EXCERPTS FROM ALL MANNER OF THINGS: perspectives for young people on Sex, Self, Relationship, & Life
In the beginning, the primary focus of this book was sex. What we think sex is, how we do or don't talk about it, how it affects us, what else it might be.
Then in the writing of this book, it became pretty clear that our sexual experiences are shaped by how we feel about ourselves. If we feel pretty good and like we’ve got our feet on solid ground, our interactions are very different from if we’re a bit shaky. How we are sexually—what we do, who we do it with and why—is directly related to our state of mind.
So what makes us shaky? Why do so many of us feel that way, especially around puberty and leading up to it?
From being solely about sex, the conversations in this book opened up to a whole lot more. We get to explore who we think we are, our values, our connection to our bodies, sexual energy, communication, belonging, what we think love is, and what is and isn’t helpful.
First though, with sex being the lens to this landscape of self, relationship, and the bigger picture of life, let’s start there with a few questions.
A FEW QUESTIONS
·What do you know about sex?
Some? A lot? Not much at all?
·Do you have questions?
Are there things you’d like to learn or know more about? Do you wish the subject didn’t exist? Do you think you already know what there is to know? If you do have questions, where do you go for your answers?
·What about the topic of sex in general? How does it strike you?
Are you interested? Bored? Embarrassed? Critical? Gossipy? Giddy? Excited? Ashamed? Dismissive? Unsure? Shy? How much and what we know about sex varies wildly. A lot depends on who we are, who we’re around, what we see in the media, and where and how we’re growing up. Equally, there are tons of different ways we can feel about sex. On one hand, some of us are excited and curious. On the other, we feel it’s inappropriate, dirty, or taboo. Then there’s everything in between.
If we ask, who gets involved in sex? No matter what we think we know or how we feel about it, the answer is going to be—pretty much all of us.
Unless we’re someone who has religious or medical reasons that prevent us from being sexual, it’s almost guaranteed that, at some point or another, we all will be. For some of us it may seem far off, for others it’s pretty close, and for others we’re sexually active. With very, very few exceptions sex is or will be part of our lives.
·With sex being in just about all of our lives, in general how have we been going about it?
Broadly speaking, when it comes to sex a few things have been going on.
First, for lots of us just the idea of talking or learning about sex is off-putting or uncomfortable. Also, in various places, discussing the subject is limited or frowned upon, and in some it’s not allowed.
Second, if we do talk or learn about it—with our friends, parents, in sex-ed, from the media, or online—it’s not always helpful. A lot of the time the ways sex is presented are opinionated or misleading.
Third, because the subject is pretty loaded with ideas of right and wrong, it can trigger big reactions. The topic can provoke outrage, shame, disgust, judgement, bravado, rebellion, and lots more. It can be a minefield.
With all this going on, when it comes to sex things are usually pretty murky. We’re not talking about it, or if we are we’re not always given clear or helpful ideas about what’s involved, or how it can affect us. Conversations can be limited, one-sided, confusing, or make a lot of assumptions.
So. To answer the question, how have we been going about sex? It’s pretty safe to say, not very well.
·What’s the result?
Most of us are expected to just figure sex out.
We go from it being completely off the radar—because we’re too young, or it’s inappropriate, or whatever—to it being a possibility in our lives. One day sex isn’t talked about, or it’s shamed or referenced as something that’s in the future, and the next day, whether acknowledged or not, it’s a consideration. A lot of the time it’s like it happens overnight. We’re launched into this territory where we’re expected to navigate sex and relationships, except we’re rarely given any kind of a helpful roadmap.
·Aren’t the things some of us are taught in sex ed helpful?
Definitely. Generally sex-ed helps teach us about how to be safe. Knowing about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, STD’s and STI’s, and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies is a key part of being healthy.
Also, some of us are encouraged to “know when we’re ready”, and are taught about consent and how to say and hear a “yes” or a “no”. This plays a big part in our emotional safety, and often our physical safety as well.
While teaching safe sex, consent, and knowing when we’re ready is unquestionably important, most of us don’t know how to incorporate what we’re taught into our actual experiences. We don’t know how to put it into practice.
·What do you mean we don’t know how to put what we’re taught into practice?
For a minute, let’s take sex out of the picture.
How much of the time do we change our minds? Or not really know what we want? Or not know what to say or how to say it, or say what we mean? How much of the time are we unclear about how we feel—about ourselves, our friends, our life? More often than not, the time we spend confused, changeable, or unsure is significant.
Now put sex back in the picture. Teaching consent and the importance of knowing when we’re ready assumes we’ll be clear on knowing those things and what’s right for us. It also assumes we’ll be able to stick to that and express it. Given things aren’t always simple, this is assuming a lot.
Even if we’re someone who’s articulate and has a good sense of what we want, some of the hardest things to do—no matter our age or experience—can be saying “no”, or asking someone if they’ve been tested for STI’s, or telling a sexual partner what feels good and what doesn’t, or insisting on using a condom.
·Why can knowing what we want and expressing it be tricky?
On one level sex might seem straightforward. It’s body parts and what we do with them. But on another level sex isn’t straightforward at all. There’s a lot that comes with it.
There’s hormones, and feelings, and bodies, and relationships, and ideas of what sex is or isn’t, and ideas of who we think we are or should be, and pleasure, and chemistry, and ways of behaving that we’re so used to we don’t even think about them. There’s first times, and wanting to fit in, and really knowing when it’s a no or a yes, and knowing how to say or hear it, and peer pressure, and obligation, and too much too fast, and how liking someone or being liked isn’t always easy. There’s abuse, confidence, doubt, confusion, communication, intimacy, misunderstandings, manipulation, risk, and vulnerability.
When sex is involved lots of us lose track of ourselves, or forget who we are and what we actually want. It’s easy to end up in situations we’d rather not be in, or that are risky, or go wrong, or that we brush off as “fine” but deep down we regret.
For something that should be really fun, intimate, and connecting, and should feel really good—before, during, and after—much of the time sex isn’t fun at all.
·So what can we do?
With most things—whether it’s math, art, cooking, climbing mountains, or driving a car—the more we know and understand, the more confident and comfortable we become. The same is true for sex. The more we understand how it figures into our relationships—with others, ourselves, and our life—the more likely we’ll have experiences that feel good and uplifting and right.
·What if I already know about sex?
When it comes to sex there’s always more to learn and understand, no matter a person’s age or experience. How far we chose to go with it is up to us.
For now, whether we think we know a little or a lot, we’ll talk about the basics.