Conversations surrounding our gender, pleasure, and sexual health can be some of the most difficult to have—but they’re essential to our understanding of ourselves and those we love. We know that sometimes it can be scary to ask someone about their gender identity or ask ourselves why we behave the way that we do in our relationships.—You never want to overstep boundaries or make assumptions about anyone else’s experiences, and we get that. But we also think that the only way to be better allies (and self-loving people) is to speak up about the ways that sex, gender, shame, pleasure, and consent shape who we are.
That’s why last month, we attended Dame‘s NUANCE conference to start making spaces for these challenging conversations. And not only did we attend, we also set up a Chill Times “Confessional” audio booth where attendees anonymously shared their biggest questions, fears, memories, and anecdotes relating to all of these topics. Then, we selected some of the most compelling and universal submissions and shared them with Shadeen Francis, MFT, who is a marriage and family therapist, professor, and author (oh yeah, she also was one of the badass panelists at the conference). Below, we unpacked the most resounding themes and looked for ways to start addressing them with ourselves and with the people we love.
When it comes to gender, one of the first things we have to understand is that we need to break out of seeing gender as a binary (male or female). There are infinite ways to express and experience our gender outside of those two labels (say it with me: gender is fluid!), and our Western education and medical systems are two important starting places for these systemic changes. “Educating medical professionals (such as doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, birthing coaches, etc.) about the difference between biological sex as a medical construct and gender as a lived identity is one meaningful step towards living beyond gender as a binary,” says Francis. Instead of assigning gender at birth, giving children the freedom to explore for themselves without forcing them into a box of roles can go a long way. This freedom should also extend into the way we teach kids about their health as they get older.
“For example, rather than learning about ‘men’s bodies’ and ‘women’s bodies’, [and instead], just learning about ‘bodies’—some bodies have vulvas and ovaries, some bodies have penises and testes, some bodies have parts that are unique combinations of the internal or external parts of both,” says Francis. “By treating differences as normal, we avoid reinforcing shame, prejudice, or structural forms of oppression like sexism.”
When it comes to being an ally, always, always, always just listen and respect peoples’ wishes. Ask their pronouns and do your own research: don’t rely on others to constantly explain things to you when you’re not clear on something, especially if it’s not a simple answer. While some people may want to go more in-depth, others might feel that it’s too taxing and/or exhausting to validate their identities for others. Understand those boundaries and offer your support.
“Being an ally might also involve advocacy. When you notice that people are being misgendered, excluded, or harmed, step in and step up,” adds Francis. “Maybe that looks like correcting someone. Maybe that is checking in on the person harmed. Maybe you aren’t sure what to do and so asking the person how you can be most supportive to them, if at all. Whatever your action, allyship will require you to take one.”
Although sex is one of the key places where consent shows up, establishing and accepting boundaries is an essential process for living happy and healthy lives. As the superstars at NUANCE pointed out, childhood is a great place to start exploring consent and how to be on both the giving and receiving end. “Some of that can come through conversation or questioning: What kind of touch is okay? What games do you enjoy? What can you say when you don’t want to play anymore? How can you listen when someone else wants to stop something that you’re enjoying?” explains Francis. “Other lessons are taught more explicitly: if someone says stop, you stop right then and there.”
The key, Francis tells me, is also in making sure we teach by example and respond compassionately when others put up boundaries (instead of using shame or anger). We also need to be taking our partners’ and our own nonverbal cues into consideration. Consent is an ongoing activity, which means something that was okay before might not be anymore, or the emotional tone of the experience, as Francis puts it, may have changed.
Check in with yourself, and always check in with the person(s) you’re with! Pay attention to body language, eye contact, and overall engagement. “They may not be saying no, but they may not be giving a specific, informed, uncoerced, or enthusiastic yes either,” says Francis. “Also, use your words to check in, before, during, and after. Everyone does not emote in the same ways, and it is a lot of pressure to expect that you can always read every partner in every situation.”
Don’t just listen for the answer one person wants; listen for the answer that will make you both feel good about what you’re doing. Consent, and actively asking and receiving it, is the sexiest thing of all!
Speaking of feeling good, it’s always important to remember that pleasure is something we all deserve, but it’s never something that should be gained at the expense of ourselves or others. Making ourselves feel sexy and making our partners feel sexy can (and probably should be) fun! It’s all about showing that you and the person(s) you’re with are worthy of l-o-v-e. Some of us learn how to feel pleasure on our terms first, while some of us may actually flourish through the understanding and affirmation of a partner who will help us love our bodies.
“No matter what your entry into pleasure is, whether solo or partnered, it is important to develop a relationship with yourself that also provides you with pleasure. No one will know us as intimately as we can know ourselves,” explains Francis. “Conversations about sex [is often focused] on how to please your partner, and while that is awesome, what about your pleasure? How much more pleasure could we experience with others if we had a deep awareness of ourselves?”
Exploring yourself, your turn-ons, and your limits is a great way to treat yourself, and it makes it easier to tell your partner what you do or don’t like later on. Masturbation is not only fun, but it’s also ultimately good for your health and your self-awareness for pleasure. It will allow you to make peace with your own body and feelings in a way that can elevate the experience if you’re looking to be intimate with somebody else. Plus, learning what brings you pleasure will give you the tools that extend way, way beyond the bedroom (or wherever it is you like to get it on).
Unfortunately, much like pleasure showing up in pretty much all areas of our lives, so does shame (in the harmful, non-kink related way). It’s a terrible feeling that can be used to unsettle our relationship with ourselves and with others, or make us feel like we’re at risk of losing love, support, and affirmation. “The issue is that shame goes beyond guilt, which lets us know that we did something that our community [thinks] is wrong, shame makes us believe that who we are is wrong. Researchers like Brené Brown talks about the distinction being that guilt lets you know you did something bad, shame tells you that you are bad,” says Francis.
Shame can come from anywhere as big as systemic oppression telling us we’re not worthy (of independence, love, survival, etc.) and anywhere as small as a judgment someone makes of us or we make of ourselves. The scary thing about shame is that it’s a deep spiral that can convince us we deserve harm, isolation, or a lack of understanding. It can have long-lasting effects that may be very difficult to unpack or unlearn. That’s why it’s essential to never use shame as against somebody else as a way to genuinely put down their feelings or experiences. Instead of approaching a situation from negativity, rejection, or defensiveness, it’s important to try to understand where the situation is coming from: especially in our relationships.
“Being transparent about what we need from others takes a lot of courage, but it is a way to counter shame. Self-acceptance is a big ask on its own. It helps to practice feeling comfortable sharing who you are with loving people that you trust to be affirming and non-judgmental,” says Francis. “Shame feeds off of secrets; the things you feel like you couldn’t share about yourself because people would reject you are the exact things that you might want to consider telling someone. If not the people you are in relationships with, then a therapist who can help you navigate feelings of shame and guide you towards acceptance.”
When it comes down to it, gender, consent, pleasure, and shame can all be traced back to our willingness to be open and understanding—with ourselves, with our families, our friends, and our partners. We believe the best way to validate one another’s experiences is to listen, believe each other, and speak up. We hope these conversations are a good place to start.
Is there a topic you’d like to start talking about? DM us @thechilltimes to let us know.
Feature image via Vanessa Granda