Explicit but not graphic content.
Part of what helps to make sex emotionally safer is freedom. Most of us have a whole host of beliefs about sex that limit, bind, and cause us pain. We live in cages in our minds about sex, partly because of terrible experiences and partly because of cultural myths. There’s a lot of ideas that limit us – from the simplest linking of the experiences of sex and pain – experiences that one always leads to the other; to more complex constructs that bind and confuse us.
I was in a conversation once where someone expressed discouragement about differences between what they and their partner liked. Their idea was that keeping things ‘fair’ meant that both partners got exactly the same experiences during sex. So, if I got a massage so I have to give my partner one. This tit-for-tat system is an unnecessary burden. The goal is intimacy and pleasure for both! If what each partner likes is different there’s no benefit in inflicting something on the one who doesn’t like it! If I love a foot rub but my partner has madly ticklish feet then it’s just silly to feel obligated to give them a foot rub back. It’s not just okay to like different things, it’s quite common! And to like different things at different times – tonight I don’t feel like this, I’d prefer that, and so on. It doesn’t really matter what form sex takes or how different you both are in what makes you feel pleasure and closeness, as long as you are both feeling it.
Another example of freedom being important to emotionally safer sex; I was talking about sexuality and was surprised when a woman told me that she found women attractive and appealing but couldn’t be a ‘genuine’ lesbian because the idea of oral sex with a woman disturbed her. I do not believe this is the case. Sexuality is about who you want to have sex with, it doesn’t say anything about what you do and don’t like during sex. Misconceptions like this create cages that bind people. Our culture weaves different ideas in together to create a big knotted mess that people get tangled in. Lots of lesbians like oral sex. That doesn’t mean you have to, to be a lesbian! Some gay men are brilliant in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean all little boys with an interest in cooking are going to be gay. It’s fun to look at the clusters of experiences that commonly occur – gay men and fashion! But it’s harmful when these become the ‘norm’ and all other experiences get overshadowed. As a young person I knew a kid who was bullied a lot because he was the only straight guy in his drama troupe. Clusters become stereotypes, and people get trapped by them whether inside them or outside them.
The politics of sexuality is highly charged for many people. The language around sexual orientation, gender identity, the politics of sex and morality are relatively new to mainstream Western culture, and in many places are used as distinct categories rather than descriptive language. Language as a general rule can be very helpful as a shorthand way of explaining who we are and perhaps most importantly, if someone might be interested in you. 😉 Categories, where people get stuck in boxes and stereotyped, are often very destructive. There’s a cute ‘Gingerbread Person’ poster where Sam Killerman has worked to untangle these categories back into descriptive language – it’s not perfect, but I do love it as a starting point for seeing gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and so on as separate concepts that differ from person to person!
People can become scared of ‘what things mean’ about sex; if I like this does it mean I’m gay/straight/kinky/whatever? It can often help to realise that you are allowed to define yourself. Liking or not liking certain sexual acts does not determine what people or genders you like to do them with! Sometimes the political fighting about rights can chew up vulnerable people who are in the middle in a way that disturbs me. Nobody should be forcing or coercing you to publicly identify or privately see yourself in a way you find distressing, with the exception of holding people to account for ethical behaviour. This is incredibly important to me! On a personal scale this push to put people into boxes limits people’s ability to engage and accept their own sexual desires and lives because of fear of what it might all mean for them. On a public scale, bullying, isolation, and intense distress can result from our tendency to categorize people and assume that we know better than they do what is going on inside them. It’s a form of diagnosis and holds about as much water for me in social settings as it does in mental health.
In Dead Boys Can’t Dance , Dorais and Lajeunesse explore issues of homosexuality, stigma, and suicide. What I was most interested by is that the group of boys at highest risk of suicide is those who were straight, but designated as gay by their peers. These boys suffer all the stigma, rejection, and isolation of being seen as gay, and do not identify with the gay resources and communities who might provide some refuge from these experiences. The process of mis-identifying each other might be less distressing if such stigma were not attached to some of the labels, but I’d still argue that not being seen for who we believe we are, not being believed about who we believe we are hurt us. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past 100 years of the gay rights movement surely it’s that this harms people?
Another area in which freedom can help us to make sex emotionally safer, is freedom from the cultural beliefs of what it is to love another person. We tend to value our relationships in terms of duration. Only those romantic partnerships that last until the death of one partner are ‘true love’. Only sex between partners in love can be ‘good sex’. Or alternatively – marriage (or monogamy) kills sex, and good sex can only be had between strangers, or casual partners. Many communities that prefer and normalise particular kinds of relationships and sex consider that only their kind of sex is ‘good sex’. (think of the sexual norms of polygamous Mormon communities, and those of the BDSM communities). People are highly diverse! Good sex for one person is another persons dullest evening ever, or even a nightmare. Relationships that had great sex still may not last forever, because life is challenging and people grow and change, and relationships need lots of skills as well as love to thrive. We don’t have to take on these ideas ourselves. Sexual plasticity is an amazing idea the scientific community is exploring. (see The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge) Briefly put, plasticity refers to our malleability, the way we change over time. Sexual plasticity is why we can find our partner deeply attractive at 20, and still deeply attractive at 50 even though they look rather different. We are to some extent, wired to change. Sometimes this works for us, sometimes we find it frightening or stressful.
Freedom from limiting cultural myths around beauty, about the superiority of youth, the way we de-sexualise people with disabilities or illness. Many mature people love to have sex, and do not deserve to be seen as ‘creeps’ or weird. (See blog and book Better Than I Ever Expected) Emotionally safer sex doesn’t just happen between the individuals involved, it’s a cultural and community concern. How to create aged care resources that respect sexual and gender diversity, and support romantic and sexual relationships? How to support ethical sexual behaviour for people with intellectual disabilities, or at least foster the recognition that many of us, whatever our other challenges, are sexual beings. How to break out of limiting ideas that great sex only happens between the ‘beautiful people’ as if ripped abs means someone will be a generous and wonderful lover?
There are so many areas in which freedom can support us having emotionally safer, and better sex. Sexual morality is a tricky one, in that engaging sex (and life) ethically is a responsibility of all of us. Determining what ethical sex is can be challenging. Many of us draw from our faith communities to help us decide moral sexual behaviour, and this can be deeply rewarding. But for some of us, their moral frameworks around sex are a painfully poor fit, leaving us trapped in self rejection or hypocrisy. Some of us have no faith community and are relieved by the sexual freedoms of Western culture, but also wrestling with our sense that sex should be engaged ethically and trying to find non religious frameworks for that. There’s more than one way of looking at sex. You do not have to be trapped between moral frameworks that are hurting you, and immoral sexual choices that also hurt you (and other people). Go looking at the ways other people and other communities frame ethical sex. This isn’t an easy road, and people’s deeply held beliefs about morality are sometimes nowhere more intense than around sex. For some of us, rejection and revulsion would be the cost of living more authentically to our own beliefs.
There is no right way of dealing with this. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what prices we are willing to pay to be connected with our communities. For some of us the much lauded ‘coming out’ would cost us everything, and we would be at very high risks of suffering violence or suicide. For others, anything but coming out is a slow death. We do not have to walk each others roads. But freedom can mean at the very least, freedom inside ourselves from ideas that make us hate ourselves. Freedom from being trapped into choices between a morality we do not believe, and abusive sexual acting out. Freedom can mean simply the freedom to know who we are and make our choices willingly, bear our burdens with love and not hypocrisy, and seek to help our communities grow into safer and more accepting spaces.
Perhaps one of the greatest freedoms we need to make sex emotionally safer, is freedom from shame. Brene Brown is a brilliant resource in this area, she writes about shame, courage, and imperfection. Here’s a link to a couple of her great TED talks about connection and shame, or watch it below:
Freedom is a key human need, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. It can come at great costs, and expose us to awful risks. It can be painfully vulnerable. It can ask us to deeply wrestle with our beliefs about love, morality, and relationships. It can also be healing, liberating, and deeply peaceful. I hope you are able to find freedom from ideas that are hurting you, to make peace with yourself as a sexual (or asexual) person, and to engage in sex and support others to engage in sex in ways that are ethical, loving, and emotionally safer.
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading