For a little more than a year I have been working in the primary prevention of sexual violence in Hays and Caldwell counties. Although I’ve worked in sexual violence prevention and sexual health education in the past, it’s been through primary prevention that I’ve found myself with a furrowed brow trying to wrap my head around issues concerning the root causes of violence. Through this process the famous slogan “No means No” came to mind followed by the natural subsequent question of “What does ‘yes’ mean?” In doing this kind of work in so many different settings, I know how often I have heard “No means No”—but in the Fall I realized that it is not enough. As educators we can’t just tell people what not to do—it is our responsibility to also teach positive how-to skills.
Traditionally, people hear about sexual assault in few cliché circumstances: Stranger rape or a rape in which one person clearly says “no”, and their partner continues advancing anyway. These examples grounded in myths can obscure recognition for the more realistic scenarios that are often a bit more blurred—What if one person says yes, and then says no? What if alcohol is involved—does it matter how much? What if a partner complies with sexual activity, but doesn’t say yes or no? What if it’s a long term monogamous relationship? And so on.
With those questions in mind, I came to the topic of consent and healthy communication. If we want to eliminate as much of the gray areas as possible, we need to focus on enhancing our communication skills. I wonder why it’s so hard for us to talk about consent, what we want (and what we don’t want for that matter) within our romantic and sexual relationships. If you think about it, we miss out on opportunities by restraining our communication. Who knows? Asking your partner about his or her desires and needs may give you more insight to their feelings then you could have imagined!
And I want to stress that this focus on communication isn’t just within a sexual context—being able to articulate your wants, needs, and feelings will be useful for communicating in multiple different settings. What makes you feel loved when you’re with someone? What makes you feel safe? Happy? Vulnerable? Excited? Secure? How do you even want your partner to make you feel? What makes one person feel really happy might cause anxiety in another. The most direct way to figure out where there is dissonance in our feelings and desires is to have conversations. Some of these initial conversations will be fun and exciting and some will be more challenging, but the benefits of being in a relationship where both people can communicate safely will be well worth the work.
Below are a few questions you can ask yourself and a partner to begin engaging in these important conversations.
Five Questions to Ask Yourself
1. What physical and emotional state am I in?
2. What do I want to get out of this experience? What do I want to give? (If you have specific expectations or limitations, letting your partner know in advance will help those needs be respected).
3. Do I feel comfortable talking about my wants and needs with this person?
4. Imagine my ideal relationship with this person. What does that look like? Is it romantic? Is it nurturing? How can I communicate what I want the relationship to like?
5. What holds me back from talking about my wants and needs?
(Just identifying for yourself the things that make having these conversations challenging can be a huge asset in understanding where you’re at).
Five Questions to Ask Your Partner
1. What is your physical and emotional state? (Have you been drinking? Have you had a good/bad day? What’s your mood?)
2. What do you want this experience to look like?
3. What makes you feel safe? What makes you feel comfortable?
4. What do you want to happen? Today? Tomorrow? Next week?
5. What are some of your boundaries? Physical and emotional? (Identifying what you don’t want is also a really important part of the conversation!)
These are just a few starting points I like, and lot of them will overlap, but that’s just where I’m coming from. What works for you? Let’s get talking!!!