In the season of Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of how partnered our society is. In US society, a significant measure of perceived success relies on an individuals’ status as ‘in a relationship’, especially one that will result in a long-term commitment such as marriage, and/or kids. Think about the last time you spent time with someone you haven’t seen in a year (and they aren’t on Facebook!). Did your conversation include the relationship status for either, or both of you? Most likely yes. The topic of relationships comes up A LOT in conversation, and that can put an enormous amount of pressure on an individual to be in a relationship. Not only is this emphasis evident in social culture, and our media, it is also highly present within the field of sexuality education.
As a standard in sexuality education, when teachers are discussing the ‘appropriate’ context for sexual activity they say that it is best when in a committed relationship. (Many programs actually dictate that the only acceptable context for sexual activity is within the confines of marriage, but that is probably a whole other post!) The advantages described include increased likelihood of communication, an established rapport, and less risk for sexually transmitted infections. However, I believe that there are some distinct disadvantages to ‘preaching partnership’ as the best option for sexual activity:
- Some individuals may never be in a long-term committed relationship. (gasp!)
- Lots of people stay in unhappy, frustrating relationships because of the perceived importance of being partnered.
- Being in a relationship could actually put someone at higher risk of sexually transmitted infections if one partner is engaging in sexual activity outside of the partnership. (This is a lot more common than many would admit!)
So what’s the alternative? I believe that by individualizing the conversation about sexual decision-making, it lessens the preachiness of a message. Rather than telling students that the BEST option for sexual activity is in the context of a relationship, encourage individuals to identify their own parameters for engaging in particular actions. Some people may articulate that the best context is within a partnership. It would make sense that if an individual comes to that realization on their own (rather than being told), they will be feel better about that decision and more likely to stick to it and be true to themselves. And some people may prefer to be single, and they are still sexual beings and need to be prepared to make sexual decisions.
Focusing so much on the value of partnership for sexual activity can have some emotional side effects even years down the line, and our goal as educators should be to help individuals feel more comfortable, not freaked out because it didn’t turn out the way ‘they’ said it would. As a sexuality educator, I challenge myself to be not only fearless, gender neutral, and pro-pleasure, but also non-partnered. Describe the options that people have for expressing their sexuality, just don’t say that one of them is the best- because that is likely different for everyone!