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ALL MANNER OF THINGS: perspectives for young people on Sex, Relationship, Self & Life
In the beginning, the primary focus of this book was going to be sex. What we think sex is, how we do or don't talk about it, how it affects us, what's helpful for us to know.
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 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 well being.
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. With sex being the lens to this landscape of self, relationship, and the bigger picture of life, let’s start there by asking 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 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.
The thing is, no matter what we think we know or how we feel about it, if we ask "who gets involved in sex?", the answer is going to be—pretty much all of us. Unless we’re someone who has religious or medical reasons that prevent us, it’s almost guaranteed that, at some point or another, we all will be sexual with someone else. 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, how have we been going about it?
Broadly speaking, 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 extreme, 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 lots of assumptions.
So. To answer the question, how have we been going about sex? It’s pretty safe to say, not very well.
As a 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. It's almost as if 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. As if, overnight, we’re launched into this territory where we’re expected to navigate sex and relationships, except we’re rarely given any kind of helpful roadmap.
That's not to say that what some of us are taught by our parents or in sex-ed isn't helpful. Generally they advise us 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. Some of us learn about other topics too. For instance, we’re encouraged to know when we’re ready and what we’re ready for. We’re taught about boundaries, consent, and how to say or hear a “yes” or a “no”. These all play a big part in our emotional safety, and often our physical safety as well.
Teaching safe sex, consent, and the importance of what we want and when we’re ready is, without question, vital. However most of us don’t know how to incorporate what we’re taught into our actual experiences. We don’t know how to put those things 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 influenced by other people and other ideas, and how often are we unclear about how we feel—about ourselves, our friends, our life? For almost all of us, the time we spend confused, changeable or unsure is significant.
Now put sex back in the picture. Teaching consent and the importance of things like knowing what we want and when we’re ready assumes we’re really clear about what’s right for us. It also assumes we’ll be able to stick to that and express it. Given things usually aren’t that 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—are 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 sex be so 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 actually 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 ourselves, with others and our life—the more likely we’ll have experiences that feel good and uplifting and right.
Even if we think we already know what we need to know, when it comes to sex there’s always more to learn and understand, no matter how old we are or how experienced. 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.
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