Commentary Sexuality

Get Real! He Wants Something Sexual, But I Feel Uneasy About It

Heather Corinna

How do you tell a partner that you're not comfortable with something they want to do, whether you have sexual abuse in your history or not?  You tell them you're not comfortable with something they want to do.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

francisca_Verdades asks:

I’m 14, and my boyfriend wants me to give him dry sex, I am very uneasy about this because I’ve been sexually abused before, what should I tell him?

Heather Corinna replies:

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I think you just said two things you could tell him right there.

“I am very uneasy about this,” or “I am very uneasy about this because I have been sexually abused.” Whichever you feel most comfortable with, both of those things are fine things to say, things I think we should be able to say with anyone we’re very intimate with or thinking about being very intimate with.

You can follow them up with what your uneasiness means for you in terms of your answer. Do you want to decline his invitation to engaging in dry sex? If so, then you say you feel uneasy, and follow that up with saying no, you don’t want to do that now. You don’t have to explain any more than that if you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable explaining more. That right there – or heck, just “No,” all by itself — should always be enough for anyone who actually cares about you and respects you to just accept and know that’s how it is, just like if you invited someone to come to a party you were having and they said no. If we extend an invitation to someone for something, whether it’s having sex or going out for coffee, we always need to know they may decline that invitation, and if and when they do, we always need to be okay with that and accept it.

Or, maybe you do want to explore this kind of sex with him, but need certain things to feel safe and good about it, like more time dating and getting to know one another, more time to build communication skills and trust, a certain kind of commitment, or time with him or even just with yourself to feel comfortable enough telling him about the abuse you survived. If it’s like that, and you don’t want to outrightly say no, but need things you don’t have now or yet to say yes, then you can tell him what those things are that you need first. If getting to those things is going to take some time, he should respect that and allow you that time without pressure.

One thing you might need is for sex of any kind with him, be it dry sex or something else, to be about something you both really, really want to do and share, rather than something he wants you to “give” him for him.

Catch the big difference there? Sex with a partner that’s really about more than one person isn’t about giving someone something: it’s about doing, sharing and co-creating something together, where, if you want to stick with the idea of give/get, both people are giving and both people are getting. It’s also ideally about both people wanting something as much for themselves as for the other person, not about one person wanting something that is only or mostly for themselves and one person not really wanting something at all who just does that thing to give the other person what they want.

We’ve got a word for sex that’s only or mostly about one person: masturbation. If and when someone (including you!) wants sex that’s really just for them and only or mostly about what they want, that’s not the right time and space to have sex with someone else. That’s the time and space to have sex alone, with our own two hands (or whatever else we want to that isn’t another being). Then sex gets to be all about us and only for us, no problem. One really good earmark of someone’s maturity around sex and sexual relationships is when they are able to recognize when what they want is masturbation — sex only for themselves — and when it’s sex with a partner — where everything needs to be about everyone involved very mutually, not just or mostly themselves.

I also want to let you know, just in case you don’t, that even if you hadn’t been sexually abused in the past, and either felt uneasy for others reasons, or didn’t feel uneasy at all, but just were not interested in this, it’d be okay to say no.

Just because someone wants something sexual doesn’t ever, ever mean someone else is obligated to give it to them, even if and when two people are in a relationship together that already has included and does include sex. A sexual or romantic relationship isn’t about anyone agreeing to always do sexual things with someone. Rather, when sex is part of our relationship, or we agree to be in a sexual relationship, all that means is that sex CAN be part of that relationship, at whatever times it — whatever kind of sex we’re talking about — is what both people want, feel ready for and feel good about.

People don’t always feel hungry at the same time or want to eat at the same times. That’s okay: people can eat together when they both want to at the same time, and eat separately when they don’t. Sometimes one person wants to see a movie, but the other person isn’t in the mood at all, so they don’t want to go. That’s okay: one person can see a movie while the other person stays home.In some partnerships, one person can want to have kids at a given time when another doesn’t. That’s okay. People can wait until that’s what they both want, and if they never want the same things, part ways and seek out others who DO want the same things. Just like with those things, the same goes with sex. Sure, sometimes we might make some compromises, like if one person really, really wants to do something, and the other only kind of does, but feels okay giving it a go to see if it’s something they enjoy. But we need to always make sure that the compromises we’re making involve a reasonable amount of give on both sides, and don’t involve compromising ourselves or the things we know we really want or need to be and feel safe and okay and whole.

Whether people have survived abuse or not, these things are important in healthy sexual relationships or other sexual interactions. If your boyfriend hasn’t been sexually abused, I’m betting there are some things he might feel uneasy about or not want to do sexually a partner might want himself. Just because someone hasn’t been abused doesn’t mean they’ll feel comfortable with anything and everything sexual, or that they will always be in the mood to do something sexual when a partner is. I’m betting it’s also important to him that with anything sexual, it’s about him and what he wants, not just about what you do. I’m betting that he wants to feel he has the room and the right to say no to things and have you respect that. These are things everyone should have and that people need to have for sex to be most likely to be positive and beneficial, rather than negative or harmful.

However, it’s pretty common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault to need some real time and support in healing from assault, and to make sure that we’re only in relationships and situations that are sound for us in the place we’re at with that healing, and as survivors. For instance, while we certainly don’t always have to tell someone we survived assault if we don’t want to, when we’re brand new to consensual sex or new to asserting ourselves sexually, it’s usually a good idea to be sure any partners we’re with are people who have the maturity to understand that we can need some extra things other people might not, and who truly have the capacity to be open to those things or provide them. For example, getting triggered — being reminded in some way of abuse or assault and then having a reaction to those memories or feelings — is something that can happen when you get sexual as a survivor. When that happens, you might need some extra care, and your partner will sometimes need to be able to not only stop sex very quickly, but switch from being in a sexual headspace to one that’s about caring for you in other ways in that moment. They’ll need the maturity and self-esteem to not take that personally or freak out. Not every partner is going to have those things, especially during stages of life when people can be pretty centered in their own headspace and find it challenging to really understand, feel and work with someone else’s.

As well, it can be super-extra important for survivors to avoid anyone who we feel in any way obligated to be sexual with. That can really stand in the way of our overall healing, and in constructing a sexuality and sex life that’s healthy. One of the things sexual abuse can sometimes leave us wit is a feeling that our sexual value to others is our only value or that our sexuality or bodies don’t totally belong to us. Over time, and with help, we can usually get through those feelings and know they’re not true, but when abuse was recent or we haven’t gotten far in healing, it’s often harder not to believe those kinds of things. So, we’re usually really not helped by any people, relationships or dynamics that make those things seem more true rather than less true.

Again, it’s not like those things aren’t important with everyone, not just survivors. They are important for everyone. But for people who have been harmed sexually, and who are working on healing, dynamics like that can potentially make some extra hardships or hurt for us when we’re already working so hard to recover from hardships or hurt we have already been through. They can also can hold us back in our process of healing and make it all take longer or be more challenging, which is the last thing anyone wants or needs. healing takes long enough and is often challenging enough as it is.

So, I’d just check in with yourself right now about a couple things. The first thing to think about is if you feel ready to have any kind of sexual relationship at all yet and if that’s something you really want now or any time soon.

There’s no right answer to that, just what you feel you want and need and feel is best for you. If that’s not something you want or not something you feel ready for, your best bet is to try not to put yourself in the position where someone thinks sex is what you want or has any expectation of sex. No one needs that kind of pressure, after all, and it’s usually best for both people who want and need very different things to just opt out right at the start rather than to enter into a relationship where they’re probably just going to make each other miserable struggling around such a big difference.

If you want to still date and have romantic relationships, you can still have those, you just want to be clear to people you’re dating that for right now, that doesn’t include any kind of sex with you. You, like everyone else, get to have these limits and boundaries if you need them, just like you, like everyone else, get to have limits and boundaries if and when you do choose to be in a sexual relationship.

When you put your limits out there clearly from the start (or at the point when it seems like you and someone else might be thinking about or considering some kind of sex), the people who do want that can seek out someone else who does, and you can avoid being in the position to have to feel at all pressured or obligated to do anything you don’t want to or that doesn’t feel right for you. Being assertive and straightforward like that also can help you identify people to date who are good choices for you right now: people who are just fine with that, or who even don’t want to get involved with sex right now for their own reasons. That’s good for your healing process, but it also makes dating a lot more fun. Knowing you’re pretty much on the same page with that other person can make it much easier to feel relaxed and safe and to enjoy dating, rather than having it be something that stresses you out or makes you feel crummy.

If you are going to choose to get involved in a relationship that is sexual in any way, or that you think you might choose to make sexual at some point, then the next thing to just evaluate is who you’re with, and if they seem to you like the kind of person you feel you can feel safe and be safe with at this stage in your life.

For instance, when we feel safe, even if we’re still working on our assertiveness or self-esteem, we should feel pretty able to just say no to things we don’t want without worrying the other person won’t respect that or will react badly. We should also feel like we’re not obligated to be sexual with that person and feel sure they don’t think we are, either. We should — and once more, this is ideal for everyone, anyway, not just abuse survivors — be sure anyone we are with sexually, or think we might get sexual with is someone who understands how important it is for sex to be about something that’s really mutual, just as much about what we want as it is about what they want.

So, even in terms of dating this person right now, I’d take some time to think about all of that, and consider what you think this person’s capabilities and abilities are in this respect. If you’re iffy about any of these things, they are certainly things you can talk about together, and things you can talk about without disclosing your abuse, too, if you don’t feel ready for that yet. It’s also always okay to kind of back things up in a relationship: if you feel like, for example, his asking for this kind or other kinds of sex has happened too fast or too soon, you can always ask to slow everything down to the kind of pace that you feel comfortable with.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had any counseling around your abuse, but if you haven’t, I encourage you to seek it out. There are lots of things good counseling can help us with when surviving and healing from abuse, and that includes helping us to learn skills and tools to navigate sexual and other intimate relationships. If you had a hard time with the things I asked you to think about up there, that’s something else a counselor could help you think about and make decisions with. If you haven’t had any professional help in healing like that, and you’re interested, you can always drop a line to us here and we can help you find that for yourself.

One last thing? While we’re not always going to feel comfortable disclosing previous sexual abuse with people just because it is something we’re usually very vulnerable around, and often want to keep private from people we don’t know we can trust, I hope you know that having been abused is nothing for you to feel ashamed about, or keep to yourself out of the idea that it’s something shameful about you. It’s not. You didn’t do anything to anyone: someone else chose to hurt you.

A lot of us in the world have been hurt or harmed in some way. That doesn’t make us anything but human, and vulnerable to harm and hurt like all human beings can be. It doesn’t mean we’re broken, or damaged goods or sullied or any of the other negative things we can feel like we are, partly because abuse can make us feel that way for a while, and partly because some people who are ignorant about trauma and abuse say things like that (often not realizing they’re acting or sounding a whole lot like the people who abused us).

So, I hope that if you feel uneasy with any kind of sex, or sex with this person because of your abuse, it’s about where you’re at in your healing process or with still developing trust in this relationship, but NOT about any feelings or ideas that being abused means that, when it’s the right time and situation for you, you can’t be sexual in the ways that you truly want to be just like everyone else. Because you can. The main trick to that is just making your healing and other self-care a priority, and making yourself as a person whose own sexual wants and boundaries matter a priority. That absolutely includes nixing anything you don’t feel very, very good about doing sexually, not just for or with someone else, but for and with yourself.

Here are a few more links that might give you some extra help:

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.