We’ve been hearing a lot about consent, hooking up, and sexual assault around these campuses the last few weeks. Many people have a hard time engaging in thinking about or conversing about the issues surrounding these topics. One of the reasons, I believe, is that in order to discuss these topics in an open and honest way, we have to be willing to talk about sex in an open and honest way. Just the word sex can elicit emotional responses, much less talking about it. We’re not going to discuss all the reasons why people are uncomfortable about the topic but rather what is important to be able to understand about ourselves and how that can contribute to healthy sexuality. None of us individually can “prevent” someone from committing a sexual assault since we don’t know who the assaulters might be; only the assaulter can do that. But, we can work toward being healthy sexually on an individual level and contribute to a healthy culture concerning sex. We also can learn ways to intervene when given the opportunity so that sexual assaults can be interrupted. This article will be about personal healthy sexuality.
Healthy sexuality involves recognizing that we are all sexual beings. Each of us can:
- Understand and make decisions based on our own sexual values and beliefs.
- Understand and make decisions based on our own wants and desires.
- Recognize that in order to make decisions we need to acknowledge that the choice is ours!
- Recognize and understand that along with choices, come responsibilities.
Sexuality: The feelings we have about ourselves as sexual beings and the way we express our sexual feelings is an essential part of every person.
Understanding and taking responsibility for our sexuality can lead to greater health and well-being.
Sexual expression is a form of communication through which we give and receive pleasure and emotion. It has a wide range of possibilities – from sharing fun activities, feelings and thoughts, warm touch or hugs, to physical intimacy. It is expressed both individually and in relationships throughout life.
We become sexually healthy beings through a combination of nurturing, touch, self-awareness, acceptance, and learning. Sexually healthy people understand sexual development and reproductive health. Among other characteristics and behaviors, a sexually healthy person has an appreciation for his/her own body, and possesses self-esteem and respect for self and others. A sexually healthy person also has skills in building relationships, communications, setting limits, assertiveness, and resolving conflict and has the capacity to express affection, love and intimacy. We are not born knowing and understanding everything about sexuality and sexual behavior. We need to learn about it. Throughout our lives, we seek and experience different dimensions of sexuality – biological, social, psychological, spiritual, cultural, etc. Parents, family, peers, schools, religion, and the media influence the messages we receive about sexuality at all stages of life. But, at some point we have to synthesize what we have learned, what we have experienced, and what we have felt into our own sexual values and beliefs.
The model described below was developed to help illustrate what components are inherent in a healthy sexual relationship. Whether you are already in a sexual relationship, don’t plan on being in one until you are married or anywhere in between, understanding and working toward having these components as a part of who you are and incorporating them into any relationship can only lead toward healthier relationships, whether sexual intimacy is a part of them or not.
CONSENT means you can freely and comfortably choose whether or not to engage in sexual activity of any kind. You are able to stop the activity at any time during the sexual contact. It also means that you respect when someone else does not want to engage in a particular activity, for any reason. Consent means words or overt actions by a person indicating a freely given, present agreement to perform a particular sexual act with the person initiating sexual contact. Consent must be informed and freely and actively given. Let’s break that down.
OVERT ACTIONS: Both parties understand the fact, nature or extent of the sexual situation, and are clearly expressing, through their actions, a desire to participate in the sexual activity. Keep in mind that a lot of overt actions like kissing, sexual touching, and partial nudity, while being overt, may only communicate that your partner wants to get physical, without engaging in specific sexual activity. Consent must be present for each type of sexual activity. Consent for one level of sexual contact does not mean the person is giving consent for more advanced sexual contact.
WORDS: While this may sound obvious, the word you're looking for is in the family of "yes." Think about it. The alternative is waiting for someone to scream, "No! You're hurting me!" It's way more empowering to hear the positive stuff. More importantly, when someone is being very quiet and passive during any sexual activity that you've initiated, it's your responsibility to find out why, and stop if you find out they're confused or don't want to continue.
FREELY GIVEN: This can sometimes be hard for some people to figure out. Thoughts like, "Well, I'm not being violent, so I guess the "yes, do this," is freely given. That's not always the case. "Freely given" means that you're not threatening or intimidating the person you want to have sex with in ANY way. Intimidation takes many forms. For some people, having a person larger than them be on top of them can be very scary; other people are intimidated by a partner who refuses to stop pushing for sex, even when they say that they are not interested. Keep in mind that the act of successfully wearing someone down and breaking their spirit is not getting consent. And while this last part should be obvious, threatening your potential partner, or their friends or family, if they fail to have sex with you, is not only bad behavior - it is also illegal.
The bottom line: Both of you must have the option to choose to be intimate or not ‐ this means you should be free to change "yes" to "no" at any time. If your "partner" allows the act because they are intimidated or scared in any way, you don't have consent.
THE PRESENT: This means on your date, right now. It doesn't matter if the two of you went all the way yesterday, or this morning, or ten minutes ago. You and your partner make new sexual agreements as they happen OR don't happen. If your partner doesn't want to have sex when you do, you don't have consent.
A PARTICULAR SEXUAL ACT: There's a helpful phrase to keep in mind - just because your partner was willing to engage in some sexual activity, doesn't guarantee they want to have other kinds of sexual contact with you. You have got to be solidly sure that they want to do each and every thing you come up with.
THINK YOU'RE GETTING "MIXED MESSAGES?" Sometimes the person you're messing around with may say "no", but you're confident with how they're responding physically that they could mean, "yes." This is what makes guessing about consent a tricky thing. If you feel that the person is sending you some contradictory signals, it's even more important than ever that you stop and check in as to what they want.
While some state laws vary, they’re all in agreement that any person who is mentally incapacitated or physically helpless cannot consent to a sexual act. That means any drunken person, any drugged person, and any sleeping person cannot legally consent to sex. It is sometimes hard to tell when someone is drunk. If you know the person’s been drinking and you don’t know what that means for the person, don’t go ahead with sexual intimacy. You’ll both be safer that way and it rarely results in good sex anyway.
- EQUALITY means your sense of personal power is on an equal level with your partner. Neither of you dominates the other.
- RESPECT means you have positive regard for yourself and for your partner and your partner has positive regard for you.
- TRUST means you trust your partner on both a physical and emotional level. You have mutual acceptance of vulnerability and an ability to respond to it with sensitivity.
- SAFETY means you feel secure and safe within the sexual setting. You feel safe from the possibility of harm, such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, and physical injury.
It takes spending time together and engaging in lots of honest, open communication to make sure that the CERTS conditions are operating in your relationship. That’s why it is helpful to allow all aspects of a relationship to grow and develop at a consistent pace with physical intimacy.
Meeting the CERTS conditions does not ensure that you’ll have amazing sex, but it can help you feel more secure in your relationship and increase your level of self-esteem.
Some sites to check out:
- http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/29/hookups (interesting interview & comments)
If you're not sure what you want from relationships or sex, you have plenty of company. The challenge of making sexual decisions and choices will continue through adulthood. People often make new or different choices about sex during times of personal change. You may feel that abstinence is a good choice for you right now or you may never have considered abstinence as an option. Abstinence is a choice that people make at different points in their lives. Even if you've already had sexual intercourse, you can still choose to be abstinent at this point in your life. Being abstinent doesn't mean you will never have sex. It just means not now.
What Is Abstinence?
Abstinence can mean different things to different people at different times.
It can mean:
- No sexual touching at all.
- Some sexual touching but no oral, vaginal or anal sex.
- Any kind of physical contact except vaginal sex.
If You're In A Relationship...
Make sure you and partner have the same definition of abstinence. For example, if one partner thinks abstinence means some sexual touching, but no oral sex and the other partner thinks one can be abstinent and still have oral sex then serious miscommunication can occur. Be clear and know your limits. This will help reduce the chance of misunderstanding. It will also make it easier to avoid situations that could make it difficult to stick to your decision.
Some reasons for waiting to have sex might include:
- You want to wait until you're married or in a serious, committed relationship.
- You want a strong relationship based on friendship and trust -- without the confusion sex can add.
- Refraining from oral, anal and vaginal sex is the only 100% sure way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS.
- You want to experience other areas of your life before you have a sexual relationship.
- You're too busy with your job, school, or sports to handle a sexual relationship.
- You can earn respect from others and from yourself for sticking with the decision that's right for you.
If You Have A Partner...
You might feel that having sex is the only way to get or keep a partner. Or your partner might put pressure on you or keep asking you to have sex.
- Being abstinent works better if you decide on it together.
- Talk about your reasons for waiting before you get into sexual situations with your partner.
- Be clear about your limits and which sexual behaviors, if any, you are comfortable with.
- Do things together. Share interests, activities, and projects that will help create a stronger relationship not based on sexual intimacy.
- Discuss any obstacles to abstinence, and plan ways together to overcome them.
Abstinence Can Be Fun!
Sexual behavior isn't an all or nothing thing. Abstinence can include hugging and kissing only. Or, for you, it could include some intimate caresses. Or it might allow for everything except vaginal, oral or anal sex. Being abstinent doesn't mean you stop being a sensual, sexual person. Penetration and oral sex are only two ways to express affection and sexuality. You might find that not having sex will make you appreciate your sexuality more fully. Choosing to be abstinent can give you the opportunity to explore other creative ways to express your sexuality and affection. What you decide will depend on your reasons for choosing abstinence. But you need to make your decision BEFORE you get physically involved.
What About Pressure?
Pressure from others can sometimes make it hard to stick to a decision to be abstinent. All of us to some degree receive pressure from others. Sometimes we have sex when we really don't want to just to please someone else. Some might think sex is the only way to:
- Make a partner happy.
- Keep a partner from leaving.
- Have a close, intimate relationship.
- Feel attractive, popular or loved.
But having sex because of what others want or think won't strengthen a relationship, and it will only make you feel worse about yourself, not better. If you experience these types of pressures, it is important to know where the pressure is coming from and know what to do about it.
Self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself. If you have high self-esteem, you are more confident in yourself to make good decisions, and you expect others to respect your decisions. Your self-esteem is lower if you often need others' approval and acceptance to feel good about yourself. Having high self-esteem -- trusting yourself and the way you feel -- can help you:
- Make a decision based on what's right for you, not on what others think or do.
- Stick with your decision even under pressure from others.
Sticking To Your Decision
If you've decided abstinence is the right choice for you, having a plan to deal with pressures can help you succeed.
- Make a commitment to yourself.
- Think about your reasons for deciding to be abstinent, and take time to feel good about the benefits.
- Know where pressures can come from.
- Plan how to deal with pressure.
- Celebrate your ability to make a choice and stick with it!
Making sexual decisions can be difficult. Think about your relationship, your needs and the impact the decision will have. Remember, sex will be much more pleasurable when it's YOUR decision.
Before having sex with someone, ask yourself the following questions to be sure you're making the right choices for you.
- Am I following my personal beliefs and values?
- Do we both want the same thing (casual sex, relationship, etc.)?
- How will I feel about this tomorrow?
- Am I letting alcohol, drug use, self-esteem, or peer pressure affect my decision?
- Have my partner and I talked about possible consequences, such as STIs and pregnancy?
- Do I know how to use condoms or other STI protection?
- Is this consensual sex?
- Alcohol or drugs are involved.
You don't know his/her name.
You just met your potential partner.
There hasn't been an agreement to have sex.
You haven't talked about you or your partner's sexual history.
You haven't planned for STD prevention.
You haven't planned for pregnancy prevention.
A friendly reminder to always think about the consequences: