When the personal becomes collective
Conversations about sexuality cannot be complete until we talk about the culture in which we have these discussions. Often the root of unhealthy sexual behavior stems from a view of other people as objects. Yet it’s challenging to see these beliefs and behaviors when as a culture, through the media or systems of power, we view women in a particular way.
A few months ago, the conversation around #metoo helped to rebalance the view of how sex (and power) is experienced in our society. Talking about moments of unwanted sexual attention brought our attention to the objectifying habits entrenched in our society. It was shocking to many people that what we, as a society, understood as “normal” was actually unhealthy and even harmful.
Even before he was the only male in our practice, Landon Dunn, LSW, LIDCD, had his own awakening to the societal influences of how men view women. Landon moved “from bubble to bubble” in his ventures from a Findlay childhood to Oxford, Ohio for college, but in his time in Los Angeles at grad school, the west coast gender-neutral language was a contrast to his midwestern upbringing.
These experiences made him reconsider the effects of social constructs that made it okay to talk about or to women in particular ways. Landon became aware of the differences between looking at someone or maintaining eye contact with her. He learned to ask questions with an eagerness to learn. By seeing each individual as a person with something to offer the conversation, he can refrain from truncating or wanting only to be heard. These habits may seem commonsense to some, but part of the #metoo conversation reveals that for many women, this has not been the experience. Landon’s individual actions, joined with those living with intentional awareness around areas of gender equality, are shifting the collective experience.
Evaluating the social conversations around sexuality, along with our personal understanding of sexuality – both our own sexuality and the sexual being of another person – leads us to becoming better humans, in our thoughts and in our interactions.
Having "The Talk" With Kids & Teens
Healthy attitudes towards sex begin early in life, and often our misunderstandings about sex are rooted in our earliest conversations about the human body, touch, and even relationships. The goal is to normalize sexual development as a natural, normal part of growing up, just like getting taller and changing interests. For example, it is normal for a toddler or pre-school age child to explore their own genitals and begin to notice the difference between male and female genitals. Getting angry and punishing this behavior gives the message that genitals are “bad” and that there is something wrong with the child, that “private parts” of the body should be ignored. Instead, answer any questions the young child has in a matter-of-fact way and help them learn appropriate boundaries for self-exploration. Reminding a child that closing the door when dressing or toileting, knocking before entering, and asking permission before touching someone else’s body are all essential early boundary lessons that lead into “the sex talk” later. These can also be generalized for family discussions on respect and personal responsibility.
Therapist Holly Schweitzer Dunn, LISW, shares a few tips on communicating with children and teens about their natural sexual nature.
- Talk early & often. One-and-done conversations with preteens can be uncomfortable for both kids and adults. Instead, establish a regular conversation around bodies and bodily functions. By flooding a young person with all information at once, you can easily overwhelm him or her, making the conversation even less effective.
- Use real, medical language for body parts at all ages. A penis is never a woo woo just as your arm is not a dinglehopper. Proper terminology reduces a sense of shame around both language and the body.
- Own the awkwardness. Acknowledge any discomfort or embarrassment by either children or caregivers.
- Communicate from a place of openness and watch for shame-focused language. Avoid referencing “dirty” body parts or behaviors, such as masturbation.
- Creating an environment where decisions can be processed and discussed in a non-threatening way is essential. Know that children naturally push boundaries. A child or teen may know your family values/beliefs while making decisions that do not seem aligned with those beliefs.
- Practice smaller difficult conversations with your children before you dive into the bigger issues. This serves as practice for both you and your child and sets the template for how your family addresses important things.
What is Healthy Sex?
Because sex is usually a private part of our lives, we often don’t know what falls in the range of “normal.” Sex is an expression not just of human reproduction, but also specific relationships between people. However, people’s attitudes about sex might not be only a reflection of a current relationship; it also involves past sexual experiences, attitudes and behaviors. Talking about these experiences can involve shame or judgment which doesn’t make it easy, so try to approach conversations regarding your sexual relationship with patience and grace. How do you know when you need the help of a professional to guide you in these issues? Jayne Williams, LPCC, LICDC, offers a few standards of healthy sexual relationships:
Consent. Healthy sexual relationships always involves enthusiastic consent by both parties. Healthy sex is always a choice, meaning both individuals must be clear headed to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to clearly give consent. If there is a difference in power, it diminishes the consent. Healthy sex is between equals.
Safety. Most adults agree that sex is better in a caring, loving relationship where there is trust and freedom to be oneself. Healthy sexual behaviors include treating one’s self and the other person in a respectful manner, being willing to accept no for an answer, feeling safe. Affection and intimacy deepens the relationship.
Connection. Healthy sex gives plenty of thought and consideration to a partner and becomes a means for mutual pleasure. If it is used to numb or kill pain, or as an escape, it makes the experience only about the individual which can lead to dehumanizing behaviors.
Communication. People have differing opinions of what makes for the correct frequency of sex. It can be stressful when couples are unevenly suited in their sex drives or conflict in the relationship is showing up in the bedroom. What is important is to be able to communicate to your partner feelings about what you would like, or what you are not liking. Take into consideration an individual’s physical health, mental health, stressors, attitudes towards sex, and the current station in life when approaching these concerns. Communication in a sensitive and kind manner can go a long way to help people meet in the middle and work towards solutions.
What can you expect if you decide to seek counseling for this area of your relationship?
When clients come into counseling, it is common to ask about concerns regarding their past sexual behaviors, or anything at present that is causing distress. Our job as clinicians is to make the conversations as helpful and informative as possible, while looking to find solutions.