body is essential for a happy, healthy sex life after assault.

“There needs to be integration,” Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist who has counseled survivors at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, tells SELF. “The trauma happened in the past, and a new, healthy, sexual self is moving into future, but it’s all the same person—one body, one mind.”

The goal, says Richmond, is for the survivor to process the trauma so it does not affect her daily life, without compartmentalizing what happened to her to the point of suppression. Attempting to completely stanch the flow of painful memories can contribute to that mind-body disconnect, as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Unpacking that trauma in a healthy way is what helps survivors enjoy many facets of life—including sex, Indira Henard, M.S.W, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, tells SELF. “Each survivor is different, and it’s a lifelong journey,” she says.

Survivors must navigate various obstacles on the journey towards integration.

For starters, they often struggle with feeling comfortable around men. “If I saw a man in an elevator, I would turn and run the other way,” Lindsay says. “I was fighting anxiety through all my dates—I would sit and stare as they talked, but my head was going, Run, run, run. Get away from this guy.”

When a survivor does eventually wrangle that anxious impulse and start dating someone, she’ll likely disclose what happened at some point. At first, sharing details about her rape would often send men “running for the hills,” Anna*, 36, tells SELF. Now she is in a wonderful relationship with a man who responded to her story with kindness.

Even once a survivor is ready to have sex, issues like anxiety and PTSD can still rear their ugly heads. “When you’re having flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about your assault or rape, it’s very, very difficult to want to have sex,” says Lauren, who has PTSD. “Or worse, if you are having sex when these things arise, sex can become scary and intimidating, not to mention triggering.”

Avoiding triggers after sexual assault can feel like a minefield.

For Jess*, 24, a nickname her attacker called her is now off-limits. When dating after her rape, hearing the nickname during sex could prompt her to “100 percent flip out and start crying,” she tells SELF.

And after being raped from behind, Anna has drawn a line at certain kinds of touch with her husband. “Sometimes, as much as he wants to touch that area, it’s just too much,” she says.

That decision brings Anna a measure of relief while also prompting guilt at times, which experts say is normal but unwarranted. No matter what a trigger is, having one doesn’t mean you’re weak or wrong—it means you’re human, says Richmond.

To manage triggers, assault survivors must regain control over their sex lives, which often includes absolving themselves of any wrongdoing.

In order to heal, it’s vital to set sexual boundaries and hammer out a definition of consent and what is or isn’t OK between two people, says Henard: “Survivors have a right to ask for consent and negotiate what that looks like for them.”

This requires survivors to let themselves off the hook, which many have trouble doing due to persistent feelings of shame, says Richmond.

“It’s about recognizing that you did not do anything wrong, that there’s nothing you could have done to prevent this, and that you are not alone,” says Henard. Richmond adds, “I don’t care if you were sitting naked on a street corner. The only reason you were raped is that you were in the presence of a rapist.”

“When you realize it’s not your fault, it’s kind of like a weight is lifted off of you,” Jennifer*, 44, tells SELF. That self-acceptance often gives survivors the feeling that it’s OK to articulate what they need in order to feel in control of their sexual destinies.

Once survivors have established boundaries, they’re one step closer to truly connecting with someone else, which is an integral part of moving forward.

“This is what so much of my therapeutic practice is about: being able to authentically connect with another human being without going into the shame, guilt, and anger brought up during and after sexual assault,” says Richmond. “There might be some bumps in the road, but when the partner can continue to offer security and safety, it’s an amazing thing

Jennifer recalls how comfortable she felt when she first met her now-fiancé. “He was very compassionate, and he was very patient,” she says. Her fiancé—whom she describes as very focused on helping her to associate sex with good feelings instead of bad ones—is the first person she’s been able to get fully naked in front of since her rape. “I’ve always been very self-conscious of my body, but I don’t feel that way with him,” she says. Now, sex feels freer and is without the tense fight-or-flight mode that marked other encounters after her rape.

For Lindsay, something about her husband’s energy quieted the alarms that would clang whenever she was around men. “The first time he looked at me, I didn’t feel like I needed to run,” she says. “For the first time ever, in my head, I was able to have peace.”

And, of course, pleasure plays a crucial role in this equation.

The best-case scenario, says Richmond, is that a survivor isn’t thinking about the assault when she’s having sex. Instead, the hope is that she feels safe, secure, connected, and is feeling pleasure. But that’s easier said than done

“I got to a point where I was able to be intimate, but I didn’t feel passion,” Lindsay says. “I knew in my head he was safe…I just kind of wanted to get through it and wanted him to be satisfied because I love him.”

Jess would similarly go through the motions, humming songs or making grocery lists in her head to get through sex

But eventually, many survivors realize they deserve pleasure, too, and that seeking it out is essential for healing. “I found the only way to truly move on was to be vocal and to speak up for myself,” Lauren says. Sometimes, she needs to halt all sexual activity. “Other times, I just need a second to re-ground myself and allow my body to remember its present circumstance and realize it is not in danger,” she says.

Having good sex is more than a marker of healing—it’s a liberating step in the process.

Some time after her assault, when Lauren felt ready, she dove eagerly into sexual exploration with her then-boyfriend. “Learning what my body loves and wants has been an exciting journey and one that is incredibly empowering,” she says

But after they broke up, the uncertain world of dating pushed her into more exploration than was ultimately right for her. “I decided to—no strings attached—explore sex just for sex,” she says. “The experience I gained was not worth the emotional toll. I realized sex cannot be, at least for me, something [frivolous] without thought and true emotional connection.”

Now, Lauren is in a happy marriage with a great sex life. “My partner encourages me to be vocal, and we spend a lot of time communicating our needs, our wants, and our thoughts and desires about sex,” she says. “Finding out just how sexually compatible we are has been amazing.”

After some time in therapy, Jess gave herself a mission similar to Lauren’s: “My goal was to have as much sex as possible [with my boyfriend] until I felt normal.”

It helped her make leaps and bounds in her recovery. “I can do everything that might be illegal in some states and countries, and I’m fine with that!” she says. “I feel like my body is special now—there’s no one who can tell me otherwise.”

Sometimes therapy, yoga, or even a tragedy is what helps survivors move forward.

Although not for everyone, many survivors cite therapy as a crucial part of the equation. It helped Lindsay cut her panic attacks down from five to six per day to maybe five per month, and Jennifer and her fiancé sometimes go to couple’s therapy to figure out the best way to approach her lingering anxiety and trust issues

Lindsay has also found solace in trauma yoga, which helped her reconnect her mind and body. Part of this involved a focus on clearing negative energy from parts of her body, like her ribcage and neck, that had ached since the rape due to injuries she sustained during the assault. “Once I became aware that’s what my body was holding, I haven’t had a problem since,” she says. The yoga also encouraged her to sit with her pain instead of trying to deny it.

But what helped Lindsay truly mend her mind-body disconnect was actually another tragedy—the pain she endured after a stillbirth of a much-wanted son. “Losing him burst me open,” she says. The visceral pain made it impossible to suppress her feelings. “My body was trying to go back into denial, but this time it was different—I couldn’t deny the fact that I loved him,” says Lindsay, who wrote about the transformative experience in Just Be: How My Stillborn Son Taught Me to Surrender. “I was actually healing for the first time.”

Now, thanks to that combination of factors, Lindsay’s sex life has changed dramatically for the better. “I’m able to be present and let go, and I can feel my desire for [my husband], which is a completely new thing.”

If you’re on this journey, remember: It’s a work in progress, but healing is indeed possible.

<It’s normal to grapple with mixed feelings about sex and sexuality after an assault. “I want to feel like a sexy person, and I want to feel like I can be more vocal about what I like and what I enjoy,” says Anna. “But at the same time, is that me being like the men that attacked me, in a sense? I know it may sound silly, but I don’t want to be that aggressive person

Confronting these feelings is part and parcel of working through the aftershocks of sexual assault. It sounds like an unfathomable burden, but survivors consistently rise to meet the occasion.

“Survivors are the strongest people I’ve ever met,” says Richmond. “Almost across the board, these people come out with more strength, more empathy, and more insight into the human condition.”

Although Anna says reclaiming her life is something she’s “still struggling with,” she’s determined to keep at it. “We have three children. I want them to know their mama is strong, resilient. There can be love, and a family, and more to life than [my assault].”

That focus on a better future, many survivors say, is part of what helps them form bonds with potential partners with whom they can have healthy relationships—and repair their relationships with themselves. “There is hope,” says Lindsay. “The physical pain, the emotional pain—all that stuff is passing clouds. Joy is the sky. It’s always there

Names have been changed.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). More resources are available online from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. To find a sexual assault service provider near you, visit RAINN.

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