Healthy sexuality and healthy relationships

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This content was originally published in September 2020 and may be out of date. 

When we talk about sexual health and sexual experiences, relationships are a big part of the picture. That’s true even when we talk of the short-term relationships we strike with sexual partners who we don’t end up in romantic relationship or friendships with. That’s because, at the most basic level, a relationship is the way in which two or more people or groups think of each other and behave toward each other.

Learning to create healthy relationships - short-term ones, long-term ones, sexual ones, romantic ones or friendships - is a lifelong process. Over time, we can learn the skills necessary to start and nurture healthy relationships. Relationships of all different types can make our lives richer and much more enjoyable. It helps us feel connected with those around us which is central to humans’ well-being.

Before learning about the main ingredients of healthy relationships, it can help to dig into our own attitudes around sex and relationships. Let’s start by learning about sex negativity and sex positivity.

Sex Negativity

Sex negativity is the belief we have, consciously or not, that sex is harmful, shameful, gross, disgusting or sinful and so, can only be ok if its controlled by strict norms.

Our sex-negative thoughts and feelings often shows up in our ideas around what sex acts we put in the ‘okay’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ category versus what we don’t. It also mean that there is a lot of focus on how sex can be “harmful”, for example, how it can lead to disease, to ruined reputation/slut shaming or unplanned pregnancy, with almost no mention of the positive aspects of sex, like pleasure, intimacy and feeling connected with others.

In real terms, it often means we grow up thinking that the only, or most, “acceptable” way to have sex is to have it between two married heterosexual people. Any other way people have sex is “wrong”, “shameful” or “shocking”. We might have strong negative feelings around people having sex with many partners, masturbation, anal sex, gay sex, sex work, etc. because of all the messages we got growing up and all that we see in the media.

It does not mean that we might not want that kind of sex or be curious about it, but we still have those beliefs floating in our minds. Sex-negativity frames lots of very common forms of sexual expression outside of our definitions of acceptable sex. This has real consequences - it casts shame around authentic connection between people and ways to be sexual. It makes us feel embarrassed, worried, or ashamed if we desire sex that falls outside of the norm of “acceptable sex”. It fuels discrimination and hate and violence against LGBTQ people. It is the reason people, especially women and girls, get slut-shamed. It means we don’t talk about sexual health and well-being with our partners, our doctors or those around us. And it makes us lose sight of what is really important: real and positive human connection, and of course, consent and pleasure.

It isn’t just bad or judgemental people who act in ways that are sex-negative. Most of us grow up with very common sex-negative messages around sex and sexuality that we hear about from our families, friends, teachers and pop culture. This is why it is important to grow ourselves out of those harmful beliefs and sharpen our critical thinking skills. Try to catch yourself if you start judging people for enjoying things that are different from what you like, and ask yourself this question: is everyone involved consenting and having a good time? If so, that’s what matters.

Sex Positivity

On the flipside, sex positivity means having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with our own sexual identity, behaviors and with the sexual identity and behaviors of others.

It means being open to learning more about sex and sexual activity, about our bodies, our partners’ bodies and all of the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects involved with intimacy.

It means considering sex to be a healthy part of life that should be enjoyed (if we are sexual as some of us are asexual). For sex positive people, sex can be discussed without shame or awkwardness. It is not a taboo subject.

Being sex-positive includes accepting other people’s sexual practices, as long as all the people involved give consent and feel safe, without moral judgment. This means accepting sexual behaviors that might be different from our own, such as having sex with people of the same gender, having an open marriage or having a threesome.

This also means accepting others’ sexual orientations and lifestyles without judgment when all people involved and affected are safe and able to consent.

This helps us set aside our judgments and make room for the diversity of human sexuality.

Lots of people mistake sex positivity with enthusiasm for sex or being sexually adventurous. Others mistake this with the belief that sex is always a good/positive thing, or that if you are sex-positive, you are always down to have sex and probably have lots of it! We can be sex-positive and have very little sex, or not want sex at all. Yup, we can be asexual and sex-positive.

That’s because being sex-positive is an overall attitude about sexuality and means respecting our own and other people’s sexualities and expressions even when those are different from our own, that’s all.

And the good news is, talking openly and non-judgmentally about sex has benefits that are backed up by evidence! Talking openly and comfortably about sex can lead to a decrease in:

  • HIV, STIs and unplanned pregnancy
  • Suicide and stress-related concerns
  • Barriers for people needing to access health care
  • Discrimination (homophobia, transphobia, etc.)

and an increase in:

  • Self and sexual esteem
  • Positive body image
  • Access to information
  • Sexual fulfillment
  • Acknowledgement of all people’s sexuality regardless of ability, age, sexual orientation, sexual activity, HIV status etc.

Learning about sex-positivity can help us heal our own relationships with sexuality and help us have a healthier relationship with ourselves and with others.

Safety within our relationships

Intimate partner violence

Sometimes, relationships work well and bring us lots of joy and happiness, and other times they can make us feel down, trapped, or mentally and emotionally exhausted. Some relationships can also put your well-being or your safety at risk. Intimate partner violence and sexual violence are important issues that have severe impacts on people who experience them (this includes children who witness it, too).

Intimate partner violence refers to violence carried out by a current or former partner or spouse. This violence may include physical violence (sexual or non-sexual) – though not always. Many of us don’t recognize abusive behaviors if there is no hitting involved. Emotionally, mentally and sexually abusive relationships are as destructive. Violence from a partner can also look like emotional manipulation and abuse, as well economic control (for instance, controlling the way someone spends their money, or tracking their purchases), constant put-downs, isolation, etc. Unfortunately, tv shows and pop cultures often show intense jealousy and controlling behaviours are a sign of “love” … yet these same things can be warning signs of an unhealthy and potentially violent relationship.

We all deserve to live comfortably and safely, free of violence and threats of violence.

Is this healthy? Assessing our relationships

Just as it is super important to know how to have healthy relationships, it’s also really important to know the warning signs of an unhealthy, or potentially abusive relationship. This section takes a look at some of the signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship.

Unhealthy or abusive relationship behaviors don’t just happen with romantic partners. The following list can be useful to help us assess other important relationships in our lives like with colleagues, friends, family members, etc.

Hot Tip: Abuse does not just happen to cis people and/or in straight relationships. Domestic violence / intimate partner violence in the LBGTQ2IA+ community is a serious issue with rates that are roughly the same as in straight relationships. In all types of relationships, these rates tend to be under-reported, and if you are LGBTQ2IA+, it can feel even harder to get support or seek treatment because of stigma or not having access to a health or social service provider that is knowledgeable about your relationships and circumstances. You deserve help and support. Youth under 29 can text or call youthline for help

You May be in an Abusive Relationship if your Partner:

  • Refuses to talk about or listen to your concerns or dismisses your concerns as if they don’t matter
  • Puts you down when you’re feeling good about yourself
  • Doesn’t listen to you or ignores you
  • Gaslights you, making you feel like you can’t trust your own impressions about what is going on and what is happening to you and around you
  • Attacks or ridicule any part of who you are (beliefs, values, interests, personality)
  • Tries to embarrass you in front of others
  • Disrespects you, insults you, humiliates you, or demeans you in any way
  • Questions where you’re going, with whom, and how long you’ll be out
  • Makes you feel like you’re walking on eggshells all the time
  • Will disappear and not let you know where they are, will stonewall any efforts to talk to them about any disrespectful or worrisome behaviors
  • Looks through your personal things like your phone, your emails, your diary, your mail or your pockets
  • Tries to tell you who you can and/or cannot spend time with (including friends, family members, co-workers) or tries to make you feel suspicious or less attached to those around you - a “you and me against the world” tactic
  • Isolates you from others, may make you move away from your family and friends
  • Undermines your ability to have a job or go to school
  • Controls your finances, take money from you
  • Has jealousy issues or tries to control what you do, what you wear, who you see, or how you act
  • Does not have close friends of their own
  • Does not take responsibility for their own life and actions, and blames others for these things
  • Does not respect your physical boundaries and personal space
  • Attempts to guilt you into having sex
  • Forces you to do things that you do not want to do sexually
  • Tries to scare you by doing dangerous things (such as driving too fast)
  • Will act aggressively to make you feel afraid (e.g. slamming doors, breaking a plate, pretends to punch you)
  • Becomes angry or violent when using drugs or alcohol
  • Threatens you, your friends, family, or pets, or threatens to kill themselves if you do not do what they want
  • Has ever acted violently toward you in any way, including but not limited to: pushing, slapping, hitting, kicking, biting, punching, strangling, or threatening you.

If some or many of those things happen in your relationship, it is worth taking a good look at your relationship and perhaps seeking outside support to talk about your experiences in more details. Abusive relationships can look like many different things and may not involve physical violence. It’s important that we don’t rank abusive relationships– for instance, by thinking that a relationship is only “truly” abusive if physical violence happens. When we do this, it means many people end up dismissing some problematic behaviors and unhealthy or abusive relationships since they have not ever been hit.

Needing more information? An important tool that is often used to help people take a deep look into their relationship for controlling or abusive behaviours is the Wheel of Power and Control.

Leaving an Abusive Relationship

If you are in a relationship where you do not feel 100% safe, one thing you can do is tell someone. Tell a friend. Tell someone who works in an organization you trust. You are not alone, and people can help you. When someone is thinking of leaving an abusive situation, the most important thing to think about is safety – your safety, your kids’ safety, your pets’ safety, etc.) Here are some ways you can plan for safety:

Planning for safety

  • Identify safe friends and safe places (for instance, where you can stay if you leave your home) and keep their contact information easy to access
  • If there is someone you trust, let them know about major changes to your relationship (for instance, if you’re planning to break up with your partner) so that they are aware in case you need support or to get out of the situation. Ask them to check in with you in a certain amount of time, if it is helpful or possible in your situation. If you are supporting someone who is leaving an abusive relationship, do not share any information about that person’s location – it could get back to their partner. Abusive partners can be very sneaky at finding out this information!
  • Identify the essential items you need if you decide to / have to leave home
  • Keep your important paperwork in one safe spot
  • Look up local domestic violence resources and keep their information on hand. Check if your region has a local crisis centre or crisis line and keep this information close.

Remember, people are the experts of their own lives and circumstances, and so you will know best what you need to put in place. You can seek the guidance of organizations who work with people leaving abusive relationships to know what are steps you can take to keep yourself and your dependents safe.

Supporting someone you love who is in an abusive relationship

When we hear the stories of people who are in abusive relationships, our first thought might be “why don’t they just leave?” or, “why did the person stay”? These are not simple questions.

It’s important to understand that there are many things that can make leaving the relationship super dangerous. In fact, violence can become more intense when someone is trying to leave their abusive partner. It might mean that someone who has been abusive may take whatever means necessary to keep their partner from leaving or lash out if they feel like they are being abandoned. When we ask people why they stayed in a relationship that was violent, we unintentionally place the blame on them for what they are going through without understanding everything they have to deal with and think about to stay safe. Unfortunately, it also makes it less likely that they will trust us and come to us for support in the future.

A better question to ask when supporting someone is: How can I help this person be safer? It is never about judging or giving ultimatums as the most important thing is for your loved one not to be further isolated. Good friends and allies can play an important role.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Sexual violence is a broad term that describes any violence (physical or psychological) carried out through sexual means or by targeting someone’s sexuality.

Sometimes, sexual violence is deliberately used as a weapon to humiliate, scare, or punish. More commonly, people commit sexual violence because of sexual desire and entitlement. Sexual entitlement means valuing your gratification over someone else’s comfort and is a driver of sexual harassment and violence. For example, when some boys and men think of sex as something to “get” from girls which reduces women to mere objects and denies their humanity.

The way boys and men are encouraged to bond over aggressive sexuality or sexual conquests, on top of our norms around who has power over other people (because of things like race and gender) and a lack of understanding around sexual consent all contribute to the high rates of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is not always captured by legal definitions of what is considered sexual assault in the courts. There is a range when it comes to sexually violent behaviors and we have normalized many of them even though they contribute to the permissiveness and frequency of more extreme behaviours.

We are often told to be afraid of strangers, and while it is good to be cautious in unfamiliar spaces or when we are by ourselves at a party or something, the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by people we know and in familiar places like home, workplaces or our friends’ houses. Sexual assault can happen to anyone – no matter your gender, sexuality, or identity – and includes (but is not limited to):

  • Any unwanted touching or act of a sexual nature, including rape (forced penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth, with fingers, a penis, sex toys, or other objects), that happen through physical force or coercion*.

*Pressuring someone doesn’t always happen through the use of violence. In this context, coercion means subjecting someone to unwanted sexual acts with the help of threats, intimidation, manipulation or using alcohol or drugs to lower inhibitions or exploiting people’s intoxication. That can look like shaming/negging someone (“I thought you were cool but looks like you’re stuck up”), guilt-tripping someone when they say no (“I thought you loved me, I did so much for you”), nagging until the person relents, making people feel uncomfortable for saying no, not respecting boundaries and going ahead even when sensing discomfort, etc. Basically, sexual consent must be given freely. Silence or the lack of fighting and screaming does not equal consent.

  • Being forced to watch or participate in unwanted sexual activity
  • Any unwanted verbal comments of a sexual nature (for instance, cat calls, street harassment, homophobic slurs, being given sexual nicknames, slut shaming in public or within groups of people who know one another)
  • Being sent sexual photos (nudes, dick pics, etc.) without your consent, or someone sharing the photos that you sent them privately with other people without your permission
  • Sexual bullying which is targeting people on the grounds of their sexuality or using their sexuality as a way to intimidate and/or isolate them. This can include spreading sexual rumors (in person, by text, or online), writing sexual messages about people on bathroom stalls or in other public places, getting other people to join in the commenting and joking of a sexual nature, posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social media, etc.

Under Canadian law, you have the right to say no to any form of sexual activity, including when it is with a date, your partner, a stranger, a family member, or your spouse. Importantly, this also includes when you have consented to sex but then change your mind partway through if things start moving in a direction you aren’t okay with. Sexual assault is never your fault, it is an act of violence. No one has the right to pressure or force you to engage in unwanted sexual activity.

What to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are people you can talk to. For a list of rape crisis centres and transition houses by province and territory you can visit the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. They will outline your options, including getting medical attention, filing a police report and getting support and counselling. You are not under the obligation to do anything; they will simply assist you in understanding what you can do and how to go about it.

If you have been sexually assaulted, you may have immediate physical and medical needs that are best addressed by a health service provider. In some cases, people decide to have medical staff collect evidence of clothing fibers, hairs, saliva, semen or body fluid through a process commonly referred to as a rape kit. Physical evidence of an assault can sometimes be important if you decide to press charges. Better to do it if you are not sure you want to go ahead with charges but are not sure you wouldn’t want to down the road.

If you are at risk of becoming pregnant, you can use emergency contraception up to five days after unprotected vaginal penetration. Medical health professionals can help you navigate your options in terms of testing for STIs.

You may feel angry, powerless or afraid after a sexual assault. Or not. There is no one single “normal” way to feel. After a sexual assault, you will start rebuilding a sense of safety and control in your own way, at your own speed. There is no right or wrong way to do it. When it comes to seeking support, it is your choice who you share your story with. Some people decide to report their assault to police, and some decide not to. This is always a complicated decision and is up to the person who has experienced assault. It is not ok to force someone to do this. One impact of sexual assault is the loss of a feeling of control or power, and while this can be rebuilt over time, forcing someone to deal with their sexual assault in a specific way can make them feel even more powerless. However you go about healing after a sexual assault, emotional support can be extremely helpful, whether from trusted friends or family members, peer support groups, or skilled professionals.

What is Victim Blaming?

Victim blaming is an expression we use to describe the situation of a victim of sexual assault being told that what happened was their fault. Often, this looks like someone asking questions that imply that the person who was assaulted did something that made the assault their fault or partially their fault. That can sound like “what were you wearing” or “why were you walking home alone” or “what did you think would happen getting him all horny like that”, etc. This sends the message that if the victim/survivor of sexual assault had acted differently, it wouldn’t have happened, and the attention is given to what they are to blame for instead of talking about the fact that the perpetrator chose to assault someone. The media, and its sensationalizing coverage of sexual assault, is often the biggest perpetrator or victim blaming.

Remember, no one ever asks for or deserves to be sexually assaulted. No matter what someone is wearing or how late at night they are out, or what their relationship is to the person who assaults them, it is never their fault.

Gender-Based Violence

Gender‐based violence is violence that is directed against someone because of their gender. It disproportionately affects women and girls but also trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people or anyone whose gender expression differs from the norm, for example, a cis man who looks feminine. Most often, it is perpetrated by men, including young men but people of all genders can participate in gender-based violence.

It includes any acts of violence that can cause physical, sexual, psychological, or economic harm to someone because of their gender and gender expression. It can look like street harassment (groping, whistling, catcalling, unwanted attention in public spaces), stalking, sexual violence, hitting, shoving, slapping or kicking, and psychological or emotional abuse such as threats, name-calling, shaming, doxxing, harassing comments online, and isolating someone from their friends and family. One very common form is intimate partner violence.

Gender-based violence makes those who are targeted feel unsafe and is used to assert power and control. We aren’t always aware we’re using violence; some gender-based violence can be done without thinking about it or be qualified as “just teasing” or “just jokes” for a laugh. People can also participate in it because they want to prove themselves to other men and boys or because they get swept up in a mob mentality.

Gender-based violence is very common. 87% of women will report experiencing at least one incidence in their lifetime. Young people should learn about it in schools or from their parents, but the reality is that very little about what it is and how not to do it is generally taught to us. To better understand gender-based violence, it can help to understand what fuels it: misogyny.

What is a sexual health plan?

Decisions around sex are often made in the heat of the moment. A lot of people forget to take the time to think about their sexual health plan in advance. A sexual health plan can help us outline our needs, desires and goals for our sexual relationships, as well as outline plans regarding things like STI testing or contraception. This means asking ourselves questions like:

  • “What types of sexual activities, if any, am I comfortable with?”
  • “In what context (casual, committed, marital) do I want to have sex?
  • “What do I want and need from partners to feel comfortable, safe, respected and like my needs are met?”
  • “Am I prepared and able to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of, or address STBBIs and/or unintended pregnancy?”
  • “What information do I need to stay safe when I engage in partnered sex?”

Taking the time to map out what you want and don’t want out of your sex life and how you plan to take care of your sexual health and wellbeing can be a great way of anticipating and meeting your needs, as well as developing a strong sense of self.

There is no right or wrong way to create a sexual health plan that suits you and reflects your values and personal circumstances. Some prefer to write it down, some like to chat about it with people they trust, some like to keep it in their head. It’s up to you!

Posted on 2023-04-12
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