As someone socialized as a woman, I was conditioned to check out during my sexual encounters for a variety of reasons.
One: I was always more concerned about my partners’ pleasure. I wondered whether I was satisfying them, how I looked to them, and whether I was making them feel good about their sexual prowess.
Two: I had a lot of anxiety entering into sexual interactions. What if we had different ideas about what we were going to do? What if I wanted to stop? Would they listen?
Three: I was taught my consent didn’t matter. If someone really wanted something, I felt guilty for not giving it to them. I was scared of disappointing people. I didn’t know I could always say “no.”
So, it has become important for me to consciously check in with myself before sex – which I personally define as any interaction with another person that feels sexual.
This is not what I was trained to do, and it brings up a lot of fear of disappointing my partner, but I’ve found it very necessary. When I don’t, I often end up in situations I didn’t really want but convinced myself I wanted to please another person.
In addition to making sure I’m comfortable, going through my pre-sex mental checklist also ensures my partner is comfortable. Though my fear of others disrespecting my own boundaries is justified, I am also capable of disrespecting their boundaries.
So, here are a few questions I go through before I decide to have sex with someone, regardless of what our relationship is or what we’ve done together before.
1. ‘If They Hadn’t Initiated This, Would I Have?’
Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish whether you’re consenting to something because you truly want it or whether you are because you think your partner wants it. A good way for me to tell the difference is to ask myself if I would’ve initiated it on my own.
This may work a little differently for people with responsive desire – that is, desire that typically arises in response to touch or some other suggestion of sex. They may want something initiated by their partners even if they wouldn’t have initiated it themselves.
A good question for someone with responsive desire, then, might be “If my partner had initiated this and then stopped, would I have wanted them to start again?”
If you find that you wouldn’t have wanted something independently of your partner, there’s a chance you’re doing it at least partially to satisfy them.
2. ‘Is There Something I Feel Like I Should Do Right Now?’
Another way to gauge whether you’re truly consenting is to determine whether you’re feeling any pressure to do anything.
For example, if you feel like you should perform oral sex on your partner after they’ve gone down on you, you might be prone to doing it without truly feeling the desire to do so.
By being aware of what pressures you’re feeling, you can figure out when to check in and ask yourself whether you’re responding to those pressures or you genuinely want to do something.
I’ve found it can help to express these pressures to my partner. For example, one time, a partner pleasured me manually, then I felt guilty for not doing the same for him even though I didn’t really want to.
Instead of just doing something because I thought I should, I stated out loud, “Now I feel like I should do something for you.” He reassured me that he wouldn’t want me to do anything because I felt like I should – and saved me an experience that could have made me uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have needed his permission to stop there, but having it helped put me at ease.
3. ‘To What Extent Am I Comfortable Doing Something for My Partner’s Sake?’
Different people have different boundaries when it comes to doing things to please their partners. For example, some asexual people still have sex because they know their partners want it and don’t mind doing it primarily for them.
But you should never feel like you have to do something to please your partner.
If you think you’re doing something partially because they want it, ask yourself if you’re comfortable with that. It’s okay if you’re not.
I personally follow a philosophy I learned at a cuddle party: “If it’s not a f*ck yes, it’s a no.” If I’m not sure about something, sexual or otherwise, I’d rather pass it up and leave the option to change my mind than do anything I’m less than thrilled about.
And when I feel guilty about that, I remind myself that my partner would probably not want to do something with me that I’m not really feeling.
4. ‘Would I Be Making This Same Choice in a Clear State of Mind?’
First of all, if there’s any question as to whether someone is in a state of mind where they can consent, don’t have sex with them.
But I’m talking about less black-and-white situations, like when, say, we’re both a little tipsy or I’m emotional.
In scenarios where I can consent but may make choices I regret, it helps to ask myself whether I would do the same thing if I were sober and otherwise clear-thinking.
For example, I once was hanging out with an ex-partner, and I started cozying up to him. He stopped me and asked why I was doing that. I realized it was because I wanted to get back together with him but was too scared to verbalize it, so I was trying to seduce him instead.
I was lucky that he checked in with me, because if I’d have checked in with myself, I would have discovered I was initiating sex in an emotionally unclear state. This wouldn’t have made it assault, but it could have left me feeling upset and confused.
5. ‘Do I Feel Comfortable Asking to Stop at Any Point?’
The same way starting sex with someone when they don’t want it is sexual assault, so is continuing sex when they want to stop. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this.
So, before I sleep with someone, I need to trust that they will listen to me if I ask to stop.
This doesn’t mean you can know for sure in advance whether or not someone will respect your boundaries. And if you think they will but turn out to be wrong, that doesn’t make it your fault.
But even if I can’t be 100 percent sure that someone will listen, I need to at least be confident enough that I’m comfortable asking to stop rather than pressuring myself to continue with something I don’t want to.
6. ‘Am I Expecting Anything in Return for This?’
We tend to have this tit-for-tat system when it comes to sexual “favors:” If you do something for someone, they’re “supposed” to do something for you, and vice versa. And I’m not here for that.
There are times when I get pleasure out of giving oral or manual sex, and there are times when someone else gets pleasure out of giving it to me. If there isn’t pleasure in it for both parties, I’m not interested.
Again, different people have different boundaries when it comes to doing things primarily to please their partners. But I personally don’t want to do anything if I don’t want it for its own sake. If I only want to do something if I get something in return, then I don’t really want to do it.
Asking this question prevents situations where I’m disappointed because I don’t get what I hoped for. This is also really important because I don’t want my partners to feel pressure to do anything for me, so I don’t want them to feel like I’m expecting anything.
7. ‘Am I 110 Percent Sure My Partner Wants This?’
Unfortunately, as a feminine-presenting person who most often dates masculine-presenting people, I wasn’t really taught to think about my partners’ boundaries. I was taught that men always wanted sex, that they were out to prey on me, and that it was my job to protect myself.
Over the course of my relationships, though, I’ve seen the need to considerately approach situations when I want sex and my partners don’t.
This is especially important because men often feel like they’re not supposed to turn down sex, so their partners need to make sure they know they can.
It has also been hard for me to learn to ask questions about what my partners want because I’ve been taught not to communicate about sex. But it’s necessary – and also really hot! I mean, it’s basically a form of dirty talk to describe what you would like to do with someone.
8. ‘Is There Anything I Need Before, After, or During This Experience?’
Sex can bring up a lot of emotions for some people, and that’s okay. For many of us, it has been a source of trauma or anxiety.
For example, I tend to need reassurance from my partners in advance that there are no expectations and we can stop at any time. I also need to understand what we will do to prevent pregnancy and STIs. And sometimes, I need to know that someone will want to stay with me afterward rather than disconnect, which can make me feel rejected.
These things are all okay to ask for. (If they involve someone else’s body, they’re not okay to demand, but you can still ask.)
It’s better to figure out what your needs are beforehand than to realize afterward that they weren’t met because you didn’t express them.
9. ‘How Might I Feel After This?’
We can’t predict how we’ll feel after any experience, but we can make educated guesses based on the past.
It’s easy for me to get swept up in the moment, focus on what will bring me pleasure right then and there, and I forget about how I’ll feel a minute, an hour, or a day afterward. But if I think there’s a chance I’ll feel disrespected, confused, or regretful, it’s better to stop early on.
When fear of missing out kicks in, I remind myself I’d rather decide not to have sex right that moment, think about it, realize I actually do want to, then do it another time than to jump into it because I’m afraid the chance won’t come again and then regret it.
While it’s up to my partners to make sure I can always say “no” and be heard, it’s up to me to make sure I do say “no” when I’m not completely sure I want something. Respecting my own boundaries is as important to me as respecting others’, and that often means saying “no” when part of me – but not all of me – wants to say “yes.”
It might sound silly, but you can communicate all these concerns to your partners – even ones you’re not super close with.
I once literally told someone I was dancing with at a club and planned to go home with, “Don’t do anything unless you’re 110 percent sure I want it. If you’re not sure, ask me. You seem nice but I have to say that because I’ve had bad experiences before, okay?”
Just hearing him say “no problem” made me a lot more comfortable going home with him.
And I think that when we feel comfortable, we become not just emotionally better off but also more receptive to pleasure. Think about it: you can’t fully focus on the physical sensations you’re feeling when you’re wondering if your partner would hurt you.
If you don’t feel comfortable discussing these questions with your partner or even being honest with yourself about the answers, that’s a red flag.
After all, sex can do a lot to you. It can bring you closer with someone. It can teach you about yourself and others. It can leave you vulnerable. It can leave you hurt.
While I don’t believe on placing barriers on how or with whom I have sex, I also don’t believe in going into it thoughtlessly.
In discouraging us from talking about sex, our culture has also discouraged us from thinking about sex – and it’s a topic that deserves some thought. It’s pretty effed up that sex is one of our biggest preoccupations and desires yet one of the things we put the least preparation into.
By thinking about what we want, what we don’t want, and what our partners want and don’t want, we create a culture that, instead of ignoring sex or making it something negative, uses its transformative potential for good.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.
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