We may like to think we’re quite sexually free and equal these days, but an End Violence Against Women Coalition/YouGov survey of nearly 4,000 adults finds that two-fifths of people think men want sex more than women do. And between a third of and half of us think it is more likely that in heterosexual couples men will initiate and orgasm during sex, and decide when sex is finished, than women. In contrast, women are believed to be much more likely to refuse sex and to “go along with sex to keep their partner happy”.
This shows the persistence of the idea that sex is more “for” men than it is for women. The female climax is talked about in terms of being elusive, and yet the fact that this “orgasm gap” exists solely in heterosexual sex speaks to a lack of understanding, effort and mutuality, because lesbians are not having this problem. It’s a product of setting up the male orgasm, usually achieved through penile penetration, as the centrepiece of sex.
It is a sad state of affairs that there is a lower expectation that women will experience pleasure or climax during sex, and that this is accepted as to be expected, or “normal”. It’s self-perpetuating, because if women believe that “going along” with sex is a common female experience, they may be less likely to articulate and explore their needs and wants in early sexual relationships or when older. They may also feel pressure not to express discomfort or pain. And when sex is only one part of a long-term relationship, alongside persistent inequality around work, chores, caring and other people’s gendered expectations, plain talking and yet another plea for fairness might be just one battle too many.
Sexual inequality matters enormously, in and of itself, because women should be able to expect and enjoy sexual relationships that are based on mutual pleasure and equality. This shouldn’t need contesting or sound radical any more but apparently it does.
But there’s even more than this at stake. The sexist ideas about sex that we identified can also be a basis for some men developing a sense of greater entitlement to sex, as well as the excusing or minimising of men pestering or pushing women for sex. If you combine these ideas that men want and need sex more, and that women are just less motivated and more likely to refuse, you end up with a toxic status for women as the “gatekeepers” of sex, where it is a woman’s role to manage sexual interactions and access to her body.
If women are “gatekeepers” of whether sex takes place, then it is women who carry all the responsibility for every single sexual interaction they have. And this means that women are also seen as responsible if their boundaries are broken and they experience sexual violence. And it will be principally her who is investigated to ascertain whether a rape took place if she alleges it. The man’s behaviour apparently does not need close examination. It is assumed he will have been up for and will have pushed for sex – only 1% of people think men ever refuse sex, and 2% think men “go along with” sex. This can then lead to the rhetoric of sexual violence being set up as an unfortunate failure to properly gatekeep, a regret, just a big misunderstanding. These are powerful myths that have malign consequences. However, if we thought about sex differently, based on equality, these would be less likely.
This entrenched sexism about sex matters when we consider what is going wrong in a society that is utterly failing to deter, reduce and prevent rape. These ideas are part of why reported rape prosecutions fail, as police and prosecutors decide they can’t build a case if they think a jury will see a woman who “failed to gatekeep” before they see a man who knew he was crossing the line.
This is why we are calling for more, accelerated and frank conversations about actual sexual practice. We need men to recognise their responsibility and accept accountability both for sexism and for good sex. We need to put an end to the notion that sex is something done “to” women, and to reach a place where enthusiastic, mutual consent, equality and pleasure in sexual relationships is the norm.
In 2015, artist Emma Sulkowicz wore a pale blue graduation robe and cap as they carried a 50-pound mattress across the stage, helped by four of their friends. Sulkowicz had been carrying the mattress — identical to those used in dorm rooms — around the Columbia University campus for an entire school year, as a performance art piece that doubled as their senior thesis. When they began the piece, Sulkowicz said they would carry the mattress until the student they said raped them in their dorm room was either expelled or voluntarily left school. But Sulkowicz graduated before either of those things happened.
And many of the people (mostly cis men) committing sexual assault don’t understand that what they’re doing issexual assault. One study found that male undergraduates were more likely to admit to raping a partner when the assault was described in other language (for example, “Have you ever coerced somebody to intercourse by holding them down?”) rather than when the word “rape” was used.
Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men, previously told Refinery29 that in his workshops for high school boys, only 19% can accurately define consent. “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,” he said.
Campus sexual assault is so prevalent that it has often been called an “epidemic,” and yet only eight states in the U.S. require public school sex education to even mention consent. It’s vital that students understand consent before entering college — the first six weeks of college are sometimes called “the Red Zone” because this is the time of year when the majority of on campus sexual assaults occur.
As Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape editor Jaclyn Friedman previously wrote for Refinery29, “When I talk to students about sex and consent, I’m often asked — mostly by young men — how often they have to check in with a partner to make sure they’re doing consent right… But rape is not a technicality, and consent is not a one-and-done box to be ticked; it’s an ongoing process between two people, which requires treating your partner like an equal. Trying to reduce ‘consent’ to something you need to get out of the way so you can go ahead and get some means you’re more concerned with gaming the rules than with treating your partner like a human person.”
We’ll break down some of the intricacies and common misconceptions about consent here, but Friedman gets right to the main point of it: treat your partner like a human person.
What Is Consent?
At its most basic definition, consent means agreeing to do something. When talking about sexual activity, activists are pushing for laws that establish affirmative consent, or “Yes Means Yes.” This approach establishes consent as something you actively say “yes” to, rather than simply the absence of a “no.”
According to End Rape On Campus, affirmative consent laws “establish that consent is a voluntary, affirmative, conscious, agreement to engage in sexual activity, that it can be revoked at any time, that a previous relationship does not constitute consent, and that coercion or threat of force can also not be used to establish consent. Affirmative consent can be given either verbally or nonverbally.” Additionally, these laws make it clear that someone is “incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or is either not awake or fully awake, is also incapable of giving consent.” California and New York have such laws in place, as do a number of individual schools in other states, including the University of Minnesota, Texas A&M, and Yale University. Even if your state or school currently has a laxer legal view of consent, morally, this is the way to go.
How Do I Know If My Partner Is Giving Consent?
Sexuality educator Jamie J. LeClaire highlights five different factors to examine when talking about consent. They tell Refinery29 that consent must be:
1. Voluntary: “Consent must be freely given without any threat, force, intimidation, or coercion.”
2. Informed and coherent: “Someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and not entirely coherent, or asleep or not completely awake, is unable to give consent.”
3. Enthusiastic and unambiguous: “You shouldn’t be unsure of whether or not someone is into what’s happening. There should be no confusion as to whether your partner is a willing and eager participant.”
4. Reversible: “Consent can be withdrawn at any time. That first green light can become a ‘Time to slow down’ or ‘Actually, I want to stop,’ at any moment for any reason, and that’s totally 100% valid, and their bodily autonomy must be respected.”
5. Ongoing and specific: “Sex is an active, continuous interaction — consenting to some heavy petting isn’t necessarily agreeing to be flogged.”
Remember that, as LeClaire says, “Consent must be given no matter what your relationship status is with your sexual partner.” Whether this is a long-term partner or someone you just met, if they’re not into it, stop.
Consent & Alcohol Or Drugs
Some consent guidelines say that a person cannot give consent if they are “incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.” However, other activists push for stronger standards.
“When it comes to mixing alcohol and other drugs with sex, my advice is: don’t,” Sam Wall, Assistant to the Director at sex education site Scarleteen.com, previously told Refinery29. “Any alcohol consumption makes consent anything from automatically questionable to outright impossible.” However, she added, “Realistically speaking, we know people can and do have mutually consensual, non-sober sex.” So if you and your partner do decide to have sex after drinking or doing drugs, “clear verbal consent is a MUST, not a maybe, and ANY indication someone is simply wasted, or isn’t aware or alert or all-there should be a stop sign, no argument.
Research shows that around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol, and that men who drink heavily are more likely than other men to report having committed sexual assault. If you think there’s any chance drinking may impact your ability to tell whether your partner is consenting, do not drink and have sex.
Consent & Condoms
In the past few years, there’s been a lot of media coverage of the rise of “stealthing” — the practice of removing a condom during sex without a partner’s consent. In one 2018 study, 32% of women who have sex with men and 19% of men who have sex with men reported having experienced this. Unfortunately, there are no laws in the United States that explicitly name stealthing as a form of sexual assault, however, activists and lawmakers are pushing to change that.
“If someone consented to sex using condoms or other prevention methods, that’s the conditions of sex in which they consented. Removing the barrier method without your partner’s knowledge is an absolute violation of consent and sexual assault,” LeClaire says.>
Consent & Nude Photos
Keep consent in mind when sending nude photos, too. Earlier this year, Texas introduced a bill that would make sending unsolicited nude photos a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine. Many couples enjoy sending sexy photos to each other — but make sure that the person you’re sending the photo to actually wants to receive it.
“Unsolicited nude pics via text, SnapChat, dating apps, or whatever it may be, are a breach of consent. It’s really not that hard to ask for consent for sending naughty pics,” LeClaire says. “[Text something like], ‘I took some XXX photos of myself earlier, would love to send,’ and wait for permission. If they aren’t into it, respect that!”
If your partner sends you nude photos that you asked for, keep those photos private and do not share them with your friends or post them online. This is a violation of consent commonly called “revenge porn.”
How Do I Ask For Consent?
Some people think that asking for consent is “un-sexy,” but that’s not the case at all. As LeClaire points out, there are many different ways to ask for consent, up to and including dirty talk. Saying something like, “Do you like this?” or “I really want to [describe what you want to do]” are both ways of asking for consent. Your partner’s response “should sound nothing short of excitement, and it should NOT sound like hesitance, silence, or unease,” LeClaire says.
What Is Title IX?
In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments banned discrimination on the basis of sex in “any educational program or activity receiving federal funding,” which includes both public and private colleges. Along with protecting students from discrimination in areas such as sports, Title IX applies to sexual assault and harassment. Title IX “provides protections for students who are survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape,” LeClaire explains.
In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights introduced new guidelines for how colleges should handle sexual harassment and assault. However, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has worked to roll back these Obama-era guidelines. Still, Title IX currently applies to sexual assault on campus.
“Every college will have a Title IX coordinator. If you know someone has sexually assaulted someone, inform your school’s Title IX coordinator. If you or someone you know what sexually assaulted, tell your school’s Title IX coordinator (with consent),” LeClaire says.
“Hookup culture,” especially as it plays out on college campuses, is a much-discussed topic. Often, hooking up is studied and speculated about like it’s some kind of sexual epidemic, or at the very least, the outcast of sexual intimacy: Is it increasing or decreasing? Perpetuated by dating apps? Gendered? Dangerous? Sure, hookup culture and the many ways we have and experience sex is worth studying and having opinions about, but it can’t be that all hookups are bad or blah.
Despite the often-negative press, hookups, or, short term sexual/intimate encounters, like one-night stands, summer flings, and semester-long friends-with-benefits relationships, can come with a lot of descriptors: “casual,” “fun,” “random,” and “spontaneous” can be some, but can they also be ethical, considerate, and satisfying? We think yes!
Determining whether or not something is officially ethical can be confusing work, as ethics tend to rely both on our individual values and also what society deems ethical — which might not always align. Get your conservative, married-for-50-years grandfather and your liberal, nonmonogamous LGBTQ+ friends at the same dinner table and ask what makes for an “ethical sexual encounter” and you’ll likely get very different responses from each of them (and if anyone ever does do this, please let me know how it goes).
Regardless of what your hookup entails (making out, oral sex, penetrative sex_ or whether you met via a dating app, a party, or a chance meeting with a beautiful stranger — hookups tend to be understood as uniquely separate from a relationship in that they are typically described as being casual or short term and require minimal official commitment between the people involved. For some, the very short-term nature of a hookup can feel unethical (and that’s a totally fine opinion to have as long as we’re not judging others’ choices!), but for others, short-term intimate encounters are exactly what they want. The reality is, we’re certainly not creating more happy hookup experiences by immediately throwing out the possibility of hookups being conscientious, respectful, and downright ethical just because they’re only happening once, sporadically, or when the mood strikes.
So how do you make sure your hookup is ethical?
As a resident sex educator for a youth collective of 16- to 19-year-olds, I had the great opportunity to sit down with a group of the collective’s youth leaders to talk about what they wanted to communicate to their peers about the components of an ethical hookup. Here’s the advice we came up with to help you make your hookup as ethical as possible.
Know and share your STI status.
Being aware of the state of your personal sexual health and sharing it openly and without shame is a key part of making sure our partners and ourselves are informed participants in our hookup. The general rule of thumb is to get a new STI test at least every six months if you’re sexually active with more than one person, or anytime you have a new sexual partner. Empower yourself by knowing that you can set the tone for this “status talk,” so practice speaking confidently and nonjudgmentally about your status and your partner will likely follow suit.
In addition to sharing your status, you should also know and share how to prevent the transmission of STIs via various safer-sex practices. And when it comes to hooking up, it’s always a good idea to have those safer-sex supplies on hand! This HRC Safer Sex Guide (available in both English and Spanish) can help connect the dots between levels of risk, certain sex acts, and which safer-sex practices to put in place.
Consider others’ feelings.
Despite common portrayals, a hookup doesn’t need to be completely devoid of feelings to be considered successful, and not all people experience short-term sexual encounters as emotionless. You can absolutely enthusiastically agree to a hot roll in the one-day hay and be kind, check in about your hookup partner’s feelings the next day, and still maintain casualness. A simple text of appreciation or a “How are you?” can go a long way; as long as you’re clear about intentions, feelings don’t need to get hurt or ignored.
Know and be clear about your intentions.
Intentions are just that — what we set out to do, on purpose, with the knowledge that what we intend might not pan out. If you know that you’re only available for a summer fling but lead your partner on into thinking you want to continue your short-term relationship indefinitely, that’s not ethical because you’re creating a connection based on false pretenses.
Despite our intentions, things can change, feelings can get caught, and our best-laid plans can shift, and that’s okay. But if we have specific intentions from the get-go and aren’t communicating them, then our partners can’t make their own choices about how they would like to interact with us, their own feelings, and their own boundaries. Knowledge is power — don’t strip your partner of theirs by withholding intent.
Respect your own boundaries.
Intentions and ethics start with you. Just like communicating your intentions to your partner gives them power, checking in with your moral compass, your sexual desires and limits, and your hopes for your own intimate interactions gives it to you. Hookups can really get us caught up in a moment, so be prepared for a casual connection by thinking about some of these elements ahead of time. How do I want and like to be touched? What do I want out of a hookup? What do I not want? Scarleteen.com’s sexual inventory checklist, Yes, No, Maybe So, can be a helpful piece of hookup homework to do on your own, in advance.
Respect your partner and their boundaries.
Yes, a fling can be casual and maybe even happen quickly, but always make sure to make time to ask your partner directly about their own yeses, nos, and maybe-sos. Not only does this ensure that we’re respecting our partners and practicing consent, but this also drastically increases our chances of having a mutually pleasurable experience.
If a hookup is indeed temporary, why waste your time guessing at what your partner might want rather than simply asking them directly? And when they give you an answer, you should listen to it. Asking our partner about their desires is consensual, ethical, and just plain economical.
Create more emotional, relational, and sexual safety in your hookups by maintaining mutual respect for your and your partner’s particular desires, wants, yucks, and yums — including wherever you and your partner might fall on the spectrum of sexual experience.
Being fearful to express what it is that turns you on or shaming your partner for what tickles their intimate fancy is a terrible way to explore a mutually satisfying hookup. Sexuality is a very wide world, so it’s impossible that you’ll both be totally into every single thing the other person is into, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as everything is consensual. Instead, focus on where your desires overlap and remember that you can enthusiastically consent to trying something new because consent means you can change your mind at any time if the new thing just isn’t for you.
Honor consent and seek it actively and in an ongoing manner.
Consent starts with asking for explicit permission before your intimate interaction begins, making sure that each party involved is fully informed about and understands what they’re saying yes, no, or maybe to. Make sure your consent practice doesn’t end there, though!
Active, ongoing consent continues through your intimate interaction and for the duration of your hookup relationship, no matter how long it lasts. During your hookup, ask questions like “Is this still okay?” “Do you like what we’re doing or should we switch it up?” and never assume that just because you hooked up once that your partner (or you!) wants to hook up again, or do the same things you did last time. Keep asking questions and don’t be worried about asking too many. It’s better to spend more time asking questions and less time feeling regret or remorse.
Practice makes perfect.
Feeling awkward is one of the main reasons high school and college students tell me they don’t utilize consent skills and safer-sex supplies. Though putting a condom on a banana is one of the most tired classroom sex-ed tricks in the book, getting your hands on things like condoms, dental dams, gloves, lube, and knowing how to use them properly before you find yourself in a hookup situation will make using these tools more seamless (and less awkward-seeming) in the moment.
Masturbatingusing condoms, gloves, and/or lube to get familiar with the sensation can be a fun way to practice. You can visit your local Planned Parenthood to get accurate information about birth control and risk-management options (even if you don’t plan on needing them anytime soon), which can help bust myths and let you know the resources available to you. Better yet — make it an educational outing with a few friends, complete with going out for ice cream afterward — because why not?
Check in regularly.
Though the general lack of commitment can be part of what makes hooking up appealing to folks, it’s always a good idea to check in every now and then about whether or not keeping it casual is still what you want to do. Checking in with ourselves about our own wants and needs and communicating them clearly also makes sure that we’re keeping tabs on our own priorities, too, and makes sure that we’re remembering to stay clear about our intentions.
Ask for info on pronouns, body parts, no-zones, and triggers.
Even if our sexual interactions are short-term, hooking up is still a vulnerable place to be. All of our partners deserve respect and to feel safe and valued. Nothing will ruin a hookup faster than crossing a boundary (even if accidentally), so make sure to ask where and how your partner likes to be touched, the words they use to talk about them and their bodies, and where they absolutely do not want to go with you whether that’s right now or ever.
Pro tip: Remember that someone saying “no” or “not there” to you isn’t something that you should take personally. Rather, a no can be valuable information your partner is sharing with you about themselves so that you can get to know them better. This perspective can make the “nos” easier to hear while keeping our egos in check.
Respect the gender and sexuality identities of your partners and support their ongoing journey.
Gender, sexuality, and identity is fluid and, especially between teenagehood and adulthood, can change and shift a lot. If a partner tells you about how they identify, believe them, respect them, use the language they ask you to use, and adapt if what’s true for them changes.
Your sureness about your own gender and sexuality doesn’t need to get rattled just because your partners’ identities shift — we promise.
Don’t stir drama.
A truly ethical hookup doesn’t kiss and Snap. While getting support from or excitedly dishing to your friends about hookups can be a totally healthy part of the experience, spreading rumors, sharing information, or even dropping hints that violate your partner’s privacy, consent, or are intended to hurt them or someone else is not. Know the difference, ask your partner before sharing their personal information, and absolutely keep their sexts to yourself.
Many people think of pain and sex as deeply incompatible. After all, sex is all about pleasure, and pain has nothing to do with that, right? Well, for some individuals, pain and pleasure can sometimes overlap in a sexual context, but how come? Continue reading this Spotlight feature to find out.
The relationship between pain and sexual pleasure has lit up the imaginations of many writers and artists, with its undertones of forbidden, mischievous enjoyment.
In 1954, the erotic novel Story of O by Anne Desclos (pen name Pauline Réage) caused a stir in France with its explicit references to bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism — an array of sexual practices referred to as BDSM, for short.
Still, practices that involve an overlap of pain and pleasure are often shrouded in mystery and mythologized, and people who admit to engaging in rough play in the bedroom often face stigma and unwanted attention.
So what happens when an individual finds pleasure in pain during foreplay or sexual intercourse? Why is pain pleasurable for them, and are there any risks when it comes to engaging in rough play?
In this Spotlight feature, we explain why physical pain can sometimes be a source of pleasure, looking at both physiological and psychological explanations.
Also, we look at possible side effects of rough play and how to cope with them and investigate when the overlap of pain and pleasure is not healthful.
Physical pain as a source of pleasure
First of all, a word of warning: Unless a person is specifically interested in experiencing painful sensations as part of their sexual gratification, sex should not be painful for the people engaging in it.
People may experience pain during intercourse for various health-related reasons, including conditions such as vaginismus, injuries or infections of the vulva or vagina, and injuries or infections of the penis or testicles.
If you experience unwanted pain or any other discomfort in your genitals during sex, it is best to speak to a healthcare professional about it.
Healthy, mutually consenting adults sometimes seek to experience painful sensations as an “enhancer” of sexual pleasure and arousal. This can be as part of BDSM practices or simply an occasional kink to spice up one’s sex life.
But how can pain ever be pleasurable? According to evolutionary theory, for humans and other mammals, pain functions largely as a warning system, denoting the danger of a physical threat. For instance, getting burned or scalded hurts, and this discourages us from stepping into a fire and getting burned to a crisp or drinking boiling water and damaging our bodies irreversibly.
Yet, physiologically speaking, pain and pleasure have more in common than one might think. Research has shown that sensations of pain and pleasure activate the same neural mechanisms in the brain.
Pleasure and pain are both tied to the interacting dopamine and opioid systems in the brain, which regulate neurotransmitters that are involved in reward- or motivation-driven behaviors, which include eating, drinking, and sex.
In terms of brain regions, both pleasure and pain seem to activate the nucleus accumbens, the pallidum, and the amygdala, which are involved in the brain’s reward system, regulating motivation-driven behaviors.
Thus, the “high” experienced by people who find painful sensations sexually arousing is similar to that experienced by athletes as they push their bodies to the limit.
Possible psychological benefits
There is also a complex psychological side to finding pleasure in sensations of pain. First of all, a person’s experience of pain can be highly dependent on the context in which the painful stimuli occur.
Experiencing pain from a knife cut in the kitchen or pain related to surgery, for instance, is bound to be unpleasant in most, if not all, cases.
However, when a person is experiencing physical pain in a context in which they are also experiencing positive emotions, their sense of pain actually decreases.
So when having sex with a trusted partner, the positive emotions associated with the act could blunt sensations of pain resulting from rough play.
At the same time, voluntarily experienced pain during sex or erotic play can, surprisingly, have positive psychological effects, and the main one is interpersonal bonding.
Two studies — with results collectively published in Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2009 — found that participants who engaged in consensual sadomasochistic acts as part of erotic play experienced a heightened sense of bonding with their partners and an increase in emotional trust. In their study paper, the researchers concluded that:
“Although the physiological reactions of bottoms [submissive partners] and tops [dominant partners] tended to differ, the psychological reactions converged, with bottoms and tops reporting increases in relationship closeness after their scenes [BDSM erotic play].”
Another reason for engaging in rough play during sex is that of escapism. “Pain,” explain authors of a review published in The Journal of Sex Research, “can focus attention on the present moment and away from abstract, high-level thought.”
“In this way,” the authors continue, “pain may facilitate a temporary reprieve or escape from the burdensome responsibilities of adulthood.”
In fact, a study from 2015 found that many people who practiced BDSM reported that their erotic practices helped them de-stress and escape their daily routine and worries.
The study’s authors, Ali Hébert and Prof. Angela Weaver, write that “Many of the participants stated that one of the motivating factors for engaging in BDSM was that it allowed them to take a break from their everyday life.” To illustrate this point, the two quote one participant who chose to play submissive roles:
”It’s a break free from your real world, you know. It’s like giving yourself a freaking break.”
Potential side effects of play
People can also experience negative psychological effects after engaging in rough play — no matter how experienced they are and how much care they take in setting healthful boundaries for an erotic scene.
Among BDSM practitioners, this negative side effect is known as “sub drop,” or simply “drop,” and it refers to experiences of sadness and depression that can set in, either immediately after engaging in rough sexual play or days after the event.
Researchers Richard Sprott, Ph.D., and Anna Randall argue that, while the emotional “crash” that some people experience immediately after rough play could be due to hormonal changes in the moment, drops that occur days later most likely have other explanations.
They argue that feelings of depression days after erotic play correspond to a feeling of loss of the “peak experience” of rough sexual play that grants a person psychological respite in the moment.
Like the high offered by the mix of pleasure and pain in the moment, which may be akin to the highs experienced by performance athletes, the researchers liken the afterplay “low” with that experienced by Olympic sportspeople in the aftermath of the competition, which is also referred to as “post-Olympic depression.”
In order to prevent or cope with feeling down after an intense high during erotic play, it is important for a person and their partner or partners to carefully plan aftercare, both at the physical and psychological level, discussing individual needs and worries in detail.
Whatever a person decides to engage in to spice up their sex life, the key is always consent. All the people participating in a sexual encounter must offer explicit and enthusiastic consent for all parts of that encounter, and they must be able to stop participating if they are no longer interested and willing.
Research suggests that fantasies about unusual or rough sexual play are very common, and some people decide to take the fantasy out of the realm of imagination and make it a reality.
If you decide to stray from “vanilla” sex and try other flavors too, that’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Just make sure that you stay safe and you only engage in what you enjoy and feel comfortable doing.
As a primary care physician, a significant part of my job is helping patients better understand and deal with the public health issues that affect our society—whether it’s the dangers of smoking tobacco or the importance of getting a flu shot or the need to get tested for STIs.
But there is one health issue in particular that is impacting so many and yet talked about by so few: consent. Talking about the nuances of consent can be complicated and uncomfortable. The subject has long been dismissed as a “mood ruiner” among sexual partners—and as a result, many choose to ignore these conversations altogether, creating a silence around something that desperately needs to be discussed and unpacked.
Since I know that many of my patients are not having these conversations with their friends, family, or even partners, I make it part of my regular practice to bring up the subject of consent with my patients. I talk to my patients about other necessities when practicing safe sex, such as birth control and STI-prevention, so I’m in a unique position to be able to also discuss consent with them. Even a simple question like, “How do you give and receive consent with your partner?”, can make a huge difference when it comes to starting a conversation and, ultimately, creating a safer, more comfortable environment for sex
When it comes down to it, consent is all about respect for another person’s bodily autonomy: when you want to touch another person or have sex with them, you should ask first (verbally) and continue to give and receive consent in this way throughout a sexual encounter. That doesn’t necessarily mean running through a monotone checklist of “can I…,” but it does mean paying attention to the physical and verbal cues of the person you’re with, while maintaining clear and open communication. Consent also doesn’t have to be sexual. Getting and receiving consent extends to situations such as borrowing your friend’s shirt or using your coworker’s phone. We wouldn’t do either of those things without asking, so of course an act as intimate as sex deserves the same consideration.
It also means being sure that the person is able to give consent. A few important factors to consider: is your sexual partner above the age of consent in your particular state? Are you certain that they are not under the influence of mind-altering substances, and they are in no way being coerced or pressured into saying yes?
The unfortunate reality is that a lack of consent can often be difficult to prove, which is one reason an estimated 80 percent of sexual assault and rape cases go unpreported and around 995 of 1000 perpetrators of rape will avoid prison. This lack of action through the justice system is one reason why it is critical to address the underlying cultural and societal issues as swifty and resoundingly as possible
This is why I talk to all of my patients (and anyone else who will listen, really) about the importance of both giving and receiving enthusiastic consent with all partners. In my work as a primary care physician, I have spoken to many patients about their experiences with sexual assault and consent. It’s a subject I believe all PCPs should broach with their patients if they have the training and resources to do so, since it directly impacts the physical, emotional, and psychological health of the people in our society
The taboo and shame surrounding non-consensual experiences coupled with the physical and mental trauma many survivors experience can cause severe health problems for years to come. Health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and long-term physical challenges are far from uncommon in survivors and can cause irreparable damage, both mentally and physically</a
But, as it currently stands, only eight states require consent or sexual assault to be mentioned as part of public school sex education curriculum. These are typically as pieces of a larger discussion on healthy relationships, which doesn’t always help young people make the necessary associations between safe sexual activity and consent.
So, why should I—a family medicine physician—be the one bringing this up? The number one reason for me is that it ensures that someone does. Too often, other leadership figures for young people, like their parents or their schools, either don’t know how to bring up consent or simply don’t feel comfortable. Unless someone else—like a primary care provider—takes on the subject, sometimes it never gets broached at all.
When talking to patients, I do my best to normalize discussions about sexual activity by asking about things like the body parts they use for sex (vagina, anus, penis, mouth, etc.). In these discussions, I ask patients open-ended questions about how they would describe their communication with their partners, or any tension they feel in those relationships. I also ask them how they typically give and receive consent. Patients are often surprised by these questions. They may expect to be screened for STIs or asked about pregnancy, but they don’t usually associate consent with their overall health.
But the reality is that consent is a hugely important component of a patient’s sexual and overall health. Talking about consent can help me identify other conversations that I should be having with that patient and may lead to a bigger discussion about past experiences, mental and physical health, and sexual practices.
The reality of consent is that it’s not always as cut and dry as “yes” or “no,” which can make it difficult for people to speak up when a non-consensual encounter has occurred. In the past, I’ve had patients open to me about situations such as partners taking off the condom during sex without asking, leading to thoughtful discussions about bodily autonomy that they may not be having otherwise.
In my professional opinion, consent is a public health issue. I believe that viewing the prevention of sexual assault and rape through the lens of public health will help protect the overall mental and physical well-being of our society. But what exactly does treating consent as a public health issue look like—and why does that matter?
First, this would mean funding studies about attitudes toward consent and the long-term impact of non-consensual encounters by qualified researchers, helping advance policy that would advocate for explicit consent in sexual encounters as well as creating and promoting educational materials to introduce the subject to children in school.
Recognizing consent as a public health issue would also shape evidence-based guidelines for clinicians, allowing us to treat it as we would any other widespread health problem—by making it common practice to talk about consent with our patients in the context of their overall health, and by giving our patients a safe place to discuss non-consensual experiences. Smoking tobacco is a good example of a public health issue that both the medical world and general society have made strides towards improving. Many of us can remember watching anti-smoking ads on TV, or being shown an image of a blackened lung in a health class. When we go to the doctor, we’re always asked whether or not we smoke tobacco. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it shows the positive impact a multifaceted approach can have on public health issues.
As with any public health crisis, laws won’t be passed overnight and changes to education requirements can take years to go into effect—though we have and will continue to see strides made in these areas. Importantly, individuals also have the opportunity to take action now in small, deliberate ways. Perhaps the most critical thing that an individual can do to address consent is to discuss it in whichever ways we can with those around us—our sexual partners, our friends, and even our children.
While starting with the youngest members of society may sound difficult, parents and schools should introduce the concept of consent in elementary school, in the right way. While some might argue that doing so would expose children to sexual content too young, the truth is that consent can easily be introduced and reinforced in non-sexual contexts from a very early age. Familiarizing children with the idea of bodily autonomy—that no one has the right to touch them without their approval—can go a long way toward applying the concept of consent to their own bodies and those of their peers as they mature. For example, the District of Columbia’s requirements space out this subject over the course of an entire public school education. In the third grade, schools teach the importance of respect for other bodies. In fourth grade, students learn why talking about sexuality can be helpful. And in sixth grade, the curriculum includes a discussion on the repercussions of unhealthy or violent relationships.
When I look at how society has evolved in the last few years, it is clear that progress has been made. We are far more aware of what consent is and why it is important, but this education very often comes too infrequently and too late. Too many of us have long been uncomfortable discussing healthy and consensual sexual activity, but it is critical that we do so in order to set an example for future generations. One way to do this is to start talking about consent with people you trust. And in the meantime, I’m going to continue talking to my patients about the subject to ensure that they have at least one safe space—and a trusted confidant—to share.
Rarely does traditional sex education tackle pleasure for pleasure’s sake, how to have sex for non-reproductive purposes, or the wide spectrums of sexualities, bodies, and genders that exist. Instead it tends to cover penis-in-vagina penetration only, pregnancy risks, and STI/STD transmission, leaning heavily on scare tactics that may not even work.
Traditional sex ed is failing us all, but when it comes to standardized sex education in the U.S., the LGBTQ community is especially left out of the conversation. A GLSEN National School Climate Survey found that fewer than 5% of LGBTQ students had health classes that included positive representations of LGBTQ-related topics. Among self-identified “millennials” surveyed in 2015, only 12% said their sex education classes covered same-sex relationships at all.
The good, and even possibly great news is that not being boxed in by the narrow definitions of sex provided to us via traditional sex ed means that we are free (and perhaps even empowered!) to build our own sex lives that work uniquely for us, our partners, and our relationships. But we still need some info in order to do so.
Let’s talk about what classic sex education might’ve missed about how to have sex if you’re queer, from what sex between queer people means to how to keep it safe and consensual between the rainbow sheets.
What Queer Sex Means and How to Have it
Redefine and self-define sex. Sexual desire exists on a spectrum just like gender, sexuality, and other fluid and fluctuating parts of our identities. From Ace to Gray-Ace to Allosexual and everywhere in between and beyond, check in with yourself and your partners about how they experience sexual desire (if at all).
Similarly, “having sex” can mean a million different things to a million different people from making out, to certain kinds of penetration, orgasmic experiences, etc. You get to decide “what counts as sex” to you which is especially true when it comes to sexual debuts — a necessary and inclusive term for self-determined first times that looks beyond the traditional, heterosexist version of “losing your virginity.”
Honoring the identities and bodies of ourselves and our partners with respect, kindness, compassion, and tenderness is crucial and can feel even more precious and rewarding when you’re queer. Truly pleasurable sex — regardless of your identity — starts with a sense of safety, clear communication, confident boundaries, active listening skills, and self-awareness.
Check in with yourself first. Active consent starts with knowing yourself and what your boundaries are. Though an important piece of practicing consent is asking your partner for permission and for their preferences, it can be easy to forget to ask yourself similar questions. What do you want out of a sexual experience? Where are you confident you don’t want to venture now, yet, or maybe ever? What are you super excited to explore?
This check-in can help you determine what you want from sex and what queer sex means to you. This is when you can think about experimenting with sex toys, whether you’re interested in penetration, and what kind of touch feels good to you.
Sometimes we don’t even know where to start if we’re not sure about what our options even are. Scarleteen.com or Girl Sex 101 (much more gender-spectrum-inclusive than the title suggests) are both great resources that can get some of your questions answered. You can also find more information here.
Name your own bits. Body parts, especially private body parts, can be complicated territory for LGBTQ folks, and understandably so. One of the main goals of sex for many of us is to feel good in our bodies. The first step to this can be feeling good about the terms we use for our body parts. Try on one or a few that might work for you, communicate them to your partners (especially new ones), and ask them how they like their bodies to be talked about or touched.
Gender roles are bendable roles. You don’t have to adopt traditional gender roles in sex unless you want to. Media mediums from PG-13 sex scenes to X-rated porn can create clear splits between what’s considered being “sexually masculine” (being the do-er, taking control, knowing the ropes) and being “sexually feminine” (being the receiver, being passive or reactive, being led rather than initiating the sexual interaction).
Just because you identify with being masculine, feminine, or somewhere in between doesn’t mean you need to act a certain way or do anything in particular in your sex life. You can be a Ferociously Fierce Femme, a Passive Prince of Pillows, a Non-Binary Take-Charge Babe, or any version of your sexual self that follows what feels good, affirming, and right to you and your partners.
Talk about sex outside of a sexual context. Talking about sex with your potential or current partners before the clothes come off can be a great way to keep clear-headed communication and consent thriving. Sexual interactions are vulnerable, exciting, and can get your body and brain functioning in all new ways. So, sometimes it can be easier to talk about your feelings about sex, your enthusiastic Yes-es, your definite No’s, and your curious Maybes over coffee or text first, in addition to in-the-moment communication about consent.
Make an aftercare plan. We know that consent, permission, and pre-sex talks are all important parts of a healthy sex life, but we can forget to think about what happens after we have sex (besides water, a pee break, and snacks, of course). This is aftercare — or, how we like to be interacted with after sex has ended.
Aftercare preferences can include what we want to do immediately after sex (cuddle? watch Netflix? have some alone time?) and can also include what happens in the upcoming days or weeks (check-ins over text? gossip parameters? is there anyone you and your partner definitely do or don’t want to dish to?).
No matter your aftercare preferences, a post-sex check-in conversation about how things went, what you’d love an encore of, and what you might want to avoid next time (if you’d like there to be a next time) is always a good idea.
Always keep it consensual. Consent starts with asking permission before any sexual touch or interaction begins, continues with checking in about how things are going, and ends with talking with each other about how the sexual interaction went overall so that feedback can be exchanged and any mistakes can be repaired.
True, enthusiastic consent thrives in a space where each person feels free, clear-headed, and safe to speak up about what their No’s, Yes-es, and Maybes are.
Safer Sex for Queer Sex
Hormones matter. Even though testosterone hormones can decrease your risk of unwanted pregnancy, folks on T can still become pregnant, so make sure to use condoms if sperm is likely to be in the mix. Estrogen hormones can slow sperm production, but if your body is still producing sperm, an egg-creating partner could still get pregnant, so put your favorite birth control method to work.
Starting or ending hormone therapy, whether it’s testosterone or estrogen, can impact your sexual response, your desire levels, your emotions, and even your sexual orientation — so don’t be surprised if these changes crop up. Find safe people to talk to about any complicated feelings this may trigger rather than keeping them bottled up.
Condoms aren’t a one-trick pony. Though the gym teacher might think that putting a condom on a banana tells students all they need to know about wrapping it up, they’re usually doing little more than wasting a high-potassium snack. Condoms can help reduce pregnancy and STI/STD transmission risk for all kinds of penis-penetrative sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) so they’re important to learn to use correctly. But, they can also be used in other ways. Condoms can be put on sex toys to help with easy clean-up, or if you want to share the toy with a partner without getting up to wash it (just put on a fresh condom instead!), and can even be made into dental dams.
Gloves are another important piece of latex (or non-latex if you’re allergic) to keep…on hand…in your safer-sex kit, as they can prevent transmission of fluids into unnoticed cuts on your hands and can protect delicate orifice tissues from rough nails or your latest catclaw manicure (Pssst: if your nails are extra long and pointy, you can put cotton balls down in the tips of your glove for extra padding).
Lube is your friend. Lube is a great addition to all kinds of sex, but comes highly recommended for certain kinds of sex. A good water-based lube (avoid the ingredient glycerin if you’re prone to yeast infections!) can add pleasurable slip to all kinds of penetration, is latex-compatible, and reduces friction from sex toys or other body parts.
Lube can also be put on the receiver’s end of a dental dam or a small drop can be added to the inside of a condom before you put it on to create more pleasure for the condom-wearer.
Anal sex especially benefits from lube as your booty doesn’t self-lubricate like the vagina does, so it can be prone to painful tearing or friction during penetration. Using a thicker water-based lube like Sliquid Sassy for anal sex reduces friction, increases pleasure, and decreases chances of tearing which, also lowers risk of STI/STD transmission.
Sadly, no one is immune to STIs. Though it’s true that certain sex acts come with greater or lesser risk of STI/STD transmission, it doesn’t mean that certain partner pairings are totally risk-free. The Human Rights Campaign’s Safer Sex Guide (available in both Spanish and English) contains a helpful chart that breaks down the health risks associated with specific sex acts, complete with barrier and birth control methods that’ll help lower your risk.
Remember, some STIs/STDs are easily curable with medication, some are permanent-yet-manageable, and some can be lethal (especially if left untreated). So, knowing the difference and knowing and communicating your status are all important pieces of your sexual health. You can continue to lower STI stigma while reducing rates of STI transmission by keeping conversations about sexual health with your partners open and non-judgmental.
Sex toys need baths, too. When choosing sex toys, it’s wise to pay attention to the kind of material your toy is made out of. Medical grade silicone, stainless steel, glass, and treated wooden sex toys are all, for the most part, non-porous, meaning that they can (and should) easily be washed with soap and water between uses, between orifices, and between partners.
Sex toys made out of cyberskin, jelly rubber, elastomer, or other porous materials have small pores in them that can trap dirt and bacteria (kind of like a sponge), even after you wash them! This means that you could reintroduce dirt and bacteria to your own body causing bacterial or yeast infections for yourself, or you could pass bacteria or STIs to a partner via the toy. You could avoid these porous materials entirely (check the packaging to see what your toy is made out of) or you could use a condom on them every time like you would a body part.
Before getting intimate with your partner, there are a few consensual sex questions that are worth asking.
Over the last 10 years of coaching and connecting, I have worked with mostly men and couples. I started out with tantra and sacred sexuality focusing on premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction.
I have helped men connect to get out of their heads(quiet thoughts) and into their bodies(feel sensations), harness and control their sexual energy and orgasm. I have helped them get to know women’s bodies and women’s sexual response.
They have gained confidence and knowledge that helped them have more sex and importantly more satisfying sex.
Along the way many men have opened up to me about their concerns and fear around dealing with masculinity and understanding women in and out of the bedroom. Men either feel like aggressive entitled jerks or passive pushovers stuck in the friend zone.
Men need an assertive safe zone.
In the wake of this ‘Me too’ movement there has been a rise in fear around masculine energy. It has been framed as toxic and detrimental.
Not every touch, compliment or glance is an assault. Not every woman feels like a victim. The toxic masculinity frame has harmed men as well as women! The time has come to bring the conscious divine masculine to clarity and shatter the toxic masculine image!
Instead of taking sides let’s come together and communicate in a healthy, loving way.
Fact is, we have a lack of sex education in our country and most of the world. We are not taught communication skills in general. It is clear why we have so much miscommunication or lack of communication about sexuality.
Women and men have been taught opposite messages around sexuality. It is time to unlearn these harmful ideas, attitudes and beliefs.
Always talk about sex before diving in. If you are not comfortable talking about it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Here are some helpful questions everyone can use, for having sexual consent conversations with your partner/partners or a potential partner.
Say out loud and agree up front: there are no judgments or expectations and nothing will be taken personally, this is all just information.
What to say, what to ask:
1. Do you want to be in a monogamous relationship?
2. What does monogamous mean to you?
3. I’m really into XYZ are you comfortable with that?’
4. I recently saw this type of play and I am interested in experimenting.
5. How do you feel/what do you think about that?
6. Would you like to try XYZ with me?
7. Tell me if I am using too much or too little pressure.
8. Does XYZ feel good to you?
9. Would you like more pressure than this or less?
10. What are your boundaries in the bedroom? What is completely off the table?
11. What do you find pleasurable?
12. What is not pleasurable to you?
13. What are some things you would like to experiment with?
14. What is you definition of kink? what is taboo to you but is a turn on?
Always keep in mind that in the heat of the moment a yes can become a no but a no can not become a yes. The last thing you want to do is break trust.
You can always have another conversation and create new boundaries for next time. Better to take it slower and be conscious than to have remorse later for crossing a line in the heat of the moment.
A little bit of communication even if it feels awkward, can guarantee a more satisfying experience for you both. Keep in mind the more you have these conversations the more comfortable they will become.
I don’t remember when the concept of consent as it relates to sex became part of my vocabulary, but it shapes how I approach my personal relationships and affects the way I move through the world. I was shaken when the #MeToo Movement exploded, not only by the stories of sexual assault and harassment, but also by the stories of women who had felt pressured or coerced into having sex they didn’t want.
I flashed back to my own similarly uncomfortable experiences, when I was single and new to D.C. I remembered times on dates when I’d expressed my discomfort by simply pulling away or turning my head when a guy tried to kiss or touch me when I didn’t want to be kissed or touched. I was familiar with the sickening feeling of being distressed by something that was happening, while also feeling unable or hesitant to speak up for myself.
It’s been on my mind a lot recently, how I, like so many people, have been socialized not to talk about sex — because it’s uncomfortable or awkward or it might kill the mood. I thought about how that hesitancy to speak can muddy the waters of consent, and I wanted to explore that idea with people who talk about sex a lot: the kink community, or kinksters, as they’re known.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of kink is “unconventional sexual taste or behavior,” and includes a wide variety of behaviors and preferences. That includes BDSM — a subset of kink — which stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. Being tied up or handcuffed (bondage), spanked (discipline), and role playing all fall under BDSM.
To make sure each partner is on the same page, kinksters have to talk about sex in a way that vanilla people — those who don’t participate in kinky activities — often don’t. Julie, a kinkster and sociologist in the Washington DC area, believes that the communication kinksters have with each other distinguishes them from “vanillas.”
“Ultimately, what it seems to come down to more than anything is not how many whips and chains are involved, but rather how openly are you willing to talk about the sex that you’re having in the most blatant of terms,” she says.
Of course, the kink community isn’t perfect, as several kinksters told me. They’ve had some high-profile cases of bad behavior — non consensual or even abusive — and as a community they’re dealing with their own need to root out abuse. The kinksters I talked to stressed the importance of evolving the conversation to be even more thoughtful in navigating sex and consent.
Since this is a community that’s made an art out of talking openly about sex, I sat down with six kinksters in Washington D.C to learn some better ways to think and talk about consent. We aren’t using their full names to protect their current and future employment opportunities. Here’s what I found out.
Consent isn’t a simple Yes/No question … it’s a dialogue.
A core principle of kink is negotiating with a prospective partner before anything happens — if that negotiation is done right, it’s more like a collaboration toward a common goal: each party’s pleasure. That includes discussing what’s about to happen before it happens, hashing out boundaries, and ensuring that everyone involved is on the same page.
For Ren, the kind of consent she’s getting is especially important. She organizes cigar socials — events where kinksters can explore the ritual of smoking cigars in a more sexual context. That could include one partner preparing the cigar for their dominant partner, presenting it, and lighting it in a show of submission. Ren says she’s started only working with what she calls “enthusiastic consent.”
“It’s opt-in consent, as opposed to what the vanilla world works with which is opt-out consent. ‘If you don’t say no, it’s fine’ versus what I go for is, ‘If you say yes, it’s good.’ ” For Ren, that opt-in consent means only doing to a partner what’s already been discussed.
But consent isn’t just something given or received at the beginning — it needs to be ongoing. Julie says: “I’m most sexually compatible with the kinds of people who say, ‘Of course I’ll tell you if something’s wrong.’ I don’t want to be in a situation where I don’t trust you to tell me if there’s a problem.”
Ren adds that there have been multiple times when she’s stopped having sex with a person when they’ve done something to her that she’s specifically told them not to do: “I’ve kindly given them their pants back, and I’ve been like, ‘Well, it’s time for you to go.’ ”
Consent is ongoing, and partners should be talking; if something goes wrong and someone wants to stop, everything should stop.
“Talk about sex before you have sex. Talk about sex during sex. Talk about sex after sex,” says Heather, who works with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an advocacy group for kinksters.
“It’s okay to have a discussion the next day or the week after and say, ‘I liked this but I didn’t like that or can we try this next time,’ etcetera,” she says.
When you talk about sex acts, talk about what they mean to you.
The kinksters I spoke with said there was not a perfect checklist or script for how to talk about sex. Remy, a lawyer in the NYC area, says that’s because everybody is different.
“People have different minds, and that sounds very simple but what it can mean in practice is that somebody could do everything right and have taken every precaution, and the other person with whom they are doing something can still experience that as a violation of consent,” Remy says.
Which is why it’s so important to kinksters to talk frankly with each other about what they want and about how they want to feel. What does each person want to experience? What do you want to feel emotionally?
“There are so many things that when we get too hung up on specifics of activity, we lose track of some of the meaning — and a lot of times, the meaning is what affects people more,” says Evan.
Heather says she prints out a short checklist on negotiation. “I always tell people ‘this is not a comprehensive list but is a great conversation starter for both sides,” she says.
At the very top of the list is the question “Mood: how do we want to feel.”
Ren says that requires a little bit of self-reflection. “I don’t want to have bad sex anymore, so it’s like how do I want to feel during sex? Well, I want to feel powerless, and then having conversations based on that in order to find compatible people to have that type of sex with.”
“One of the most useful pieces of advice, is not just negotiating what’s going on but negotiating what things mean,” says Evan . “You can say to someone, like, ‘I want to be spanked. I want you to spank me’ but what does that look like? What does it mean, where does it involve touching?”
Make the consent conversation fun and seductive.
Yes, having frank and open discussions about sex can be awkward, but kinksters say they’re able to have fun with it too.
“I think there’s a real failure in the imagination of a lot of the broad public to think that you can’t ask for and even, you know, specifically in a detailed manner negotiate activities, without it also being sexy,” Evan says.
The kinksters’ “negotiation cheat sheet” encourages talking about things like each party’s hard limits and triggers, level of experience, and who is doing what in the scenario (for example: who is being spanked and who is doing the spanking). It also suggests talking about each person’s tolerance of the risk of minor harm, like rope or wax burns, or the potential emotional impacts from play.
And all of it can be sexy to talk about, says Ren.
“There are so many ways you can get consent without going ‘I’d like to kiss you right now’ or ‘I’d like to touch your leg,’ ” Ren adds. “Like begging can be really hot. And if you make somebody beg for the thing they want, you would assume that they want that thing.”
Talking about fantasies is another way to figure out what a partner might want to do in bed.
“A lot of time, when you start from fantasies, you can get a much better picture of how someone wants to feel,” Julie says. “Then at some point, it becomes a question of ‘you fantasize about this thing, are you actually okay with doing it in reality?’ So then it’s a matter of trying to make that feeling happen.”
Get good at describing what gives you pleasure.
Many of us have been socialized to find it shameful to ask for what we want sexually, and Julie thinks that needs to change to make communicating about sex easier.
“When we’re too ashamed to do it when we’re sober, and [think] that anyone who’s had sex with too many people isn’t worthy of marrying, you make it impossible for people to have a context for open and honest sexual communication,” she says.
For kinksters, it’s not just about ensuring that all parties involved are comfortable, and consent to what’s happening. It’s about having good sex. It’s about feeling empowered to ask for what you want out of sex — without being shamed for it — so you can have the sex that you want to have with the people you want to have it with.
“I think the vanilla society are missing out on a lot of feelings and emotions and satisfaction that they could get if they would be more open and honest with each other and more willing to communicate about these things,” Heather says.
And for Ren, that’s one of the biggest changes she’s found since joining the kink community.
Getting better negotiation skills led to better sex,” Ren says. “A lot of my experiences with my partners are a lot better now because I’m a lot better at communicating the things I want out of our interactions, and I’m also able to give them more of the things they want.”
Movie after movie, scene after scene, we see men and boys refuse to give up on the girl. Had a big fight? Give her a big speech about how she’s the only one! She told you to leave her alone? Go to her house with a bunch of flowers! She broke up with you? Never take no for an answer!
Once you put some music behind it and get Richard Curtis in to direct, of course it all seems unassuming – romantic, even. But real human emotions are much more complex, and coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding of what people want out of relationships, it can all lead to some seriously unwanted advances, or worse.
The fact remains that a man’s behaviour towards women doesn’t have to be violent to be aggressive. If you’ve ever met a boy who thinks he’s the star in a rom-com, you’ll understand the fear and dread that comes with having to confront him when he shows up at your door with a heartfelt poem yet again, after you’ve said ‘no’ more times than you can count on your fingers.
“God, I’m just being nice,” he’ll say – the words that boil my blood. I’ll say it loud for the people in the back: if you do something nice for someone, they don’t owe you anything, and they certainly don’t owe you sex or a relationship.
But well-meaning young men who just won’t get the message aren’t the whole story.
There are real women – and let’s be frank, there are also men as well – out there who face real, physical violence for rejecting unwanted advances. Actress Jameela Jamil has opened up about her personal, harrowing experiences with this, but those of us who don’t have an adoring fanbase and a huge online platform go through it too.
Furthermore, in a society where women still get asked to hide our skin at school and work, for those of us who aren’t in the public eye it’s easy to just shrink away and accept that there’s nothing we can do but cover ourselves up and hope for the best.
But there’s so much we can do! We don’t just have to wait for the world to change around us. You can shout that boys and men need to learn “not to rape” but let’s be honest – most of them bloody well know that already, and the ones who don’t are the ones who never will. So protect each other, stand up for your fellow woman, believe that you deserve better than someone who doesn’t respect you. And most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t have been wearing.
So, to the woman who puts up with leery co-workers; to the teenage girl who doesn’t know she’s allowed to tell her boyfriend “no!”; to any and all of us who’ve had a #MeToo moment – know that you are in control of your destiny.
Regardless of what gender and sexuality you identify as, it is never too much to ask to not face violence for not being interested in someone romantically.
Learn to say no, and learn to protect yourself. Because with a US President who brags about “grabbing women by the pussy,” it doesn’t look like the world is going to change in the forseeable future. It’s time to take control.
The WiseGuyz program, run by non-profit agency The Centre for Sexuality (formerly known as the Calgary Centre for Sexual Health), is a school-based healthy relationship and sexual health program that targets boys in Grade 9 (ages 13 – 15) in several schools in the Calgary area. WiseGuyz consists of four core modules — healthy relationships, sexual health, gender and media and human rights — facilitated over 15 weekly, 90-minute sessions. Issues of sexuality, gender and relationships are explored.
Supporting boys to critically reflect about gender is an important part of the program. According to boys, once they began to examine masculine norms and stereotypes, they began to understand how they were influenced by them. Young men speak about gaining greater awareness of the ways in which language is used to police behaviour. For example, one shared that “you don’t realize the destruction that it does” to be called derogatory names that challenge or question your masculinity.
Boys spoke about the way the program supported them to think about masculinity differently. For example, although boys may enter the program aware of the differences between themselves and other group members sometimes with negative judgment, during the program they appear to increase their respect for these differences. This can lead to a greater acceptance of a wider range of qualities and behaviours from both themselves and others.
My preliminary research suggests that WiseGuyz is a promising program in reducing boys’ endorsement of traditional masculinity ideologies that contribute to dating and sexual violence.
Providing boys with skills to address, examine and challenge beliefs around traditional masculinity ideologies allows young men to resist and re-define the highly gendered expectations they face regarding their identities and behaviours.
By empowering boys with the confidence and skills to resist societal constructions of masculinity, WiseGuyz is supporting the young men they work with to attain emotionally healthy adulthood.
Conveying our deepest desires, likes and dislikes, to our most intimate partner is essential. Here’s how…
“Yes,” I say, surprisingly firmly, to the man I have never met before, whose name I do not even know, who is massaging my back and shoulders. “Yes. Yes, please.”
I am lying on a mat on the floor of a conference room in a London hotel and around me three people – complete strangers – are rubbing my back. “Zero,” I say suddenly, which is the code word for stop. It’s not because I want the massage to end – in truth, it feels rather soothing – but because we have been encouraged to try saying “no” as well as “yes”. That, after all, is the point of the exercise. According to the leader of this workshop, intimacy and relationships expert Jan Day, we find “no” extremely difficult to say, and our lives would be better if we could bring ourselves to say it more readily. Instantly, the people surrounding me draw back, and I revel in the afterglow of both having articulated the difficult message I wanted to convey, and having it acted upon.
Around 40 of us have signed up to Day’s workshop, more or less equal numbers of men and women, spanning a wide age range from 20-something to 50-something. The topics under discussion are boundaries and consent, issues, Day tells us, that cause a huge amount of confusion and unhappiness in many people’s lives. While the #MeToo movement has focused attention on these in a societal setting, she believes we are as all-at-sea as ever over how to convey our deepest desires, likes and dislikes, to our most intimate partner.
Day’s own life story, with two unhappy marriages behind her, and the therapeutic practice she did to overcome the fallout, led her to this work. A qualified coach who has been a relationships specialist for 20 years, she says the crux of the matter is that most of us are either unable or unwilling, or both, to say “no”, even when “no” is what we mean.
There are several reasons for this, the first being empathy. “You don’t want to feel the feelings your ‘no’ will provoke in the other person,” she explains. “And then at other times, you’re simply embarrassed. Or another reason is that, as a child, you learned to associate the word ‘no’, uttered by the adults around you, with ‘bad’. And what your subconscious tells you is that if you’re responsible for something ‘bad’ in your partner’s life, you’ll no longer be loved.”
All of this is entirely logical. But failing to say what we mean, particularly in our sex life, has repercussions. “If we can’t say what we want to say, we learn instead to numb our feelings, to zone out, both physically and emotionally.” Some people – and this describes as many men as women – simply shut themselves down sexually. “They blank it out, say they’re not interested any longer, feign headaches, push it away completely. Or they go with whatever is suggested, but they zone themselves out from it – go through the motions, but fail to connect it properly with who they are inside.”
The fallout is more than just the obvious, says Day. Of course on the one hand it means a failure to live out a fulfilling sex life, but just as damaging is the effect on an individual’s power to enjoy and shape the wider world. “Our sexual energy isn’t only about sex,” she says. “In fact it’s not even mostly about sex. Your sexual energy is your life energy: it’s the centre from which your interest in life, your joie de vivre, arises. It’s the kernel of your aliveness.” It can also, she acknowledges, be very scary to give yourself intimately to someone you love. Sharing your deepest self with the person you spend most time with leaves you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. No wonder, says Day, that there are people who feel more comfortable with the idea of keeping sex and love, carnal pleasure and heart, entirely separate. “You’d be surprised by how many people are with a partner they very much love, but don’t have sex with, while their sex life is part of an affair.” It’s a way of keeping things “safer”. But they miss out on all the ways a 360-degree relationship can enhance a life.
A starting-point in Day’s workshop is the idea that we need to be grounded in our sexuality, knowing what we like and don’t like, and being able to do what we need to do to achieve it. And that means, in the first instance, being properly connected not with another person, but with ourselves. As with the business of being able to say no, this goes back to our earliest learned behaviour – because the vast majority of us were taught as children to denigrate our sexual urges as shameful, or dirty, or disgusting. What her day-long workshop does is give participants the chance to begin to rethink how they incorporate their sexuality into themselves. “Usually sexuality is denied or played down in our lives, and so we don’t get a chance to work out how it influences us holistically, and how to work it alongside the other parts of our being,” says Day. Throughout the event, she stresses that no-one is at any point required to do anything they don’t want to do. Indeed, speaking up about what you don’t want is, if anything, more important than saying what you do, for reasons already described.
The exercises – one involves holding a partner’s hand and, with their permission, massaging it gently – are simple and straightforward, but some of the 40 or so faces around me are tear-stained when we sit back in a circle to listen to more input from Day. In tracing our fingers across another person’s hand, in caring about whether it feels good to them or not – and then vice versa, with our own hand being massaged – we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable; and for some, that brings sensations of pain. One woman is sobbing after being touched. She says she hasn’t had a relationship for many years, hasn’t felt another person’s loving touch for so long. For Day, what we’re experiencing is about allowing feelings to arise and not being afraid of them. This isn’t about hiding pain but feeling it and working through it as the key to the better self awareness she hopes we will gain from the workshop.
The point to which Day keeps returning is the need to work out what we want ourselves – and then to learn to convey it to another person. Too much of what happens in intimate relationships, she believes, is guesswork. We haven’t worked out what we want, we’re too worried or embarrassed about conveying it clearly, so all we can do is attempt to mind-read our partner’s deepest desires. “And the trouble with that,” she says, “is that you can’t mind-read on all this stuff, so you make assumptions that are wrong.”
Day’s assistant at the workshop is her husband, Frieder. They have put all her wisdom into play in their own relationship, she tells me. “He really likes it that I say no as well as yes. The thing is that if you know someone is able to say no, you can completely trust them when they say yes. And that means your partner can in turn enjoy himself or herself more, and can be more playful during sex, because they’re not taking responsibility for how you’re feeling, now they know you’re going to be clear about it.”
Day’s workshops are held at a variety of venues, with some a day long, others across a weekend or even a week. Participants come alone or with a partner – on my course, there were three couples. Either way is fine, says Day. Where people attend solo and have a partner, she hopes the energy and ideas of the workshop can help recalibrate a couple’s sex life. Certainly the exercises aren’t remotely complicated.
The one we keep repeating throughout the day is about signalling when we don’t like something and when we do, and knowing the other person won’t be offended by our “no” or “zero”.
“It’s incredibly simple,” says Day. “Anyone can do it, in the privacy of their own space. You just need to talk about it beforehand and agree on what you’re going to signal and how you’ll do it. And it really can revolutionise not only your sex life, but your wider life as well.”
Like being born with brown eyes or being right-handed, some traits are naturally dominant. When it comes to the sexy stuff, a dominant trait can mean more than what you learned in ninth grade biology. Whether you’re just starting to learn about BDSM or if the idea of being the boss in the bedroom seems pretty exciting, knowing what’s a Dom can be super important in uncovering all the sexy stuff you may be into. “A dominant is a person who likes to have the perceived power in a situation,” Amy Boyajian (they/them), co-founder and CEO of Wild Flower tells Elite Daily. “Usually, they’re the one controlling the experience, directing a partner and delivering sensations and stimulation. Some people might like engaging in these dynamics during BDSM play or sex only, while others like to incorporate them into their relationship and overall lifestyle.”
As BDSM takes on so many forms, it can be challenging to fully unpack what it really means to be a Dom. “Most dominants in media are portrayed as cruel and unreasonable, or troubled and insecure, Boyajian says. “I don’t think there has been a healthy representation of what a loving, caring dominate can be! If you’re out to cause real harm to people, exploring dominance is not for you. Power play is about exploring safety within boundaries, in a mutually beneficial dynamic. It is never about simply doing whatever you please with someone.” Since so many misconceptions about Doms exist in the media, learning the real tea, can be super helpful in learning about BDSM, in all its forms.
According to Boyajian, there are a myriad of ways to navigate a Dom experience. However, whatever role or dynamic is unfolding, the most important aspect to keep in mind is consent. “People exploring Dom/sub dynamics and BDSM play have some of the most involved conversations about consent and include many safety measures to ensure everyone is happy and taken care of,” Boyajian says. “There is a huge misconception that dominant and submissive dynamics do not include consent — one person simply gives all power to the other. This couldn’t be further from the truth.” Prioritizing consent and healthy boundaries is super important in fully understanding Dom play and activities.
Although it can sometimes seem as if a Dom wants complete control over their partner(s), oftentimes, Dom sex or play is about perceived control in a roleplaying or dynamic. “People who explore dominance are rarely wanting to actually control another person completely. Rather, play that incorporates power dynamics is about roleplaying scenarios and subverting societal norms, like traditional gender roles,” Boyajian says. “Someone who enjoys being dominate is exploring their fantasies of control and what it would be like to have authority over someone.” From subverting gender norms to exploring control fantasies, being a Dom or incorporating dominance into your sex or romantic life can be a super empowering way to recreate societal power dynamics.
Apart from consent and control, there are several crucial behind-the-scenes conversation to have playing with dominance. “Both dominant and submissive roles require a solid amount of non-judgmental communication before, during, and after exploring,” Boyajian says. “Much like any sexual encounter, it’s vital that both dominant and submissive partners share any boundaries, limits, or hard no’s they may have.” These conversations can also be a great time to establish a safe word or action, a phrase or physical motion that signals stop, if a scene is making someone uncomfortable, or if for whatever reason a parter wants to take a break or fully stop. “Since consent is an ongoing thing, it crucial that everyone is able to indicate their consent or refusal at all times,” Boyajian says. If you and your partner(s) may have previously discussed trying something new, or may have all been on the same page at the beginning, it’s still important to check in consistently throughout the sex or scene, to make sure everyone is continually feeling comfortable and good.
If you’re thinking of experimenting with Dom/Sub activities, there may be some personal ideas to reflect on. “It’s important to assess, to the best of your abilities, if something maybe upsetting or triggering to you and be understanding in a situation where you and your partner may not feel comfortable,” Boyajian says. “Different people have different affinities for power play during sex and some may not find it as rewarding as others.” Experimenting in the bedroom and trying new things can be a super fun and totally hot way to learn about your own desires. Still, it’s important to keep yourself safe and protected in all you do, and getting clear on your boundaries is very important before jumping into Dom-play. “While your skills on expressing yourself will expand with experience, it’s important to enter into power play dynamics with a firm understanding of consent and set of communication abilities,” Boyajian says.
When it comes to exploring Dom/Sub dynamics, there may be restorative post-thing practices to factor in as well. “Aftercare is also a factor to consider. Since you may be exploring practices that are physically and/or emotionally draining, plan some activities that will provide some relief to these feelings,” Boyajian says. “That could be physical care like rubbing lotion into bruises or sore sports or emotional comfort like cuddling or talking through the experience afterward.” Aftercare can be necessary in winding down and processing after an intense BDSM scene to provide comfort and support to all parties involved.
There are many ways to dip your toes into BDSM if you or your partner(s) are dying to try to sexy Dom-play. “Start small with some commanding dirty talk or directing your partner to get yourself comfortable with being in an authoritative role,” Boyajian says. “A little spanking session can be great foreplay and things like gentle biting and hair pulling can be an exciting new inclusion.” From commanding dirty talk to a light spanking, there are plenty of ways to experiment with dominance that you can really make your own. If you want to try being a Dom, but don’t know where to start, Boyajian suggests some sexy pretend play. “Roleplaying is essentially the gateway into exploring power dynamics. Playing the role of a sexy dominant is the pathway to becoming an IRL sexy Dom!”
Although BDSM can look different for everyone, healthy Dom/Sub dynamics are always built on consent and communication. From enjoying the perceived control to wanting to subvert gender roles, Doms can take on many forms. And while Doms may be the ones calling the shots, Dom/sub sex ins’t all about them. So, if you’re thinking about experimenting with Dom play, remember it’s not about being bossy, it’s about being the boss.
Sexual assault is typically something you think will never happen to you—until it does and and you find yourself in desperate need of help and support.
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, so it’s a scary (but common) reality—and one that can leave you feeling anxious, fearful, sad, angry, or a combination of those things.
“It’s a natural human state to be overwhelmed with this kind of traumatic event,” says Jessica Klein, a licensed clinical social worker and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California. “The thinking part of your brain really can’t process everything that’s happened.”
Thankfully, there’s help for sexual assault victims, whether your assault happened thirty minutes or three years ago. If you’ve been assaulted and need to know what your next steps are, here’s a timeline of all the various ways to get help—from the first minutes after your assault to the days, months, and years that follow.
1. Evaluate your surroundings and get medical treatment ASAP.
In the immediate aftermath of your assault, it’s time to think about your health and safety. Evaluate your surroundings and get yourself to a safe place if you aren’t already in one. Then consider calling 911 or going to a hospital, even if you aren’t visibly injured or are unsure whether you ultimately want to involve the police.
“After your safety is secured, medical treatment is often an immediate need,” says Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City. “Even if you are reluctant to undergo a medical examination for the purposes of reporting your assault, trained staff can provide you with emergency contraception, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and referrals to a counselor.”
2. Try not to change your clothes or use the bathroom.
Something important to keep in mind: You can decline or discontinue your forensic examination (a.k.a. “rape kit”) at any point if you become uncomfortable, says Stamoulis.
According to RAINN, you don’t need to commit upfront to reporting the crime in order to have an exam performed, but it’s a good idea to get one, anyway: Should you choose to report your assault later on, you’ll have gone through the necessary steps to collect evidence.
RAINN also advises against doing anything that could damage that evidence in the time between your assault and your exam, like bathing, changing your clothes, or using the bathroom. (FYI, even if you’ve done these things, you can still get an exam.)
3. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you know and trust for immediate support.
It may be helpful for you to stay with a local friend or family member in the hours after the assault, says Stamoulis. Being around someone familiar can be extremely comforting and reassuring.
If you are a student, she says, many schools and colleges have counseling centers or victim advocates on campus to help support you through the aftermath.
4. Try to make yourself feel as safe as possible.
In the short-term, you will be dealing with the traumatic effects of your assault. This might include feeling anxious or depressed, having nightmares, having difficulty concentrating, or struggling in your relationships, says Stamoulis.
During this time, it’s important to prioritize your physical and emotional needs. That might look like taking time off from work, finding babysitters or extra childcare assistance if you have children, or even replacing the locks on your doors.
All of these needs are normal, and you should feel free to ask for whatever helps you. Try not to judge yourself—there’s no way to predict how your body and mind will respond to the trauma.
5. See a trained counselor who specializes in sexual assault.
Well-meaning friends and family members may not (or cannot) offer you the best advice for your particular situation, so Stamoulis strongly recommends seeking professional counseling.
A trained counselor, she says, will know the best practices for helping assault victims cope and can educate you on what to expect during your recovery. (If you’re having trouble locating a counselor in your area, RAINN’s crisis hotline can refer you to someone.)
“Sexual assault is different from a lot of other traumas because our society tends to blame the victim, [which] is another way of being traumatized,” Stamoulis explains. “A therapist who specializes in treating sexual assault survivors understands the unique needs of someone who experiences a trauma that is often shrouded in shame and secrecy.”
6. If you didn’t report your assault or receive a forensic exam, take those into consideration again.
If you didn’t receive a forensic exam immediately after your assault, there may still be time; in some states, Klein says, evidence can be collected and preserved up to 96 hours later. And even if you’re beyond the forensic window, reporting your assault is absolutely not a “now or never” proposition.
“Law enforcement is getting better at understanding why people don’t report immediately in the aftermath and not having forensic evidence is not a dealbreaker,” she says. “There are other corroborating factors they look into, and you never know who filed a report against that perpetrator before you—or who might file one after you, since many perpetrators are repeat offenders.”
7. Know the lifelong risks associated with sexual assault.
Being a victim of sexual assault puts you at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems, per Mental Health America.
So if you’re feeling really down, having trouble with your daily functioning, or relying on unhealthy habits to cope with overwhelming emotions, seek help from a qualified therapist ASAP.
8. Remind yourself that healing isn’t always linear.
The road to recovery in the wake of sexual assault is not always a straight line. Stamoulis notes that some people find themselves doing well emotionally for a long time, then suddenly struggling with intensely negative feelings again.
If this happens to you, she recommends being kind to yourself (making sure you are eating and sleeping well, monitoring your stress levels), as well as eliminating any identifiable triggers, like watching the news.
9. Know that you may need to confront your trauma again.
The healing process is a complicated one that unfolds over time, but you will likely need to address your trauma head-on at some point. That may be done through professional counseling or through reflective mediums like art or journaling. Stamoulis calls this process “post-traumatic growth” and says it’s a key component of long-term healing.
“When you’re working through the trauma, you’re not trying to get rid of the memories completely, but trying to gain a different relationship to the memories so you can think about them in different [less triggering] ways,” she says.
10. Realize that everyone’s healing process looks different.
In the long-term, it’s important to be aware of your unique needs during recovery and to choose activities that help you move forward in a healthy way.
“Some people find that they want to make meaning from the experience by volunteering with other victims or fighting for social justice, while others want to put it completely behind them,” says Stamoulis. “There is no right or wrong response.”
If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, you can call 800-656-HOPEto receive confidential crisis support from a trained specialist with the National Sexual Assault Hotline. It’s free and available 24/7. You can also chat online with a support specialist.
Recently, I attended my 12-year-old daughter’s instrumental concert. The group sounded lovely, and you could tell how much work the kids had put into their performance. My daughter has been playing viola for five years. She has an ensemble class twice a week in school and takes weekly private lessons. She is also supposed to practice on her own.
When it comes to learning an instrument, or mastering driving, cooking, playing a sport, or becoming fluent in a foreign language, this type of training is the norm. We would never expect someone to instinctively excel at, let alone enjoy, these things without at least some routine instruction or study.
Yet when the topic is sex, something that is arguably more nuanced and complicated than many other life skills, we often assume that putting similar structures for instruction in place will be harmful to young people, or will encourage risky behavior. Or we’re just too uncomfortable to talk to them about it at length. But having worked as a health educator for the past 15 years, I have seen how harmful this misguided approach can be.
The United States’ high rates of adolescent pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are well documented. But what isn’t discussed as often is that the actual experiences of teen sex can be really negative. Frequently, teens hook up in secret, without a committed partner, maybe under the influence of substances and often with the fear of getting in trouble. Many are pressured into things they would rather not do. Others are having experiences that aren’t consensual. And even when it’s consensual, a lot of the sex happening among teens doesn’t feel great, particularly for girls with male partners.
This bleak picture contributes to an understandably common view that teens are just too young to have sex in a healthy manner, and that the best choice is for them simply to abstain. Certainly that assumption is fair for many.
But this view ignores the fact that plenty of these negative experiences are not the byproduct of youth, but rather the result of the conditions under which many teens are having sex. In a culture where abstinence-only programs have taken the place of real sex education, and where many teens lack the resources to prevent pregnancies or STIs, let alone the ability to deal with these situations if they occur, it is common for teens to feel shame, fear and anxiety about sexuality. And many feel like they cannot turn to adults for help when they need it.
So what would it look like if we gave teens the tools to help them succeed? For one thing, we know that accurate information about sex and access to reproductive health care makes teens less likely to become sexually active in the first place. Then if they do have sex, these supports mean they are far more likely to use condoms and contraception, and are at significantly lower risk of having nonconsensual experiences.
It might feel counterintuitive, but parents who want to help teens grow into sexually healthy adults are going to need to step up to the plate. Here are six ways to do that,
Actively support comprehensive sex education in your community and oppose abstinence-only programs. Attend school board meetings where the issue is being discussed, and share your opinion with school officials. Many studies (including one published last month in the American Journal of Public Health) have found that abstinence education has not only failed to prevent teens from having sex, it has also put teens who receive it at greater risk for STIs, pregnancy and even sexual assault than those who get comprehensive sex education.
Make sure teens understand consent. They need to know that sex can’t be truly consensual if there is pressure involved, or if either person is inebriated. It should be clear that if they aren’t completely certain that someone wants to have sex, or if they are questioning how far someone wants to go sexually, they don’t have consent. Teens should also be aware that while many people assume that a lack of a verbal “no” constitutes consent, that is not the case. Teens should be encouraged to clearly state their desires and boundaries.
Support healthy teen relationships. Get to know your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend. If you have concerns about their relationship, share them. But if the relationship seems solid, make it comfortable for the couple to spend time in your home and allow them privacy. Doing this won’t cause teens to have sex if they otherwise wouldn’t, but we do know that if young people choose to become sexually active, doing so in the context of a loving relationship is far safer than a casual hookup. In fact, studies have determined that for older teens, being in a respectful sexual relationship with a caring partner can help them develop better social relationships in early adulthood, can increase self esteem and decrease delinquent behavior.
Teach them to communicate. Make sure teens understand that they should express their limits, likes and dislikes to a partner, and that the expectation should be that both people enjoy the experience. That means that in opposite gender encounters it isn’t only about a boy’s pleasure.
Create an environment in which your children can talk to you. Many parents fear that a conversation about sex will be uncomfortable or will make them seem overly permissive. But letting these fears prevent open dialogue tends to do more harm than good.
Help teens access reproductive health care. Putting barriers in the way of teens’ health care can be dangerous, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for all teens to have access to confidential reproductive health care, saying it greatly improves health outcomes for adolescents. If you live in one of the many places where teens cannot independently access health care, help them make appointments and ensure they have time alone with their doctors.
The idea of helping teens develop sexual skills may feel like parents are condoning something that they should actually condemn. But American teens face a lot of hurdles on the path to developing healthy sexuality, and when we look at the research, it becomes clear that the best thing we can do for our kids is to help them become sexually informed and proficient long before they become sexually active, and then to help them stay safe and informed once they do.
Despite living mere blocks from a sex shop, I’d never been inside. Until one sweltering evening this past summer, when my writer friend, Elle, invited me to a “Scene Building 101” class hosted by Pleasures & Treasures (2525 University Ave.).
It sounds like a writing class, we joked. Let’s go learn a thing or two!
But, no, it was not a writing class. This was a BDSM class. “Scenes” and “play” are what we plebes lump into the cliché umbrella of roleplaying, but to the BDSM community this sort of thing is fundamental.
Scene Building 101, taught by Bikkja Amy, is considered a “soft skills” class. Hard skills, on the other hand, are things like spanking and mummification. (I’ll save you the private browser googling session: Mummification is wrapping your sub entirely in plastic wrap for an escape scene or for sensory deprivation.)
Elle, it turned out, had been to a Pleasures & Treasures class before (FYI it was a hard skills class). I learned this as we went around the room for introductions. Everyone was asked to identify themselves as a top, a bottom or a “switch,” and whether it was our first time at a class. It was hard for me to focus on everything I had just discovered about Elle, but I was up next.
“I’m Julia. I’m–” Oh god. I didn’t want to out myself as a nothing, nor did I want to pretend. I also didn’t want to out myself as a writer because it felt just as incriminating to either be a journalist or a wannabe BDSM novelist who was there to gather material.
For the love of God don’t say, “I’m a writer,” I thought.
“Just say you’re a switch,” Elle whispered.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
The class was primarily structured around where to find new ideas, and how to start and configure a “play date.” Seated in folding chairs in a circle, it was less instruction and more of a brag-adjacent discussion. I wrote in my notes, I think this class could really benefit from narrative and character elements!
I also wrote down some of the zingers: “I saw someone with a fishnet outfit and people cutting it off with a knife. And I was like, gonna try that!” one woman said. “I like to light people on fire and throw them in the pool,” someone else said.
As the class progressed, I was so busy marveling at the sheer variety of previously unfathomable BDSM kinks that I almost didn’t notice the bulletproof lesson on consent rippling quietly beneath the surface.
Everyone here had braved a stuffy evening discussing pervy stuff with near-strangers to master the “ask,” and to learn how to lay groundwork. Scene building in the BDSM community is not about developing relatable characters with a full narrative arc ahead of them. It’s laying out expectations, boundaries and, most importantly, consent.
“If I didn’t mention it [beforehand], those things are off the table. It is the stupidest thing on the planet to say you have no limits,” the instructor explained.
A woman spoke up, in a weirdly chill voice: “So, I’m a masochist? And I don’t want to top from the bottom.” Her concern was that spelling out her boundaries ahead of time can sometimes feel like “topping,” but the instructor was steadfast. Set the boundaries and exchange consent, all the time, and every time, they told us. Find creative ways to do it, but definitely do it.
It wasn’t the place I expected to hear such a clear message on something so wholesomely universal. I think I found my kink.