2020 has been a strange year. With a global pandemic, several prolific deaths, and spikes in mental health concerns, it is easy to push physical intimacy to the back burner and readdress it in 2021. But when it comes to overall Wellness, that is easier said than done. Sexual identity and human sexuality are not aspects of oneself that can easily be pushed aside in favor of other areas that need attention in a relationship (e.g. communication, set-care, connection). This is because like other parts of our identity, it is ingrained within us and requires attention to maintain even homeostasis. Making time for this piece of ourselves is crucial not only for us as individuals, but also as romantic partners. With that being said, I thought I would spend a little time focusing on a couple of underrated parts of intimacy: setting boundaries and providing consent.
Let’s start with setting boundaries, or more specifically, prioritizing your needs and desires as you being searching for intimacy. No matter what you are looking for, be it a hook-up or a long-term partner, it is important to know what your values are before heading into a relationship. So what are personal boundaries? These are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone crosses those lines. Boundaries allow us to safely navigate this ever-changing world and guide us to know which people we want to interact with and how we do it. When it comes to intimacy, our boundaries are there as a way to not only protect us but help us explore deeper connections with the people we choose. Remember growing up, very few of us are taught to explore intimacy with ourselves and other people. We typically discover our boundaries through experiences. If we can remind ourselves to be curious and non-judgmental about our encounters, we are well on our way to solidifying authentic boundaries.
Now let's talk about what appears to be a radical notion about dating, but should not be. I am talking about the concept of dating to be seen and heard, not to be liked. Let me break it down for you. We have seemed to get it in our heads that when we are actively dating and searching for a partner, we need to change ourselves in some way to fit what we think the other person wants to make them like us. I remember telling a dude that I liked hockey once, just to keep him interested in me longer, but I had absolutely no care in the world for that sport (and still don't to be honest). But I told myself that if this guy thought I liked hockey, he would be more into me. It is the same for if we think the person is "hot" or "out of our league." We make it our mission to "catch" this person and make them like us before they see who we really are on the inside. This is what relationship therapists call "game playing."
"Game playing" is filled with deception, trickery, and inauthenticity. We are trying to be someone, or say something, in order to manipulate the other person. But why do this? What is so wrong with being true to ourselves? Why can't we be the judge of whether or not we want to continue dating this person and not the other way around? Back to my date with the hockey enthusiast, why did I not just explain to him that I hated hockey? If this truly was going to be the deciding factor for us entering into a long-term relationship, would I even want that? No, I wouldn't. My point here is that the next time you go on a date with someone, make sure that you are being truthful, honest, and authentic with yourself and the other person/people. Because if you aren't, then what kind of future are you setting up for yourself?
Shifting gears to talk a little bit about consent and why it is important, I wanted to focus more on the ever-changing notion of it. Consent is not just stated once and then we forget about it and move on with our business, it is something that is constantly addressed. So I wanted to focus on three times we talk about consent when it comes to physical intimacy: before, during, and after.
When most people talk about consent, this is the kind of consent they are referring to. First and foremost, we need to attain consent so that both parties agree to what they are about to engage in at the time. If my partner asks me if I want to try a new position in the bedroom, and I say 'yes,' then consent is attained and we are ready to go. It is important to have consent provided when we are "in the right mind." This means that we can make decisions not being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. One of the first areas of our brain that is impacted by alcohol and drugs is our frontal lobe. This area is responsible for higher levels of thinking. That is why we find it a lot easier to skydive or get a tattoo when we are drinking. It is important to keep this in mind when it comes to intimacy and starting off intercourse. Make sure that both people can consent so that there are no crossed wires afterward.
People might think that once the act of physical intimacy is initiated that consent does not need to be talked about again, but that is a mistake on a couple of levels. First, you want to make sure the individual or individuals you are with are still consenting to what they are experiencing and agreed to. This does not mean you have to stop every ten seconds and ask, “do you consent to this?” But checking in and confirming enjoyment is beneficial. We also need to make sure we are still communicating throughout the process and checking in to see if the actual act is being enjoyed! A common statement I hear from all genders is that once the act is started, people are scared to speak up and state if they are enjoying the experience or not. If something does not feel right, say something. You won’t hurt anyone by being truthful and authentic to what you are feeling. If people do get offended, then this offers up a good time to communicate more about personal boundaries and how consent can change moment-to-moment.
When talking about receiving consent after intimacy, I am referencing talking about the overall experience and providing aftercare. Essentially, aftercare is talking about what worked for each partner and what did not work. It is an open dialogue between partners that can take place as soon as the experience is over or the following day. This is not to be confused with the aftercare that is essential in kink play. The aftercare I am referring to when it comes to consent is just giving you and your partner(s) time to process the experience and see what areas you both enjoyed, and ones that can be avoided. How often do you check-in with your partner and talk about the sex you just had?
At the end of the day, my goal as a sex positive and relationship therapist is to educate or re-educate people of various aspects of their sexual identity. Personal boundaries and consent when it comes to intimacy should be concepts that every person learns in their life. Whether it is through formal sex education, or talking about it with parental figures. You deserve to find someone who wants to get to know you and not the version of yourself you think the person would like. You deserve to know that just because you consented to something at 7 pm, not does mean that it still holds up at 11 pm. You also deserve to be happy and when it comes to physical intimacy, that can be hard to do. Hopefully, through exploration and authenticity, it will become a little bit easier.