Negotiations & Great Sexpectations

This week is our first guest post and we couldn’t have found a more suitable contributor than our friend Nina Funnell! She works in Australia living multiple lives as an anti-violence campaigner, a regular columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and a sexual ethics educator. TCP is thrilled to have Nina share her personal experiences so as to help us gain further insight into forming consensual connections!

[The following article is written by Nina Funnell. May 20th, 2011]

A while back I was sitting on the sofa with my boyfriend, hanging out watching TV. Out of nowhere he was “all systems Go!”- hands and lips were coming at me from every direction. Now to be clear about this, this didn’t trouble me in the slightest. On the contrary, I was quite turned on by the spontaneous nature of it all. But at the same time, it did catch me off guard and I wanted to slow down and check in to see what was going on for him. And so I asked him how he was feeling and where this ‘enthusiasm’ was coming from. His reply? “oh, you took your hair out (of its pony tail), I thought that was the ‘go’ signal.”

I started laughing and explained that sometimes women just take their hair out for the sake of it. Before long he was laughing too. It was a reminder that even in the most trusting, loving, established relationships it can be very easy to misread or misinterpret a signal. It also reminded me that unless you actually stop and use words to communicate with a person, two people can have an entirely different interpretation of what is going on in any given sexual exchange.

To be clear about this I’m not simply talking about the negative sexual experience which can result from poor communication and misunderstanding (although I suspect many of us have experienced awkward sexual moments which resulted from either not being able to read a situation or not being able to articulate what it was that we wanted and how we would want it).  Rather I’m talking about the rich sexual pleasure that results and the increased connection that follows from open and continuous, judgment free dialogue during sexual exchanges. With my work with teenagers I often find that they get that “no means no”, but what many fail to see (at first) is that even if two people are in enthusiastic agreement that they both want to have sex, chances are that they will have imagined very different things about what that sex will look like, what it will entail, how it will play out, what the timing and pace will be, how long it will go for, what positions will be involved, what it may or may not sound like (sex talk, noises etc) and what it will feel like emotionally and physically. Many of us bring Great Sexpectations to our sexual encounters but not all of our expectations will neatly align with the expectations of the other person (or people) we have decided to get jiggy with. And when we are unable to communicate about both desires and boundaries we can end up having some fairly average inauthentic sex. Or worse: sex where one or more partners feel violated and disrespected.

Being able to negotiate a path between the gaps in what you and your partner(s) are looking and hoping for is not always as easy as it sounds and many people fear being judged or laughed at if they articulate a want. Likewise people fear turning down a partners wants for fear that it will lead to feelings of rejection or that it could lead to emotional or physical violence. Setting up a relationship where people are able to articulate freely about what they desire while allowing for the fact that the other person may not want the same things, and should not feel obliged to do anything they don’t want to (or feel in any way disadvantaged if they choose to say ‘no’) is difficult.  Moreover though, we need to acknowledge that not all of us even have an idea of what we would like sex to look and feel like. Many jump in with no Sexpectations or imaginings whatsoever and effectively learn ‘on the job’. And in many ways this is good. Plenty of young people have told me that they didn’t know they even wanted something until their partner asked them and they suddenly realized that is was a ‘want’ they weren’t even aware they had.

The drawback however, is that it cuts the other way too. Sometimes we don’t know that we won’t enjoy something until it is suddenly sprung on us and we realize it makes us uncomfortable. And these things can seem little to one person, but can have a very big impact on arousal levels. Anything from touching certain body parts (necks, stomachs, nipples, legs, hair, feet or any other part) to saying certain things can be a huge turn off for certain people. And what will turn one person on may turn the next person off. I’ve interviewed many women who LOVE having someone run their hands through their hair. But I’ve also interviewed many women are so stressed about the idea that a guy might try this on (particularly if they have extensions or weaves) that they spend the whole time anxiously fretting about the possibility of it. Likewise, I’ve met many individuals who love to be touched all over their bodies while other individuals have certain places they do not want to be touched, and for them it is as though there are dozens of mini-landmines situated all over their bodies which can be triggered at any moment without warning.

For me personally (trigger warning) a number of years ago I was violently choked during a random assault. Now any touching anywhere near my neck triggers extreme distress. It’s enough to kill the mood for me and often ends in traumatic flashbacks and bodily dissociation. But saying to a partner (particularly a new partner) “please don’t touch my neck” can be, in and of itself, distressing as the usual reaction is “ok. How come?” This question presents me with two options. Evade the question by being vague, or actually tell the truth- neither of which I am really comfortable with in that moment. Which is why it is such a turn on when people ask first (“where would you like my hands?”/ “how should I touch you?”/ “what would you like?”) as opposed to just jumping in and doing first which then puts the onus onto the uncomfortable person to redress the situation. Still, even when we do redress things I’ve learned that a “please don’t touch my neck” can be experienced by the other person as rejection and judgment (I prefer to go with a “I’d really like it if instead you put your hands (name another part of my body)”) It’s a balancing act and people’s feelings can easily be trodden on without care and consideration.

But ultimately this conversation is not just about avoiding the landmines. It’s also about opening up positive dialogue about what we would like and what we would most enjoy. Learning to articulate and use words is perhaps one of the greatest things we can do to enhance sexual pleasure and connection.

And again, this is why pace, timing and open communication is so important. But finally, in conversations about active consent we need to talk about reflection- not just after the fact, but reflection during the exchanges. This chance to reflect during any sexual exchange (from flirting and dancing to kissing and intercourse) is important so that we are not only checking in with the other person but we are also checking in with ourselves to determine whether we are enjoying something, not enjoying something or not really sure either way. Indeed we are now being constantly taught to check in with the other person, but we must not, in that process, forget to be checking in with ourselves. And for me this is not the final piece of the puzzle, so much as the starting block.

To recap, here is a snapshot of some of the lessons consent has given me:

  • Open and continuous, judgment free dialogue during sexual exchanges helps result in rich sexual pleasure.
  • Unless you actually stop and use words to communicate with a person, two people can have an entirely different interpretation of what is going on in any given sexual exchange.
  • Even if two people are in enthusiastic agreement that they both want to have sex, chances are that they will have imagined very different things about what that sex will look like, what it will entail, how it will play out, what the timing and pace will be, how long it will go for, what positions will be involved, what it may or may not sound like (sex talk, noises etc) and what it will feel like emotionally and physically.
  • For me, spontaneity can be sexy! For example, someone may not know they even wanted something until their partner asked them and then they suddenly realized that had a desire they weren’t even aware of.
  • Consider the possibility that your partner or partners have a history with sexual violence. If we consider the possibility that the person we are with has survived sexual assault, the ways in which we ask for consent are going to be a lot more considerate.

For more of Nina’s writing, please visit the following links!

Written by Ben Privot on May 19, 2011