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Communication: How to Avoid an Awkward Date from Hell

Last week a debate about what constitutes sexual assault and what doesn’t erupted on social media.  I won’t rehash the horribly written article about Aziz Ansari and I won’t hyperlink to it either.  That site has gotten plenty of traffic in the past week.  I don’t want to debate the language, tone or content of the piece.  Whatever could be said about it has been said about it.  I’ve officially reached Aziz fatigue.

What I do want to continue however is the discussion about the weird grey area that exists between enthusiastic obvious consent, and less than thrilled uneasy consent.  This is a very real problem for both genders, although women have been conditioned to accept it more so than men.  Most of us have been there.  We agree to do something sexually that we’re not sure we want to do.   Again, I’m not referring to the Aziz article or anything in it, I just wanted to explore what many of us talked about in discussions about awkward sexual experiences.  In a perfect universe we should strive for obvious enthusiastic consent, but we’re also not going to get rid of hundreds of years of social conditioning overnight.  We are currently in a strange new world where some of the shame and stigma regarding human sexuality has been lifted, while still living with outdated perceptions of gender norms and what constitutes appropriate behavior.

The most compelling insight on the piece came from a surprising source – the sex positive community.   I have a few friends who are so sex positive they have orgies for fun.  They plan sex parties for a living.  Many of them are in polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships with multiple partners sometimes of both genders.  Some of them have worked as strippers, prostitutes, dominatrixes and even sexual surrogates.  They speak of their sex lives as easily as most of us would talk about our pets or hobbies.  They openly brag about having over 100 sexual partners or more.  The general tone that I got from nearly all of them was.

What we have here is a lack of communication.

For decades it’s been drilled in our heads that we are not supposed to talk about sex.  Human sexuality is rarely something we have frank and open conversations about, at least with new sexual partners.  We are fed a myth our entire lives that amazing sex can be had with total strangers with very little communication.   The exact opposite is true.

Sex is like rocket fuel to humans.  It’s so important to us it’s literally how we create human life, yet at the same time we try to treat it like it’s something we can engage in without a second thought.  Of course we can but we need some ground rules with a new partner if that’s going to happen.  No one would think to jump out of an airplane without first being shown how to use a parachute.  I don’t know why we can think we can magically enter into highly emotionally charged situations without figuring out appropriate boundaries first.

This list is about some of the strategies a person can use to avoid awkward, clumsy and uncomfortable consensual sexual encounters.

Everything on this list with a couple of exceptions is meant for BOTH GENDERS.  Although I wrote this with straight couples in mind, some of the same principles could be applied any sexual orientation or gender identification.

*This list is only in regards to consensual sexual encounters.  No amount of communication will deter a sexual predator.  In those cases the only thing a person can do is  physically fight back, escape a situation or scream for help if that’s an option.  I want to make this distinction now as I don’t want anyone to think a person can simply talk their way out of a sexual assault.  I speak about this as a survivor of sexual assault myself.  Sexual assault is a criminal act where one half of the situation is given no agency, no control, no voice and no choice.  

Tips for avoiding awkward sexual experiences.

Ask for what you want. 

There is nothing wrong with simply asking for what you want.  Both partners should be direct and open about boundaries and comfort levels.

The phrase “Do you want to have sex?” can be very sexy.  It’s also incredibly unambiguous.   The phrase “Can I kiss you?” can also be smolderingly hot if said in the right situation.  It’s also perfectly acceptable to say what you don’t want.  The best way to do this is to use clear language that cannot be misunderstood.  Words like “No” “Stop” or “I don’t want to do this” are hard to misinterpret.  Again this goes both for men and women.  Men also find themselves in situations where they are not comfortable.  Neither partner can assume the other one knows what they want without direct communication.

You are NEVER obligated to do anything you don’t want to do. 

It doesn’t matter how much someone spent on a date.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve already done on a date.  Making out doesn’t mean you consent to oral sex.  Having oral sex doesn’t mean your consent to anal sex.  Having anal sex doesn’t mean you consent to new partners being added to the mix.  If you don’t want to reciprocate or you’re not feeling it you can say no.  You can stop at any time in the date.  It might be awkward or strange to end the date abruptly, but the momentary awkwardness will be easier in the long-term than going through with something you’re not sure you want to do.

You don’t have to be polite if you don’t want to do something. 

This is the only guideline on this list that is directed at women more than men.  As women we are programmed almost from birth to be nice, sweet and accommodating.  When you enter into a sexual act you are kind of putting yourself on the edge of a proverbial cliff.  You don’t really know how your partner might treat you or react.  During a sexual encounter a human being is about as vulnerable as they are ever going to be.  This is not the time to worry about being polite.  If you are freaked out or scared, you can just let it all out.  No need to worry about how you’ll be perceived.  Speak your truth.  Stand up for yourself.  If someone expects you to have unprotected sex and you insist on using protection say NO as loudly and as strongly as possible.  There is NO WAY IN HELL you should put yourself in a potentially medically dangerous situation just to seem nice.

Real life is not a porn movie.  

Porn is probably the worst teaching tool for having great sex.  In most porn scenarios next to no dialog is spoken.  A man somehow just knows that it’s OK to do all sorts of violent and depraved things to a woman he’s just met, he might even include another male partner without even remotely checking in with the woman.  This is of course a fantasy.

Real life is not a fairy tale. 

You might get lucky and have some incredibly romantic near perfect dates that end in beautiful, connected, and full-filling sex with someone you barely know.   It does happen.  It’s quite rare.  Most amazing sex happens with someone you know well and have been having sex for some time.

When in doubt – check it out

If you suspect your partner is not into something stop and ask them.  One of the craziest stories I’d ever heard came from a friend of mine who told me that in the middle of sex a new partner smacked her across the face.  She stopped him immediately and said, “What are you doing?  Why are you doing that?” he claimed his last partner was really into it.  My friend told him she wasn’t.  He stopped.  She never had sex with him again.  Because he immediately stopped the behavior after she requested it, she doesn’t consider this sexual assault.  It’s a great example of a man assuming she would like something his last partner enjoyed.  These assumptions happen all the time with both men and women.  It’s ALWAYS better to check in before you take the risk of entering into behavior that could be seen as predatory, violent or criminal.

If it’s bad early on, it will probably stay bad. 

I hate to say it but you can tell a lot from a kiss.  If a man or woman’s idea of a hot kiss is your idea of a disgusting one, you’ll probably never connect sexually.  It’s fine to simply make up some excuse and get out of the situation before you find yourself in a much more awkward experience later that night.  Everyone goes through this.  If a partner looks great on paper and you like him or her otherwise but her or she repulses you sexually, you’re probably better off not taking things further.

Excessive alcohol use can blur your judgment.

What I just typed is common sense.  What I just typed has also been labeled as sexist, regressive, abusive and part of rape culture.  The problem with the simple statement of “Don’t get drunk” is it’s often only told to women.  Of course women should be able to drink alcohol if they want to and even get drunk.  This exact same advice should also be given to men.  Just as it is far more difficult to drive a car or walk down stairs, it’s also much more precarious to enter into a sexual situation when we are severely intoxicated.  No one is perfect and people will sometimes accidentally drink too much.  The dangers of excess alcohol are just a good thing to remind yourself of if you’re about to go out with a total stranger.  I want to stress this again.  BOTH GENDERS should heed this advice.

Gender specific “rules” that should be thrown out the window

For women

  • Men won’t respect you or ask you out again if you have sex too quickly after meeting them.
  • Don’t go out with him if he asks you out with less than three days notice for a date
  • Don’t go home with a man on a first date.
  • Don’t make out with a man on a first date.
  • Tell him you’ve had three sexual partners in your past. (For most of us that would be a lie)
  • Don’t openly talk about sex or act interested in sex.
  • Never really say what you feel always play the game
  • (Many more rules/assumptions too many to list here – basically that women must remain virginal, pure or at least appear so.  Women must also act coy, not be direct and constantly appear nice)

For men

  • If a woman goes home with you on the first date she wants to have sex
  • If a woman has sex with you on the first date she has less value
  • Any woman can be convinced to have sex with you if you just keep trying
  • If a woman has more than three sexual partners in her past she has less value
  • If a woman makes out with you that means she wants to have sex with you.
  • If a women dresses in a revealing manner she wants to have sex with you.
  • If a woman has joked or flirted with you that means she wants to have sex with you.
  • Never really say what you feel always play the game
  • (Many more rules/assumptions too many to list here but basically that men should pursue, pursue, pursue even when things seem pathetic.  Basically the cliché of a boss chasing his secretary around the desk.)

These are all antiquated ideas about love and sex.  Most of these “rules” leave both genders confused and frustrated.  The best way a man can find out if a woman wants to have sex with him is to ask her directly.  Even though it’s usually wise to avoid sex with perfect strangers, I’ve known several long-term loving relationships that started out just like that.  We have to stop thinking in rigid terms of gender roles and old-fashioned codes of behavior.  We have to smash the ideas of playing hard to get, acting like we don’t really want sex when we actually do, and generally blurring the lines of open communication.  We have to speak up as openly and clearly as possible and empower ourselves to say no when needed.  Again this goes for both men and women.

The last guideline really has nothing to do with awkward sex but is more about the flip side.

You can have great sex with people who are terrible partners

This is probably one of the toughest lessons in life that both men and women learn the hard way.  I think all of my friends have had amazingly hot, passionate sex with people who were absolutely horrible to them.  Sex is great, but if someone is really treating you like garbage outside of the bedroom you’re better off without them.   You can always find another partner who you will click with completely who won’t emotionally abuse or neglect you.

I’ve read a lot of articles regarding this topic that were all saying the same things I’m saying here.  This is also extremely obvious advice, I admit that openly.  I just wanted to get this out in a way that didn’t seem preachy, use words like patriarchy, misogyny, toxic masculinity or any other ism.  Even though this is a widespread problem that is deeply entrenched in our culture we don’t have to think in terms of lofty goals to solve it.  It starts with each and everyone of us.  If we all want to have good sex we just need to start talking to each other about everything and anything.  Don’t feel weird asking questions and never assume you know what’s going on in anyone else’s head.

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Why Monica Lewinsky is NOT my feminist hero.

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Last week was apparently the 20th anniversary of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal.  I’m not sure why we need to celebrate or commemorate such a fiasco but this morning I discovered this tweet by Eve Peyser, a staff writer at Vice.com

 

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There’s a lot in this one tweet.  For starters I don’t how it’s very feminist to make negative blanket statements about two entire generations of women.  To encompass all baby boomers and generation X women in one sweeping generalization like that is really condemning most women in the United States.

I’m not a fan of broad generalizations about any group, and I have a more nuanced view of the Lewinksy scandal so this was my response to that tweet.

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(I actually made a mistake when I wrote my tweet.  For years I always thought I was slightly younger than Lewinsky.  I only discovered when researching this article that Monica and I are actually the exact same age.)

For starters I didn’t learn about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal from textbooks and news articles.  I lived through it.  I won’t delve into the minutia of the entire ordeal and I might get a couple of small details wrong but the basics go like this.  A young privileged woman (Monica Lewinsky) open and aggressively pursued a married man (President Bill Clinton) who had a long history of infidelity and womanizing.  The GOP leadership was already investigating Clinton for a past real estate deal when they stumbled upon evidence of the affair.  When Clinton denied it, Republican representatives filed for articles of impeachment on grounds that he’d lied under oath.  Every torrid sexual detail was exposed.  Several horrible people profited from tell all books and tabloid exclusives, but when the dust settled Clinton, although permanently tainted from the scandal, stayed in power.  In the upcoming years several of the men who lead the charge against Clinton, ended up in far more lurid sex scandals of their own.

Lewinsky received a disproportionate amount of negative press for her role in the affair.  She was called everything from a slut, whore, home-wrecker, and opportunist.  The press mocked her weight, clothing, and appearance.  Her personal life was dissected and analyzed and nearly everything written about her was negative.  Intimate sexual details between her and the president were printed for all of eternity in the special prosecutor’s report.  Her face graced the cover of newspapers and magazines for months.  Lewinsky tried to profit off of her notoriety by selling her own line of handbags, a venture which quickly failed and did nothing to improve her image.

After millions of tax dollars were spent on the investigation, the whole mess ended up backfiring for the GOP as the general public sentiment could be reduced to the simple question:

Was all of this necessary for a blow job?

Now back to the idea of Lewinsky being bullied and slut-shamed.  Regarding the charge of bullying.  Although the press was overly harsh toward her, most women I knew had mixed feelings.   Social media didn’t exist at the time and none of us could really have done anything but sit back and watch the train wreck.  I’m sure Lewinsky got mountains of hate mail but no one could tweet at her, make video rants about her, mock her online, share unflattering photos of her, or dox her personal information.  The general public wasn’t nearly as interactive in such affairs in the 1990s.   We just didn’t have the means to get involved.

As far as slut-shaming is concerned, that’s also a bit complicated.  There is a faction of third wave feminism that promotes the idea that anything sexual a woman does should be championed or celebrated.   For centuries female sexuality has been viewed as evil or something to be controlled.  There is nothing wrong of course with two adults in a consensual sexual relationship.  Things get blurry however when sexuality crosses over into unethical behavior.   A person can think whatever they want about the institution of marriage, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum where everyone shares the same belief system.  Knowingly having an affair with a married person is a high risk behavior.  When one enters into an adulterous relationship with someone they know is married they are suddenly involving other people without their consent.  Although they might get away with their affair, it could also have extreme negative consequences for both the spouse and children of the person they are sleeping with.  Infidelity is a selfish and unethical act that involves lies and betrayal.  Deception destroys trust in any relationship, and can cause untold damage to the faithful spouse.  Two atheists can tear each other apart in a marriage without the concept of religious sin or morality ever entering the picture.  Simply put an extramarital affair might be fun for the two people involved in it, but it might also wreck emotional havoc on an entire family.

I also don’t think Lewinsky is the best example for the #MeToo movement.  Clinton never threatened Lewinsky’s job.  There’s no evidence that he did anything of the sort.  He never told her he’d destroy her career, harm her family or ruin her reputation if she didn’t go along with his advances.  She has never testified to as much, and there’s nothing in the Starr report that would indicate it.  Lewinsky was much younger than Clinton, but he didn’t exactly coerce or force her.  If anything she was a starstruck girl who got a rush and sense of self-importance by having sexual relations with a very powerful man.  She openly bragged about their affair, about flashing her thong underwear during meeting with him.  She also boasted about “bringing her presidential knee pads to the White House” before she even met him.  Lewinsky probably did have emotional scars from a previous relationship she’d had with another older married man.  She probably had a warped view of relationships with older men because of her past.  Clinton had a long history of inappropriate behavior with women.  It was unprofessional and foolish to get involved sexually with a young subordinate.  As the POTUS he had more important things to worry about.  He used poor judgment, lied to his wife, lied to the American people and ruined his own legacy in the process.  He had far more life experience and more at stake, and should have used restraint.  He wasn’t the first president to have an extramarital affair, and Lewinsky if far from the first woman to have sex with one.

What also compelled me to reject the label of “feminist hero” toward Lewinsky are Lewinsky’s own words and actions since the scandal ended.  At first she tried to ride her notoriety with a line of handbags.  That wasn’t exactly a bold step forward for feminism or women’s rights.  It was a crass attempt to cash in on the media attention.  That venture failed quickly and she faded into relative obscurity.  When she returned to tell her story many years later she was contrite.  She took ownership of her mistakes and failings.  She started a platform to raise awareness of the dangers of public humiliation in the media.

The irony is of course is that although she was humiliated by a vicious press, Lewinsky’s actions also caused great humiliation to Bill’s wife Hillary and their teenage daughter Chelsea.  Hillary was far from unscathed from this whole mess.  Although Hillary has been long-suffering through Bill’s many dalliances she chose to stay in the marriage and forgive her husband.  She has also bore the burden of his actions and poor choices.  Bill’s past with women was constantly brought up during her failed presidential attempt.   Her moral center was questioned even though she’d done nothing wrong but try to defend her husband.   As much as Lewinsky might feel she has to endure a permanent scarlet A on her chest for her youthful mistakes, Hillary also wears the badge of enabler, doormat, or frigid shrew.

Lewinsky didn’t improve the plight of women, and she didn’t do anything heroic through her extended ordeal.  She did have enough personal strength and insight to take responsibility for her actions many years later.  She’s also tried to improve the lives of others through her anti-bullying campaign.  If anything she’s a survivor who tried to use her personal pain for good, but to call her a hero is a bridge too far.

If millennial women are searching for an actual feminist hero of the #MeToo movement the choice should be obvious.  Just a few years before the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal a young attorney testified that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by her boss Clarence Thomas.  She spoke up because he had just been nominated to a position on the supreme court.  Anita Hill sat alone in front of the all male senate judiciary committee and the world to describe her ordeal in brutal detail.  During her brave testimony she was viciously picked apart by the press and Thomas’s supporters.  She also endured an avalanche of scrutiny of every detail of her life, background and personal relationships.  She went through as much grief as Lewinsky if not more.  In the end Clarence got his seat on the court and Anita Hill never changed her story.  At time of her testimony 60 percent of Americans believed Thomas over Hill, yet after her testimony, the number of women filing harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled.  Anita Hill is a feminist hero in every way possible, in fact she’s a feminist superstar.

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