Response to Awful Wheelchair ‘Joke’: An Open Letter to Ken Jennings

wheel chairKen Jennings may have won a lot of fans from his record-breaking fame on “Jeopardy”, but his tweet posted in September has lost him a lot of followers and respect. And for good reason. One of the most powerful responses to Jennings’ wheelchair “joke” is this open letter written by sex education advocate, Robin Mandell. She argues that to deny the sexuality of people living with disability is yet another way to deny their humanity. Her letter is packed full of resources that help debunk pervasive myths and guide people to learn more about sex and disability from the very people who experience disability. Everyone should read through her recommendations to help raise awareness.

Here are some power punches:

  • Know about The Microaggression Project and how you can end the perpetuation of “othering”.
  • People living with disability lead fulfilling, healthy sex lives. Sex with someone who has a disability can be the best sex you could be having.
  • A wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s physical capabilities.
  • There is a wealth of sexy, positive representations of people living with disabilities. Check out the resources below.

This post was originally published at Robin’s Toy Nest. Read the full letter here.

BY ROBIN MANDELL | ReadySexyAble.com

Dear Ken,

So, on Monday you tweeted:

Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.

What’s most sad about this is that Twitter tells me (as of the last time I looked) it was “favorited” three-hundred eighty-seven times.

What I really want to know is: Why? Why would you write such a thing.

Are you feeling sexually insecure?

Did you think you were being clever? (Hint: You weren’t. If you need supporting research to back that up, here you go).

Are you skittish around wheelchairs? Sometimes people lash out when they’re feeling insecure. Many people in our culture have almost a “primal fear of becoming disabled”, so, don’t be ashamed if you’re afraid; lots of people are.

Yes, what you did was lashing out. No, you didn’t target anyone specifically. You didn’t physically attack anyone, or call them names, or undertake persistent verbal harassment.

What you did was much more on the level of a microaggression. Only, it’s on the Internet. The Internet has this habit of making things grow, taking away the micro and increasing the aggression. Plus, when you’re on a popular TV show for six months, have written lots of books, and are generally being a public figure, people kind of tend to believe the things you say. You wouldn’t want to steer them wrong, would you? (Yes, I might just be wagging my finger at you.)

People with disabilities–these are real people you’re talking about. I know: I am one of them. I’m visibly disabled, though not a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are frequently seen as childlike, incapable, often even subhuman. Denying our sexuality is just one more way to deny our humanity, and that’s exactly what you’ve done. You’re talking about people in wheelchairs, but I’m left wondering: Where does it stop? Do hot blind people make you sad? How about hot people using crutches or a walker? What about hot people who have more than one disability? How does it work if a person’s disability is invisible? If they’re hot, and you only find out about the disability later, is that sad too?

I spend a lot of time talking and educating about people with disabilities and our sexualities.

So, I’m here to tell you: Your statement about people in wheelchairs is just factually incorrect. So yes, you, the fact-maven, are steering people wrong.

Business Insider called your tweet insensitive. I think it goes way beyond that. When talking about negative comments about disability and disabled people, words like sensitivity, compassion, and caring get thrown around a lot. I’d like to see more people talking about respect and knowledge.

It’s not primarily sensitivity you lack here—frankly, I don’t care all that much about your moral compass–(though your decency does leave something to be desired) but plain old-fashioned know-how. Sorry if that’s painful to read, but that’s just how it is. Okay, I’ll stop telling you you’re wrong—at least for a few paragraphs.

Or, maybe the problem here is that you can’t imagine how someone who uses a wheelchair could possibly have sex? So little imagination, Ken!

There’s really not a limit on what sex is, or how to do sex, for anyone.

And, there’s no limit on what sex and sexuality can be for people with disabilities [watch this film documentary, The Last Taboo (2013)]. Please pay particular attention to the first three myths, and the facts that go along with them.

Also, a person’s being in a wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you much about their physical abilities. It doesn’t tell you how they can move their bodies, which parts of their bodies they can feel, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what they like to do in bed. Some people who use wheelchairs are able to walk short distances, or are able to use their legs if they’re not standing up. It’s not always the case that people either walk or not-walk. And seriously, is being able to walk necessary for sex?

I’m not sure if you knew this, Ken, but people with a whole range of disabilities date and some choose to get married.

And know, these generally are not sexless relationships, as people often assume they must be. At least, couples in which one or both partners are disabled are no more or less likely to have sex, or have sexual issues, than couples in which both partners are nondisabled.

Just because you find wheelchairs to be impairments to people’s sexiness, doesn’t mean that other people do. I’ve heard that this sexy calendar of people with disabilities is “hot as hell.”(I’m blind, so can’t confirm that personally).

Plus, some people find other people’s wheels hot!

Sex with someone who has a disability can even be the best sex you could be having.

Or, maybe you’d like to try something a little more daring? Leroy Moore has reclaimed drooling, something seen as infantile and gross, something Leroy personally was encouraged to hide and feel ashamed about, as something sexy and intimate….

To read the full letter visit Robin’s Toy Nest.

Update: To date, Jennings has not deleted or apologized for his tweet. 

ROBIN MANDELL is a healthy sexuality and disability rights advocate based in the Washington D.C. area. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from Queen’s University in Canada and a Professional Writing Certificate from Washington State University. Over the years, Robin has amassed extensive experience working with people at vulnerable times of their lives, both as a crisis hotline worker and a sexuality and relationships education advocate with Scarleteen. She’s discovered that disability issues receive significantly less attention in academia and social justice movements than they’re due. She has developed a passion for starting dialogues on sex, disability and accessibility, and has come to the realization that, as much as she just wants to be like everybody else, she can use her visible reality as a blind woman to start these dialogues.Robin blogs on disabilities, sexualities, and the connections between them at ReadySexyAble.com and has published articles on various sexuality and sexual health topics at Scarleteen and Fearless press.

Disabled People Need Sexual Health Care Too

Image by Maria Iliou. From the Disabled Artist Guild.

Image by Maria Iliou. From the Disabled Artist Guild.

BY ROBIN MANDELL | ReadySexyAble.com

Most safer sex guides take it for granted that all of us are going to have the manual dexterity (ability to move our hands) to unwrap and use a condom, that getting STI testing is as easy as booking (and keeping) an appointment at a free or low-cost sexual health clinic, and that communicating with a partner about safer sex is as easy as having a few face-to-face conversations about it. For those of us who have any sort of physical, cognitive, or psychological disability, these and other “basic” safer sex strategies may not be so easy.

It doesn’t help that disabled people are assumed to be nonsexual, or to have more important things to worry about than the “luxury” of sexual feelings or a sexual relationship, or any number of other myths about sex and disability all of which miss the mark in one way or another.

People with disabilities who are sexually active, or planning to be sexually active, need to practice safer sex, and get regular sexual healthcare, just like anyone else.

A Quick Overview of Safer Sex

If you’re disabled, know that you have the right to whatever expression of your sexuality you want to have, and you have the right to be safe when expressing your sexual self, both alone and with partners.

Safer sex is about taking care of your sexual health, and protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Preventing unwanted pregnancy is known as birth control, not safer sex, but it’s still part of your sexual healthcare if pregnancy is something that can happen to you or someone you’re sexually involved with.

Safer sex includes using barriers (such as condoms or dental dams) for genital contact with a partner, and getting regular sexual healthcare, including STI testing.

Let’s look at a few considerations around safer sex specific to being someone who has any kind of disability. You can get more safer sex info by reading through the other articles on this site.

Sexual Health Care

Most sexual health services aren’t set up to meet the needs of disabled people. In the U.S., many providers don’t get training in working with patients who have disabilities. Coupled with assumptions about disability and sex, this can lead to you not getting the sexual healthcare you need. That might be a healthcare provider who doesn’t ask you about sex, or asks in such a way that assumes you’re not having it.

Or, it means examination tables that don’t accommodate people whose bodies don’t move in the ways expected for traditional exams. This includes staff unable, unwilling, or untrained to assist with positioning your body on the table.

Or, it means reams of forms to fill out, and informational pamphlets and brochures that are only available in print.

Even one step into a building- or doorways that are too narrow- can keep you from seeing a healthcare provider of your choosing.

Healthcare providers aren’t immune to the myths about disabled people and sex, which can result in them assuming their disabled patients aren’t having sex and consequently not asking questions about sexual health, evaluating someone’s need for birth control or STI testing, or even conducting routine genital exams.

Sometimes healthcare providers can fall into the trap of thinking that any problem a patient presents with is related to their disability; or, it may be assumed that what would be a problem for some people (such as fertility problems or the need for frequent STI testing)) will not be a priority or even a problem for disabled people.

Steps you can take to get the sexual healthcare you need if you have a disability:

  • Look for a sex-positive healthcare provider.
  • Find a provider who can meet your disability needs. Members of the Gimp Girl community have put together this list of accessible gynecologists. The list is short, but can give you an idea of what sorts of accommodations you can ask for, and expect, from any private medical practice or clinic.
  • Be prepared to ask for the sexual healthcare you need. Sadly, preparing yourself might also include being ready to fend off judgment, condescension or surprise.If your provider doesn’t bring up sex, you can. You can ask for STI testing, or to discuss birth control options.
  • Be sure when you’re discussing birth control, or if you are being treated for an STI, that the treatment won’t interfere with any medication you take and that any possible side effects won’t trigger physical or psychological symptoms of your disability.

Some assumptions you might encounter:

  • “Oh, I guess we don’t have to talk about birth control, do we?” Quickly followed by the next question in the provider’s list.

Possible response: “Yes, actually, I do need to talk about that. I’ve been wondering what method would be easiest to use considering the problems I have with my hands.”

  • “Is there someone who can help you with your birth control pills?”

Possible Response: “No, I want to keep that private. Maybe I need a different kind that will be easier for me to use on my own.”

  • “I know it’s hard for us to do a pelvic exam on you. Let’s skip it this year.”

Possible Response: “I know it’s hard to examine me, but with what I told you about my sexual history, is a pelvic exam advisable medically? I don’t want to skip any steps I need for my health.”

Sometimes, if the provider assumes the answer to a question, like that you don’t need to have birth control, or of course you’re not sexually active so there’s no need to talk about that and they can move right along with the questions, their words are accompanied by nervous laughter. You might want to drop through a hole in the floor when hearing that, but just because they’re nervous doesn’t mean you have to be. As disabled people, we’re often encouraged to help people feel less nervous around us. This is your healthcare provider, though; it’s their job to meet your healthcare needs and to deal with whatever feelings they have around doing that on their own time. So, just take a deep breath and set them straight about what you need from them.

Once you’ve found a provider you’re able to work with, talk with them to make sure you’re getting the best care you can. The following resources might help you and them. (Unfortunately, most of the writing and research on this topic has been geared towards patients who have what medical people have defined as female genitals. If you don’t have a vagina/vulva, your healthcare needs will be different but your provider can still work with you to find creative solutions to disability-related problems that might come up during examinations.)

Table Manners and Beyond: The Gynecological Exam for Women with Developmental Disabilities and Other Functional Limitation, and Reproductive Health Care Experiences of Women With Physical Disabilities: A Qualitative Study are both resources you and your provider can read through together to help problem-solve any accessibility challenges you’re having with your healthcare.

Accessing Safer Sex Supplies

Transportation problems, inaccessible buildings, worries about being judged, or lack of trusted help can keep you from getting safer sex supplies. Perhaps you’re in a wheelchair and need to ask a store employee to reach your preferred pack of condoms. Or maybe you have a visual impairment and need to ask for help reading the wide variety of lube bottles. Being in these situations may make you feel vulnerable to being asked intrusive questions or judgmental comments. Considering that people ask visibly disabled strangers how they have sex, these fears aren’t unfounded. How can you get supplies while maintaining self-respect and privacy?

Many resource centres on college campuses and sexual or reproductive health clinics provide free condoms. If you get your healthcare needs taken care of at a private practice, and you have a good rapport with your provider, consider asking them if they can obtain condoms, gloves, or other safer sex supplies for you.

You also might consider asking a trusted friend to pick supplies up for you- they can find somewhere that offers them for free so no one has to pay -and handing them over when you see each other.

Many reputable suppliers also sell safer sex supplies online at decent prices and provide clear , detailed information on what you’re buying.

Communication

Do you have the words to talk about sex, and about your body? A lot of us, whether we’re disabled or not, don’t grow up learning the right words for our body parts, or clearly understanding how our bodies work.

When you’re talking to someone you are (or want to be) having sex with, making sure you can communicate accurately and clearly is important. You can’t consent to take part in a sexual activity if you can’t understand your partner, or if they can’t understand you. It’s hard to agree on safer sex practices if, say, one or both partners are unable to speak clearly, are hard of hearing or deaf, or has trouble paying attention to written or spoken words for more than a moment.

You and your partner might want to have a few ways you communicate with each other about sex, both when you’re discussing it and when you’re doing it.

Your communication toolbox can include talking or signing, gesturing, writing notes back and forth, or any other way you can both understand each other. If verbal communication is difficult, or doesn’t happen at all, you’ll want to agree ahead of time on how you’ll communicate things during sex like “I need more lube” or “let’s get the dental dam.”

If talking and writing are both difficult, you might try reading through safer sex information together, and using words or body language (such as nodding your head, shrugging, looking confused, and so on) to indicate when you’ve read something you want to start doing, or that you want to learn more about.

If you use any assistive or augmentative communication devices, you might find the following list of sexual vocabulary words and phrases useful. These can also help you when you’re communicating with a healthcare provider or caregiver.

A Word On Coercion

Disabled people are at an increased risk of experiencing sexual assault. Sometimes that abuse can take the form of sexual coercion, someone talking you into sex you don’t want to have, or attempting to convince you to ditch the safer sex practices you’ve made it clear you want to use. Some people with disabilities are told—sometimes by partners, sometimes by family or friends–that they should be grateful for any sexual attention they get even if it’s not precisely what they want or need.

I call BS on that!

If someone is trying to talk or force you into sex that isn’t safe for you in any way, and they’re trying to use your disability (or anything else) to convince you, that’s just not okay. A person’s disability is no excuse for abuse.

More Resources on Sex and Disability

The following are some sex-and-disability resources that you may find useful:

ROBIN MANDELL is a healthy sexuality and disability rights advocate based in the Washington D.C. area.
She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from Queen’s University in Canada and a Professional Writing Certificate from Washington State University. Over the years, Robin has amassed extensive experience working with people at vulnerable times of their lives, both as a crisis hotline worker and a sexuality and relationships education advocate with Scarleteen.  Robin has discovered over the years that disability issues receive significantly less attention in academia and social justice movements than they’re due. She has developed a passion for starting dialogues on sex, disability and accessibility, and has come to the realization that, as much as she just wants to be like everybody else, she can use her visible reality as a blind woman to start these dialogues. Robin blogs on disabilities, sexualities, and the connections between them at ReadySexyAble.com and has published articles on various sexuality and sexual health topics at Scarleteen and Fearless press.

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Senior Sex

"Harold and Maude". Image from The Atlantic.

“Harold and Maude”. Image from The Atlantic.

Our cultural values and notions around sex and sexual health are partially framed and reinforced by media representations that connote ageist and ableist messages. As stated by Melanie Davis, co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University, it is extremely rare to come across a narrative in which senior sex is portrayed as dignified and pleasurable. Instead, it is the norm for elderly bodies to be depicted with disgust, devoid of any legitimate sex drive. Such sexual activity is often the brunt of jokes.

Despite media representations, the truth is sex and sexuality do continue into older age and elders can have fulfilling sex lives.

In this excerpt from Davis’s commentary with The Atlantic, she offer practical narrative strategies that would better represent senior sex in a more realistic and positive fashion.

BY MELANIE DAVIS, PhD | MelanieDavisPhD.com

The re-release of cult-classic film Harold and Maude, 30 years after it was first seen by audiences, had reporter Maura Kelly wondering whether Hollywood has changed in its depiction of older adults and sex. The resultant story can be read here. I was quoted in the article about what movies give us and what I wish we’d see more of. For example:

“Enough with the constant references to Viagra!” says Davis, who’s also sick of all the jokes about adult diapers. She wishes filmmakers would show an older character massaging his partner’s arthritic hands, or a senior couple making love gingerly so as not to aggravate a sore knee or hip. “I would like to see more longing—more interest and desire, even if it goes unfulfilled,” she says. “I’d like to see grieving over loss of a partner—not only for the companionship, but for the sex. I’d like to see conversations about how sex isn’t the only thing that changes, but that intimacy does, and that how we feel about our bodies and what we expect them to do change. Performance may be less important for some people. Closeness may be more important.”

Our expectations of sexuality in our later years is framed not only by the people in our families and communities but also by what we see in the media. Perhaps if we were given more realistic portrayals of senior sex, people wouldn’t assume that good sex is only for younger people.

melanie_davisMELANIE DAVIS, PHD, consults with individuals and couples to help them build sexual knowledge, comfort, and pleasure through the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness. Through her firm Honest Exchange LLC, she provides professional development in sexuality. She’s a popular speaker on self-esteem and body image, and the sexual impact of cancer, menopause and aging. She’s an AASECT-Certified Sexuality Educator. On Twitter @DrMelanieDavis

10 Of The Best Things You Can Do For Your Sexual Self (At Any Age)!

screen-capture-12

When you stop to think about birth control, infections, relationships, feelings, logistics and everything else, sex and sexuality can seem overwhelmingly complicated. Scarleteen, the internet’s source for comprehensive, inclusive sexual education to the rescue with 10 things you can do for your sexual self!

This article is meant to help you remember the human element of sexuality, and keep the essentials in the forefront of your mind.

Here are main points for how you can best care for your sexual self: 

  • Get to know your body and what you like on your own – be your own first partner!
  • Learn to talk openly about sex.
  • Be honest with yourself and your partners.
  • Remember, drama isn’t love.
  • Use and trust your own best judgment.
  • Love your own body.
  • Own and respect your feelings— even when it’s not fun.
  • Don’t try to make your sexual identity your WHOLE identity.
  • Become sexually educated— know your stuff!
  • Enjoy yourself and your sexuality.

View the original article on Scarleteen.

BY HEATHER CORINNA | Scarleteen

10 thingsIf we look at our sexuality one way, it looks a million times simpler than it actually is. If we look at it another way, it appears a million times more complicated. While it’s important that we bear everything in mind we need to in terms of infection and disease, birth control, our relationships, our bodies and the whole works, now and then we need to remember the bare bones and the human element of the thing, and keep the essentials in the forefront of our minds.

Choose yourself as your first partner

We hear a whole lot about who should be our first partner. Most of the time, we’re told it should be someone we love and who loves us back, someone committed to us long-term, perhaps even someone we plan to spend the rest of our lives with. I agree completely, because you, all by yourself, have all of those qualities, more than any other person ever can.

No one is ever going to know your body like you are, and no one else is ever going to be able to GET to know your body well unless you do to begin with. Really claiming and recognizing yourself as your first and foremost sex partner is a powerful thing. It equips you with some tools for healthy sexuality and balanced relationships for the rest of your life: it can help you to best determine when it’s the right time for you to have solo sex (like when you’re just plain horny) and when it’s right to take a partner (like when you’re wanting deeper intimacy, or are able to account for another person’s feelings and desires). Getting to know your own body and sexual identity through self-evaluation, through masturbation, enables you to find out a good deal of what you like and dislike physically, to see and feel what your genitals and the rest of your body are like in a healthy state, to discover how your individual sexual response works, explore your orientation and gender identity, and to gauge your sexual expectations realistically.

All too often, young men and women — more often young women — may rush into sexual partnership simply because they think a partner can give them something on a sheerly physical sexual level that they can’t give themselves because they haven’t become their own first sex partner. And many times, that results in hurt feelings, overly high expectations, and careless treatment of sexual partners, especially when a person just isn’t ready for all that sexual partnership requires. All too often, “hormones” are said to be why a teen feels the drive to partner with someone else, but the truth is, your “hormones” and your physical body do NOT know the difference between your fingers and someone else’s. Your mind and your heart might, but your clitoris or penis do not. Spending dedicated time being your own lover first helps you be able to know the difference.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

When and if you’re sexually active with a partner, communication is typically the biggest hurdle in those relationships. If we feel awkward or uncomfortable — or unable — bringing up issues about birth control, safer sex, sexual boundaries, sexual satisfaction or dissatisfaction, things we need to be emotionally or physically safe, we not only greatly limit the mileage of those relationships, we put ourselves and our partners in positions which can be very detrimental to all of us. At best, being unable to communicate can greatly limit our pleasure, enjoyment or emotional well-being. At worst, they can get us deeply hurt emotionally or physically or hurt others, or be the root of an unwanted pregnancy, disease or infection transmission. Being able to talk openly about sex can’t just protect our hearts, minds and bodies, it can save our lives.

We can all learn to talk about sex, even in a culture where that is a major handicap. Start simple: talk to friends or family about sexual issues or questions. Learn to ask your doctor when you’ve got questions or concerns about sexuality or sexual anatomy, even if it feels embarrassing or a little funny at first. And well before you get sexually involved with a partner, start establishing meaningful dialogue about sex: about both of your expectations and wants, about your readiness levels, about birth control and safer sex practices, about how you’ll plan to deal with friends and family regarding your sexual relationship, about what relationship model you’d like to build, the works.

Live in the real world

Honesty, like most things, starts at home: in other words, with yourself. Sex can be a veritable minefield when it comes to game-playing, delusion, manipulation and control, even when no one intends any of those things. Being willing and able to be honest about your sexuality is your biggest asset when it comes to being happy, healthy and whole in this regard.

Be willing, for instance, to take a deep look at what you want and what you need and to make choices based on the real deal when it comes to those things. For instance, if you know that you’re not entirely sure about a sexual partner in terms of furthering your activity with them, don’t shove that feeling in the closet for fear of losing them if you don’t agree to what they want. If you know you’re questioning your sexual orientation, be clear on that with potential partners.

If you know you can’t be sexually active without lying to friends and family, consider putting a hold on things until you can be honest about that. If you aren’t as into someone else as you know they’re into you, let them know, don’t lead them on or take advantage. Don’t make promises you can’t keep: of eternal love (even if it feels that way), of monogamy, of sexual favors you aren’t sure you want to, or can, deliver.

Insist on honesty from your partners as well as from others involved, even tangentially, in your sexual life: friends, family, your doctor, and learn to accept that honesty, even when it’s not so easy. Being in an environment of honesty sometimes means that the people we’re involved with tell us what they really feel, rather than what they think we’d like to hear, which isn’t always comfortable, but which, both long and short term, is the best thing for everyone.

Break down your drama addictions

It’s easier than any of us would like to think to mistake high drama for love or passion, especially when we’re younger. Most of us are pretty restless in our teens: maybe school is just utterly boring, maybe we’ve had the same social circle for years, maybe our towns or cities don’t offer us much to do, maybe we’re just feeling ready to move on with our lives, but can’t because of our age. So, it’s not at all surprising that when a love affair enters our lives, we’re going to be pretty excited about it.

But it’s very clear that a lot of teens (and older people, too!) confuse drama with love, affection or real connection. The higher the level of drama gets — parents disliking a partner, promises of marriage, a profound age difference, even emotional or physical abuse — the more a feeling of love or passion is interpreted because the emotional stakes are raised and the tension is elevated.

That’s not unreasonable, after all, writers have been using that exact same device to elevate their readers emotions for thousands of years. But. It isn’t real, even when it very much feels real. We’re simply reacting to those escalated circumstances, and all too often, that drama can keep young couples together, not love or real bonding.

So, when the drama kicks in, try to learn to see it and know that then, more than ever, is NOT the time to leap in with both feet, but to step back and really look at what’s going on. To take a break to do that, if need be. To do whatever it is you need to to get a good, solid reality check. One of the best tests of love, really, is if it still feels like love when it’s at its quietest and calmest, not just its loudest and most tumultuous.

Be a smartypants

Let’s be honest: very few of us, whether we’re 15 or 65, can be truly objective when we’re head over heels in love or in lust. So, it’s a bit of a given that when making sexual choices, we can rest assured that our judgment is bound to be a little colored from the get-go. Being in love, having a crush, and sexual partnership is heady stuff. That’s some of why it can feel so nice. Colloquially, some of us call that space NRE, or new relationship energy. It’s great stuff, and it feels fantastic, but it can do quite a number on our analytical or critical thinking.

It’s important to recognize that when we’re in that space, we probably need to use a little more caution than usual when making decisions because those feelings can really do a number on our heads as well as our hearts. Other additional factors may also be at play which can impair sound judgment: body or self-image issues, feeling pressured to be sexually active or have a sexual or romantic partner, performance pressures, rebellion or conformity issues, and even simple curiosity.

And by all means, handicapping your judgment intentionally from the outset with alcohol or drugs which impair your critical thinking is just never a wise idea.

Start a revolution: Stop hating your body!

We live in a culture that is obsessed with appearances, in which lookism and ableism are epidemic. The messages we’re sent via our culture and media about our bodies are almost always about how they look or how perfect they should be, and more specifically, how they look to the opposite sex (despite the fact that some of us aren’t even interested in the opposite sex, all of the time, or ever). Advertisements for gyms or exercise regimens rarely talk about feeling increased energy, getting sick less often, getting better strength or balance, but all too often, instead work to sell us on trimmer thighs, tighter bottoms, or washboard abs because those things fit our current physical ideals of beauty and attractiveness.

That isn’t to say we have to ignore how our bodies or faces look. People are amazing creatures, great to look at, and sexual attraction is part of our physical nature. But it’s only one part of many. Our bodies enable us to do everything we do each day: to go to work or school, to build cities and cultural movements, to create and nurture families and friends, to live out our whole lives. And the state of our bodies effects the state of our minds: when we’re physically healthy, it’s a lot easier to be emotionally healthy.

So, take good care of your body in every way you can. Give it healthy food, the rest and activity it needs, the healthcare — sexual and general — it requires, both preventatively and when you become ill. Don’t sacrifice your health or well-being for appearances with fad diets or starvation, with obsessive focus on physical perfection, with conformity to ideals which not only may not fit you, but which change almost as often as most of us change our underpants. Understand that when it’s right for you, be it by yourself or with a partner, sex can also be part of honoring your body, whatever it looks like, however it works. If any sex you have with someone isn’t about your bodies just as they are, it’s not likely to feel very good or leave you feeling very good about yourself….

…Screw magazines that tell you to focus on what you’d like to improve about your body. Heck, if you’ve got one, burn it. If you’ve got health issues to deal with, or need to make some healthy changes in terms of what you’re eating or not getting enough activity, do that. But your body is not a home-improvement project. Most of it is perfect as-is, right now. So, document that. Sit down and make a list of all of your favorite parts, and write down why they’re your favorite. Maybe you like your eyes because they’re aesthetically beautiful, or your legs because they get you where you need to go. If you need extra help when it comes to appearances, instead of comparing yourself to fashion mags, get some pictures of your relatives, as far back as you can go, if they’re available to you. In them, you’re going to find your arms, your hair, your face — you can discover where a lot of you came from and see yourself a bit differently when you’re looking at you in someone else.

Some studies or philosophies have put forth that young people, especially young women, who are sexually active suffer from low self-esteem in ways those who are not do not. The usual assumption made about that premise is that sex, especially sex when you’re young, must be bad for you, but I’d posit that that isn’t so. Instead, what I’ve seen a lot of over the years is some people who seek out sex or sexual partnership to try and fill a void in terms of self-esteem or positive body image reinforcement that already exists before they seek out the sex, and then most of them discover — alas — that the sex or boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t fill that void and get even more depressed and self-hating, thinking something must be wrong with them.

Honor your feelings

Sometimes it takes a lot of tries before we meet someone whose needs and wants are the same as ours. Because of that, it’s tempting to try and compromise things we really shouldn’t compromise, like limits and boundaries, relationship models we know we don’t want or can’t deal with, or sexual velocity that is just too fast.

Sure, part of any relationship is compromise, but we should not and cannot compromise our essential character or nature, nor what we know we need in a relationship to participate in one healthily and happily. If we find we’re sticking in a relationship where we know our partner wants things we can’t or don’t want to give, for instance, we’re likely not honoring our feelings, perhaps because we don’t want to hurt them, or because we’re afraid of being without a partner, or because we just don’t want to make a huge mistake. But, you know, in relationships that are right for everyone, we can safely voice our feelings and work with them, and we need to be able to do that to be in good relationships. Most of us adults have been in relationships where we’ve voiced deeper feelings than our partner felt, or asked for more than they could give, and that’s resulted in a split we didn’t want. Or, we’ve had to tell a partner they were asking for more than we had available and either pull away from the relationship or take it back a few paces. While at the time, none of that is ever fun, in hindsight, we’ll all know that was best for everyone. As well, most of us have happier tales of honoring our feelings that brought about far better outcomes than we would have had had we not voiced our true feelings. Sometimes, when you love someone deeply and tell them, they tell you — and mean it — that they love you just as much back.

A big part of honoring your feelings is being able to first look at them and recognize them yourself. So, take a good look at them, even if they’re not so realistic. If you have a good idea of what they are, in a given situation or in general, you’re in a better place to honor them, to see how they may or may not be creating obstacles, to get a good idea of what you really want and need so you’ll be able to recognize when those needs can be met and when they can’t.

And while we’re at it, don’t talk yourself into a situation that isn’t really right for you, especially when it comes to casual sex. That isn’t to say that casual sex can’t be okay for some people sometimes, because it can. But much of the time here at the Scarleteen community, we see people clearly talking themselves into believing they’re okay with no-strings-attached or friends-with-benefits scenarios when they truly want more than that, but have convinced themselves to settle for less because they feel it’s better than nothing, or think that sex with someone casually will make that other person develop romantic feelings after all. Bzzzt. What you don’t want isn’t better than waiting for what you do want, and sex can’t change anyone’s real feelings. To boot, saying you’re okay with casual sex to a partner suggesting it when you know you aren’t in your gut makes YOU the bad guy for being manipulative and dishonest, not them for wanting less than you do.

Don’t try and use sexual identity as your whole identity

Part of our development in our teens and twenties is seeking out and discovering our self-identity. It’s why it’s not uncommon for teens to be very enthusiastic about something one month that’s completely forgotten the next. A little embarrassing when we have to backpedal sometimes, but it’s all normal, and we’ve all been through it (some of us way more times than we’d care to admit).

So, it’s also not unusual to do the same with sexual identity.

Sexual identity, is, by its nature, somewhat fluid. While some portions of our sexuality are at least somewhat fixed, like our sexual orientation (whether we’re attracted to men, women or both/all gender), parts of our gender identity as well as some of our preferences, many aspects of our sexual identity will develop and shift all through our lives. So, while your sexual identity is an integral part of who you are, there’s never any hurry to claim or label it, nor is it a good idea to make your current sexual identity your whole identity — because when it shifts and evolves — and it always will — you may find yourself feeling utterly lost in terms of knowing who you are. As well, sex is only part of our lives. If every part of us is completely wrapped up in it, we’re likely to miss out on other equally enriching and fulfilling parts of our lives.

Who are you, besides so-and-so’s girlfriend/boyfriend or Jane or John, queer or straight person? Jot it down, and make note of what accompanying activities you engage in to support all those other aspects of your identity. Are you a musician? If so, how much time are you getting to play and practice? Are you a good friend? Spent much time with yours lately? Are there aspects of your identity that keep getting shoved on the back shelf, even if you would really like to explore them? Look at your time during the week, and carve out some for those parts. Sex is great, and having a partner equally great, but if we aren’t more than our sex lives or sexual identity, not only are those aspects of our lives going to peter out fast, the rest of our lives are going to seriously suffer for that.

Become a sexpert!

Obviously, no one needed a book to figure out how to put Tab A into Slot B when it came to sex. If they had, none of us would be here today, because our eldest ancestors certainly didn’t have The Joy of Sex hidden under a straw pallet in the back of the cave. While there are some things we don’t need books or media for — and some it’s best we learn on our own anyway, like discovering what a partner finds pleasure in — there are others we do. We live in a different world than our hunting and gathering forebears. We have longer lifespans, different and more complex health issues, we choose not to procreate, we have factors in our lives and culture that make our relationships more complex. As well, we simply know things now we didn’t back when that really can benefit us, like understanding how our reproductive cycles really work, how disease or infection may be spread, like that our sexual or gender identity doesn’t have to be what is prescribed for us.

So, dig in and educate yourself! Hit the library or the net and read up on your body, the body of your partner if they’re opposite sex, on safer sex practices and disease and infection news, on birth control options. Fill your mind with material to help you start to evaluate things like orientation and gender identity, the quality of your relationships, and your own wants and needs when it comes to sex and sexual partnership.

Do yourself a favor, though, and be selective with that media. Look for sources that offer you real information, not salacious tips on how to bring someone else to orgasm or how to achieve firmer breasts. On websites and with books, look for mentions or endorsements by credible organizations or resources in sexuality and sexual health. We get enough garbage and misinformation on sex from television, movies and popular magazines as it is — none of us needs any more of that gump.

It truly is best to educate yourself about sex and sexuality BEFORE you leap in headlong, especially with a partner or partners. All too often, people only start educating themselves during or after a crisis (such as a pregnancy scare, an acquired STI, or being physically or emotionally hurt during sex), and while late is always better than never, in advance is always better than after the fact.

Most of all…

… don’t forget that sex and sexuality are supposed to be pleasurable and bring you joy and richness. So many of the messages sent out to young people are about the dangers of sex or dating, are about saying no to sex based on very general and arbitrary ethics that may not be your own, and make sex out to be the Big Bad, when really, it doesn’t have to be. If you aren’t ready for sexual partnership, then no, sexual partnership isn’t going to be right for you right now. But even if you try something out and discover it isn’t, it’s unlikely to cause you lifelong trauma. We all err sometimes; we learn, we move on. We’re an adaptable species like that.

Your sexuality is yours to have, explore and enjoy even all by yourself, and yours to share with partners, when and if you’re ready and willing to do that. When you respect it and you, it’s a wonderful part of who you are, one that has the power to enrich your life and make you feel physically and emotionally great. And it can be great responsibly and healthfully: a lot of the time, we plop sex and adventure into the same pile, and assume that for sex to feel great, it has to be risky or we have to feel “naughty” doing it, and that just isn’t the case. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that if our culture could ditch a lot of the taboo and shameful attitudes it has about sex, the whole lot of us would be a much healthier people, physically and emotionally.

So, if you’re engaged in sex in any way that makes you feel bad, stop and look at that. Sometimes, sex can be disappointing, either alone or with partners, that happens the same way any aspect of life can be disappointing or just plain lame. But if that’s the case continually, it’s time for a change, be that by splitting from a partner, pulling back on something you’re doing or asking for things you want but aren’t getting, taking better care of your sexual health or spending more time getting to know your own body, reevaluating your sexual identity or taking a break from sex altogether for a while. If you can’t feel or experience the joy of sex, then it’s just not worth doing. And when you can? Let yourself enjoy it. That’s what it’s there for.

To sum up?

1. Be your own your first partner, before anyone else.
2. Learn to talk openly about sex.
3. Be honest. For real.
4. Ditch the drama. Save it for the movies.
5. Use and trust your own best judgment.
6. Respect your body and yourself.
7. Honor your feelings, even when it’s a bummer.
8. Be your whole self, not just your sexual self.
9. Further your sexual education.
10. Enjoy yourself and your sexuality.

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).

scarleteenSCARLETEEN is an independent, grassroots sexuality education and support organization and website. Founded in 1998, Scarleteen.com is visited by around three-quarters of a million diverse people each month worldwide, most between the ages of 15 and 25. It is the highest-ranked website for sex education and sexuality advice online and has held that rank through the majority of its tenure.
Find Scarleteen on twitter @Scarleteen

Reclaiming Sexual Intimacy After Cancer

screen-capture-13

Dealing with cancer can easily re-orient your sex life. During and even after treatment, being sexual can seem unappealing, painful or maybe completely off your radar. Dr. Melanie Davis offers guidance for reclaiming sexual intimacy after cancer and facing the challenges that entails.

This article is intended to help you navigate sexuality after cancer treatment. Here are some main points to take away:

  • Making small changes in your mindset can help to successfully reframe intimacy.
  • Non-goal oriented sexual intimacy (activities that do not lead to orgasm)
    eliminates the chance of “failure”.
  • Communicate with your partner— agree on how you define “sex”.
  • Take care of yourself so as to ensure comfort during sexual encounters.
  • Put sexual intimacy on your priority list on your own terms.

This article was originally published on Coping Magazine.

BY MELANIE DAVIS, PhD | MelanieDavisPhD.com

You may have crossed sexual intimacy off your priority list when you found out you had cancer. If you’re in active treat­ment, you may not feel like being sexual in the same ways you were before diag­nosis. After treatment, sex may still seem unappealing or even painful. This is all normal. But if you’re ready to bring sexual intimacy back into your life, you can work through the challenges – one small step at a time.

Defining Intimacy

Many people think of sexual intimacy as sexual in­tercourse or other genital stimulation resulting in orgasm, including any ac­tivities that lead up to it. However, if you broaden your definition of intimacy to include other pleasures that may or may not lead to orgasm, you can be sexually intimate without the pressure to engage in activities that aren’t com­fortable for you right now.

Sexually intimate activity can be goal oriented or non-goal oriented. Goal-oriented activities are considered complete when they end in orgasm. The problem with goal-oriented sexual inti­macy is that there’s a chance of failure if you or your partner do not experience orgasm. Failure can be frustrating, es­pecially if it happens on a regular basis.

On the other hand, non-goal-oriented sexual activity can’t fail because there is no goal, other than pleasure. Orgasm may happen, or it may not. There is no pressure to do more than you can comfortably do, given your interests, level of desire, and physical capability. Examples of non-goal-oriented intimate activities include kissing, fondling, body rubbing, massage, watching or reading erotic material, taking a shower or bath together, recalling past sexual encoun­ters, envisioning future encounters, reliving your favorite dates, cuddling with or without clothes, holding hands, walking arm in arm, or engaging in any other activities that you enjoy. They can also include genital stimulation or pen­etration as long as you and your partner agree to stop the activity if it becomes anything other than pleasurable for either of you.

Reframing Intimacy

Changing your mindset from goal-oriented sex to non-goal-oriented sex doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some time to get used to the idea that even though you or your partner may be aroused, sexual activity could end prior to orgasm. Communication and trust are crucial because you need assurance that you will not be pressured to do more than is comfortable or desirable for you.

New Jersey-based “reinvention catalyst” Gailann Bruen, LCSW, suggests making changes in imaginary 1/16-inch increments – tiny steps so small you are almost guaranteed success.

“My husband and I always planned to travel, but when he developed heart issues, he chose not to fly,” Gailann says. “A friend advised us to create local memories together. It turned me around. Now I tell people, ‘Don’t focus on what you can’t do, but on small things you can do together.’”

Gailann suggests taking a drive, going out for coffee, and hugging and touching throughout the day. “Work within what’s possible, and focus on all the tender intimacies. Touch and sweetness are so important,” she adds.

Redefining intimacy in this way requires communication. You and your partner both need to agree to change the way you define sex. Start by discussing how you can maximize closeness and intimacy within your levels of energy, desire, and physical ability.

“Talk to your partner about what’s possible for you now,” says Melissa Donahue, LCSW, of the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness in Bedmin­ster, NJ. “If intercourse is off the table, say so, and make sure your partner agrees not to push for it. Once you know that your boundaries will be respected, you won’t have to be anxious when your partner touches you.”

It’s also important to make the most of what you have by eating a healthy diet, getting ample sleep, finding ways to reduce stress, following your doctor’s post-treatment plan, and getting regular exercise. Take pain medications 30 min­utes before you begin any type of sexual activity if you typically experience pain during intercourse, and arrange for inti­mate encounters to coincide with your most comfortable, energetic times of day.

You can put sexual intimacy back on your priority list once you realize you can do it on your own terms. Take things one step at a time – you can make changes in tiny, 1/16-inch increments.

melanie_davisMELANIE DAVIS, PHD, consults with individuals and couples to help them build sexual knowledge, comfort, and pleasure through the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness. Through her firm Honest Exchange LLC, she provides professional development in sexuality. She’s a popular speaker on self-esteem and body image, and the sexual impact of cancer, menopause and aging. She’s an AASECT-Certified Sexuality Educator. On Twitter @DrMelanieDavis