In our culture we have the idea that a relationship is a linear progression from strangers to intimacy, from distance to closeness, from a touch on the hand to ‘home base’. We also think that you never lose ground you’ve gained. Once you’ve reached second base, second base is always available. Once you start having sex, or seeing each other naked, or kissing in public, those are now always allowed and to be expected. This does not make sex safe. If one or both partners have any kind of anxiety around sex, this pressure, the awareness of these norms being set to new places, dramatically increases the stress because even after a great time together, they will now have to either put up with contact they don’t want, or fend off a partner who thinks this is the new norm, whenever they don’t feel comfortable with it.At the extreme, this assumption of the new ‘normal’ between you, what is okay and acceptable and to be expected, becomes a sense of entitlement. We might not mean it that way, or think very much about it, but it’s pretty easy to start making assumptions and to treat sex like something we are owed. People who, for whatever reason, already feel anxious or unsafe about sex, can be highly sensitive to this dynamic. It may not stop them having sex, but it can certainly stops sex feeling safe.
I’m not being naive here, and this is not about desire discrepancy – the partner with a higher sex drive is not bad or wrong. This is about the way you engage sex. This is about both of you always having the right to say no and not be shamed, as much as the right to suggest sex and not be shamed! This isn’t about building sexual rejection into your relationship. It’s about not building in entitlement, unawareness, or distress. We do not have the right to coerce our partners into having sex with us. We have the right to feel desire, attraction, and arousal. We have the right to want sex. We have the right to make choices about who we want as a partner, who we want to be sexual with, how we want that relationship to work, but I do not believe we have the right to demand sex, from anyone, ever. That belief and those values are part of what help me to be a safer sexual partner, and to require emotionally safer sex from my partner.
Sometimes when I talk about this idea with people, there’s fear. People get anxious that if their partner is truly that free to refuse sex, they would never have sex. People get anxious that if they refuse to have sex with their partner, their partner will have it with someone else, or leave them. There’s ideas about owing each other sex, that having sex once implies a contract that you will have it again, or that certain types of relationship choices – such as moving in together – mean you are now permanently available for sex and lose your freedom to decline. Push these ideas a little further and we move into rape apologist territory – that what you wear signals that you’ve decided to have sex, that the person who pays for the night out is owed sex, that if you’ve kissed you’ve offered an un-revokable consent to sex, and so on. I get some of these ideas and how pervasive they are- mainly because I’ve been severely tangled in them at times myself. And I’ve suffered, and I’ve hated myself. I know what it feels like when there is terror, shame, self-loathing, guilt, obligation, rebellion, recklessness, misery, and humiliation choking me during sex.
Here’s the nub. If you or your partner feels like this during sex – it’s not really sex. We have other words for sexual experiences where one person enjoys themselves while another one screams inside. I’ve learned that not having sex is far, far better than having bad sex. Sometimes people are shocked by my many years of voluntary celibacy. It’s almost a taboo in our culture to make a choice like that – not for lack of opportunities, or for lack of desire, but to chose to decline sex. (Of course, there’s nothing particularly special or holy about it either, and it’s certainly not better than anyone else’s choices. It was just what I wanted at the time.) I’ve made stupid decisions in the past that any sex was better than none. I’m old enough now to be wiser about that. I’m wise enough to want no more bad memories about sex.
There’s another way, and it might feel frightening or radical, like it opens the door to rejection or a total lack of sex. I’ve found that for me, it has the opposite effect. Sex is not a contract but a song, a dance, flight.
So, try to reset the norms each time, back to dating, back to checking. It might feel stupid, as we have almost no cultural support for this idea. The higher the level of anxiety and the more communication difficulties you or your partner have, the more important this is. Don’t assume anything. Sex last night doesn’t mean sex tonight. Nakedness being fine yesterday doesn’t mean you can wander in and brush your teeth while they’re in the shower the next morning. Don’t force a stressed partner to constantly say no. Assume no first, and check to see if it might be a yes. This approach also gives freedom for people to have difficult reactions after sexual contact. Even if the experience is wonderful, it can stir things up. Breathing room is critical at times. Allow the relationship to move between romantic and platonic. Last night was hot sex. Tonight is cuddles while wearing pajamas. With safety comes freedom. Unless you make it very easy and comfortable for your partner to say no, you are not having safe sex. Unless you make it safe to initiate sex without being shamed, you are not having safe sex.
As a multiple, this need to reset norms and check again is especially important, as I switch to non-sexual parts or to child parts. Properly covering non-sexy clothes or PJ’s are worn on nights when my child parts are around, or are kept next to the bed in case they turn up unexpectedly on other nights. Nakedness does not cue sex – sometimes it is platonic. For my system this is critical, it reduces shame and stress about sharing a bed, a bathroom, and life with another person when some of the time Sarah is a child, or a guy, or someone who’s not in a sexual relationship with my partner.
Resetting the norms doesn’t have to be horrible – anxiety ridden, stressed, depressing. It can be sexy as hell. If you’ve never done anything like this it will take time to find your rhythm and get comfortable but it does get easier. Talk it through. Find what works for you both. Own your own desires and let your partner own theirs. Lean over and whisper “You look incredible tonight, can I kiss you?”
You might like this video that links the idea of having sex to music jams:
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading