Answers to FAQ in all areas of sex, intimacy, relationships, sexuality, including short ‘how to’ blogs
With the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the issue of consent has been shoved into the foreground of daily life again.
The conversations around consent on social media, in the mainstream media and on the street highlight to me that few people truly understand the topic and those who do, don’t necessarily believe that people have a right to refuse or withdraw consent.
Consent has always been a bit of a sticky topic.
I’ve spent the past 30 years working with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups to help them sort out relationship issues, fix sexual problems, and create intimate relationships that last. Despite an emphasis on the need for the ‘safe sex’ conversation before having sex since the late 1980’s, an overwhelming majority of couples still skip the conversation and rely on use of barriers (condoms, femidoms, gloves, dental dams). Talking about sex with a lover or potential lover still remains an area that many people find too tough to manage. Because of this, people often don’t get explicit sexual consent.
Thinking back, my first memory about consent though I didn’t realise it at the time was when I was 7 years old. I had an aunt who suffered from schizophrenia. She was always loud, had her lipstick drawn way outside her lips and smelled kind of funny. I can clearly remember being told to go give her a kiss because she would feel bad if I didn’t. Before I could agree to do so, she grabbed me and I remember being held tight and struggling to get free. I have countless friends who tell similar stories and many friends who are parents who admit telling their children to go hug the smelly aunt for the same reason.
The concept of consent has changed a lot in the past 40 years.
When I started dating in the 1970’s, a lot of gaining consent was unspoken. Often a man would touch a woman and see how she reacted in order to see if they had consent. This was the cultural norm at the time. Girls were still taught to ‘play hard to get’ so the only real way guys had of knowing what the girl wanted was to make an advance and see if ‘no’ became ‘yes’. The sexual revolution was in progress so people were given conflicting messages. If women were hip then they were supposed to have lots of sex but if they did decide to have lots of sex, they were branded as sluts. There were girls that you had fun with and girls that you had relationships with. The ones you had relationships with were the ones who played hard to get. I remember being extremely confused. I enjoyed sex but when I was honest about this, I was a slut. I wasn’t ever very good at playing hard to get because I didn’t lie well.
An article published in the Journal of Sexual Violence in November 2017, highlights that college men are really confused about gaining consent for sex. It suggests that men don’t make a distinction between a woman expressing desire and a woman giving consent. Essentially, to these men, an expression of desire equalled a green light to pursue sex.
When I think back to the examples of sexual consent in the media when I was entering the world of relationships, the first that comes to mind is Hans Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars.
He pursues her relentlessly and she refuses constantly. In the end, he pushes her against the wall and kisses her as she is refusing again! She melts and they form a great romance. Harrison Ford goes on to force himself on multiple heroines in Blade Runner and all the Indiana Jones movies. And all of the women melt (including me). Except this isn’t consent, it is coercion.
The message for men is that women are turned on by this caveman approach and that eventually they will consent and melt. This might be true but only when the man is as hot as Harrison Ford and the woman is already attracted to him. And that’s the problem. If Mary has told Art from accounting repeatedly and clearly that she doesn’t want to go out with him and is not interested in him at all sexually, she will not find him pushing her up against the wall and kissing her hot at all. She will see this for what it is, a sexual assault.
It isn’t surprising that men feel the goal posts have moved repeatedly and that women are equally frustrated.
With the recent mounting allegations in so many arenas, the imbalance of power has been highlighted when talking about harassment. If there is an imbalance of power, men are told that any suggestion of sexual activity can be seen as harassment. When President Bill Clinton had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, though both acknowledged that there was a power imbalance, Ms Lewinsky wrote in 2014 ‘Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: It was a consensual relationship.’ How are men supposed to walk through this minefield without getting blown up? If someone takes advantage of you, how can that be consensual? Would it not be more honest for her to say – ‘It was a consensual relationship’. and leave it at that?
People are still more likely to meet sexual and romantic partners in the workplace than anywhere else.
With the increasing confusion around consent, how can you express interest in a colleague without being perceived as harassing? If you are his or her boss, don’t express sexual interest period. The power imbalance makes it very difficult navigate this type of relationship. The person in the junior position will always have some concerns about whether refusing will change the work relationship with the boss and impact upon the job and promotion prospects. You are best off hoping the person who works for you will express their interest and then you can accept their advances. Although even this is not without risk.
If you are an equal or are the subordinate in the relationship, then you can express interest but I would suggest expressing it in as non-sexual a way as possible. Invite the person for a coffee instead of telling the person how sexy you find them.
What constitutes sexual consent?
Consent is when someone says ‘yes’.
This may seem obvious but many people confuse the lack of a ‘no’ for consent. Silence does not mean yes.
You can only get consent from someone who is able to give consent.
People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not be able to give consent. It depends upon how altered their reasoning ability is whilst taking the drugs or alcohol. For example, if a person is so drunk that he cannot stand up and is blacking out, he cannot give consent. However, if a person is able to function and under the influence of alcohol, he can give consent even though he may not make the best decisions and he may regret it the next day.
Jeff and John met through a friend. On their first date, they enjoyed two bottles of wine during dinner. Jeff invited John up to his flat for a nightcap. John said yes and they each had a glass of port. John asked Jeff where the restroom was and when he stood up he said ‘I’m a bit buzzed’ and grinned. When he came back from the restroom, they began kissing again. Things heated up very quickly and Jeff asked John if he would like to have sex with him. John hesitated for a moment and then said ‘I don’t usually do this on a first date. But yes, I would like to have sex with you.’ Many people in Jeff’s position would simply make sure there were condoms and lube handy and then go back to the foreplay. After all, John has consented to sex and Jeff is really attracted to him.
For some people, John being buzzed and also stating that he doesn’t usually have sex on a first date would be enough to make them question whether the consent was valid. Would John feel happy the next day about having gone against his own mores by having sex on the first date? It’s possible that John would feel upset with himself but not with Jeff. Equally, he could feel taken advantage of by Jeff as he could feel that once Jeff realised he was buzzed and he had stated that he doesn’t usually have sex on the first date, Jeff should have suggested that they wait until the next date. To me, this situation is an ethical challenge. Is a person responsible for protecting their potential sexual partner from a potentially bad decision? Perhaps but that also could feel extremely patronising. How does someone know if it is a good or bad decision for another person? Or is it simply the case that when someone is buzzed or drunk and expressing hesitancy about having sex, no sexual activity should be pursued as they are not giving enthusiastic or affirmative consent.
People who are suffering from mental illness may not be able to give consent. This depends upon the person’s ability to comprehend what is being asked of her, her ability to comprehend the consequences of going through with what is being asked of her. If she is not able to understand the potential consequences of having sexual intercourse with a man (like getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection), then she cannot give consent.
There is also arousal non-concordance.
Emily Nagoskiwrites about this extensively. Arousal non-concordance is when the body’s signals about the sexual value of something does not agree with the mind or emotion’s feelings about the sexual value of something. For example, a man can have an erection randomly and it does not mean he wants to have sex with the person he is talking to at the time of the erection. A woman can lubricate during a sexual activity and not be enjoying it at all. This happens frequently during sexual assaults and is one of the things that makes victims feel so guilty. They think because there was physical arousal or even orgasm it equals enjoyment. It does not. Equally a woman can be very interested in sex and very turned on but not lubricating for a whole host of reasons. This is why it is essential to listen to someone’s words about what they want rather than thinking that a body is telling the ‘true’ story.
Do you need consent for every single part of a sexual encounter?
Yes. However this does not need to kill the buzz. In my experience, the best way to make this fun is to have a conversation before beginning. Talk about all the things you want to do with each other and get clear consent. Talk about your fantasies and ask your partner what she would like to engage in. Ask your lover about her fantasies and what she would like to do. Consent goes both ways.
Even when you have clear consent as you begin, your lover can still withdraw consent at any time. For example, you talk about anal sex as part of your consent conversation over dinner and both of you agree that the idea is hot and you want to try it tonight. You prepare well and use lots of lubrication but as you begin, your lover says it hurts too badly and asks you to stop. You no longer have consent at this point and need to stop.
Consent is a dynamic process.
Pay attention to what your lover is saying, the emotion being communicated and body language. If any of this seems at all hesitant or confused, check with your lover again. Ask if they like what you are doing and want you to continue. When in doubt, listen to your partner’s words.
I still like the video published by the Thames Valley Police in the UK comparing consent to a cup of tea. However, Cathy Young wrote a great piece that highlights the fact that consent isn’t this simple. She highlights the fact that lots of definitions of assault now suggest that if someone is badgered until they give in and say yes this is still sexual assault. She speaks about the current rape narratives in the media that become ‘I said no but he kept trying until I said yes’. This is coercion.
Please note, I am not suggesting that you keep needling at someone until they finally give in. That is coercion. But if you do that and I say yes, legally I have given consent. The idea that if you have to convince me, I have not given consent is dead wrong. If you convince me to say yes, then I have given consent. I can change my mind and say no in the middle of things and then you have to stop what you are doing. When I say no, I have withdrawn consent. If I say yes because I don’t want to hurt your feelings, that is consent. As long as I am free to refuse without risking some actual harm (like being beaten, killed, losing my job, my family being harmed), it is consent. It’s up to me to gather the strength to refuse.
A good portion of the continued confusion about consent arises because in many places women are still objectified.
Men who objectify women don’t understand appropriate boundaries. They ignore the woman’s role in the workplace and instead see her only or primary role as being a sexual object for a man. When a man views a woman as purely a sexual object, it is not a big step for him to believe that she should be a sexual object for him.
The current narrative in the media seems to suggest that men fall into two categories: abusers or not good enough allies. Few men are depicted as good allies to women. This is a thorny topic and often ends up making men feel that they can do no right. The thing is, we all make mistakes. In my conversation about consent with Kitty Stryker, one of the things she highlighted as being important is there being away for people who have violated consent to apologise and make amends and be accepted back into the community at large. We were talking particularly about the BDSM community, but we also agreed that this applies when talking about sexual harassment as well. Clearly if someone rapes a woman, a simple apology and promise not to do this again will not be enough. If someone harasses a woman in the work place, there ought to be a way back into the workplace community. If we do not start providing ways back in when people make mistakes and we continue to focus on blame, things will remain fractured and the divide between men and women will increase.
How do we begin to repair the divide?
To start, we open the conversation. We admit that all of us fail to get consent at times. Have you ever given someone a hug without asking and felt their discomfort? Did you tell your child to go hug Aunt Jane so she wouldn’t feel hurt? We take responsibility for our part in this dynamic. Have you played hard to get or have you ignored a woman’s ‘no’?
Then, we express a willingness to teach and learn about consent, to look at the concept not only as a means to an end (How do I get her to f**k me?) but also as a part of how we connect with each other, the dynamic between us.
Finally, we work on how to create real tangible ways to heal breaches of consent instead of focusing solely on blame so that our relationships heal and we move forward into positive relationships in the workplace, social spaces and the wider community.
People often become confused about the language used around non-monogamy and polyamorous networks of relationships. I will start with a disclaimer: Language changes quickly. New terms are added faster as the internet expands. These terms and polyamorous definitions are up to date at the time of writing. However, your mileage may vary.
With that said, here is my list of non-monogamy terms that are essential.
A relationship or relationship style that does not conform to monogamy. In monogamy, a person has a sexual relationship with only one person at a time. In non-monogamy, a person can have multiple partners at the same time.
This is an updated term for having an affair or cheating. Unethical non-monogamy is when one partner makes a unilateral decision to have a relationship with another person without gaining the agreement or consent of their current partner. Any time an agreement between two (or more) people is violated (instead of negotiated and changed), it is considered unethical.
Any relationship in which the parties make agreements about having multiple sexual and/or relationship partners.
People who engage in polyamory have more than one romantic and sexual relationship at a time. Polyamory is usually assumed to include love rather than simply having multiple sexual relationships at a time.
A relationship where there is one woman and multiple men.
A relationship where there is one many and multiple women.
A single person (often a woman) who is sought by a couple to join them for short term sexual relationship or a long-term relationship.
This is when a couple or a group of people choose to dispense with barrier protection and have sex where fluids are exchanged. If a couple is fluid bonded, they have usually had multiple clean STI tests and use condoms and other barriers (dental dams) when they have sexual contact with people outside the fluid bond.
Feeling fantastic because of the joy your partner is experiencing with someone else. It is the opposite of jealousy. It is when someone else’s excitement and joy brings you excitement and joy. This is one of the most wonderful parts of being non-monogamous if you are able to experience compersion. Some people find it hard to experience compersion but it is a skill that can be learned.
This is when relationships are prioritised. Sometimes people talk about their primary or secondary partner and this suggests they are in a hierarchical relationship. If you are raising children with someone, you may prioritise that relationship. However, prioritising the relationship does not necessarily mean that you consider someone more important than other partners. It often refers to how you divide and prioritise your time. Many people in the poly community now prefer to aim for non-hierarchical relationships – noting that no relationship holds more sway inherently than any other.
When I first entered the world of polyamory, it was common to use the terms primary and secondary relationships. Now hierarchical language is frowned upon so people often refer to nesting partners to describe the person they live with rather than a primary partner as that is seen as too hierarchical.
Some relationships are by their nature hierarchical. Relationships in which there is an authority transfer are always hierarchical as the person who holds the authority is at the top of the hierarchy. This doesn’t always mean that when someone is polyamorous and in a relationship which involves authority transfer that the authority transfer relationship is always given priority and seen as primary in the hierarchical sense. People can have a number of different types of relationships and keep them all equal. However, it is common for authority transfer relationships to be seen as primary. I have also noticed that in real life, equality is rare but striving for equality is common. This is the subject of an upcoming blog.
This is when someone chooses to focus on the individual rather than becoming couple focused. Many of the people I have met who identify in this way are clear that they prefer their own space and do not want to live with or marry anyone. They talk about being their own partner first. They enjoy the flexibility and autonomy.
Traditionally this terms refers to couples enjoying sexual encounters with other individuals or couples. It is usually specific to sexual bonds rather than creating emotional bonds. Lots of swinging takes place in clubs or at private parties. Traditionally, swinging is an activity that favours heterosexual couples and bisexual women. In more modern clubs, bisexual men also engage and in some clubs same sex couples engage as well. However, same sex couples, queer and non-binary people tend to create their own events and don’t usually call this ‘swinging’. Some people go to swing clubs to watch rather than to have sex with others. The couple has sex with each other while watching the activity of the other people at the party or club. This allows them to engage in voyeurism and exhibitionism. There are closed swinging groups where people have regular STI tests and agree to only swing with each other.
A polyamorous relationship in which all of the partners agree to remain faithful to the group. Some relationships have a process that allows new members to be added and others don’t. Some of these are relationships in which everyone lives together and others are not. Polyfidelity.
A relationship involving three people.
A triad where the person at the apex of the V is involved with the other two people but they are not sexually involved with each other. The person at the apex is also known as the pivot.
A relationship involving four people.
A relationship where one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous.
Don’t ask, Don’t Tell:
A relationship in which partners are allowed to have sex with others outside the relationship as long as it is not talked about.
Friends with benefits:
When a person decides to have a sexual relationship (sometimes just once, other times regularly) with a friend and there is no expectation of a romantic relationship developing. Also known as a fuck buddy.
This is the network of a person’s romantic and sexual partners and their romantic and sexual partners.
From the 1970’s – Originally a wife swapping/swinging event where each couple places their car keys in a bowl when they arrive and then at the end of the night, each woman picks a set of keys from the bowl and then goes home with the man whose keys they are for the night. There are still key parties held.
The partner of your partner. Sometimes known as lover-in-law.
Ménage a Trois or Threesome:
French for a triad – though usually this term is used for experiences rather than to describe relationships that last longer involving three people.
A romantic network or a subset of a romantic network.
A romantic network or subset of a romantic network
Monogamish: (term coined by Dan Savage)
A couple in a committed relationship who are monogamous with some agreed exceptions. For example, kissing a friend may be acceptable. Some people who are monogamish allow sexual relationships outside the couple but not romantic relationships.
New relationship energy (NRE):
The excitement and quasi obsessiveness that happens when you begin a new relationship. It includes infatuation and also that ‘in love’ feeling and can last a few years.
One Penis Policy (OPP) :
A relationship where the man is allowed sex with multiple female partners and the female partners can have sex with other women but no one is allowed to have sex with another man.
Any relationship that is not monogamous. For some this term is only used to describe relationships in which other sexual relationships are allowed but there are no other romantic relationships. In this way it excludes polyamory.
This is when people are free to engage in any type of relationships that they choose. People who practice relationship anarchy see any relationship that restricts a person’s ability to express themselves as negative. Freedom and spontaneity are seen as highly desirable traits. For many people who practice relationship anarchy, there is not always a clear distinction between partner ad non-partner.
A group of people in a polyamorous network.
There are also a lot of very colloquial terms so as with all relationships, it is important to communicate fully and clearly in order to make sure you and the person or people you are speaking with are understanding each other.
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The time between New Year’s Day and just before Valentine’s Day is known as breaking up season.
Couples who have been struggling for during the autumn and through the holiday season often use the ‘new year, new you’ energy as an impetus to end the relationship so that they can look towards Valentine’s day as a time to start another romantic adventure. This is breaking up season.
In mid-December, I toured WeWork Aldwych House in London. If you haven’t been in co-working office space like WeWork, you might not know how much creativity happens in casual conversations in the hot desking common areas. Co-work offices provide hot desks which are tables or desks that you can either reserve or just claim when you arrive in the space. Most spaces have great Wi-Fi, free beverages and a variety of comfy seating arrangements. You sit down and work and during the time you are there, often enter into a conversation or two with the people working around you. People can be from any field, business or discipline. In any event, I ended up in a conversation with one of the local team. We were talking about what I do for a living and he said that there really should be a good guide to breaking up since there didn’t seem to be any guides to help people refrain from emotionally shredding each other when they leave a relationship. That is how I came to be writing this guide. This blog is an introduction and outline that identifies the problems and gives some good hints and tips to avoid the worst of the pitfalls. If you want the full guide, you can purchase it here. I have laid it out as an eBook/eworkbook.
I have been working with individuals, couples, families, and relationship groups for the past 30 years. Most of the time when people come in with relationship problems, they will say they are coming in to therapy in order to save the relationship. In reality, in at least 60% of the cases, one of the people has come in with the desire to end the relationship and wants help so that the end is not absolutely horrible and destructive. Most people know that acting on the intense emotions that are frequently present at break up time can be destructive to themselves in addition to their soon to be ex-partners. But they still cannot help but lash out. Even people who are usually excellent at negotiation and have great emotional and social skills can behave like out of control bullies when involved in a break up.
Why do people behave so badly when breaking up? Here are the most common reasons:
They have been betrayed by their soon to be x.
Breaches of trust cut incredibly deeply. There is nothing worse than discovering that the person you have trusted with all of you has betrayed you. The most common betrayal is an affair but there are other betrayals. All betrayals involve lying and/or withholding truth (pretending). The ones that have gone on the longest are the most emotionally damaging.
They are betraying the person they want to break up with.
In this case, the person projects their own bad motives and behaviour onto their partner. They become angry and horrible because they cannot admit their own bad behaviour. They feel guilty about breaking up and it makes them angry.
They find it too hard to be honest, vulnerable and make a clean break.
Being angry and belligerent pushes the other person away.
4. They don’t want to stay friends and don’t know how to end the relationship with compassion without their partner wanting to stay connected.
They have no empathy.
There are people who have little or no empathy and cannot place other people’s needs before their own needs. Sometimes they are just thoughtless.
They know that breaking up is the best thing for both parties but don’t feel they can stay separate if there isn’t animosity.
They feel helpless in the face of their partner’s sadness and upset and this causes an angry reaction. Anger is easier than powerless feelings.
They cannot stand their own feelings of sadness and grief and find anger much easier to bear.
What are some of the pitfalls to an amicable or friendly breakup?
It can be hard to stay away from the person you are breaking up with.
You are in the habit of spending time, sharing things. If things are friendly, those habits are too easy to continue. You may not have a new routine for emotional support or sharing the little things about your day so this too will make staying separate hard.
Making the decision to end a relationship that is not meeting your needs is often a huge relief.
Once you have made the decision, sometimes a lot of the negativity will lift and you will find being together more comfortable and even more fun. Sometimes people remember what it was like at the beginning of the relationship when they were really into each other and things were going really well. Suddenly the relationship may feel like it is salvageable. This is the time when people forget the reasons that they decided to end the relationship.
Going back out into the world can be harder if you are still close to your ex-partner.
Many people find it uncomfortable if a person they are dating is close with an ex. Also when you are emotionally close with someone, you may compare new people to the person and this may put you off developing closeness with someone new.
Some tips and tricks to avoid behaving badly:
- If you have been betrayed, do some personal work (counselling, therapy, coaching, talking with a trusted friend – whatever works for you) to resolve some of the intensely negative feelings you are experiencing.
- If you were the one who was having the affair, own up to it (at least to yourself) and make a clear effort not to project your stuff onto your soon to be x partner. You might benefit from some personal work (counselling, therapy, coaching, talking to a good friend – whatever works for you).
- Use journaling to help you get what is in your head out onto paper. If journaling doesn’t appeal, try some type of art work.
- Create a separation plan. This is particularly useful if you have been living together or leaving lots of stuff at each other’s places. It’s also useful to help manage the emotional and social aspects of separation. If you attend a regular social event with common friends, this is where you can address who will be attending in the future and who will not or how you will both manage to attend. This can be a detailed plan that allows you to address all the ways your lives are entangled or it can be simple and just have some basic rules.
- If you are attending the same events, it can help to go with another friend to avoid awkwardness.
- Build in time for your favourite stress reduction activities and plan these around when you have to deal with the breakup.
- Remember that breaking up involves loss and so there is a grieving process that most people experience. If grieving isn’t something you are good at, get some help to learn how to grieve (which usually means to learn to allow yourself to feel the loss until you are finished feeling it instead of trying to suppress the feelings or push them aside).
Working towards ending relationships without lots of destruction is one of the best things you can do as you will need these skills in multiple places over your lifetime.
Sometimes we end business relationships, friendships and even familial relationships and all of these can be as traumatic as ending romantic relationships.
If you found this introduction intriguing and useful, look for my Modern Guide to Breaking Up eBook/eWorkbook on https://the-intimacy-coach.com on the products page to be released on 25 January 2018 or simply set up a discovery session with me by going to my website https://the-intimacy-coach.com and then my contact page and clicking where it says ‘click here’.
We experience shame when we cannot own something we have thought, felt, or done or some part of ourselves. Guilt can be appropriate when we have done something we know is wrong and harmed ourselves and/or others. It serves the purpose of getting us to look at the wrong and highlighting the wrong so that we can make amends, change our behaviour.
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