Consent at its core seeks to maximize romantic harmony. Taking the good moments and making them great, great moments — amazing, and those amazing moments…just about transcendental. This harmony requires the ability to demand and give respect. Furthermore, it entails we utilize something that just about everyone I’ve ever met, whether they’ve admitted or acknowledged it or not, has struggled with at some point: self-esteem.
Writing from experience is one of many qualities that has made Hugo Schwyzer’s writing stand out on this topic. Spending his days as a professor of gender studies, a body image activist, a lecturer on consent, a columnist for both Sir Richards Condom Company and The Good Men Project, Dr. Schwyzer has developed a poignant outlook that shows time and again how honesty is key for those who write about self-esteem. And so it’s honestly a pleasure to share Hugo Schwyzer’s thoughts on self-esteem and consent with you today!
The Consensual Project: Utilizing the song “Self-esteem” by The Offspring, what can we learn about some common messages popularly produced about self-esteem?
Hugo Schwyzer: The song reinforces the idea that low self-esteem leads to the inability to establish and maintain boundaries. Rightly or wrongly, it reminds us that saying “no” is so often harder to say than “yes”, particularly when you’re struggling with low self-esteem.
TCP: Speaking of young men and self-esteem, how do you reach male audiences on this topic?
HS: You give them a very brief history lesson. To whom did their dads and granddads compare themselves? Who were the heroes fifty years ago? Who are they today? The bodies of our athletes and our male movie stars are so much more distorted, so much more unrealistic, so much more unattainable. Guys connect with that struggle, particularly when you emphasize that they have it harder (pun intended) than their grandfathers did.
TCP: How can we address the issues self-esteem may give us related to our social location — race, class, age, ability, sexuality, etc?
HS: Again, you start by talking about the ideal — which is usually white, heterosexual, and powerful in some very obvious ways. And you talk about the ways in which every single person falls short of that ideal sooner or later. You have to have space for people to tell stories about their own particular struggles in this regard.
TCP: In what ways is self-esteem related to consent?
HS: As I said, saying “no” to something someone else wants (but you aren’t ready for) takes self-esteem. In a heterosexual context, many women in particular have been raised with a “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. They see “good guys” as scarce. There’s a fear that being too assertive sexually (or, conversely, too assertive about wanting to wait to be sexual) will scare guys off. “Only really hot girls can afford to be that honest”, as one of my students put it to me recently. That’s a very troubling but very common mindset.
TCP: Would you please share some techniques for building sexual self-esteem?
HS: You can’t build sexual self-esteem until you’ve built it elsewhere. Our sexuality isn’t disconnected from everything else we do. Sexually speaking, it’s important to work on getting to know yourself sexually. That might mean learning to masturbate without guilt and with a sense of reverence for your right to pleasure. It means accepting that you deserve pleasure irrespective of whether you’re in relationship. As most responsible sex educators point out, the basic unit of human sexuality isn’t the couple, it’s the individual. And it sure helps to love your own sexuality before you use your sexuality to love on someone else.
But it’s more than considering learning how to masturbate and to do so without shame. Journaling helps. Talking about it with others helps. We’ve all got to do that work of discerning why it is we WANT to have sex? Is it to fulfill a physical urge? Is it about sharing pleasure? Is it about soothing anxiety? Is it about our longing to be validated? Doing the work to figure that all out is crucial.
TCP: Going back to sexual consent, of the tools outlined on the website, which have seemed valuable for you in your own personal life?
HS: All of them. But “why” is my favorite.
TCP: Do you have any questions you like to ask (in a romantic context) that some people may not know about? Ex. “Where would you like my hands?”
HS: “Do you have any idea how good that feels?”
TCP: I loved your lecture on consent! Do you have any follow up ideas or future plans for it?
I’ve given it many places and I continue to give it. The earliest version I ever gave of it was way back in 1987 or 1988 when I was a student at Berkeley. I won’t claim to have discovered enthusiastic consent, of course, but I’ve been talkin’ about it for a long time. It’s such a vital topic and always gets a great response.
TCP: Where would you suggest our readers here today go for more resources around self-esteem? Would this be a good start?
HS: That’s a great one. But we’re still waiting for the perfect clearinghouse for information on self-esteem. I will say that I continue to be inspired by the work of John Bradshaw. His book Bradshaw On: The Family: A New Way Of Creating Solid Self-Esteem continues to be useful to me, even though it’s more than 20 years old.