I come from a highly conservative background where our sexual health information was entirely about abstinence, and based on fear of pregnancy, disease, and shaming. Sex was talked about as sacred, but basically seen as a commodity that had the highest value the first time you traded it, and depreciated rapidly. We did the whole ‘hand a rose around the room and fondle the petals until they fall out’ exercise my school. I was never supported to develop a language to feel comfortable communicating about sex, because the model of sex I grew up with assumes that I would never need it – I would remain a chaste virgin until I was married, then I would instantly become happily sexual and permanently available for sex with my husband. There was an assumption that ignorance about sex and an inability to communicate about it would possibly more likely keep me from having it until marriage. This model lacked the idea that I would still need to be able to communicate consent, comfort, pleasure, enthusiasm, or any other needs or feelings even once married. I once sat through sex education at a camp, as a ‘youth leader’, listening to the talk for the young boys, which was outside, round a campfire, with a bunch of adult men basically saying “Sex is awesome, don’t do it until you’re married”, and then to the talk for the girls, which was inside, everyone sitting at individual desks in a classroom, while the adult women said “Sex is risky and you could get pregnant, don’t do it until you’re married”. I was so angry that we were not telling girls sex is awesome, that they got the ‘sex is scary’ story, that I folded the paper handouts into airplanes and threw them at the presenter until I was thrown out of the room. I had no language other than this to communicate my frustration and distress.
Many of us grew up with variations of these ideas where communication about sex is unnecessary, and they have been cast in a romantic glow – that if it’s ‘real love’ your partner will just ‘know’ what you want and like, or that a ‘real’ wo/man knows how to satisfy a wo/man. That if you’re in love you will be perfectly sexually compatible and never need to negotiate that. That all ‘decent’ people like the same sexual behaviours and therefore never need to communicate about their desires. On the other hand, sometimes these ideas have been taught to us with a brutal resignation – I was once advised by a female friend that “it takes a long time for women to get used to sex, and I don’t think they ever really enjoy it”. Tolerating miserable sex is seen as being grown up and understanding that real life isn’t like the movies. This is really sad.
These kinds of ideas can make it challenging to communicate about sex! But, there is a big difference between privacy and shame. The former is a part of our healthy function as people, the latter is painful and destructive. Many of us (me included!) feel embarrassment and uncertainty when we try and talk about sexual stuff. That’s okay! My experience has been that if you can untangle embarrassment from shame then it’s not such a big deal. I talk about sex quite a lot, here on my blog, in my relationships, and in appropriate ways with people I help support in my mental health or queer supports work. In fact, it turns up as a topic all over the place, even in my work as an eating disorder peer worker. Sexual health and needs are not side issues in our lives, they are often key foundations in our relationships and health and happiness. However, I still get embarrassed! I still blush – I’m part German and have fair hair and white skin, my blush response can be pretty incredible! You don’t have to be some kind of emancipated modern person to learn how to communicate about sex. 🙂 It does get easier with time and practice.
Part of this is about education. I started reading and learning about sex, anatomy, being queer, child development, and so on as a young adult because I needed a broader framework than I’d been provided with in my upbringing. I remember the intense shame and self loathing I experienced as a young person, and the fear that myths and misinformation created in me. I had a vision of a future in which I would not be trapped anymore in the shame, terror, self hate, loneliness, and awful double binds about sex I had been living in. I was taught women are not interested in sex – so when as a young person I naturally started to mature sexually, I thought of myself as deviant and evil. I was taught that being gay is wrong so I feared and suppressed my natural interest in other girls. I was taught that once a man is aroused he “reaches a point of no return” where he cannot stop sex, so I learned that I was not permitted to stop or change my mind once a sexual act had begun. I was taught that after marriage a woman’s body belonged to her husband, so she cannot deny him sex. I was taught that if an adult man touches a girl child that is abuse, but if the genders are reversed no harm can be done. I was taught that men cannot be raped, and that women cannot be sexual abusers. I experienced peer based sexual abuse that was not seen as abuse by anyone I sought support from because the others involved were also young people, so I learned that what happened to me didn’t count, and the trauma reactions I suffered were simply me over reacting or being a drama queen. I witnessed sexual abuse, the entangling of sex and violence, sex and shame, punishment, sadism, entitlement, and humiliation. I became a repository of horror stories as other people confided secrets to me. I became a silent witness to peers helplessness in engaging their own sexual abuse, unwanted abortion, and incest. I was trapped in a nightmare mess of conflicting messages about sex through which I attempted to mature into an ethical, passionate, adult sexual woman. The result was disastrous and life threatening, an intense inner conflict and self hatred, warped frameworks about sex, relationships, and consent, and a clash between unbounded desires and terror. All of this happened in secrecy and silence, without a language to communicate, with no way of understanding what went wrong or how to set things right.
What I did have was this vision of myself as someone who was no longer afraid. Someone who could use correct anatomical terms without stuttering, who was comfortable with their own sexuality. Someone who might even have great sex, who could talk about it, ask for what they wanted, navigate consent, explore, explain, support, nurture, and adventure. It wasn’t a clear vision and I couldn’t believe in it all the time but by this star I set my course and began to inquire.
We need a language to be able to even think clearly about any of these areas. Communication and consent are profoundly connected ideas, without the ability to communicate, consent is not possible, and without the knowledge that we are allowed to express or deny consent, we have no foundation for our communication skills. So where do we start? Building communication skills in this areas started for me with a language I could engage.
Find a language you like for everything about sex. When you spend time with a sexual partner, work on a language you both like! What words do you both feel good about for your bodies, for different sex acts, for toys, lubes, for asking if the other person is interested in sex, for boundaries around what you are consenting to, the whole works. For some people this is pretty easy and there’s not a lot of hassle. For others many words or terms are highly negatively charged and you may need to be creative to come up with ways of communicating about sex that are fun, respectful, useful, and don’t increase stress. It doesn’t matter if this private language makes no sense whatever to anyone else, as long as it works for whoever is involved with sex with you.
You need to be able to clearly communicate nuances, because sex and consent is more than yes/no! This is kind of frustrating considering that a whole lot of our culture hasn’t really wrapped their brain around the idea of yes and no yet! There’s a whole conversation here, the need to be able to communicate things like “It’s late, let’s go to bed, naked is good, lets kiss and cuddle but I’m not in the mood for anything else” or “Yes, I’d love to have sex, but I feel like this or this and not that (kind of sex) today”, or “How do you feel about trying this new (toy/position/game/whatever) today?” or “I’d really like to sleep alone tonight, don’t take it personally, I’m not upset with you and I’d love to have you over again on Friday if that works for you?” or “I know you’re not feeling into sex tonight, but I’m really worked up, do you mind if I take care of myself in bed while you hold me?”. If you’re not used to this, these conversations are hard at first. Whether you’re setting the scene with a new sexual partner or trying to introduce more communication into an existing relationship, it can be scary and awkward and stressful. But then, so can sex without communication.
People who engage in types of sex that are risky use back up forms of communication to make sure everyone stays safe. This might sound a bit silly, but if you have any concerns about communication this can be a wise idea for any kind of sex. Some of us struggle to say things clearly. Terms that require a high level of confidence and assertion can be difficult. They can also be tangled with unintended meanings. So, where ‘stop’ might be difficult to say, and feel confronting and rejecting when all the person is trying to say is ‘please pause for a moment, I need to gather myself’, or ‘sit up a bit, I can’t breathe well’, a safe word can be less challenging.
Practice it! If you have high anxiety or difficulty with boundaries, you may really struggle with this. So, silly as it sounds, practice it with your partner or with each partner. Sit on the bed, have a massage, and say your safe word. Touch stops, and then starts up again when you ask for it. If verbal communication is sometimes compromised – due to disability, anxiety, dissociation, switching, or anything else – have a ‘safe touch’ that is used the same way. It needs to be easy and simple – a pinch, tapping the other person twice, clicking a ring against the bedhead… This is especially relevant for any form of sex where you can’t see other person’s face. It can be difficult to tell sometimes if the breathing or sounds are pleasure or distress, and that uncertainty can add a lot of unnecessary anxiety to sex. You need easy ways to check in that don’t feel too awkward – “Are those happy sounds?”. Especially if you or your partner have a lot of stress around sex and communication issues like this – checking in needs to become the norm to keep sex emotionally safe.
Don’t let anything make you feel awkward because of this, I know that we never see this in movie sex or sex in books. It is critical that you both want what is happening, that neither has frozen and that sex is not migrating between consensual and abusive. We as a culture are still struggling to understand that this happens, and we don’t give people the tools we need to navigate sex and keep it good. Safe sex doesn’t just mean stopping when they say no, it’s about not doing anything they haven’t said yes to, and about learning how to communicate no, and yes, with enthusiasm and without shaming.
This isn’t the final word on this topic, in fact it barely scratches the surface. Communication about sex is linked to but also distinct from our communication skills in other areas. Assertiveness is part of this but also insufficient – we shouldn’t have to be highly assertive, we should be working to create safer environments where it’s easy to communicate even if we’re feeling very vulnerable. If you’re interested in exploring ideas about the nature of consent further, I suggest reading “Yes means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape” by Friedman and Valenti. I hope that my simple, if unusual, suggestions might start you thinking about these topics in your relationships, and help you come up with creative ways to build in more, and easier, forms of communication about sex.
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading