25 Ways to Build Intimacy and Why You Should

93- How to build intimacyThere are many definitions of intimacy and ways of being intimate. When it comes to sexual health, the degree of intimacy we willingly express impacts how we accept ourselves and how we share our bodies, minds and lives with others. In this article, Heather Corinna of Scarleteen breaks down what “building intimacy” means and looks like. In short, “building intimacy” is explained here as sharing more and more of ourselves and our lives, but also learning together how to do that in ways that are healthy and feel beneficial to everyone involved.

Here are key points to take away from the article:

  • Sex is a way to express intimacy, but it is not the only way. A better metric of a relationship’s integrity is how able we are to really be, or start being ourselves with someone else, and they us, even in ways we are different.
  • No one thing or activity feels intimate for everyone, or for any one person all the time or in every situation. But healthy intimacy always involves actively willing and safely sharing private, vulnerable parts of our lives, minds and bodies with each other, and having others share with us in ways we feel comfortable with. True intimacy must be reciprocal.
  • Healthy intimacy gives you and others self-acceptance and the opportunity to accept others. It offers a sense of freedom for personal growth and increases the capacity to be empathetic to others.
  • Codependency is not healthy intimacy because it lacks boundaries. Hallmarks of healthy intimacy are things like establishing boundaries, having choice, safety and care in our vulnerability, shared trust and open, honest communication. Those things are the opposite of what’s going on and intended within abuse or assault.
  •  Healthy intimacy teaches us to be both fearless and careful in all the best ways. Seeking out and taking part in intimacy is about choosing to take a positive risk to open up.

This article was originally published on Scarleteen.

BY HEATHER CORINNA | Scarleteen

ILLUSTRATIONS BY ISABELLA ROTMAN | thismighthurt.tumblr.com

intimacyAs a verb, to be intimate means to make known. Intimacy is about seeking or having closeness of some kind with someone. When we’re being intimate with another person, we’re letting them — or they’re letting us — get closer by inviting and allowing each other into places beneath the visible surfaces of ourselves; places we don’t show to just anyone, or places people can only really come into if we invite them.

Healthy intimacy involves intentionally, willingly and safely sharing more private, vulnerable parts of our hearts, minds, bodies or lives with each other, and having others share with us in ways we want and feel comfortable with. Intimacy asks for transparency (being open and honest), vulnerability (letting our guard down), trust, and a means of communicating or connecting. When we’re experiencing healthy intimacy, we’ll tend to feel accepted or accepting, known or more knowing, valued just as the people we are, not because we did something important or something that someone wanted, and, since so many of us keep so much of our inner selves reigned in tightly so much of the time, we’ll tend to feel a certain sense of peace or release by loosening those reins.

Intimacy is something that can happen in a brief period of time and can be built over time, so it becomes deeper, there’s more of it, or it’s something we experience more often. A truly shared intimacy involves both or all people involved sharing and being shared with. Shared intimacy requires all people involved be open and receptive, vulnerable, trusting and trustworthy, sharing and communicating together, not just one person.

One way to conceptualize intimacy is to think about it like the place you live. There are people you won’t even let in the front door. There are others you let in, but only in the living room or lobby. Others, still, you may let into your bedroom or another place that’s more private. Then there are people let into all those rooms and who you may let stay and even make spaces with you. You might also show some people where you keep things that are secret or of value to you and give them permission to access those things. Which people those are, and for which spaces, is something we should ideally have a choice about. When we do, those choices are rarely random.

Intimacy-Examples-1We’re usually selective about who we’re intimate with and in what ways. If and when someone lets us into some part of their private space, or we them, that’s an extension of trust. To honor that, take part in it in a healthy way, and have intimacy be something that’s beneficial for everyone, everyone involved has to be open to it, respect everyone’s boundaries, and treat each other with care. Trashing the proverbial bedroom, stealing food, or even just going into a room anyone hasn’t expressly invited us into in would disrespect all of that, and most often result in doors, validly, being shut and staying shut to whoever didn’t treat a house — be that house a heart, mind, body or an actual house — with care.

When some people say someone was intimate, they mean they engaged in sex. Sex is one way to be intimate and develop intimacy, but that’s not all there is to it, and sex isn’t the only way to be intimate. To say sex is all there is to intimacy is like saying eating only one thing at a restaurant with a thirty-page menu is knowing is all there is to the place. To say someone was intimate doesn’t tell us if they were sexual or not: maybe they engaged in sex, or maybe they were intimate in other ways. And to say someone engaged in sex doesn’t tell us if that even involved intimacy: often sex is an intimate experience for everyone involved, but not always. Doing or sharing any one things never means intimacy is a given: intimacy is something we experience (or don’t) through things we do or share, but no given share or way of sharing means we can be sure intimacy is what everyone involved has experienced or will experience.

Whether we’re talking about sex, or any of the many other ways we can be intimate, intimacy is a seriously subjective thing. No one thing or activity feels intimate for everyone, or for any one person all the time or in every situation. We all have different personalities, life experiences, opportunities, relationships, ways of expressing ourselves and boundaries, so it’d be impossible for us to all experience intimacy the same ways, or want to explore it in the same ways. We’re also not the same person through all of our lives, so will experience intimacy differently throughout a lifetime.

If and when we want to be intimate with someone else that means saying, doing or otherwise expressing something more hidden or private to or with someone else (or more than one someone else). How? In millions, probably billions, of ways.

What are some ways of being intimate or building intimacy?

Intimacy-Examples-3-Sharing our feelings with our words: our fears, joys, struggles; the good stuff, the bad stuff, the easier stuff and the hard stuff (intimacy more often develops from sharing the things that aren’t so easy).

-Sharing our thoughts, dreams, goals or ideas.

-Sharing touch or other ways of physically connecting, be that touch we and others consider and experience as sex, or touch we and others don’t consider or experience as sexual. Just letting someone into our physical space bubble is often an intimacy.

-Showing someone a part of ourselves — be it a body part, or a part of our life history — we do not feel proud of or think is awesome, so they can know more of us, not just “the good parts” that impress them.

-Letting someone into something we consider a more private or sacred experience, like taking a hike in our own secretly-discovered place, practicing an instrument the way we would alone with someone else in the room, meditating or praying together, or letting someone see us in our Yummy Sushi pajamas.

Intimacy-Examples-2-Sharing things we consider very meaningful and valuable: like a song that makes us weep because it really hits home, a childhood toy, a journal or lending out our prized lucky socks that seem to assure we pass every test.

-Delegating or sharing responsibility, especially with something greatly cherished and valued, like letting someone care for your child or pet, or doing a joint project with someone about something you really care about.

-Doing something in front of someone else we usually only do alone because we feel embarrassed about it otherwise, like going to the bathroom, dancing like a fool in our underpants in a way no one in their right mind would find hot.

-Telling someone things about ourselves or our lives we don’t feel so secure in; showing someone our fumbles, faults or flaws.

-Voicing something in the interest of getting closer, better understanding each other, or repairing something broken in our relationship, but which we know will be hard for that person to hear, and be something we will need to put in effort to work through for a while.

-Helping someone, being helped ourselves or asking for help.

Intimacy-Examples-4_0Intimacy isn’t only for pairs: two people can experience intimacy together, but so can three, four, five, ten, twenty or two hundred. People in support groups like AA or abuse survivor forums, jam sessions, families, poly relationships, intentional communities or in large events often experience or build intimacy. Certain kinds of relationships also don’t mean people are necessarily more or less intimate. Someone in a romantic or sexual relationship is not automatically more intimate in that relationship than they are in their best non-sexual, non-romantic friendship. How much intimacy has to do with how long we have known someone, or in what capacity, varies. We can experience intimacy with romantic or sexual partners, but also with friends, family, neighbors, caregivers or someone sitting next to us on the bus. We can experience intimacy with someone we’ve known for all our lives, or with someone we just met.

When I worked in abortion counseling, people often shared very personal, vulnerable things about themselves and their lives with me, even though we’d just met and were unlikely to ever see one another again. In big things that deeply impact many people, like natural disasters or cultural revolutions, once-strangers helping each other often experience intimacy. I had one of the most intimate conversations of my life with a stranger I was seated next to on a long flight. That’s important to bear in mind especially when you’re young. There are a lot of messages that suggest only time gives relationships value, and that real intimacy can only happen over time, so it can feel like many of your interactions or relationships aren’t as valuable because you haven’t often even had the chance yet for them to last over time, and a lot of our intimate relationships growing up are shorter, rather than longer.

Unsure what size

Intimacy that only happens briefly with someone, in only one way, and isn’t mutually built and deepened over time, is different than the long-term kind. When people intentionally build intimacy over time, it usually has more layers and depth, since people are also building trust, becoming more comfortable being themselves, bringing more accumulated life experiences, feelings and reflection to the table, and learning, together, to be intimate. But there are people who know each other — including within close relationships like families or marriages — for years, even a lifetime, yet never share much intimacy of any kind, so time alone doesn’t mean a relationship is more intimate (or valuable), or that intimacy will occur just because people stick around a long time. Intimacy isn’t only “real” when it’s the kind built over months, years or decades. Intimacy can occur and be something of real depth in a relationship that’s gone on for forty years or one that’s only four weeks old.

What’s So Great About Intimacy, Anyway?

Intimacy-Examples-8We get to experience really being ourselves with others, not just showing or sharing the stuff everyone will applaud or approve of, the easy stuff or the ways we can comfortably be ourselves just anywhere, or with just anyone. What does that give us and others? Self-acceptance, and the opportunity to be accepting. More room to be more of who we are in the world; places, relationships and interactions where we feel more free to just be, rather than presenting or performing, or keeping certain parts of ourselves hidden or protected. A feeling of freedom: it’s freeing to be able to just be ourselves, rather than being at work all the time to please people, or to be the person someone wants us to be, especially when that’s not the person we are. It can feel less scary to make mistakes, because we know we have people who accept us no matter what, and who’ll have our backs if things get rough. That also makes us feel more able to take positive risks that can net us what we want in life. We get room to grow: when we have relationships and interactions where we start going deep, we get opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth. Over time, in relationships where we’ve built and keep building healthy intimacy, those relationships start feeling like a home: a place where we feel safe, warm and able to be at ease in ourselves.

Intimacy-Examples-6Being intimate with others can increase our ability to be compassionate, sympathetic and empathic with others, and when we get better at extending compassion to others, we also tend to get better at doing it for ourselves. Being intimate helps us learn how to be more patient and forgiving with and of ourselves and others. Healthy intimacy makes us all a lot better at coexisting with kindness, understanding and care.

In ongoing relationships, intimacy is what creates real bonds between us: we can only get truly close, after all, if we let each other get to know who really we are, not just the shiny bits or what we see just by looking. While a lot of people talk about the quality or integrity of relationships being about things like how long people are together, what level of commitment people make, or exclusivity, intimacy, how healthy it is, and how invested people are in it, is a better metric. How able are we, and do we feel, to really be, or start being, ourselves with someone else, and they us, even in ways we are different? How much room do we make for each other to have and respect the boundaries we need for intimacy to develop? How emotionally safe is it for us and those involved with us to be vulnerable; how much trust have we built and kept together? Things like this tell us a lot more about the quality of a relationship or interaction than if people are married or not, sexual together or not, or how long they’ve been together.

Reciprocity and Building Intimacy

Intimacy-Examples-7When we talk about depth with intimacy, or building intimacy, what we’re talking about is both sharing more and more of ourselves and our lives, but also learning together how to do that in ways that are healthy and feel beneficial to everyone involved.

Building intimacy — rather than more singular experiences of it — can’t happen all at once or fast: it takes opportunity, time and practice. Generally, we’re going to build intimacy with someone else by sharing smaller things first, seeing how that goes and how we, and they, feel about it, and then seeing if they, too, want to open up to us.

If we have the opportunity and choose to keep getting closer we’ll share more and more, or things that, to us, are bigger and bigger. We’ll make a commitment to each other, spoken or not, to keep working on getting closer, and to learning to get better at it. To build intimacy together, everyone involved has to actively participate, each making their own efforts, alone and together, to get closer, and go deeper, in ways that feel right for everyone.

If you’ve ever done some kind of stretching to help your body become more flexible, you know what it’s like to do something again and again, but to try to go a little deeper into those stretches, and open your muscles up a bit more, each time. If you’ve ever done stretches with a friend or partner, you know you’re both working together to help yourselves and each other to go a little deeper and more open. When you stretch together, you have to pay attention to you and the other person, being sure what feels like a good stretch for you also feels good for them. Building a healthy intimacy with someone else is like that: a shared effort to gradually go a little deeper, to become more open, all while staying aware we’re doing this with someone else, so we need to pay attention to each other, and learn how to emotionally stretch together in ways that feel comfortable for all of us.

How deep intimacy is or gets has a lot to do with how reciprocal it is, and the dynamics of how we’re intimate with someone else. If we share a secret with someone, we are seeking intimacy with them. If they react with indifference, are not really paying attention or engaging with us, or don’t actually want us to be sharing secrets with them, that’s a very different thing than when we have their full attention, when they’re invested in and value the way we are opening up with them, and they maybe share something big and secret back, or offer us acceptance and support.

Building intimacy has an awful lot to do with how we behave when someone is being intimate with us. Being accepting, compassionate, sensitive, respectful, holding and honoring everyone’s lines, and showing ourselves to be trustworthy and patient usually all play huge parts in how intimate people can be together, how healthy that intimacy is, and how positively everyone feels. The building process of intimacy is never just about one person, and isn’t a one-way, static transmission: it’s something circular, always moving and growing, and always about how everyone involved is behaving, not just one person. We can’t create or build intimacy with someone all by ourselves.

When It’s Not Happening (and Why Not)

Sometime things can get in the way of intimacy occurring, being shared or becoming deeper. Some common reasons intimacy doesn’t happen, isn’t reciprocated or doesn’t get built are things like:

Because it’s not wanted: If intimacy, or a certain kind of intimacy, just is not something we want at a given time, in a given situation, or with a given person, at best, it’s just not going to happen. If there’s pushing or other attempts to force intimacy, people can be truly harmed. Healthy intimacy is about people getting close because they want to, and by choice: it can’t happen or be healthy if anyone is forced, coerced, pushed or pulled. Healthy intimacy requires an invitation or request of some kind, and someone else accepting that invitation or saying yes to that request. Consent and consenting is just as important with other kinds of intimacy as it is with sexual intimacy.

A lack of communication: We have to communicate and share in some way to experience and develop intimacy, be that through language, touch, or some other way of expressing and showing our deeper selves. We, or whoever we’re sharing with, also have to pick up the other part of communication, so we’re really taking it in, holding that space, and otherwise playing our part being willingly receptive to sharing. If one person is doing all the sharing and the other person isn’t doing the same — or, when they are, they are not opening up more emotionally — we can’t really share, build or sustain intimacy with someone else. When you hear people expressing, or have experienced yourself, a partner, friend or family member has “shut down,” often what they mean is that that person is not longer doing the communication to build or nurture intimacy: they’ve shut the door on being close. We also may have barriers with communication because we don’t communicate in the same ways: maybe we speak a different language than someone else, maybe we’re sighted and they’re not, maybe we like to communicate through touch while someone else is averse to touch. In order to communicate with someone else, we have to find ways of communicating we share and all feel comfortable with.

Game-playing or posturing: Intimacy is about being real with someone else or with each other. So, if we’re not sharing how we really feel, what we really think, or just aren’t really being ourselves, we can’t be intimate. If we just go through the motions of things that can be intimate — like sex — but aren’t really being open, showing and sharing ourselves and who we are, or really taking in what the other person is sharing, that’s not intimacy.

Social anxiety, shyness, introversion or issues with trust: How quickly and in what situations a person feels comfortable or able to be intimate varies, and those who are shy, have social anxiety, are introverted or have had their trust betrayed will tend to need more time. There’s no one right pace when it comes to intimacy, nor any given situation or kind of relationship where everyone will feel equally comfortable. So, if any of these things are part of who we are, we need to be patient with ourselves, and ask others to be the same. If they’re part of anyone you’re interacting with, you’ll need to make a little extra room, and probably be more patient. That payoff is that when intimacy does start to happen and be built, people with these issues or personality types tend to open up one-on-one to a degree more extroverted, gregarious or more easily trusting people often don’t.

A lack of self-awareness: To share who we are, we have to have some sense of who we are, and do our own work in getting to know ourselves by ourselves. Much like it’s really hard to love someone else well if we don’t already love ourselves, it’s difficult to be intimate with someone else if we’re not intimate with ourselves.

A lack of time or opportunity: Sometimes we can experience intimacy in situations or circumstances where our time is limited, but it takes time for intimacy to become deeper, and we need to be afforded opportunities for intimacy. Again, intimacy is something most people will often need to do in baby steps, opening up gradually, not all at once.
Too much too soon, too fast, or without boundaries: Sometimes we or others might put ourselves alllllll the way out there without paying real attention to the other people involved and making sure they’re even open to that; that the ways we want to share are ways they feel comfortable with and want. Rather than a healthy, mutually wanted intimacy, what’s really happening there is an overshare, because we haven’t given the other person any real choice, space or time to digest our shares, or bring who they are to the table. An initial share-er with any intimacy is putting more out there at first, but the share-ee also has to be a big part of the picture.

Busted trust: If we extended trust of some kind to someone, and they broke or betrayed it in some way (or vice-versa), we may have been intimate with them before, but probably won’t be again, because they’re demonstrated it’s not safe for us to be so with them. In order to keep being intimate with someone else, or they with us, everyone needs to be and stay trustworthy.
It’s so important that when someone is making themselves vulnerable with us, we treat them with extra care.

There’s a readiness factor to intimacy, and not just when the shares are yours or only when the intimacy is sexual. We have to want to share and be shared with in the first place, and be able to handle our own, or someone else’s vulnerability. If and when we know or suspect there are certain things, or ways of being intimate, we don’t feel we can handle or react to well or with care, it’s best to set and hold limits with those things for everyone’s sake. It’s always okay to have limits, and to let someone know that we appreciate the way they want to be intimate with us, but it’s not something we want, feel ready for, or feel able to handle well. If someone doesn’t want or feel ready for a certain kind of intimacy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have “trust issues,” or don’t like or care for someone else: but even when either or both of those things are so, they still get to set limits around intimacy, and those limits still should be respected. No one learns to trust or like someone by being pushed into a closeness they don’t want or feel ready for.

Some intimacies can be hard to react to well. We may feel shocked, disappointed, sad, scared, angry or freaked out in some major way based on what someone has told us, how someone is asking us to be intimate, or with how intimacy goes between us. We may wind up feeling more vulnerable, insecure and less accepting than we thought we would, and have emotional reactions we just were not prepared to deal with.

At least once in your life, and probably more than once, you’re going to louse this up and react poorly: everyone does. When we have very strong feelings or reactions, or our own big stuff gets triggered by someone else’s, it can be a sort of temporary blindness, where we’re just not seeing the other person and their feelings because our own stuff’s blocked them out. When we have big feelings, we can have big reactions, especially if we haven’t ever learned how to handle big feelings with someone else well.

When that happens, all we can do is what we can when we’ve been crummy or inconsiderate to someone else. We can first apologize, and do whatever we can to make sure the other person is okay; asking if there is anything we can do for them. Then we can each give ourselves a breather, be it for a five-minute walk alone or a week of our own processing, or going to other people in our lives for support. When we feel ready to come back to the other person or people calmly, a good start can be to take responsibility for our reaction, acknowledge it wasn’t okay, and make and honor a commitment to doing much better. After we check in with them about what, if anything, they want from us, we can fill them in on what we were feeling or experiencing and what we may need. We can talk together about how to do things differently, so that intimacy really works for all of us, feels safe, and so we can build some more. Sometimes, someone won’t want us to commit to doing better or talk to us more, because they just don’t want to be intimate with us again. If that happens, all there is to do with that is to respect it, wish them well, and move on.

condom ad condoms too loose

It’s a risk to put ourselves out there in an intimate way. When it pays off, and we get the benefits intimacy can offer us, it’s great. When it doesn’t, we or others can get hurt, and in some of our deepest places, where wounds can take a long time to heal. So, when we’re being intimate, we do want to choose with care: about who we’re sharing with, how and why we’re sharing, what we need for it to be safe for us and others, what we’re all open to and what we’re not, and if we feel we have the resilience to share, even if we might not get the reaction we want. If any kind of intimacy feels like it’s happening too soon, too fast, or we’re not sure it’s right for everyone, it’s a good idea to step back and slow down, only sharing as the pace feels right, and everyone is up to handling it and really wants to be part of it. There’s a good reason we don’t share certain things with just anyone, anywhere and in any given way: it’s just not always safe to do so.

Unhealthy or Not-Really Intimacy

Being close, or seeking closeness, is not automatically beneficial or healthy. There are ways to go about or experience it we know are healthy for most people, and ways we know usually aren’t. The first place most of us learn about intimacy is in our families: some family relationships are unhealthy or dysfunctional. Plenty of us grew up learning ways of being intimate or seeking intimacy that aren’t healthy. Interacting with each other isn’t something we’re born knowing how to do, but something we learn over a lifetime, so a lot of our earliest relationships — family, friends, boyfriend or girlfriends — may have or have had unhealthy dynamics when it comes to intimacy. Many cultural ideals about love or relationships have a lot of unhealthy stuff all tangled up in them, too. Any of that can make figuring out what is and isn’t healthy tricky, especially if what isn’t healthy has been our normal or seems ideal.

Healthy intimacy isn’t enmeshment, a term used to describe people or groups who can’t, don’t or won’t see themselves as separate or let others be separate from the pair or group. It’s closeness, for sure, but the kind that suffocates, rather than feels good: a kind of closeness we feel we’re mushed into a too-tightly-packed subway car. There’s just no real space between people, so we don’t feel a real choice in intimacy and don’t really a get a separate self to share — especially any parts of us that don’t fit with the group. When people are enmeshed, they can have a hard time even figuring out what their own feelings are separate from the other person or people’s feelings, or who they would be as a person if they were not part of the relationship or group.

In enmeshment, there are few to no boundaries, or only some people get to have them while others don’t. Privacy is often a serious no-no or cause for suspicion; relationships outside the pair or group, especially close ones, are usually unsupported. You may have experienced something like this in peer groups. If you were in or observed a group where you literally felt like everything about you had to be approved by the group, and experienced fear or anxiety about not conforming in any way because you knew or felt you’d be abandoned or rejected if you didn’t, you were probably experiencing enmeshment. (This is some people’s experience of all of middle school and high school.) Often, romantic love is presented as something where the ideal is to be enmeshed. But when it’s happening in reality — not in a novel, film, or for more than a few days or weeks — people in it will find it anything but ideal.

Because enmeshment is so all-engulfing, it often feels like connection, since we literally feel inseparable or like we can’t be disconnected in any way. Closeness is certainly happening. But it’s not a healthy closeness. When we’re intimate in healthy ways, we get to be ourselves with someone else, even when who those selves are, what they feel, or what they think or want to express doesn’t meet someone else’s needs or isn’t approved of. Healthy intimacy needs healthy boundaries, and healthy intimacy means people are sharing who they are, not only who others want them to be.

Codependency — which enmeshment is a type of — is also sometimes confused for intimacy. That’s a term used to describe people who become so dependent on someone else, they make their own selves and lives about that other person. Often, this happens because someone very much wants to avoid themselves, or being by themselves, rather than really getting closer to anyone, including themselves. Codependence is usually based in big fears of being abandoned or alone.

Codependent people need to feel indispensable, including with things other people really should be doing, and supported in doing, for themselves. People in codependent relationships often suffer from low self-esteem: they try and find esteem by taking care of the other person or people rather than themselves; by taking on the role of the rescuer. “They couldn’t live without me,” is something people in codependence tend to say or want. In reality, the person whose existence really hinges on others is the one working so hard to have others be dependent on them. The “help” people in codependence are often giving, whether intended or not, usually isn’t help at all, but is more often a kind of control or enabling. Someone codependent “helping” needs others to be or stay in crisis, because otherwise, they wouldn’t get to be needed: wanting to help is motivated more by their own needs than someone else’s.

When someone is codependent they will often feel a deep need to please others, rather than allowing themselves room to sometimes disappoint. Intimacy in codependence is often very one-sided. Poor boundaries, or a real lack of boundaries, are a hallmark of codependency. Getting closer to someone in healthy ways isn’t about making them feel like they can’t be separate or go away from us, or making them be dependent on us. Intimacy also is something we do not tend to do out of fear: quite the opposite, it requires everyone be at least somewhat fearless.

People’s motives in sharing intimacy aren’t always good. Sometimes people want others to be intimate with them so that they can exploit the vulnerability that person is showing them. This is a core part of what makes anything abusive or dysfunctional: when someone uses intimacy or vulnerability in a one-sided, predatory way, where their goal in getting closer isn’t to better understand, care for or deeply connect with someone, but to try to gain power or control.

Some people try and force intimacy or push through someone else’s boundaries for it. Intimacy isn’t healthy or beneficial when it’s forced, whether we’re talking about sex, reading a personal journal, disclosing trauma or insisting on knowing what genitals someone has in their pants. Healthy intimacy is choosing to open up, or have someone else open up with you in some way, because we want to. In healthy relationships or interactions, we always get to say no to sharing private parts of ourselves, or having others share with us, if we don’t want to or feel good about it.

Sometimes intimacy occurs in abuse or assault, or abuse or assault can feel like intimacy. Big secrets are often kept between people. People can feel or present control as help or trust. Some forms of abuse or assault, or abusive relationships, also involve things, like sex, voicing conflict or crying, that people consider or experience as intimate. And for sure, often someone being abusive is showing us a usually-secret part of themselves they most often will do anything to keep other people from seeing.

Abuse or assault are not healthy intimacy. Hallmarks of healthy intimacy are things like boundaries, choice, safety and care in our vulnerability, shared trust and open, honest communication. Those things are the opposite of what’s going on and intended within abuse or assault.

Healthy intimacy just can’t happen or be built in the context of something that isn’t inter-personally healthy, just like we can’t reach into a loaf of bread utterly covered with mold and get a piece that magically hasn’t been touched by any of it. As a simple rule of thumb, figure healthy intimacy is something we can only share or experience when it’s something everyone involved is freely and gladly willing to be part of, and when the interaction or relationship it’s part of is healthy.

Intimacy-Examples-4.5Sharing some parts of ourselves and getting close to other people can be scary. Sometimes it’s scary because we know or suspect it isn’t safe, or just don’t know yet it is safe. It might be that we don’t know if we can trust someone else (or that we know we can’t), or it might be that we aren’t sure we’re in the right space, or have all we need, for intimacy to be something that feels safe, and right, for us. What we want to share, or the way we want to share it can also be something where we are particularly vulnerable, or something where it feels like how it goes carries a lot of weight. Sometimes it’s scary just because sharing protected parts of who we are or what we can do is scary: but we want to try and do it sometimes because this is how we really bond with each other, and experience a part of life that’s often one of the richest things life has to offer.

Healthy intimacy teaches us to be both fearless and careful in all the best ways. Seeking out and taking part in intimacy is, ideally, about choosing to take a positive risk to open up in some way, because for all the unwanted or negative things we may risk when we do that, there are huge positives intimacy can offer us and others. We all benefit by deeply connecting to each other in healthy ways. Learning to be more and more of who we really are with each other, even in our most tender or loaded places; to be more accepting, compassionate, open-minded and caring. These are some of the very best things life has to offer, things that are usually some of the biggest parts of our growth and lives as people, both within our relationships and interactions and outside them.

heatherHEATHER CORINNA is an activist, artist, author and the director of Scarleteen, the inclusive online resource for teen and young adult sex education and information. She is also the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and was a contributor to the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She’s received the The Champions of Sexual Literacy Award for Grassroots Activism (2007), The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region’s, Public Service Award (2009), the Our Bodies, Ourselves’ Women’s Health Heroes Award (2009), The Joan Helmich Educator of the Year Award (2012), and The Woodhull Foundation’s Vicki Award (2013).

ISABELLA ROTMAN is a Chicago cartoonist and illustrator from Maine who truly cares about your genital well being. She is the author of the queer and quirky sexual health book You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STDs and a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other than educational comics, Isabella’s art is usually about the ocean, mermaids, crushing loneliness, people in the woods, or sex. If any of the above interests you then you may enjoy her self published comics or blog ThisMightHurt.Tumblr.com.

Why We Need National Condom Week

HaveAcondom-1National Condom Week 2015 is here!  From Valentine’s Day to February 21st, we are celebrating by providing a new article every day by prominent sexual health advocates focused on condom use and education. To kick it off, here is a little trivia for you:

If National Condom Week started campaigning in the 1970s, a time when the birth control pill had come into fashion and the HIV crisis was just around the corner, how is it still relevant today?

Here are seven important reasons why Condom Week remains pertinent today.

This article was originally published here

BY LARA WORCESTER | CondomMonologues.com

What is condom week?

Condom week is a national campaign to raise awareness not only about the importance of safer sex, but also how condoms can add to your sexual pleasure. Yes, contrary to popular belief, condoms don’t make sex less good. Many studies have found that those who report condoms reduce pleasure are men and women who do not use condoms, or don’t use them often. In other words, people who use condoms often- because they approach it with a better attitude and because they’ve learned what condoms they like- report greater pleasure with protected sex. Attitude, condom education and experience all play a role in sexual satisfaction.

That, my friends, is why we need National Condom Week.

Condom Week lands at a time in our calendar when people are puckered up with Valentine’s sweets. From Valentine’s Day to February 21st, while the air is plush with intimacy, what better time to integrate safer sex into the national conscience and give out lots of free condoms!

Condom Week originally began at the University of California in the 1970s, and has grown into a educational event for high schools, colleges, family planning organizations, AIDS groups, sexually transmitted disease awareness groups, pharmacies and condom manufacturers. Planned Parenthood and Advocates for Youth are just a few of the hundreds of non-profit organizations who participate in Condom Week, setting up sex education booths at universities all over the country and distributing over 50,000 free condoms. These booths, as well as open public seminars, will discuss topics such as safer oral sex, using lube with condoms, internal condoms, consent, and how to talk safer sex with your lover.

So again, if National Condom Week has been celebrated to raise awareness since the 1970s, why do we still need it today?

Because…

– Only 19 states require that, if provided, sex education in school must be medically, factually or technically accurate. That leaves schools in 31 states without fact-based sex education oversight!

Over 19 million people in the United States are diagnosed with an STI. That number increases dramatically if we account for those who do not know their status.

Two-thirds of all individuals who acquire an STI are younger than 25.

– In 2013, 66 percent of sexually active male high school students reported that they or their partner used a condom at most recent sexual intercourse, compared to only 53 percent of females.

More than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 7 (14%) are unaware of their infection.

– The United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world (68 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2008)—more than twice that of Canada (27.9 per 1,000) or Sweden (31.4 per 1,000).

If I haven’t convinced you yet to celebrate National Condom Week, jump over to this article by Heather Corinna which debunks all the condom myths you’ve probably faced.

Do your part in public health and stay aware.

condom ad condoms too loose

LARA WORCESTER is co-founder & editor at Condom Monologues and a Lucky Bloke contributor. She’s a published social researcher with a Master’s in Gender & Sexuality studies and has worked with various HIV/AIDS organizations including Stella and the HIV Disclosure Project.

condom-monologuesCONDOM MONOLOGUES Affirming safer sex and sexuality one story at a time… Condom Monologues dispel harmful myths about safe sex and sexual stereotypes that permeate our ways of understanding what is “healthy sexuality”. They accomplish this through sex-positive, pleasure-focused approaches to sexuality that affirm the diversity of people- genders, sexualities, kinks and relationships.
Find them on twitter @CondomMonologue

Happy International Condom Day!

This year the AHF is changing the way youth view condoms.

This year the AHF is changing the way youth view condoms.

What do you get when you combine condom appreciation with today’s global hit song, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams? The best International Condom Day song ever!

On February 13th, the AIDS Health Foundation (AHF) is hosting International Condom Day (ICD)- an annual celebration that promotes STI and accidental pregnancy prevention through free condom distribution and safer sex awareness events around the world, including the United States.

According to Lara Worcester of the Condom Monologues, this year’s celebration inspires a feel-good approach to condom use in exciting new ways. For example, this is the first year the AHF has launched a video series and a theme song to commemorate International Condom Day. Check out the article below for links to over 140 events, the innovative condom promotion video, and the condom song that will spice up your Valentine’s weekend.

This post was originally published here

BY LARA WORCESTER | CondomMonologues.com

Forget the Valentine’s Day candies and roses. What better way to gear up for Vday romance than celebrating International Condom Day! (#ICD2015 to you, Twitter.)

February 13th marks this holiday of awareness as a time to educate and celebrate safer sex. World, be prepared for thousands of free condom dispensaries and numerous safer sex events across 31 countries. In the US, the AHF (AIDS Health Organization) has organized 37 events in 12 states including some “hot zones” like the District of Colombia, which has the highest national rate of HIV in the country; and Mississippi and Texas, two states which have some of the strictest laws against public sex education and (by no coincidence) the highest national average of teen pregnancies.

Indeed, there is plenty to celebrate when it comes to condoms.

The first being that condoms are the most effective method available today that protects against both STIs and accidental pregnancy. Can’t beat that.

Each year, the AHF curates this holiday around a theme. This year’s theme is “Coolness”; that is, “Condoms Are Cool”. Now, before you roll your eyes and think, “Not another lame, out-of-touch attempt to get youth to use condoms,” I challenge you to check out the AHF corresponding video series. They launched a trio of videos related to young people buying condoms at a local corner shop or “bodega”.

Here is the first of the AHF’s “Bodega Nights” video series. Trust me, you have never seen a condom commercial like this one. Unlike traditional public service announcements (PSAs) that are overtly serious and fear-based, this one actually combines condoms with confidence, fun and sexiness.

The coolness doesn’t stop there. In addition to their “Bodega Nights” video series, the AHF also released a catchy party song. It is a condom-related parody of one of today’s global hits, Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”. The hope is to renew attention of the importance of safer sex in a way that will never go out of style.

Because I wrap it
Put it on and get in on, if that’s what you want to do.
Because I wrap it,
Cause you know that you are hot, and these condoms sure are cool.
Because I wrap it
Wrap it, put your hands up, and let yourself be free,
Because I wrap it
Just love your self enough to know that protection is the key.
– “Because I Wrap It” by Danny Fernandez

You can listen to the song and download the lyrics for your Karaoke pleasures here.

View more domestic and international Condom Day events here.

LARA WORCESTER is co-founder & editor at Condom Monologues and a Lucky Bloke contributor. She’s a published social researcher with a Master’s in Gender & Sexuality studies and has worked with various HIV/AIDS organizations including Stella and the HIV Disclosure Project.

condom-monologuesCONDOM MONOLOGUES Affirming safer sex and sexuality one story at a time… Condom Monologues dispel harmful myths about safe sex and sexual stereotypes that permeate our ways of understanding what is “healthy sexuality”. They accomplish this through sex-positive, pleasure-focused approaches to sexuality that affirm the diversity of people- genders, sexualities, kinks and relationships.
Find them on twitter @CondomMonologue

How Not to be Disappointed on Valentine’s Day

Photo credit: Nomadic Lass

Photo credit: Nomadic Lass

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and chances are (for whatever reason) you are excited for it, dreading it, or don’t care about it at all. Whatever your expectations, this message from Bedsider is for everyone. It is a great reminder that you should acknowledge all the love you do have in your life.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with this exercise and you will not be disappointed:

  • List 88 things that you love and are grateful for in your life- from your grandma to your favorite jar of peanut butter.
  • Love doesn’t have to come just from romance, but can be experienced through many other outlets too.
  • Don’t take it all so seriously. Love includes things that amuse you, make you happy and entertained.
  •  Don’t forget to include yourself on that list!

This article was originally published on Bedsider.

BY BEDSIDER | Bedsider.org

Are you in love? Broken hearted? Coupled up? Singled out?

Doesn’t matter. This message is for you regardless of your romantic status. You can avoid disappointment on Valentine’s Day by remembering this one thing: Love is all you need.

What? Did you expect a different sentiment? Did you want us to get our snark on and rage against the onslaught of chocolate hearts, peanut butter hearts, marshmallow hearts, candy hearts that say “Marry me,” hearts on cards, hearts on underwear, flowers, lingerie, diamonds, proposals, and love songs? Well, we considered it, but this sugarcoated holiday is nearly impossible to avoid. So we’re going with a tip that’s more realistic. (Don’t worry. We’ll unleash the snark on Groundhog Day right when you least expect it.)

Here it is again: Love is all you need. No, really. It is.

Because right now there are probably at least 88 things you can list that you love. That’s 88 things that make you feel grateful, amused, comforted, happy, excited, entertained, lusty, fortunate, or effin fabulous. And maybe some have to do with romantic love, but there’s probably a ton that don’t. And that’s what you can focus on to avoid a sucky Valentine’s Day.

Because the truth is, love doesn’t have to be taken so seriously. You can love the hell out of your favorite t-shirt or pet hedgehog or the little old man who runs the corner bodega. You can love your grandma or your iPhone or that cute guy on the show “Chuck.”

And while some of these things can’t give you a card and say, “I love you,” back, they can bring you pleasure and make you feel alive. And that’s really all you need to have a good Valentine’s Day. Or any day for that matter.

Don’t wait for someone to make you feel loved. Don’t feel bad if you see a flower delivery that’s not yours. Pay no attention to all the PDA. Who cares if you stay in. Who cares if you do or do not have a boyfriend right now. Focus on everything you do have. Focus on what – or who – you love. Surround yourself with that, celebrate it, and be thankful. That’s the trick to making this day feel lovely.

And this goes without saying, but that never stopped us before: You better include yourself on that list of 88 things you love!

We heart you.

Unsure what size

bedsiderBEDSIDER is an online birth control support network for women operated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy. Bedsider is totally independent (no pharmaceutical or government involvement). Honest and unbiased, Bedsider’s goal is to help women find the method of birth control that’s right for them and learn how to use it consistently and effectively, and that’s it.
Find Bedsider on twitter @Bedsider

Am I Normal? Are My Sexual Interests Boring?

team sex ed

Team Sex Ed! Kate & Louise

If I really love the missionary position am I too boring? Is it weird that I don’t like oral sex? For how long should sex last? Sex educators, Kate McCombs and Louise Bourchier receive these types of questions daily. The irony is that while we feel alone in our worry of being “abnormal”, it is very normal to question our sexual adequacy.

As part of their sex ed video series, Kate and Louise cover the importance of being honest with yourself about what you enjoy and doing what’s sexually authentic for you.

Here are their main points:

  • Our media culture promotes the idea that everyone should be a risque sex guru. Don’t buy into the hype!
  • It’s important to embrace what’s authentic for you sexually.
  • “Daggy” should be the new “sexy”. Watch the video to learn what “daggy” means.

BY KATE MCCOMBS & LOUISE BOURCHIER | Team Sex Ed! Kate & Louise

condom ad condoms too loose

kate_mccombsKATE MCCOMBS is a NYC-based sex educator, writer, and maker of puns. Ultimately, all of Kate’s work is about helping people feel more comfortable talking about sex. She believes that meaningful conversations + accurate information can help us create a healthier and more pleasure-filled world. Kate writes articles and teaches workshops about sexual health, pleasure, and communication.
Follow Kate on Twitter @katecom

louise bourchier 150 150LOUISE BOURCHIER, MPH is a sex educator who knows health and pleasure. She teaches workshops to adult audiences throughout Australia and New Zealand, where her mission is to facilitate access to information that allows people to experience healthy and pleasurable sex lives. She works closely with D.VICE: the toy shop for grownups and is a proud emissary of Sex Geekdom Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter @louiselabouche

4 Reasons Why Grown Ups Need Sex Ed Too

94- grown up sex ed

When we think “sex education”, we tend to picture a class full of awkward teenagers. We don’t image adults sitting in class. Most 20-somethings have a basic understanding of where babies come from; most have already experienced sex with someone else. And yet few adults feel comfortable talking about sex with their partner(s). Sex educator, Kate McCombs knows this all too well. She explains that many of us (adults) don’t know what we want sexually and therefore, don’t know how to communicate our desires.

The purpose of this article is to challenge the notion that sex education stops after adolescence. Kate McCombs highlights that our bodies and sexual desires change throughout life and this requires access to information that can help us navigate those changes. Here she offers four solid reasons why adults need opportunities to expand their sexual knowledge.

Here are her main points:

  • Not everyone enters adulthood with the same quality of sex education. And rarely does our national sex ed curriculum adequately prepare us for adult romantic relationships.
  • Good communication about sex takes continued learning and practice. It cannot be readily taught in a textbook.
  • Let’s halt the expectation that adults must be “experts” at sex. Instead, let’s promote sexual curiosity with willingness to listen and learn.
  • Many adults feel alone in what they are experiencing. Accessing  informative spaces in which adults can ask personal questions is an important health need.

BY KATE MCCOMBS | KateMcCombs.com

A week does not go by that an adult does not ask me a very basic sex question. I’m delighted to offer an answer – it’s my job – but it does strike me that something is off when otherwise educated people have big gaps in their knowledge about something as nearly-universal as sex.

Adults need sex ed just as much as young people do. Sexual desires, needs, and physical functioning evolve over time and because of this, we humans need information to help us navigate those changes. But how do you learn such things when you’re an adult and you’re not connected to an institution like school to provide the sex ed? I’d like to normalize the idea that adults need opportunities to expand their sexuality knowledge too.

In major cities, many sex positive retailers and organizations offer grown-up sex ed workshops. Here in New York City, we have a number of progressive sex toy stores that offer classes.

But what about communities that don’t have these types of resources? Although there are a growing number of adult sex ed outlets, there is still a gap between the need and the services to meet that need. Here are four reasons we need more grown-up sex ed:

1. If we don’t get the information during school, we need to get it as adults.

As most of us know, sex education for young people – if it happens at all – is rarely adequate at preparing them for their adult romantic lives. If we’re not properly educating youth about sex and relationships, how do we expect them to fare as adults? For some examples of this education gap, take a look at Melissa White’s article where she asked adults what they wish they’d learned in sex ed. Even if people received sex ed in school, it’s unlikely that it included messages about pleasure or healthy relationships.

In-home sex toy parties fill some of the need for pleasure education, but the consultants doing the presentations sometimes know more about selling the products than they do about sex education and communication. While I love teaching about sex toys, I also suspect that many people in need of good sex ed might not feel comfortable in a sex toy retail environment.

2. Communicating about sex can be hard.

Many people struggle with basic questions like, “How do I tell my partner I’m interested in _____?” or, “How do I tell my partner I don’t enjoy ____?”

People in my workshops frequently tell me that they struggle to talk about sex with their partners. They’re sometimes afraid to seem like they don’t know enough or, for some women especially, they worry that they know “too much” (internalized slut-shaming at its finest).

Sometimes the challenge is that they don’t have enough clarity about what they do want, which seriously compromises their ability to communicate their desires. Other times they don’t want to “ruin the moment,” as if talking about sex is somehow anathema to having good sex.

Good communication – about anything emotional and interpersonal – is challenging for many people. It takes learning and practice, as well as vulnerability and empathy. Those things are challenging to teach in an article or a one-off workshop.

3. Adults are often expected to be “sexperts.”

I’ve encountered many folks who believe that part of being an adult is being an expert at sex. Linguistically, we even use the word “adult” as an all-encompassing euphemism for “sexual.” Many of the articles in mainstream magazines reinforce this idea when they talk about “mastering techniques.” There’s an incredible diversity of things people enjoy sexually, and the only way to really know is to ask.

Instead of encouraging people to become “sexperts,” I encourage people to embrace their inner “sex geek.” Being geeky is about being curious, which allows you to acquire proficiency through asking questions and researching things about which you want to learn. Asking inviting questions – and listening with empathy – goes far in making you awesome in bed.

4. Many adults feel alone in what they’re experiencing.

When I teach workshops, one of the most common type of question I get is some variation on, “Am I normal?” This is true whether I’m teaching college students or menopausal women.Vast-Majority-250x308

I recently taught a workshop to a group of moms in Dallas, Texas, that was hosted in someone’s home. I spoke with many of these women one-on-one, and it was remarkable to me how many of them seemed embarrassed to ask their questions.

They asked me things like, “Is it normal to have bladder control problems after having a baby?” and, “Is it weird that I don’t orgasm from intercourse?” The answer to both of these things is yes, totally normal. I think it’s important to highlight that these were professional, educated women. If these women don’t have access to this kind of information, how can women with less access get the information they need?

~~~

Clearly, there’s a giant education gap in the skills people need in order to navigate their sexual lives. While there are some fabulous resources in some communities, there is still an unmet need that I’d love to see remedied.

kate_mccombsKATE MCCOMBS is a NYC-based sex educator, writer, and maker of puns. Ultimately, all of Kate’s work is about helping people feel more comfortable talking about sex. She believes that meaningful conversations + accurate information can help us create a healthier and more pleasure-filled world. Kate writes articles and teaches workshops about sexual health, pleasure, and communication. Follow Kate on Twitter @katecom

What Is a “Beacon of Permission”?

Photo credit: Carol Jones

Photo credit: Carol Jones

When you’re hanging out, do you and your friends, peers, sex partners, etc., talk about sex? Not just about who is a good or bad kisser, or what certain people are like in bed. Rather, do you have heartfelt conversations, do you ask personal questions that lead to more healthy, informed choices in your’s and other people’s lives?

Not many people have this opportunity with others. It is more common, instead, to avoid sex conversations altogether. When sex educator, Kate McCombs was asked during a panel discussion, “What can we do to make the world a more sex-positive place?” McCombs response was, “To become a beacon of permission.”

What she means by this is to become a sound board with whom others feel safe to talk about sex and ask questions they might not otherwise feel comfortable discussing.

It is about intentionally creating a safe, non-judgmental, shame-free space to talk about sex in a health-promoting way. As McCombs wrote elsewhere, “It’s someone who acts as a beacon to shine light on the shame shadows that traditionally surround conversations about sex.”

This does not mean to talk about sex in some radical, edging or pop-cultural fashion. Key to Kate McCombs’ concept is that the dialogue must be honest, educational and healing. When people are more informed about themselves and their bodies they are better equipped to take care of themselves and the people they care about. If we approached personal sex conversations with less shame and sensationalism, and more honesty and open-mindedness, we can explore concepts of sexuality in more healthy, positive ways. It makes the world a better place for us all.

This article was originally published here.

BY KATE MCCOMBS | KateMcCombs.com

As is glaringly obvious, I love talking about sex.

For me, being a sex educator isn’t just about teaching about sex in a vacuum – it’s also about talking about it with others in order to normalize discussions about sexuality.

Far too often, people feel uneasy talking about sex. And I don’t mean sensationalized, pop-culture sex. There’s a lot of that talk happening. I’m referring to genuine, sincere discussions about sex that lead to healthful, mindful choices and meaningful connection in people’s lives.

Some people might avoid sex conversations altogether, while others might make jokes to mask their discomfort. I’m all for finding the playful, humorous sides of sex, but I recognize that laughter can sometimes be an indicator of embarrassment or shame.

Many of us – not just professional sex educators and therapists – have the unique desire, knowledge, and skills to become what I call “beacons of permission” in the world. By “permission” I mean permission to have honest, educational, and even healing conversations about sex. Many people who describe themselves as “sex positive” or “sex geeky” fall under this category.

Does the following sound familiar? Many of the sex-positive folks I know describe themselves as always being “that friend” to whom others could turn when they had sexual questions. That sort of unofficial peer education is a manifestation of that permission-giving.

When I tell new acquaintances what I do for a living, I often become the sounding board for sex and relationship questions and (occasionally) whispered confessions. Nearly all of the sex educators I know describe having similar experiences.

This is what being a beacon of permission looks like: by communicating that you are a safe person with whom to talk about sex, you create spaces wherein people can explore ideas that have been marinating for days or decades.

Not all conversations about sex are equal. Most people notice that sex occupies a significant percentage of the airwaves. From “sexting” moral panic, to the recent sexual exploits of a B-list reality TV star, the media is full of sex, but it’s very rarely explored in a way that leads to better understanding of sexuality.

I suspect that some people may become so over-saturated with the sex alarmism and titillation that permeates the media that they may find it more difficult to hear messages that are actually educational, useful, or health-promoting.

Not all conversations have to be serious. I think it can be deeply cathartic to laugh about sex (see “Burritos and Ball Jokes”). But I think that bringing greater intention to the conversation – intentions like “shedding light on a taboo topic” or “reducing sex-negativity” – can go a long way in shaping our understanding of what it means to talk about sex.

So when an audience member at a panel I was on asked, “What can we as sex geeks do to make the world a more sex-positive place?” I lit up. I responded by describing this concept of being a beacon of permission and intentionally fostering meaningful dialogue.

I suspect that people are hungry for this kind of meaning, so when a safe-space creating, sex-positive person enters their lives, they’ll usually take the opportunity to engage. Whether you would consider yourself a “sex geek” or not, I encourage you to become a beacon of permission to others.

I argue that in order to reduce sex-negativity, the world needs to start by having more of these safe spaces. I’m grateful that it’s my job to help facilitate them.

Unsure what size

kate_mccombsKATE MCCOMBS is a NYC-based sex educator, writer, and maker of puns. Ultimately, all of Kate’s work is about helping people feel more comfortable talking about sex. She believes that meaningful conversations + accurate information can help us create a healthier and more pleasure-filled world. Kate writes articles and teaches workshops about sexual health, pleasure, and communication.
Follow Kate on Twitter @katecom

Sex School: Condoms = Cancer? Uh, No.

Image from the CSPH Sunday Sex School Series

Image from the CSPH Sunday Sex School Series

In November, a new condom brand called Sustain began promoting a campaign that, at first glance, implies they’d like you to believe some condoms may cause cancer. At the heart of this is a petition demanding the FDA to “Get Carcinogens Out of Condoms.” What isn’t readily apparent is that there is no scientific evidence indicating you could ever get cancer from any condom. Ever.

As we discussed last week, the claim that condoms are laden with harmful carcinogens is unfounded. Sustain’s promotion of these myths is irresponsible and quite dangerous. Insinuating that the majority of mainstream condoms could cause cancer anchors yet another obstacle in the decades-long struggle to improve condom use and know-how.

Now the sex education community is speaking out against Sustain condoms.  The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health (the CSPH) is kicking off their new Sunday Sex School by featuring a three part series that exposes Sustain’s confusing and misinformed messages. Here is the second part of that series.

This series was written by Erin Basler-Francis of the CSPH. Read the originals here: Part I and Part II.

BY THE CSPH | theCSPH.org

Lesson II.

The previous lesson (scroll to the end of this article) discussed the basics of nitrosamine and its presence in condoms, as well as a short explanation of the report released by The Reproductive Health Technologies Project and the Center for Environmental health. In this lesson we will look a little deeper at the methodology of the report and the response around the Sexuality Education community.

Making a Good Thing Even Better…with facts!

When the RTHP and CEH released their white paper, it included the following chart:

From: http://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/MakingAGoodThingEvenBetter.pdf

From: http://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/MakingAGoodThingEvenBetter.pdf

 

In looking at this list, one has to take into account a few things:

  1. The condoms tested were acquired in December 2013, and with an average shelf life of ~4 years, this means some of the condoms tested could have been manufactured in 2009.
  2. The research was funded by a company that provided prototypes of their condoms for analysis.
  3. Not all of the condoms tested are represented. PPFA’s Proper Attire condoms were kept out of the chart because, “[PPFA] secured a commitment from its manufacturer in May 2014 to phase out nitrosamine levels to below the limits of detection after 12 months…Therefore, we have omitted from the reported findings the results of our testing of what is now an outdated version of PROPER ATTIRE’s Basic condom.” However, Glyde and One are specifically mentioned in the chart footnote as having provided similar documentation, but were not removed.
  4. The condoms tested represent a wide swath of condoms types…including “novelty” condoms.

Comparing Apple-Flavored condoms to Oranges

It is disingenuous to compare novelty condoms—those that are flavored, colored, or include special lubes, to standard condoms. Especially when the funder’s website says this:

From: http://sustaincondoms.com/sustainability-responsibility/free-of-chemicals/

From: http://sustaincondoms.com/sustainability-responsibility/free-of-chemicals/

 

Sure, test all the condoms! If people want to know that they might be putting into their bodies, let them know. But don’t take one off specialty condoms and put them in a chart with plain “vanilla” condoms and combine that with alarmist, unsupported claims that said products are going to give someone penis cancer. When I’m looking for safer sex supplies, my first thought isn’t glow in the dark or blueberry—even if it may make a partners genitals smell like pie. These just aren’t the first choice.

The Condom Market

Speaking of cherry-picking the condom selection in the study, that list has a lot of the major offenders when it comes to using sexist marketing. According to Meika Hollender, co-founder of Sustain,

We didn’t want the packaging to scream neon-flavored sex—we wanted something that would appeal to the consumer. If you look in a drugstore condom aisle today, you will see that none of the products are targeted to women. We understand that women aren’t going to buy our condoms just because we’ve designed a nicer wrapper, but we think it will at least help.

We want women to feel as comfortable carrying a condom in their purse as they do their lipstick, credit card and cell phone (Brandchannel,com, Dec. 02, 2014).

condom-brandsIf one were to look at the condoms packaging and take into account that a number of brands singled out are newer entries to the condom market, one could draw the conclusion that this is a latex turf war. ONE, Sir Richard’s, and Billy Boy are newer distributors that have fun, eye-catching packaging. Sir Richard’s and ONE in particular pay a lot of attention to the exterior design, making the packaging seem at home in a cabinet next to the Method hand soap. Glyde, the oldest, most established of the bunch, holds the distinction of being the vegan condom until Sustain hit shelves in January 2014.

The Condom-Cancer link is a Red Herring

Shortly before the RHTP and CEH released their white paper on 18 SEP 2014, Sustain sent out this tweet:

sustain condoms on Twitter   @LaurenBrim thank you for making this incredible and important video!! https   t.co Bzu1XvfHHH #dowhatsnatural

In the video, titled Are Condoms Killing You, Lauren Brim, a holistic sexuality coach, makes the assertion that “condoms could also be hurting you” by releasing “nitrosamines and these are carcinogens. These are toxic. These cause cancer.” After the intro, complete with dramatic music, Brim goes on to explain the fantastic benefits of Sustain, citing their commitment to fair-trade, ethical manufacturing practices in the same breath as their lack of carcinogens that “can lead to ovarian cancer.” Jeffery Hollender, in a phone interview, stated that Lauren Brim is not affiliated with the company, but had been in contact with Sustain through their regular customer service channels prior to her video.

Although Brim is not linked to Sustain, the prevalence of media outlets stating that condoms cause cancer is. Well over half of the interviews given by the Hollenders regarding Sustain after the report and video contained references to toxic chemicals, carcinogens, and nitrosamine. Many of those articles specifically point out the link to reproductive cancers.

 

From: http://portlandtribune.com/sl/240190-105078-getting-on-top-of-sustainable-sex-

From: http://portlandtribune.com/sl/240190-105078-getting-on-top-of-sustainable-sex-

 

However, the studies—including the white paper funded by Sustain, point out that there is no causal link between reproductive cancers and nitrosamines. And even if there were, a condom contains fewer nitrosamines than a serving of French fries.

From: http://www.dw.de/german-study-says-condoms-contain-cancer-causing-chemical/a-1220847

From: http://www.dw.de/german-study-says-condoms-contain-cancer-causing-chemical/a-1220847

From: http://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/MakingAGoodThingEvenBetter.pdf

From: http://www.rhtp.org/fertility/vallombrosa/documents/MakingAGoodThingEvenBetter.pdf

Banding Together To Challenge Misinformation

Initially, Salon seemed to be the only outlet covering the ludicrousness of the assertion that condoms can kill you. In the article, Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, in a statement from Trojan, said,

Any public statement calling into question the safety of latex condoms, given the mountain of evidence supporting their safe and effective use, simply is not credible. Consumers should continue using condoms to prevent unintended pregnancies, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections — and they should remain confident that condoms are safe and effective.

Many involved, including Jeffery Hollender, noted the relative quiet after the tweet heard around the industry. Melissa White, sexuality educator and CEO of Lucky Bloke Condoms, along with others in the sexuality education, reproductive health, and condom industry attributed this silence to the hope that, after being admonished by the Patron Saint of Masturbation Advocacy, Sustain would get the hint and lay off the scare tactics. In her piece on RH Reality Check, White says,

With selling condoms comes an undeniable level of responsibility. My work, like many others’, is leading people to a better relationship with condoms, thereby increasing consistent and correct use. Misleading marketing, scare tactics, and irresponsible messaging is doing a disservice to all of us, especially to the millions of people who depend on condoms to protect their health.

(Read the response from RHTP here.)

After the release of the report, ONE Condom’s parent company, Global Protection, released a statement that ended, “We hope that this new RHTP report is not sensationalized in a way that discourages people from using condoms, thereby exposing them to very real, well known risks.

Glyde America responded to the misinformation with the following:

While we applaud Sustain’s enthusiasm for marketing condoms to economically advantaged female millennials, we have repeatedly voiced our concerns about the tactics used which serve to undermine over thirty years of public health efforts promoting condom use within the teen and LGBT communities.

Condoms are highly regulated medical devices. There is no collective conspiracy by the ISO, World Health Organization, FDA, rubber latex suppliers and condom manufacturers to deliver substandard or in any way unsafe condoms to consumers. To the contrary, for decades manufacturers have continually refined materials and processes including reducing if not eliminating nitrosamines. To formulate a non-existent issue, while patently ignoring all scientific data proving condom safety, is not only misleading, it is irresponsible.

For what it is worth, the Sustain Camp seems to have stopped publicly beating the“condoms cause cancer” drum. Wednesday, in a Reddit Ask Me Anything post, Jeffery Hollender did not mention nitrosamines, toxicity, or cancer—although there were questions asked that would have fit that answer and removed a pretty/awful inforgraphicwas pulled from the Sustain website shortly after Melissa White’s article went live.

—————-

Lesson I.

Part of the mission of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health is to challenge misinformation. Lately in the sexual and reproductive health field, there has been a growing outcry against the recent use of nitrosamine (a probable carcinogen) levels in condoms as a marketing tactic. Sustain Condoms and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are heavily pushing a petition for regulation of nitrosamine by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Between the petition, a series of interviews by the founders of Sustain, and a study titled “Making a Good Thing Even Better: Removing NITROSAMINES from CONDOMS,” [emphasis theirs] many in the field are concerned that the message being received by the public is, “Condoms cause cancer.”

Where Did This Information Come From?

In September 2014, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project in collaboration with the Center for Environmental Health. In the study, they report the levels of nitrosamine present in 24 different types of condoms, spread across several brands. The report states that selection criteria included units sold, in-store availability, and input from issue and industry experts.

It is important to note at this point that there is one condom that was put into the study in its prototypical form from Sustain Condoms, a new entry to the field of prophylactics founded by Jeffery Hollander (of Seventh Generation products) and his daughter, Meika. As we find out in the acknowledgement section of the study:

www.rhtp_.org-fertility-vallombrosa-documents-MakingAGoodThingEvenBetter.pdfThe report does not disclose which other issue and industry experts it received input from.

What Are Nitrosamines?

Nitrosamines, specifically in latex, are a byproduct of chemical processes used to make latex more elastic. Nitrosamines can also form when nitrates turn to nitrites and meet up with amines during the digestive process.

Nitrosamines are found in a lot of items: rubber products (including condoms, baby pacifiers, and latex gloves), meats, cheese, drinking water, beer, dehydrated dairy products, grains, eggs, tobacco smoke…well, it’s in a lot of things we encounter regularly[1]. Further, the body can take nitrates from things like broccoli (which is naturally high in both nitrates and nitrites) and turn it into nitrosamine.

Nitrosamines, specifically the subcompounds of NDEA (N-nitrosodiethylamine), NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine), and NDBA (N-nitrosodibutylamine), are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as a probable human carcinogen and by the European Union as presumed to have carcinogenic potential for humans; largely based on animal evidence.

What Do Condoms Have To Do With Hamsters?

Syrian Hamster

Image from the CSPH

In the conversation around Nitrosamine levels in condoms, one study is cited the most. The first, a 2001 study where nitrosamine as directly applied to the skin and mucosal tissue (e.g. the walls of the nose and vagina) of Syrian Hamsters. The hamsters developed tumors in the liver and digestive track after the application of 1 gram of nitrosamine. For reference the estimated lifetime absorption of nitrosamine from condoms is .9 micrograms (ug)—also known as .0000009 grams. And people are a lot bigger than hamsters.

As mentioned above, there are nitrosamines everywhere. The average person consumes ~500ug of nitrosamine from food alone every day. More importantly, there is neither a causal or correlative link between reproductive cancers and nitrosamine, a point which is stated clearly in all of the reports, even the one funded by Sustain.

The bottom line: Condoms will not give you cancer.

But they will help protect you from unintended pregnancy and STIs. So wrap up and keep an eye out for Lesson 2.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2786176/table/T2/

csphThe CENTER for SEXUAL PLEASURE and HEALTH (The CSPH) is designed to provide adults with a safe, physical space to learn about sexual pleasure, health, and advocacy issues. Led by highly respected founder and director, Megan Andelloux, The CSPH is a sexuality training and education organization that works to reduce sexual shame, fight misinformation, & advance the sexuality field.

Setting The Record Straight | #condomtruth

condom_truth-1024x406

Last month, a new condom brand called Sustain began promoting a self-funded study insinuating, at first glance, that the majority of mainstream condoms are laden with carcinogens. Next a petition surfaced, relying on this flawed study and sponsored by  “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,” calling the FDA to “Get Carcinogens Out of Condoms.”

Fueled with dangerous sound-bites, Sustain launched a social media offensive:

tweet

And another from Sustain’s founder:

tweet2

These messages are undoubtedly alarming. The reality is, however, that there is no scientific evidence linking condoms to cancer—and to claim otherwise has the potential to unravel decades of committed work focused on saving lives through encouraging condom use and education.

Thus, those of us who support and advocate for sexual wellness and reproductive health need to take notice and action, especially as these claims are unsubstantiated by medical science.

Melissa White, CEO of Lucky Bloke, investigated the issue and found that the study is burdened with faulty methodology and numerous inaccuracies. Further, it was paid for (in part) by founders of Sustain.

Read the full article, Cigarettes Cause Cancer, Condoms Don’t at RH Reality Check.

As health advocates, educators, and consumers it is critical that we take careful note and act on this situation before Sustain unravels years of positive condom advancement through their alarming marketing tactics.

How can you get involved? Join the #condomtruth conversation!

SHARE THE ARTICLE:

http://rhrc.us/12rJOws

TWEET:

Copy/paste tweets or make your own  |  hashtags: #condomtruth #bettercondoms

–  Cigarettes Cause Cancer. Condoms Don’t. http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
–  Faulty studies & scare tactics risk lives http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
–  Misleading marketing hurts public health http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
–  Trust #science, not misleading marketing http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
–  Fight #condom stigmas, don’t create them http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
–  Unethical marketing is more dangerous than #nitrosamines  http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth
–  Faulty #condom studies have real consequences http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms

TWEET:

@SustainCondoms to Stop their Misleading & Dangerous Marketing

@JeffHollender (Sustain’s founder) 
with the campaign hashtag: #condomtruth
@missmeiks (Sustain’s co-founder) 
with the campaign hashtag: #condomtruth

ADDITIONAL READING:

SALON  Are condoms killing you? This new contraceptive company wants you to think so
JoEllen Notte  Condoms Cancer Scare Tactics: How One Company is Using Fear to Sell
Condom Monologues  There Is No Cancer In #CondomTruth
Sexational  How Not to Respond to Criticism, Featuring Sustain Condoms
The CSPH  Condoms, Nitrosamine & Cancer- Oh My!

ABOUT TRANSPARENCY

As Melissa was investigating the RH Reality Check article, she reached out to both Sustain’s founder Jeffrey Hollender and Jessica Arons of the Reproductive Health Technology Project (RHTP), the organization that conducted the study.  Jessica Arons did initially write back directing Melissa back to the RHTP study, as well as cutting and pasting paragraphs from the study. Unfortunately, this did not actually address Melissa’s concerns or questions.

You can read Jessica’s response to Melissa’s RH Reality article: “Cigarettes Cause Cancer. Condoms Don’t”, here.  Beneath that, you will see that Melissal replied to Jessica’s rebuttal in the comment section.   Anyone that has read Melissa’s article, “Cigarettes Cause Cancer; Condoms Don’t,” will recognize that nowhere does Melissa state that RHTP asserts that condoms cause cancer.

In her response, Melissa wanting to redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand stated:

As a sexual health and condom advocate, I appreciate that Jessica Arons’ response helps to clarify the myth that “condoms cause cancer” — hopefully discouraging future campaigns from exploiting the RHTP report to further their own agenda. To make this conversation about RHTP’s report, diminishes the actual issue. This is not about RHTP — it is about the fact that a report that has not been scientifically peer-reviewed in the academic community is being misused by the company (Sustain) that funded it.

Prior to finalizing her article, Melissa wrote the comprehensive list of questions (noted below) which she sent to both Jeffrey and Jessica. The importance of these questions is not to attack the study. As a condom advocate and expert, Melissa wanted clarification on the study’s methodology which she has found to have many flaws, inconsistencies and shortcomings.

Melissa received a flat refusal from Sustain’s founder, stating that he did not see why he “should take the time to respond to these questions.” Jessica Arons never replied.

As Melissa has written, she is  “of course — very open to continuing this conversation to make certain that accurate information prevails and that campaigns around condoms are free of stigma, scare tactics and shame.

Here are the questions Melissa sent to Jeffrey and Jessica for clarification on the study, the motivations behind the study, and any consideration made to the impact this type of campaign might have on condom users:

RHTP STUDY

-Names of experts, as cited, who chose the condoms for testing
-What actual criteria did they use to choose the condoms tested?
-Why were obscure condom styles chosen over best-sellers of the brands? or
-Excepting Trojan, why were the most ubiquitous condom styles excluded from study?
-Sources from which the tested condoms were obtained and by whom
-What was the documented protocol for handling and storage of the condoms prior to testing?
-Specific documentation for your study and testing methodology
-Names of individuals involved in implementing the study
-All source of financing for the study and the amounts donated
-Copies of the actual test reports for each brand
-Name/contact information at the testing facility, permission to discuss the study
-ATSM standards applied
-Method of testing employed (as there is more than one method for testing nitrosamine levels)
-Why was that specific method chosen?
-What is the threshold (as per recommended by the ISO and WHO) before nitrosamine levels in condoms is considered high?
-Are you aware of any companies that have taken steps to eliminate nitrosamines prior to the publication of the study, and if so, which companies?
-Several brands have shared proof that they came to RHTP, prior to your releasing the results of your study, with 3rd party testing results (actually the same facility you apparently used) that proved their condoms had extremely low (if not undetectable) levels of nitrosamines. Why did you disregard this information?
-How do you account for the complete lack of even one medical study demonstrating cause or correlation of condoms with reproductive cancers? Is this important?

SUSTAIN

-Does Karex manufacture Sustain, if not who does?
-Is the raw rubber shipped directly to the factory, and processed on site at the facility, or is it a prevulcanized formula?
-Does your manufacturer employ unique or customized techniques (including rubber, chemicals, processes) for producing all condoms they manufacture, or are these techniques only used for Sustain products?
-Leaching and washing is common practice in condom manufacturing. What new techniques have been developed specifically for the production of Sustain?
-How often are Sustain condoms tested for nitrosamines? Is it for each production run and on multiple batches?
-Which testing method is employed for Sustain condom nitrosamine levels?
-Why do you claim your condoms are GMO free, when no condoms have GMOs?
-Are you concerned this might worry the public unnecessarily?

SHARING KNOWLEDGE TO REVOLUTIONIZE THE INDUSTRY

-I read your statement that you worked with a former Durex employee in creating a method for eliminating nitrosamines. Would you please elaborate on your work in this area?
-Does Sustain intend to disclose these new innovative methods to other manufacturers to create change in the industry? Is there a white paper for the new method available?

CAMPAIGN TO INFORM PUBLIC

-How did Sustain determine the best method and communications plan for disclosing their concerns about nitrosamines in condoms?
-How do you account for the complete lack of even one medical study demonstrating cause or correlation of condoms with cervical and “penile” cancers? Is this important?
-Did Sustain consult with experienced industry peers or public health professionals to determine the safest, most responsible and effective method for disclosure to teens and other at-risk consumers?
-What steps have you put in place so that consumers do not simply walk away with the top-line message and the dangerous impression that condoms are unsafe?
-Are you concerned that your recent statements are irresponsible or might be misleading to the public, for example:

Eight out of 10 brands on the market contain a potential carcinogen called nitrosamines,” she says. “When you talk to women, they’re so conscious of what they’re putting in their body and on their body, from cosmetics to food, they’re like ‘Oh my God, that is certainly not anything I want in my body.’”

Jeffrey Hollender says nitrosamines are found in rubber products, and many foods and tobacco. “They’re not an additive; they’re a chemical reaction, a byproduct. Nitrosamines are known to cause cervical cancer ...”

And penile cancer,” his daughter chips in.

Nowhere do either of you mention that you feel using condoms is safer or more important than not. So what is the takeaway for the public consumer from this interview?

Melissa concluded her email, “From my research, at this point, the RHTP study appears to have been completed for the purpose of discrediting competing condom brands and pushing forward the agenda of Sustain both with consumers and with public health agencies.

For purportedly wishing to collaborate with condom brands and facilitate working together for change…surprisingly, no documentation has been forthcoming to support any of the assertions of the study. Instead brands have been stonewalled and no transparency has been offered.

At every press opportunity your message is on point: Condom have carcinogens, but not ours… I would like to afford you the opportunity to respond to my concerns. I welcome and look forward to your reply.

THESE QUESTIONS DESERVE ANSWERS

Consumers absolutely have the right to know what is in their products. Consumers also have the right to demand honesty. Misleading marketing, scare tactics, and irresponsible messaging is a disservice to all of us, especially to the millions of people who depend on condoms to protect their health.

As, transparency is what Sustain continues to uphold as their core business ethic, we sincerely hope Sustain will take this opportunity to replace their words with actions.  We would much rather being working with Sustain to expand condom knowledge, education and access.

Yet we cannot do so until the “condoms cause cancer” messaging Sustain has used as a marketing tactic stops. We are looking forward to continuing the conversation to make certain that accurate information prevails and that campaigns around condoms are free of stigma, scare tactics and shame.

Standing Together In Solidarity At The Sex Ed Conference

Photo credit: Emmanuel Vivier

Photo credit: Emmanuel Vivier

BY MILLA IMPOLA | @MillaImpola

During the Awards Ceremony at the National Sex Ed Conference on December 5, The Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) read a powerful statement about racial justice in sexuality education.

As more and more people joined on stage to hold hands, it was a beautiful moment of hope and solidarity in the midst of all the injustice that is going on in this country.

After the event, conference members could sign the statement that was printed along the wall.

Image from The Women Of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) Facebook Page

Image from The Women Of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) Facebook Page

Solidarity Statement on Racial Justice in Sexuality Education

Because we are in the field of Sexuality Education, a profession skilled at creating space for dialogue, acknowledging difficult topics, and facilitating change;

Because we stand on the shoulders of many before us, some who have received recognition and others who have not;

Because we live in a country founded on systems of oppression, institutionalized racism, and violence;

Because we see police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration as a gross misuse of power which terrorizes individuals, families, and communities;

Because we know the system is not broke, it is doing exactly as it intended;

Because of all of this, and so much more, we also know—-

Because we are part of the problem, we are also part of the solution;

Because we as sexuality educators teach about love, equity, justice, relationships, communication, and safety;

Because we believe in living our lives fully, with intention, agency, and freedom form fear;

Because we hold power, as individuals and as organizations;

Because we can, and we must;

As a multicultural group, we commit to addressing and working to undo racism on personal, professional and institutional levels within the field of sexuality education and in our diverse roles within it, in solidarity with other movements towards racial justice;

Today we commit to the formation of plans of action towards racial justice in sexuality education.

I’m honored to have been part of this moment, and I stand with WOCSHN in this statement.

Together we can all create lasting change.


WOCSHN member Cindy Lee, of the National Sex Ed Conference Planning Committee reads the Solidarity Statement on Racial Justice in Sexuality Education.

Milla Impola is a reproductive justice advocate working to create positive conversations about sexual health in the media. She lives in New York City. Twitter: @MillaImpola