Healthy Sexuality

“Healing sexually is about integrating our attention, our feelings, and our bodies, all at the same time. If you start with the experiences that threaten you the least, you can begin to have positive experiences in your body. They will reinforce your interest in reclaiming your sexuality. You can take greater risks and expand the possibilities from there.”
Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal Workbook

Self-Assesssment

  • Know and define your sexual boundaries: Think about what you really want sexually from your partner before you are in an intimate situation and communicate those boundaries clearly. This includes knowing your own morals and values pertaining to your sexual health.
  • Be aware of stereotypes that prevent you from acting as you want (e.g. women are submissive and men are aggressors).
  • Resist peer pressure to do things you don't want to do. Don't participate in violent or criminal acts or get involved in any activity that makes you feel uncomfortable. Don't ever "join in" or "go along" with people who are abusing or disrespecting another person.
  • Trust your instincts if you have an uneasy feeling. If you start to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a situation, listen to your feelings and act on them. Get yourself out of the situation as soon as possible.

Positive Sex for Survivors

  • You deserve to have a healthy sex life
  • It is important to find a way to separate sexual assault and sex
  • It’s ok to say no to sex (or to say no in any context, and why that can be hard for survivors)
  • It’s ok to want sex (it doesn’t mean you wanted the sexual assault)
  • Self-love can help reclaim a positive sexual experience
  • Communication about feelings and needs is essential in a healthy sex life
  • Flashbacks are not unusual for survivors (what partners can do and why they have a silver lining)
  • Sexual fantasies can be a part of a healthy sex life (when they cause pleasure, but not when they feel intrusive or negative)

Communication

  • Communicate what you really want: It is important that your actions match your words. Say “yes” when you mean “yes” and say “no” when you mean “no.” The absence of consent does not automatically give consent, consent must be clearly gained.
  • Know your sexual intentions and limits and communicate them clearly. You have the right to say "no" to any unwanted sexual contact. Tell the person you are with how far you want to go, what you want and don't want to do, and when you want to stop – before getting intimate. If you are uncertain about what you want, ask your partner to respect your feelings.
  • Listen carefully to the person you are with in sexual situations. If your partner says "no" to sexual contact, or her/his body language tells you she/he is unsure or unwilling, stop. If your partner was willing at first, but now doesn't want to go any further, stop. If you think you are getting a "mixed message," or you are not sure what your partner wants, don't use threats or force. Stop. Ask your partner what she or he wants.
  • Don't assume you know what another person wants. For example, don't automatically assume that just because someone gets drunk, wears "sexy" clothing, or agrees to be alone with you, that person wants to have sex. Don't assume that just because someone has had sex with you before, she or he is willing to have sex with you again. And don't assume that when a partner consents to kissing or other sexual touching, she or he is willing to have sexual intercourse.

Consent

Consent is an agreement that two people must make if they want to engage in intimate sexual activity from holding hands to intercourse. The issue of consent can be a complicated and ambiguous area that needs to be addressed with clear, open, and honest communication. Keep these points in mind if you are not sure consent has been established:

Both partners need to be fully conscious and aware. The use of alcohol or other substances can interfere with someone's ability to make clear decisions about the level of intimacy they are comfortable with. The more intoxicated a person is, the less they are able to give conscious consent.

Both partners are equally free to act. The decision to be sexually intimate must be without coercion. Both partners must have the option to choose to be intimate or not. Both partners should be free to change "yes" to "no" at any time. Factors such as body size, previous victimization, threats to "out" someone, and other fears can prevent an individual from freely consenting.

Both partners clearly communicate their willingness and permission. Willingness and permission must be communicated clearly and unambiguously. Just because a person fails to resist sexual advances does not mean that s/he is willing. Consent is not the absence of the word "no."

Both partners are positive and sincere in their desires. It is important to be honest in communicating feelings about consent. If one person states their desires, the other person can make informed decisions about the encounter.

(Adapted from Berkowitz, Alan. "Guidelines for Consent in Intimate Relationships," Campus Safety & Student Development, Vol. 3, No. 4, March/April 2002.)

Giving in is not the same as giving consent! Consent is not present when either partner:

  • Fears the consequences of not consenting (including use of force)
  • Feels threatened or intimidated
  • Fears being "outed"
  • Is coerced
  • Says no, either verbally or physically (e.g., crying, kicking or pushing away)
  • Has communication barriers that prevent the person from understanding what is being said.
  • Has differing abilities that prevent the person from making an informed choice
  • Is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs
  • Lacks full knowledge or information of what is happening
  • Is not an active participant in the activity
  • Is under the legal age of consent

Awareness

  • Be observant of your environment (e.g. being left at a party by your friends, being alone in a locked room with loud music playing). Pay attention to your instincts and react if you feel uneasy with the situation.
  • Be aware that if you have sex with someone who is mentally or physically unable to give consent or is unable to resist, you may be committing rape or sexual assault. If you engage in sexual activity with someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, "passed out," asleep, unable to say "no," or too "out of it" to know what is happening, you may be guilty of rape or sexual assault.
  • Know your rights and which behaviors constitute criminal acts. Know that you have the right to say “no” at anytime during a sexual encounter.

Tips for Dating

  • On a first date, check him/her out with friends. Go to a public place, a movie, restaurant, or a campus event.
  • Do not leave a party, concert, or a bar with someone you just met, or do not know well, no matter how charming the person might be.
  • Be wary of behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable. If it persists, leave.
  • It is never okay for you to force yourself on another person even if:
    She or he teases or flirts with you
    She or he says “no” and you think it means “yes”
    You have had sex before
    You paid for a night on the town or an expensive gift
    You have been dating for a long time and you think it is time
    She or he is wearing clothing that you interpret as “seductive”
    You were both drinking

Do not ever assume you both want the same degree of intimacy. If you have any doubt…stop, ask, and clarify.

Qualities of Healthy Relationships

  • You trust your partner and feel respected by him/her.
  • You feel like you can “just be yourself” with your partner, without having to look or be a certain way.
  • Neither person would be “destroyed” if the relationship ends.
  • You are not afraid to say what you really think and why you think that way.
  • You do not have to be together 24/7.
  • Neither person attempts to control or change the other person.
  • Both people already feel good about themselves and don’t need a relationship to feel they are okay,
  • You both accept the other’s friends and families without jealously.
  • You negotiate the level of preferred expression of affection (kind words, physical touch, etc.) in both public and private.
  • You like to really hear what your partner thinks and feels.
  • You do not pull away from the rest of the world, isolating yourselves as a couple.
  • You each encourage self-sufficiency and high self-esteem in the other person.

Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship

When your partner…

  • Is jealous and/or possessive of you.
  • Won’t let you have friends.
  • Checks up on you.
  • Won’t accept breaking up.
  • Doesn’t take your opinion seriously.
  • Is scary – You worry about how she or he will react to things you say or do.
  • Threatens you.
  • Uses a weapon against you.
  • Blames you when she or he mistreats you.
  • Pressures you for sex.
  • Thinks of women or men as sex objects.
  • Attempts to manipulate or “guilt trip” you.
  • Is violent.
  • Has a history of fighting.
  • Loses his/her temper quickly.
  • Brags about mistreating others.

Books

The Sexual Healing Journey: A guide for Survivors of Abuse by Wendy Maltz

Healing the Trauma of Abuse: A Woman's Workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland and Maxine Harris

The Survivor's Guide to Sex: How to Have an Empowered Sex Life After Childhood Sexual Abuse by Staci Haines

It Happened to Me: A Teen's Guide to Overcoming Sexual Abuse by William Lee Carter

Victim's No Longer by Mike Lew

Assessing your Relationships

Do you see yourself or a friend in the following questions?

  • Does your partner put you down or call you names?
  • Does your partner make you feel badly about yourself?
  • Does your partner play mind games with you?
  • Does your partner make you feel guilty?
  • Does your partner humiliate you?
  • Does your partner make all of the decisions in the relationship?
  • Are you afraid of your partner or feel like you have to walk on pins and needles sometimes to keep your partner from getting angry?
  • Does your partner make you feel afraid by giving you looks, actions, or gestures?
  • Does your partner smash things or put his/her fist through walls?
  • Has your partner ever hit, slapped, or pushed you?
  • Does your partner make light of your feelings or not take your concerns seriously?
  • Have you ever been forced by your partner to do something you didn’t want to do?
  • Does your partner shift the responsibility for abusive behavior to you?
  • Does your partner say you caused his/her actions?
  • Does your partner threaten to hurt you, your family, or your pets?
  • Does your partner threaten suicide if you leave or end the relationship?
  • Does your partner manipulate you to have sex with him/her?
  • Does your partner try to control what you do or who you see?
  • Is your partner very jealous?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may be in an abusive relationship and you should seek further help.