Consent builds healthy sexuality

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Sexuality is a lifelong process of growth we can teach our kids and ourselves

Think of how long you spent learning about your cell phone, metaphors, history, algebra, the periodic table, drugs or alcohol. Now think about how long you spent learning about your sexuality.

Sexual education gets short shrift in public schools and in our families. Many of us can distill our sex ed into one phrase, “no means no.” Jennifer Wiessner, LCSW, CST is one of a handful of sexual therapists in the state of Maine, and she’s on a mission to educate men, women, parents, adolescents and children about healthy sexuality and pleasure.

“Depending on where you live, sex ed tends to educate from a fear-based perspective with a heavy focus on reproduction,” Wiessner says. “Traditionally, we teach adolescents to shut down their sexuality, lock it down, keep it safe. But kids don’t respond to that. They say, ‘Yeah. But what about the good stuff? What about pleasure?’”

Wiessner believes it is a human right of young people to be taught about their bodies, how they work, how they can feel good and how to keep them safe.

Mutual pleasure, pleasure that is shared and balanced, is one of six pillars of healthy sexuality outlined by the World Health Organization. The other five pillars are honesty, you’re transparent with your partner, keep your agreements and express your wants; protected, you are able to have a safe sex talk; non-exploitive; you have an equal balance of power and share information; shared values, you can communicate with your partner(s) about what sex means to you both/all; and consent, “everyone involved has agreed to what they are doing.” (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).

According to Sexplanations with Dr. Doe video host Lindsey Doe, Ph.D, many people use the current “sexual script” from books, movies, porn and songs of not-resisting-advances or not-opting-out. However, in a consent paradigm, partners explicitly opt-in. “Consent is not the absence of a ‘no,’ it is the presence of a ‘yes,’” Doe says.

Adolescents aren’t the only ones learning to say yes to their bodies, their sexuality and themselves. Many adult women were taught to say “no” so often that they don’t know how or when to say yes. Wiessner recounts the cultural narrative that contributes to a rape culture: men are the asserters, women are the sexual gatekeepers who deny men sex, squelch their own ability to express their sexuality and tolerate or endure sex. This narrative assumes that women don’t have the agency to be active participants in pleasure. Wiessner says, “There are critics of consent who say that getting affirmative consent isn’t reasonable, but if we’re never taught mutual desire and enthusiasm, we (especially women, but everyone) can’t experience mutual desire and enthusiasm.”

Consent flips fear-based sex ed and encourages children, adolescents and adults to build a muscle of healthy well-being and positivity. Wiessner stumbled across a quote that says, in essence, to teach children to act responsibly with their sexuality, we need to teach them how extraordinary it is. Says Wiessner, “If children have an intuitive understanding of how amazing sexuality and their bodies are, they won’t tolerate when sexual behavior is coercive, manipulative or dangerous.”

Not only adolescents are asking about pleasure and consent. Sexuality is a lifelong process of growth. “Your sexuality is intrinsic to your being,” says Wiessner. College women who are uncertain or inexperienced may be asking what’s out there, while women in their 30s who feel that they’ve achieved more in their lives, had more relationships and experienced more may be willing to try new things. Women in their 40s and 50s may find that they have become fearless in their sexuality while others may feel that their sexuality has become irrelevant. For some women who are dealing with illness, Wiessner explains, she might help them uncover what is shrouding the sexuality that they do have.

It’s never too early to begin educating your children about sexual consent and healthy sexuality in a developmentally appropriate way. Says Wiessner, “If we don’t share the information with them, they’re going to get it elsewhere: the bus, the playground.” For men and for boys as young as 10, porn is their unfortunate resource of choice. If you’ve held off talking to your kids about sexuality, apologize for “being tardy to the party” and begin talking. Wiessner’s mission is to “reduce the shame in Maine” and to do this, we all need to be much more comfortable with our own sexuality.

Therefore, it’s never too late to begin or expand your own education. Those who grew up with sexual education that didn’t jibe with their values, those who tolerate sex for a variety of reasons, those who have tried to approach unhelpful medical professionals in the past, or those who just have questions may not feel comfortable talking about sex. Give yourself an opportunity to pursue sexual behavior and pleasure without judgment or slut shaming and with relevant positive information. Says Wiessner, “Healthy sexuality is about having the freedom to love one’s body, feel comfortable in it and share it on your terms.”

Can consent-based, positive sexual education affect female body image positively? Wiessner thinks so. With her mission to reduce shame she hopes the next generation of girls and women may be the first ones eligible for such a study.

Anna E. Jordan (annaejordan.com) is a writer and rowing coach currently working as Editor and Special Project Coordinator at Islandport Press in Yarmouth, Maine. Follow her @annawritedraw for news about #kidlit, rowing and politics.

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