“I Do!” Not Fear Commitment

Last weekend I attended, and participated in a beautiful and meaningful wedding ceremony for two of my beloved friends.  On the heels of this extraordinary union, I find myself thinking about commitment, a term that is most frequently paired with the words “Fear” and “Of“.  How has something that is so honored and uplifted by our culture become so associated with fear?

First off, where do we learn about commitment, and what are we afraid of?

We learn about commitment from places like…

  • family (i’m sure not repeating what mom and dad did!)
  • community (everyone else is signing up for commitment, so I guess I should, too)
  • school (the definition of commitment is a pledge or promise; obligation)
  • media (you meet someone at the wrong time, then you get over it after about a week, and you live happily ever after)
  • religion (commitment = forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, etc)
  • peers (all girls want is commitment and all boys want is sex without commitment)
  • personal experiences (i got hurt once, i don’t want to get hurt again)
  • celebrities (average length of a committed relationship = 2 months)

From these sources we learn to be afraid of failure, of not living up to expectations, of letting someone down, of being let down, of wasting time, of losing interest, and so on.  Sifting through all of the messages coming in from all directions, both explicit and implicit, can be challenging and confusing at best.  How are we supposed to embrace something that we really don’t understand?  Enter, structured learning environment!  However, sometimes the teachers could be driving the fear-wagon itself.

How could educators be contributing to the fear of commitment?

Some educators (or individuals in an educational role, such as parents) could be exacerbating the fear of commitment by…

  • Emphasizing committed relationships as the only suitable context for sexual activity.
  • Glorifying a committed relationship as a life-goal for everyone.
  • Perpetuating gender role assumptions such as girls all want a big wedding and boys don’t really ever want to get married (check out Amy Schalet’s op-Ed in the NY Times, Caring, Romantic American Boys).
  • Focusing on relationship status as a measure of success.
  • Defining the goal of all relationships as marriage/lifelong commitment.

All of the above place pressure on an individual to conform to certain ideals or stereotypes, which can contribute all those fears associated with commitment.  And they happen on a regular basis from all those sources, building up on each other.  Rarely do we get the message, ‘you can figure commitment out for yourself, rather than be afraid of it’.  (Although, I hear it’s a very common theme in therapy sessions!)

And, how many people actually had an opportunity to REALLY ‘learn’ about commitment, besides what they have gleaned from their parental units?  When lacking a structured learning experience about relationship concepts, people are left to their own devices to figure out the ‘unknown’…and what’s scarier than the formidable ‘unknown’? A lot of commitment is about willing to face the unknown with a person, and do it no matter what.  It makes sense that the concept of commitment be a part of a learning experience, at any and every age.  So maybe all this fear is because it’s missing from the curriculum.

If it’s missing, what should the commitment lesson cover?

  • Self-exploration.  Understanding and thinking about what commitment means to an individual is key- the meaning behind the term will vary from person to person.  Encourage participants to come up with their own definition.
  • Communication.  Talking about commitment is one of the things that people are afraid of doing.  Maybe it’s because they don’t know how!  Have participants practice relationship conversations, either individually or through role plays.
  • Values-clarification.  Commitment is incredibly values-laden, and a structured learning environment can help individuals explore their personal values, when they might otherwise be ignored or overlooked.
  • Decision-making.  Deciding to commit to someone is HUGE!  Ask participants what their deciding factors are and encourage them to even write them down!
  • Growth and flexibility.  Ideas about commitment will certainly change over time, in a relationship, with age, with experience, with new partners and after old partners.  Have participants develop a timeline of how someone’s commitment may change over time.

In theory, these lessons of commitment, when delivered with validation and respect for individuality, can help someone feel empowered to be committed, rather than afraid.  Or at least willing to face their fears!

My friends made a commitment to each other, in the presence of their friends and family who will support them throughout their lives.  Their relationship strength comes from their acceptance of participating in each others’ lives, even if they are afraid.  The minister performing their ceremony even congratulated them on a job well done and gave a message of ‘keep it up’, instead of the traditional wedding advice.  I think that what made their wedding so extraordinary was the clear demonstration of their willingness to face the unknown together.   As educators, we should help foster that readiness and help prepare individuals to commit (or not), rather than be afraid.

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Happy Birthday! Have you ___ yet?

Today is my birthday, woohoo!!  I celebrate my birthday loud and proud because for me, getting older is an adventure that can only bring more opportunities for excitement, learning, and fun times.  However, many people dread their birthdays because they do not want to be reminded of getting older. This might be because with age comes expectations of experience and achievement that can weigh heavy on an individual, especially if their experiences have been different than societal, family, or peer-group expectations.

By a certain age you should walk, talk, and poop in the potty.  By a certain age you should read, write, and remember your telephone number.  By a certain age you should have your period, start masturbating, and have a crush on someone.  By a certain age you should have a boyfriend/girlfriend, lose your virginity, and have an orgasm.  By a certain age you should have a job, be financially independent, and get married.   By a certain age you should be happy and satisfied in life.  By a certain age you should still be able to have sex.  Lots of expectations!  And if a birthday rolls around and you haven’t ‘done’ the thing that you’re supposed to do, that might make you dread your birthday.

And let’s be honest, most adults in the U.S. can remember how old they were for their many of their firsts…first kiss, first sexual encounter with another person, first act of intercourse, first orgasm, etc.  And, lots of people stress out about their age when thinking about their experiences with sexual activity- I was too young, too old, I AM too old to not have done this yet, I can’t do this yet, why can’t I still do this at my age.   Which brings up a question that is frequently asked by young people, parents, educators, politicians, judges…How old should someone be when they have sex?

My answer will always be- it’s different for everyone, and each person needs to decide for him/herself when it is appropriate for them.  Many people put some sort of age marker on sexual activity- for example, it’s ok to have sex once you’re 18.  (Or once you’re married.)  I find several things problematic with someone else defining when it’s ok to have sex (sex being a broad term encompassing many sexual activities and not just intercourse):

  1. that person probably won’t be there when the sex happens.
  2. everyone is different.
  3. defining someone else’s boundaries establishes expectations of achievement that can actually encourage someone to engage in activities before they are ready.
  4. in theory, attaching ages to experiences makes people hate their birthdays.

So how does an educator respond to this classic question, At what age should someone have sex?

  • You can describe the variety of experiences that other people have.  “Some people wait to have sex until they get married. Some people have sex when they are in a committed relationship.  The average age someone has sex for the first time in the U.S. is 18. People have sex well into their ‘old’ age.”
  • You can help identify ways an individual will know they are (or are not) ready to engage in sex. “How would someone know if they are interested in having sex? What are some reasons not to have sex? How might the law affect someone’s decision, especially laws about age of consent?”
  • You can help someone understand their own values about sexual activity. “What do you think are important parameters for having sex?  Are any of those based on age?”
  • You can say, “It is really up to each and every person to determine whether sex is appropriate for them at that age. If they aren’t able to make that informed decision yet, that’s a good indicator that sexual activity is not appropriate.”
  • NOTE:  Decisions about sexual activity may be different for individuals who are developmentally disabled.  So I ask this question to professionals in that field, how does this ‘you decide’ philosophy work with that population?

These responses are designed to encourage developing individualized ideas about a deeply personal decision.  Avoid placing hard and fast rules and expectations because that takes the power away from the individual.  We want people to be able to think on their own and feel comfortable with their decisions after their experiences.   And in my opinion, people shouldn’t hate their birthdays (but that is totally up to you!).

Inspired by Momentum, I recognize my Sex Ed privilege

I just spent an amazing weekend at Momentum Conference in Washington, DC, a conference bringing together all sorts of individuals invested in the field of sexuality either professionally or personally.   The weekend was devoted to ‘making waves in sexuality, feminism, and relationships’, and certainly did that, and much much more.  It wasn’t just the opportunity to learn and think new and big things, but also to meet and develop meaningful relationships with like-minded people.  And, it pushed me over the technological edge and into the 21st century, and I started TWEETING!!  This was just too good of an opportunity to connect with others and stay on the pulse of the conference.  Yep…you can follow me, @fearlesssexed.

My quick & dirty summary of the conference happenings: The opening plenary started the conference fire with the hilarious and upfront Maria Falzone and her bit, Sex Rules.  The opening plenary featured Dr. Charlie Glickman, Bill Taverner, Dr. Logan Levkoff, and Audacia Ray, with Dr. Carol Queen moderating.  My big take away…we need to focus on human rights as a foundation of the conversation on pleasure.  Saturday and Sunday were stuffed with workshops, and I attended the sessions on talking about sex in the media, blogging 202, the 3 Ps of porn, the pleasure revolution, citizen science, and putting pleasure into risk and harm reduction.  I would have loved to go to others, but fortunately people were tweeting up a storm, so I could follow along at #mcon. (Check out the feed if you’re curious).  Bedpost  confessions on Saturday night was a great shift from all the work my brain did during the day, and thanks to Good Vibrations for hosting a fun champagne party!  In the closing plenary, Lara Riscol, former surgeon general Dr. Jocelyn Elders, and Esther Perel ROCKED the house, with standing ovations, and left us all inspired to keep up the momentum.

What’s my big “Ah HA” after this fabulous weekend of thinking, learning, and being around all these sexuality movers and shakers?   In Shanna Katz & Lisa Pittari‘s Check Yourself workshop, we talked about privilege and isms and ways we can empower ourselves, all in a sex ed context.  We dissected a few agent groups, defined as “social identity groups that hold unearned privilege in society”, such as people who are middle/upper class, cysgender, heterosexual, white, etc. and I want to add another group to the mix.  I have Sex Ed privilege– the privilege of having experienced great sexuality education and growing up in a sexually supportive environment.  This was apparent when I was the only one in the room who raised their hand at the question, “Who had good, comprehensive sexuality education?”  (as I often am!)  What does this privilege mean for me?  Growing up…

  • My folks were supportive of my sexual self, and even tried to talk to me about sexuality (I foolishly told them not to). My parents even taught sex ed at church!
  • My religious community (unitarian universalist, of which I am still a part), actively promoted a healthy view of sexuality and encouraged me to develop my sexual self.
  • I participated in a wonderful comprehensive sexuality education program (About Your Sexuality, the curriculum that was in place before Our Whole Lives).
  • I had access to information and sexual health resources.
  • I felt comfortable talking about sexuality with my peers, which I believe was a result of all of the above.

I feel as though my privilege is relatively unique, as was commented on my very first post, since many sexuality professionals have the opposite experience- coming from having nothing and/or growing up with people telling them to be AFRAID of sex.  (Granted, I grew up in the south, so I did get some of that.)  However, I also know that my experiences and upbringing inspired me to follow the path that I am on as a fearless sexuality educator, exploring the progressive idea of pleasure.

So what to do about this privilege?  I certainly can’t change my upbringing or past experiences, but it is important to recognize and acknowledge our privileges, especially when working with others who come from a different background (which I feel like for me, is most everyone!).  We must listen carefully to the experiences of others, and ask questions about their culture.   We should constantly honor differences, and call people out on closed-mindedness.   Remember that many people did not have an opportunity to learn about sexuality, sex, or even reproduction, and strive to provide that opportunity for any and all individuals.  All this is part of being not only a good sexuality educator, but also an effective mover and changer.

I will always be a white women from a middle class family who got great sex ed, but I can be open-minded and aware of my privilege, which will help me stay true to myself and reach and connect with others to help people experience a positive learning environment about sexuality.  And really, I hope that my experience of having great sex ed becomes less unique!!