Being emotionally safe

Being emotionally safe

What do you really want? Having safer sex isn’t just about ensuring that you don’t contract any STIs, it’s also about ensuring that you stay well emotionally. Emotional safety is about feeling able to say yes to sex when you want it, and no when you don’t. It’s about acknowledging that sometimes we don’t know what we want until we try it, and that it’s OK to change your mind during a sexual encounter.

Being safe emotionally means showing your sexual partners respect and looking after your own headspace.

Within a sexual encounter, the most important thing is communication. In particular, it helps if you are:

  • aware of what you expect from sex in general and a sexual encounter in particular;
  • aware of any signs that you or your partner may becoming uncomfortable with a particular activity; and
  • open to talking about what does and does not turn you on.

Your own headspace can benefit from:

  • acknowledging to yourself when you are finding a situation distressing;
  • talking to someone if you need or want to;
  • learning from past experiences; and
  • looking after your physical health

Maintaining your sanity

This site goes into a lot of detail about consent and how sometimes it can get a bit complex. However, before we get into the thornier bits, here are some basics:

Everyone has the right to decide what they do and don’t want to do, and to change their mind at any stage during a sexual encounter. It is always okay for you to not consent to something- whether by explicitly saying ‘no’, or by merely changing the flow of a sexual encounter away from what you’re not comfortable with. It is equally okay to not know how you feel about something, to participate in a sexual act in order to work out how comfortable you are with it. It is always okay for you to not feel right about a sexual encounter - even if that sense of not feeling right arises after the event.

Although it would be easier if everyone knew what they wanted in advance, the reality is that sometimes you may only realise that you don’t want to do something once it has begun. It is OK to change your mind at any time during a sexual encounter – to go from being OK to not being OK with a particular act, or having sex at all.

No matter what your choices, it is important that they are respected.

Just as sexual expression is something that changes and is refined over time, so is our understanding of what does and doesn’t work. Of course it would be a whole lot easier if you could spot the things that don’t work before they happened, but this is rarely the case. Learning where your boundaries are is a continual process, and often one that comes about once you have crossed them.

Having sex in the dark — Discovering the murk

There are many sexual experiences which are not rape, or sexual assault, and which still feel ‘wrong’, or uncomfortable, and legitimately so. As real as rape and consensual sex are, so are the shades of grey in between, which are also part of people’s experience. There is a substantial difference between the type of upset that occurs if you give something a go and decide you never want to try it again, and the type of upset from not consenting to the activity at the time and that not being respected. However, in both cases the feeling of discomfort, and any of the multiple and complicated feelings that go along with it, is real, and legitimate.
Another common misconception is that consent is not an issue between women - that sexual assault/rape is something only done by men. Unfortunately the use of physical force, coercion and threats to make a person perform or receive sex acts can and does occur in same sex relationships. Rape is a concern within both the ‘straight’ and the queer community.

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However, consent is much bigger than rape – in fact consent is what defines sex as sex and rape as rape. Consent has as much to do with ‘yes’ as it has with ‘no’ – it is what ensures you can determine when you want to have sex and when you don’t.

Learning how to say yes

There are many situations when consent is not clear cut - times that weren’t rape but weren’t quite right either.  Consent is not a two-way switch marked clearly with ‘yes’ and ‘no’, it is an ongoing process, and one which is continually open for revision in every moment of every situation. This means you can choose to stop (or start, as long as the other person wants to as well) any encounter at any time.

Consent requires each of us to make active choices. It needs to be informed - you need to know what you are being asked to consent to before you can make a real choice about whether or not to do so. It is not enough to presume that everyone ‘should’ feel okay about certain sexual acts, or the signals of being okay with something are the same for everyone.

If you are not sure about what is going on, say so.

Whispering ‘I would love to feel your clit on my tongue’ in someone’s ear is both erotic and an effective way of checking that they are OK with you going down on them. Feeling unsure can go both ways – it is good to confirm that your partner is cool with what you are doing, and you may also want to check that you are OK with what is happening.  You may also like to give your partner options as to what might happen – by doing this, you allow them to indicate what they want, while also saying what you would most like to happen. If you are both prepared to say no to what you do not want, then you can both enjoy what you do want more fully, and more unconditionally.

Consent is also about taking responsibility for what you want and for the fact that it is open to change. It is also about enabling other people to take that responsibility for themselves.  Sometimes a person’s history may mean that saying ‘no’ is really hard for them. In these cases, it may help to determine different ways of indicating that you don’t want something to continue (e.g., suggesting a different activity instead or by choosing a word or signal to indicate that you want an activity to stop). Regardless of who you are having sex with, remember that not saying no is not the same as saying yes. For sex to be consensual, you need a (verbal or non-verbal) yes.

To help ensure that your partner doesn’t feel pressure to agree to sex, it is important that you don’t sulk, give the silent treatment or generally making your partner feel bad for saying that they don’t want to have sex.

Having sex upside down — Seeing things differently

Consent can be a matter of context, and of interpretation. As a participant in a sexual situation, it can be difficult to comprehend that the other party (or parties) might not feel the same way as you do about the events taking place; but two people can easily perceive the same situation very differently. For example, you may have had sex with an ex, on the assumption that sleeping together meant getting back together, only to later find out that she saw it as ‘just sex’, and so the sex you had was not the sex you thought you were having.

What’s the story, morning glory? — Myth making

Our society is saturated with ideas about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to have sex. When being hit by these from every angle, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a clear distinction between what you actually want to do, and what you feel you should want to do. Although consent is a complex issue, and one it is dangerous to oversimplify, a good ground rule is that the only sex that is ‘wrong’ is that which feels wrong - for either party. So although you may be familiar, comfortable or unfazed by a particular sexual act, the person you are sleeping with may not be. Making assumptions about things like consent and comfort levels as ‘obvious’, ‘common sense’, ‘universal’ or ‘transparent’, may well create problems.


Princess Charming — More fairy tales

Same-sex attracted women spend a lot of time fighting off accepted ideas about sexuality and what types of sexuality are ‘acceptable’. However, in spite of this, we end up taking on some of these ideas about what sex ‘should’ be - such as ‘love conquers all’, or ‘sex has to be spontaneous’ or ‘true love doesn’t make sense’.

One of these is the idea that you don’t need to talk about sex  - that sex should not involve discussion or reflection. This ties into the myth of spontaneity - the idea that once sex has started, it has to continue until ‘completion’, and it cannot change its course. The reality is that sex does not have to follow this (or any other) socially approved script. Sex involves two - or sometimes more - individuals who are fully capable of determining what sort of sex they want to be having, and how.

When it comes down to it, you are under no obligation to have anything but the sex you want to have. You may not quite know what that sex is; you may never have had it. You may feel you don’t know it well enough to recognise it if you did encounter it. But it is your right to have it, to believe in it existing, to believe yourself capable of having it. And it is only by exercising that right and that belief that you can make it happen.

Don’t leave her tongue-tied — Communication

Sex would be clearest if the lines of communication were completely open and everything was discussed in full beforehand. This would ensure that everyone knew exactly what they were getting into. However the reality is that discussion is often difficult, especially in those passionate ‘tearing-clothes-off’ interludes. Sex is rarely something you can plan in advance, much as this would make the experience a lot more straightforward. Being entirely clear about sex means taking your own expectations and wants and putting them on the table, as well as hearing what the other person wants, so you can work out what works for both of you. Sometimes you need to communicate that you don’t know what you want. At other times being honest will require you to accept that what you want may change from one situation to another, and that it can be worked out as you go along.

Consent would be easiest if it was explicit; however the reality is that it may not always be so.  At those times, consent is not a clear ‘yes or no’, but rather an awareness of the physical and verbal signals of discomfort and pleasure of both yourself and your partner. As long as you are prepared to accept both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’, whether consent is verbal or not is a secondary concern. If in doubt, it is always OK to ask.

Making sex oral — Talking about it

Making sex a topic of open discussion is difficult. It contradicts the images we are given of spontaneous, engrossing and irrational sex. In fact, talking about sex can often feel quite odd and awkward, especially if you want safer sex and are concerned about your partner’s response to that. This sense of awkwardness can have many causes - not wanting to label someone else (or yourself) as a potential carrier of an STI  (and therefore somehow a ‘dirty’ person); a lack of self-confidence to bring up a potentially uncomfortable topic, or a sense that wanting safer sex says something negative about you. However difficult or awkward discussing sex may feel, ultimately it shows your respect for both yourself and your partner/s. As with safer sex measures like latex, discussion of sex is often seen as a bar to spontaneity. However, by knowing in advance where you stand, you are able to let the actual sexual encounter run spontaneously.

Negotiating safer sex can be made easier by taking your time and being very honest. By bringing it up before you start having sex, stigma and fear can be reduced. When discussing safer sex it can help to have a really good sense of humour. Sometimes by explaining why you want to have safer sex in terms of respecting (and thus protecting) your lover and yourself, may help put your partner at ease. Sex in general, and in particular safer sex, can be downright amusing – rolling with the experience makes sex a lot more relaxed, creative and enjoyable.

Avoid a head fuck — Protecting your sanity

Looking after your emotional health may take many forms. This may include:

  • deciding not to have sex when you are feeling emotionally fragile;
  •  learning from- and aiming not to repeat - past mistakes;
  •  being really clear about your own boundaries; or
  •  talking out the issues that may have been triggered with a close friend.

Where are you cumming from? — Knowing your expectations

Everyone brings their own set of expectations into bed. We might not want to admit it, but we all have preconceptions about sexual contact. These might be universal things, like having someone respect you, or something more variable, like whether having sex means the beginning of a relationship or just a one-night stand.

The difference between ideas about sex may even extend to people’s understanding of what constitutes sex. For example, one woman may see ‘having sex’ as meaning ‘mutual pleasuring’, the other may consider it to mean ‘performing sexual acts on someone else without being touched yourself’ - what is commonly known as ‘stone butch’. Neither of these is a more legitimate way to view sex, but the reconciling the two may take some doing. Two people trying to ‘have sex’ when they mean something different by the term, can cause confusion! Although this may seem like an extreme situation, in a sense this is always the case when two people converge. Everyone has different histories and different associations with sex - therefore what sex means to each person will differ. This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to have a shared sexual experience, just that it’s important to be aware that two people in a sexual situation are always coming from different perspectives. Being clear and explicit about those differences (or at the very least being aware of them), helps to ensure that people don’t get hurt, and to enable a greater degree of sexual connection.

It’s a party you want to cum to — Staying sex-positive

It’s important to have a positive idea of sex. Sometimes it is all too easy to let negative past experiences colour your feelings about sex. If you have had sex which felt frightening, alienating or unfulfilling, you may feel that these negative experiences are all there is to sex. You may be carrying a deep-seated guilt about your sexuality. You may have anxiety about not living up to popular ideals of what sex should be, or you may feel like your full sexual potential has never been tapped.

Negative feelings about sex may be so large that they take over your ideas about sex altogether. Although it is sometimes hard to remember that sex can be joyous, fulfilling, passionate and uplifting, being able to think positively about it is a large part of making sex a positive experience.

Some simple suggestions which may help you stay sex positive:

  • find pictures/poems/stories which affirm your sexuality;
  • enjoy sexual fantasies and use these as a way of working out what you do and don’t like;
  • rejoice in the fact that learning about sex is a life long experience – you don’t have to get it right all the time; and
  • loosen the grip of negative experiences by talking about them; either to a friend or a professional.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well

 As sex is an important means of expressing ourselves, and can often have a significant effect on other aspects of our lives, it is important to ensure that the effect that it has is a positive one. Ensuring that you are in a good headspace means you can get the most, not only out of sex, but also life in general.