My roommate is in an abusive relationship. I’ve only known her for a few months and we generally keep to ourselves. Is there anything I can do?

co-authored by Stephanie Gagnon 

It is very common, even understandable, that after realizing the complex situation your roommate faces you would wonder why she doesn’t just leave, and unfortunately, although the solution seems simple, it is not. There are ways in which you can give her help without unknowingly belittling or pressuring her, but first, let’s look into some reasons why some people may choose to stay in an abusive relationship.

Many victims cope with abuse by applying cognitive strategies to their situation that help them to rationalize what is going on by weighing out the pros and cons of the relationship.[1] Cognitive strategies are employed to minimize or rationalize the actions of the abuser. For example, someone could be thankful that his or her partner is abusive rather than cheating on them.[2] This embellishes the pros of the relationship and ignores the cons. Think of it as the cycle of abuse.[3] Tension builds up and the abuser is set off. The end stage of this cycle is called the honeymoon stage.[4] This is when the abuser “begs for forgiveness and promises never to hurt his partner again[5] and the victim is treated in such a way that no one else would ever be as compassionate or loving as the person they are with now. This stage does not last long, and the abuse starts again shortly afterwards. So, why could your roommate be choosing to stay? She values her relationship, and there is a part of her that still loves and cares for her partner regardless of the abuse. Looking past these outbursts may feel easy if the final outcome is always intense affection that isn’t otherwise experienced. A victim’s situation can be complicated if they aren’t only looking after themselves, but children as well – or if they are financially insecure by themselves, or if they’re culture does not permit leaving. All individuals are driven by different factors that we, as outsiders, may not understand. Social media created #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft to give victims of abuse an external outlet to explain their stories, and their experiences in order to help other people in the same situations as themselves.

It is no surprise that circumstances in which a person is being hurt, either physically or mentally can have long term repercussions. These effects are worrisome and put the victim at risk for developing many serious diseases such as autoimmune disease, cancer, coronary disease, and more.[6] Self-blame is a continual concern in abuse victims because their self-esteem is lowered, and the rapidly increasing possibility of depression is frightening.[7] More positively, while health benefits and increased life satisfaction are seen in healthy intimate relationships,[8] they can also be prominent outcomes of friendships – and that is something that you can absolutely provide her with.

Abusive relationships are obviously very hard on its victims, but there are ways you can help your roommate,[9] even if you aren’t very close:

  • Let her know she can talk to you. She needs someone to listen to how she feels and to believe her claims without a doubt, someone she can reach out to for support when she needs it most. Make sure she knows that any discussion with you is confidential and honour that commitment; she needs to be able to trust you.
  • Talk about what she can do. Sometimes, victims in such situations feel they don’t have any options, but they do. You need to let them know they do without being overbearing. Don’t take their autonomy away; it needs to be done on their own.
  • Respect her choices. Leaving an abusive relationship is not always clear cut, so whether she decides to stay or to leave, you need to make sure she knows you will respect her choices and continue to support her, even if you do not agree with them.
  • Don’t leave her hanging. Whether the decision is to stay or leave, the victim is going to need your ongoing support – make sure it is known that you are there unconditionally, no matter if they continue the relationship or not, whether it is just to listen, or to just to be a reliable friend.[10]

You can help your roommate locate a local shelter and peer groups or counseling services, and create a safety plan in case she needs to get out of the situation she is in immediately – be sure it includes dialing 9-1-1 as soon as she can, the local authorities are well equipped and trained to handle domestic disturbances in an immediate fashion, and remove the threat as quickly as possible.[11] Her experiences may be traumatic regardless of how they compare to other women. Thankfully, as her roommate, you have the ability to provide her with a safe and caring environment when she is home. Any individual should be granted the right to feel safe when at home, and although safety can be tricky, anyone facing abuse needs to know that not all people they trust are going to hurt them, and you are the perfect candidate to prove that by providing the support and care a victim needs.

As her roommate, you can give her care and respect, and you’ve already started by taking measures to optimize her safety.


[1] Bennett, T., Silver R., Ellard, J. (1991) Coping with an Abusive Relationship: I. How and  Why Do Women Stay?. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 53(2), 311-325.

[2] Bennett, T., Silver R., Ellard, J. (1991) Coping with an Abusive Relationship: I. How and  Why Do Women Stay?. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 53(2), 311-325.

[3] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[4] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[5] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[6] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[7] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[8] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[9] Adapted from Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[10] Adapted from Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[11] Options for Victims. (2012). Myriad Media. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from https://www.victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crimevictims/options-for-victims

 

 

My partner and I are considering experimenting with BDSM. Neither of us have ever done it before. Where do we start?

co-authored by Anthony Mbarak and Sarah Bethune

It can be difficult to create a BDSM scene for the first time; however, when practiced carefully, BDSM can increase intimacy within a committed relationship.[1] BDSM covers a wide range of different erotic activities.[2] When you “play” you are engaging in one or more of the following erotic activities: bondage, pain, and domination. A “scene” is referred to as a meeting between two or more people for the purpose of erotic activity.[3] In BDSM play, there is much emphasis on verbally negotiating a pre-arranged agreement, and understanding each other so deeply that the scene unfolds smoothly. In fact, some participants practice BDSM on occasion as a type of sexual role play, while for others, it is a lifestyle that may not involve sexual play at all. BDSM is an acronym that encompasses a variety of activities. B/D stands for bondage and discipline. D/S stands for the role you choose as either a dominant or a submissive. S/M stands for sadism and masochism.

 

One of the main resources you can utilize is the BDSM community itself. Many people have found comfort and support in being accepted by like-minded individuals.[4] Being involved in the BDSM community can offer you further knowledge on what to try, what to expect, and how to make “Safe, Sane, Consensual” sexy. If you are interested in getting involved, it might be advantageous to do further research on the types of groups and events that may interest you as well as shops that can offer you resources and information.

 

As beginners it is recommended that you start by choosing one basic activity (such as spanking) and gradually build to more complex activities that require more knowledge and experience.[5] BDSM support groups are a great way to learn the basics, and develop your skills from experienced members.[6] To dig deeper, you and your partner will find more detailed information about BDSM in such books as Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Philip Miller and Molly Devon.

 

Many people are excited by the idea of being immersed in their fantasies. The notion of fantasy seems to be a big part of what makes BDSM interesting and arousing.[7] After all, one of the biggest reasons people decide to engage in BDSM is purely for fun.[8] Experimenting with some of these ideas and coming up with your own variations is a great way to introduce yourself to BDSM.

 

There are two types of roles couples consider in a BDSM scene. There is the role of the dominant and the submissive. A submissive is someone who obeys orders from the dominant.[9] As a submissive it may appear as though you have no control; however, a dominant’s behaviour in a scene depends on the feedback given by the submissive. As a submissive you are responsible for communicating your needs to the dominant prior to BDSM play, and ensuring that during the scene you are not being passive by giving little or no feedback to your partner.[10]

 

The dominant’s role involves being in charge S/M play.[11] Furthermore, it is the dominant’s responsibility to never ask or demand anything from the submissive that will result in physical or emotional damage.[12] During play a wise dominant will regularly check in to make sure the submissive is getting what they want out of the erotic experience, and to monitor the physical safety of the submissive.[13] Some dominant characteristics include being attentive, responsible, empathic and nurturing towards the submissive’s feelings.[14]

 

BDSM can offer a beneficial experience if you follow some simple rules and guidelines. Many people in the BDSM community agree that it helps strengthen connection and trust with their partners, allowing them to build better relationships.[15] It can also improve relationships by allowing people to please their partners whether they are submissive or dominant.[16]

 

There is a great deal of negotiation throughout the whole process of becoming ready for BDSM play. Each step requires consent and discussion. Further negotiation involves establishing a safe word. This word signals to the dominant that the degree of stimulation received or the general atmosphere of the scene is beyond the submissive’s limits.[17] For beginners, it is also recommended to test a safe word during a pilot run of BDSM play to make sure the dominant will honour it in the future.[18] Consider using two safe words: one for lightening up the stimulation and another for completely stopping the scene. Make sure to choose an easy safe word that can quickly come to mind.[19]

 

Keep in mind that as beginners you are experimenting with the basics of something very complex. Although BDSM can be a risky activity, you and your partner should now realize that you have a choice in all matters relating to your experience. For now, focus on keeping your experience simple, safe and enjoyable.[20]


 

[1] Nichols, M. (2006). Psychotherapeutic issues with “kinky” clients: Clinical problems, yours and theirs. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 281-300.

[2] Pillai-Friedman, S., Pollitt, J. L., & Castaldo, A. (2015).      Becoming kink-aware–a necessity for sexuality professionals. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 30(2), 196-210.

[3] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[4] Bezreh, T., Weinberg, T. S., & Edgar, T. (2012). BDSM Disclosure and Stigma Management: Identifying Opportunities for Sex Education. American Journal Of Sexuality Education, 7(1), 37-61. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org.librweb.laurentian.ca/10.1080/15546128.2012.650984

[5] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[6] Miller, P., & Devon, M. (1995). Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism. Fairfield, Connecticut: Mystic Rose Books.

[7] Turley, E. L., King, N., & Butt, T. (2011). ‘It started when I barked once when I was licking his boots!’: a descriptive phenomenological study of the everyday experience of BDSM. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(2), 123-136. doi:10.1080/19419899.2010.528018

[8] Turley, E. L., King, N., & Butt, T. (2011). ‘It started when I barked once when I was licking his boots!’: a descriptive phenomenological study of the everyday experience of BDSM. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(2), 123-136. doi:10.1080/19419899.2010.528018

[9] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[10] Easton, D., & Hardy, J. (2001). The New Bottoming Book. Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[11] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[12] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[13] Easton, D., & Hardy, J. (2003). The New Topping Book. Oakland, CA: Greenery Press.

[14] Hébert, A., & Weaver, A. (2015). Perks, problems, and the people who play: qualitative exploration of dominant and submissive BDSM roles. Canadian Journal Of Human Sexuality, 24(1), 49-62. doi:10.3138/cjhs.2467

[15] Hébert, A., & Weaver, A. (2015). Perks, problems, and the people who play: qualitative exploration of dominant and submissive BDSM roles. Canadian Journal Of Human Sexuality, 24(1), 49-62. doi:10.3138/cjhs.2467

[16] Hébert, A., & Weaver, A. (2015). Perks, problems, and the people who play: qualitative exploration of dominant and submissive BDSM roles. Canadian Journal Of Human Sexuality, 24(1), 49-62. doi:10.3138/cjhs.2467

[17] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[18] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[19] Wiseman, J. (1998). SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (2nd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

[20] Other references include Faccio, E., Casini, C., & Cipolletta, S. (2014) Forbidden games: the construction of sexuality and sexual pleasure by BDSM ‘players’. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(7-8), 752-764. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org.librweb.laurentian.ca/10.1080/13691058.2014.909531; Kleinplatz, P., & Mosser, C. (Eds.). (2006). Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. Binghamton, New York: Harrington Park Press; and Warren, J., & Warren, L. (2008). The Loving Dominant (3rd ed.). Gardena, CA: Greenery Press.

 

Back to School on Language: Making Sex Ed More Inclusive

It’s that time of year again and lots of high school students across Canada have headed back with big changes this year! Ontario has introduced a new sex ed curriculum that includes gender and sexuality from elementary school on; Quebec is piloting its new sex ed program; and the Vancouver school board is continuing to implement a very progressive trans inclusion policy. Championed together with huge victories for gay marriage in the US and giant media coverage of trans issues across Canada, this means that youth are bringing new questions to the table. With so many efforts going into making spaces as safe as possible for diverse groups of students and the people around them, teachers, parents, and school administrators are navigating new and murky waters trying to find ways to make it work. One such technique is adapting language to make it more inclusive.

I coordinate a program called SextEd, where people in Montreal can anonymously text questions that they have about sex, gender, and relationships and a team sends back researched, non-judgmental answers within 24 hours. While this is fantastic for answering questions that young people are too afraid to ask in person, 160 characters doesn’t tell us a lot about who is texting in. Early on, we knew that we would need to check our language to make sure that we weren’t making assumptions and accidentally hurting anyone coming to us for help. After working on this new challenge over a few months, we’ve found a few solid suggestions that work well, and we’re writing here to share them and potentially gain other tips from you in the comment section below! These tips were originally made with sex ed teachers in mind, but anyone who loves talking about sexual health can use them to adapt their own language!

Focus on Body Parts, not the Gender of People who Have Them

First off, as a general practice, we try to talk about body parts and what they do rather than assuming what body parts they have and what information they would need based on their gender. For example, trans women don’t need to get PAP smears, and many men don’t have Adam’s apples. Instead of making assumptions, we talk about body parts and say “people who have [insert body part here],” which takes gender out of the equation and makes what we say into simple truths: “people who have a cervix should get regular PAP tests,” “when penises ejaculate semen, they can release millions of sperm”—easy!

Look out for Gendered Safer Sex or Contraception Messages

Some men take the pill, and there’s a lot of unnecessary gendering when it comes to talking about safer sex. In some cases, this is really easy to fix! Saying “internal condoms” rather than “female condoms” is not only trans-inclusive, it makes it easier to talk about using them for anal sex! For other contraception, sticking to phrases like “people with ovaries” or “people who ejaculate semen” can let you explain what risks are relevant and how people can reduce them—all while staying gender neutral. Talking about safer sex in a gender neutral way can help you be more specific with your content, for example, “Giving analingus” tells your audience a lot more than “giving a woman oral sex.” This lets you talk about the specific risks involved and strategies to minimize them.

Open Up Limiting Statements

Another helpful tip is to avoid making limited statements. Adding words like ‘may,’ ‘might,’ or ‘could,’ can help include needs that are often overlooked. For example, “During puberty, people may start feeling sexually attracted to others” ensures that people who are asexual are not excluded. Saying that ‘many’ or ‘some’ people have experiences helps in the same way—“Many people have penises and vaginas that look like these diagrams” can acknowledge the experiences of people who are intersex without making them the focus. Having direct conversations around intersex anatomy can run the risk of peers reacting strongly and saying hurtful things, but small changes to language are a great way to normalize the incredible diversity of bodies and experiences!

Make a Difference with Inclusive Sex Ed Language!

Changing everyday language can seem daunting to a lot of people, but ultimately, it’s worth the rewards. Sex ed classes or conversations are already tense for most kids. While many can giggle that tension away, it can make a big impact when someone feels that that the information you’re giving doesn’t apply to them or makes something that discounts a big part of their life. Not being considered “normal” can lead anyone to disengage, no matter how relevant the information. When you make small changes in how you talk about sex, people will recognize the effort you’re making and will feel safer, more welcome, and more likely to ask questions that are important to them.

Learning More

If you’re interested in finding more ways to adapt your language, there’s a lot already out there that can help! Cory Silverberg’s fantastic sex ed books for younger kids make sure that a variety of experiences are included and encourage all kids to start learning what’s important to them. Scarleteen works to make its sex ed articles inclusive too! Planned Parenthood Toronto even has a whole website dedicated to sex ed for queer and trans people, giving key information that is usually left out of sex ed. The SextEd website also has a long list of answers to sex ed questions we’ve been asked and Action Canada will be launching a third edition of Beyond the Basics next fall, a great resource for educators on sexuality and sexual health with inclusive language and activities!

Still want more?

Check out our checklist for inclusive sex ed language and these helpful infographics below! (click on the images to enlarge)

Adapting-Sex-Ed-Language-Guelph-Audience-infographic.png

Adapting-Sex-Ed-Language-Guelph-Anatomy-infographic.png

I’ve just recently discovered that my girlfriend has been faking orgasms during sex. We’ve been having sex for about 6 months, and I thought it’s been great. What should I do to make sure that the sex is good for both of us?

co-authored by Renee Komel

Thanks for your question. In this response, you will find information on how often pretending to orgasm during sex generally occurs, the reasons why some women do it, and ways to help facilitate conversation between you and your partner. The following answer will focus on penile-vaginal sexual intercourse (PVI), since this is how I am interpreting what you mean by “sex,” which can mean different things. It’s important to remember that other ways of being sexual can be just as, if not more, pleasurable than PVI!

In order to contextualize, let me first clarify the prevalence of women who fake or pretend to orgasm. In one study, researchers found that 25% of men and 50% of women in their sample had pretended to orgasm at some point in their sexual experiences.[1] Of those women who had experience with PVI, 67% had reported pretending to orgasm; that is, almost seven out of ten women who’ve had this type of sex have pretended to orgasm!

Some other studies suggest that the range is closer to 53-58% of women who have faked orgasms during sex.[2] But either way, the data shows that it’s relatively common for women to fake orgasms during sexual intercourse. Now the question remains, why?

There have been many different reasons uncovered in research for why some women pretend to orgasm. One study suggests that women who pretend to orgasm may do so as a way to protect against infidelity.[3] This study revealed that women who saw their partners as likely to be unfaithful were more likely to fake orgasms during sexual intercourse to prove their commitment to the relationship. But don’t jump to conclusions just yet! This is only one of many reasons why some women pretend to orgasm.

Another study asked participants about why they pretended to orgasm in particular situations.[4] Four-fifths of the women pretended to orgasm to avoid the perceived negative consequences of telling their partner that they did not orgasm during intercourse. One participant reported, “My boyfriend would have probably gotten upset that he didn’t satisfy me” and another that she “didn’t want to hurt his feelings or his ego”.[5]

Women reporting that they pretend to orgasm to avoid hurting their partners’ feelings is a common topic in other studies as well. One such focus-group of young, heterosexual women discussed sexuality, orgasm, and communication.[6] A common theme discussed was that the female orgasm is more important for the male than for the female. They suggested that when men seek to sexually satisfy their partners, their goal is to help them orgasm. Therefore, if their partner doesn’t orgasm, they feel inadequate. Despite this, orgasm is not the only way to measure sexual satisfaction. In fact, some of these women “viewed female orgasm as a ‘bonus’ and not the goal.”[7]

Your question suggests that you may think your partner is not satisfied with the sex you are having. It is important to know that just because she has pretended to orgasm, it doesn’t mean that the sex was not satisfying for her. It is also important to think of how your own education or experience has framed what you believe about female orgasms. You may believe the myths or misunderstanding regarding female sexuality without even knowing it. Please take a look at the Sexual Pleasure section for more accurate information on female orgasm, pleasure, sexuality, and more.

The above explanations as to why some women pretend to orgasm may or may not be the reason that your partner has pretended to orgasm in the past. The only way to know for sure is, well, to ask her. Now for some suggestions to help guide you through this.

In all aspects of a relationship clear communication is very important, especially when it comes to intimate and sexual aspects of a relationship. Research has suggested that men and women vary greatly in their perceptions of orgasm and sex. Some researchers have suggested that communication between partners regarding concerns, expectations, and experiences is especially important for “young couples who are concerned about infrequent female orgasm in their sexual interactions.”[8]

It may also be helpful to consider specific behaviors that your partner may want more of. These could include foreplay, oral sex, manual stimulation, toys, etc. Another thing to consider is that because perceptions and experience differ between the sexes, it is helpful to focus on how sex feels rather than on achieving the orgasm.[9] This shift of focus can even help her orgasm by eliminating that pressure and exploring new experiences!

In all, exploring other areas of sex, like oral sex, may help both of you discover what feels best and can help you to better communicate expectations for sex and orgasm.[10]

Why some women pretend to orgasm during sex is a complex question. What is most important for you is that communication is key here. Being on the same page is essential. Remember not to enter the conversation pointing fingers or being accusatory, but understand that it may not have anything to do with bad sex or being unhappy with you. Good luck!


[1] Muehlenhard, C.L., & Shippee, S, K. (2010). Men’s and Women’s Reports of Pretending Orgasm. Journal of Sex Research, 47(6), 552-567.

[2] Darling, C.A., & Davidson, J.K. (1986). Enhancing Relationships: Understanding the Feminine Mystique of Pretending Orgasm. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 12(3), 182-196; Kaighobadi, F., Shackelford, T.K., & Weekes-Shackelford, V.A. (2012). Do Women Pretend Orgasm to Retain a Mate? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41,1121-125; and Wiederman, M.W. (1997). Pretending Orgasm During Sexual Intercourse: Correlates in a Sample of Young Adult Women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 23(2), 131-139.

[3] Kaighobadi, F., Shackelford, T.K., & Weekes-Shackelford, V.A. (2012). Do Women Pretend Orgasm to Retain a Mate? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41,1121-125.

[4] Muehlenhard, C.L., & Shippee, S, K. (2010). Men’s and Women’s Reports of Pretending Orgasm. Journal of Sex Research, 47(6), 552-567.

[5] Muehlenhard, C.L., & Shippee, S, K. (2010). Men’s and Women’s Reports of Pretending Orgasm. Journal of Sex Research, 47(6), 552-567.

[6] Salisbury, C. M. A., & Fisher, W. A. (2014). “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrences During Heterosexual Sexual Interactions. Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 616-631.

[7] Salisbury, C. M. A., & Fisher, W. A. (2014). “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrences During Heterosexual Sexual Interactions. Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 616-631.

[8] Salisbury, C. M. A., & Fisher, W. A. (2014). “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrences During Heterosexual Sexual Interactions. Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 616-631.

[9] Wiederman, M.W. (1997). Pretending Orgasm During Sexual Intercourse: Correlates in a Sample of Young Adult Women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 23(2), 131-139.

[10] Darling, C.A., & Davidson, J.K. (1986). Enhancing Relationships: Understanding the Feminine Mystique of Pretending Orgasm. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 12(3), 182-196.

Hot Wheels

To me, being sex and body positive is – in essence – celebrating difference. The fact is that all bodies can be confident, and it is that confidence that makes sex positivity such a powerful force. Growing up with what many would call a non-traditional body, my journey to find that positivity has been a defining part of who I am.

Being fortunate enough to be born with a significant physical disability, cerebral palsy if you want to get technical, has meant that I do most things differently from a lot of people. I get out of bed differently, shower differently and even answer nature’s call differently. I have always liked that I do things differently, because it makes me at least somewhat differently. Then there’s sex. For years I thought there was only one way to do it, and my body’s limitations meant that I wasn’t very good at that one way. To be honest I didn’t enjoy it. But then I realized that I do that differently too, and not only did I enjoy it immensely…I was damn good at it.

This light bulb moment for me when I decided to stop dwelling on the limitations that my disability presented to my sex life and started focusing on the parts of my body that I’d been already relying on for years. I have full vocal range, meaning my tongue is more than capable. I also have the use of two fingers on my left hand, and when used right…well, you know. My disability also means that I have regular use of what I consider to be the ultimate sex toy; a power wheelchair with a reclining seat and many other bells and whistles.

In many ways, my disability has been a huge advantage to a great sex life. Firstly, it forces creativity, which is never a bad thing in my book. I’ve been creative my whole life, and the bedroom is no different. Second, it leads to increased communication with me and my partner. We had no choice but to talk, which led to better and more intimate sex. Lastly, my disability has taught me to never take anything for granted, and to enjoy giving pleasure as much as getting it. Again, another one in the positive column if you ask me.

Now, I will be the first to say that my journey from ‘eek, not loving this’ to ‘damn I’m good’ has not been easy. It took a lot of me time and a partner who was willing to explore the pleasures of different, non-traditional sex with me. But through that I suddenly figured out the unavoidable truth about sex and sexuality: do it your way. Nope, I can’t do missionary, and that’s cool. Yeah, my preference is oral, so what? There’s no manual for great sex. Reframe sex to make it work, whatever your limitations, and you will have unlocked the ultimate secret.

I grew up embracing my physical difference. I have now learned to embrace my sexual difference as well, and have learned to celebrate those differences every time they come in contact with each other. I am a firm believer that my disability has been a huge boost to my sex life, and I’m proud to write that. So here’s the takeaway line from this. Whatever your difference, love it…’cause it’s so much more fun that way.

Click here for tips and tools on sexual health and disability

The Subtle Shift: Transforming Boys into WiseGuyz

The Calgary Sexual Health Centre (CSHC) specializes in helping young people learn about sensitive and emotional topics and more importantly, how these learnings can translate into behavioural change. Typically, education about sexual violence prevention and empowerment has been focused on women and girls, unintentionally ignoring the value of men and boys and their role in helping to create solutions. Research is now pointing to young boys as a key population for which to foster healthy, respectful and non-violent behaviours.

WiseGuyz

In 2010, the CSHC launched WiseGuyz, a school-based program created for junior high boys, who are at a critical point in their gender identity development. The program is voluntary and facilitated by male instructors, helping to create a relaxed and safe environment where the boys can examine their beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be a man in the world today.

WiseGuyz uses a progressive model, with significant attention placed on trust building. In the initial phase of the program, the focus is on creating a safe space and building rapport among participants. WiseGuyz curriculum is comprised of four step-by-step modules: 1) Human Rights; 2) Sexual Health; 3) Gender; and 4) Healthy Relationships

Masculinity and Sexuality are Intrinsically Bound

WiseGuyz encourages boys to be open, curious and not feel shame in asking questions about sex and sexual health. Ensuring boys are developing not only the knowledge about appropriate resources, but also the confidence to access them is critical to their sexual health and engagement in healthy relationships.

The research underscores the fact that masculinity and sexuality are intertwined and that sexual health programming must include education about masculine beliefs and stereotypes, and vice versa. The research explored topics like sexual relationships, safe sex, and sexual health care – and how each intersects with healthy masculinity concepts, such as confidence, self-expression and communication.

Research Findings: There was a 19% improvement in confidence in sexual relations for the participants of WiseGuyz. The increase in confidence indicates that the boys understand the importance of communication, boundary setting and discussing mutual expectations within sexual relationships.

Including sexual health within the curriculum provides students with the tools and resources required to inform and empower positive choices. By implementing this subtle, yet significant, shift in approach to educating young males about their sexual health and emotional literacy, WiseGuyz has earned a reputation for being a promising model for relationship change and a reduction in homophobia, bullying and violence.

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Let’s talk Fifty Shades, healthy relationships, and cultural myths

Originally posted by Sexual Health Centre Lunenburg County

We need to talk. Because there’s a lot happening this week. A lot.

First, it’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Week.

What’s that, you ask? Well, Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights organizes an annual campaign to get people talking about healthy sexuality. Organizations like the Sexual Health Centre are raising awareness on social media under the tag #heartyourparts.

(I know, I know. I’m going to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey in a minute.)

Sexual health, though, is about more than sex and what you do with your parts.

As a society, we have few conversations about condoms and pregnancy—and we have fewer conversations about healthy relationships. Sure, we sometimes talk about how to “get” someone. But we don’t often educate people on how to have healthy, fulfilling relationships.

Culture reflects what we think about relationships, but it also tells us how to have relationships. It’s an ongoing dialogue, with one influencing the other—a circle in which we depict relationships a certain way, then use those depictions to inform how we treat ourselves and partners.

Finally, I’m ready to talk about Fifty Shades. Everyone is talking about it, so let’s get it at.

If you haven’t heard about Fifty Shades, it’s a trilogy of novels by E.L. James that have made erotica mainstream. This Valentine’s Day, a movie version of the first book is hitting theatres (see the official trailer here and the Lego trailer here.)

Fifty Shades is a cultural phenomenon, complete with merchandise like teddy bears. nail polish, and laundry detergent.

It features sex. A lot of sex. A lot of sex with whips and other paraphernalia. In fact, it’s one author’s attempt to describe her thoughts about dominant/submissive relationships. Critics have suggested that Fifty Shades does not present an accurate portrayal of this type of relationship, though. (For a detailed analysis, read “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades.)

Another criticism is coming from those who work with survivors of domestic abuse. There has even been a study suggesting a link between reading the novel and being in an unhealthy relationship.

The thing is, Fifty Shades details a particular kind of relationship that has been a staple of romances for a long time. Romances tend to follow a pattern. There are exceptions, of course. There are always are. But patterns emerge from romances published in the Western World, or their cinematic counterparts created in Hollywood.

For one, these stories almost always feature the same characters: a man and woman, usually of European descent, often Protestant, and often those who adhere to middle class ideals, even if their income status differs (typically, it is the woman who has less money).

Two, romances are usually read or watched by women. Not always. This is a generalization. But Harlequins and their ilk are marketed to women, as you can tell from the “For Women Who Love to Read” phrase that accompanies a search for Harlequin on Google.

Finally, romances tend to rely on a myth that has been around since romances became popular in the mid 1700s: women can change men. And there is no man too dark or abusive to change.

Remember Jane Eyre? This Victorian staple features an impoverished young woman who falls under the spell of a wealthy man who is surly and demanding. He buys her lavish things, including fancy clothes. And he cannot seem to escape his wife, who is the original “mad woman in the attic” when she is not sneaking around, watching the new lover sleep, then disappearing into thin air.

Similarly, Fifty Shades features a young woman who is book smart and occasionally speaks her own mind, but is dominated by a man who is wealthy, demanding, and scarred by the past. (And yes, she too wakes up in the middle of the night, wondering if someone is in her room watching her sleep.)

Finally, the young, virginal woman manages to change her man from abusive to loving.

This truly is the great harm of any narrative that details an abusive relationship. It is not that a woman dates a man who treats his partner poorly; that is not the issue. It is that with patience and gentle loving, with understanding and concessions, he eventually comes around and they live happily ever after. She does not end up in a transition house, or in poverty because of a divorce.

In fact, one of the very first romance novels detailed this very myth: Pamela; or, virtue rewarded, a 1740 tome in which a poor young woman fends off her would-be rapist until he decides to marry her. This is acceptable to her, because she is “rewarded” by having changed Mr. B into a devoted husband who lifts her out of poverty with his wealth. (Sound familiar?)

And then, as if it wasn’t enough to market these narratives to adult women, we place them in Disney movies that are consumed by toddlers repeatedly, such as Beauty and the Beast. At least the latest offering, Frozen, shows a villain for what he is.

Ultimately, the real issue is not whether Fifty Shades contains explicit sex; it is that it promotes a certain type of relationship that is over-represented in our culture.

I’m not here to judge. That’s not my job. My job is to help people make choices for themselves by providing them with information related to healthy sexuality.

What we should be doing is opening up the conversation about whether books and movies represent what we want in our relationships. They reflect our lives, and tell us how to live our lives, so what are they saying?

Is it right to watch a movie that shows a relationship with hallmarks of abuse? Or is okay, because it features a lot of positive messages about consent and condom use? And is it acceptable because he eventually comes around? And that he was abused as a child and is also a victim?

If you do read or watch Fifty Shades, reflect on what these stories are saying about relationships. What cultural norms are they upholding? Is the story reflecting a relationship you’d like to experience? What values do you have that make you feel this way? Do you feel comforted by the story because it’s a narrative you know so well?

Sometimes, things come along that start conversations we need to have. For better or worse, Fifty Shades is one such conversation starter. In fact, the dialogue has already started online. Just do a Google search.

Instead of debating whether we should read about sex with whips, we need to discuss whether we are seeing relationships that are healthy, fulfilling, and rewarding for those involved.

If you’d like to read more about positive partnerships, check out Action Canada’s site on Sexual and Reproductive Health Week. Or read through this checklist for healthy relationships to see if you have the right skills to flourish with a partner.

More prevention tools in the box

New science is giving us more options to prevent HIV.

In acknowledgement of Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week, it is fitting to talk about the great advances that have been made in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV.

For about 30 years, sex educators have trained most of us to know that condoms are the most effective form of protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

But today, we have many more tools in the HIV prevention toolbox. Medication that can reduce the risk of an HIV-negative person becoming infected when taken before an exposure (PrEP) or after an exposure (PEP) to HIV. Treatment that can dramatically reduce the risk of an HIV-positive person passing on the virus. Strategies that can further reduce the risk of infection when combined with another prevention option.

More choices are always welcome. But with more choices, there are more factors to consider.

PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is the ongoing use of anti-HIV medications by an HIV-negative person to reduce their risk of HIV infection. Several studies show that the use of a daily pill called Truvada as PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by over 90% if used consistently and correctly. But if the pill isn’t taken regularly, it’s less effective.

PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, is the use of anti-HIV medications by an HIV-negative person to reduce the risk of HIV infection from a single exposure to HIV. It needs to be started as soon as possible (but generally within 72 hours) after an exposure and involves taking medications every day for a full month. PEP is not meant to be used as a regular method of preventing HIV infection, but only in the case of an emergency.

Treatment as prevention is a secondary benefit of antiretroviral treatment (ART), the medication used by people living with HIV. In addition to improving the health of an HIV-positive person, ART can reduce the amount of HIV (viral load) in the bodily fluids to undetectable levels – lowering the risk of HIV transmission through anal and vaginal sex. Several studies show that ART can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by more than 90% if used consistently and correctly.

Keep in mind that these three prevention strategies only reduce the risk for HIV; they have no effect on the risk for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And since the presence of STIs can increase the risk of getting or passing on HIV, regular STI testing and (if needed) treatment is important to make sure these prevention strategies are as effective as possible.

To reduce the risk of other STIs, condoms – both external (“male”) and internal (“female”) – are still the most effective prevention strategy. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, against STIs or HIV. Research suggests many people struggle to use condoms effectively, making its practical effectiveness against HIV infection, even when used consistently, anywhere from 70 to 80%. Even if a condom is used perfectly, some STIs can still be transmitted because a condom doesn’t cover all the parts of the body where these infections can be found. But if a condom is used correctly and doesn’t break, slip or leak, then there is no risk of HIV transmission because an exposure to HIV cannot occur.

All prevention strategies have their own advantages and limitations. But what they all have in common is that none of them are effective unless they are used correctly and consistently. How well a particular prevention strategy works can vary from person to person, so it’s important for individuals to choose the tools that work best for them.

Insight Theatre: Peer-to-peer, youth-led sex ed theatre troupe

For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been heading up a peer-to-peer, youth-led sex ed theatre troupe with Planned Parenthood Ottawa called Insight Theatre. Each year, we train a new group of high school youth in sexual and reproductive health, anti-oppression and performance skills. Once the youth are trained, they take the lead in creating a series of 15 or so skits on sex ed topics that they present to other youth at schools and community centres.

I’ve learned a lot in working with this project, but one of the most valuable lessons has been how youth access sexual health info and who they trust to get it right. In 2011, the Ontario Student Trustees Association reported that nearly half of all students were dissatisfied with the school-based sexual health education that they had received. The organization surveyed middle school and high school students across Ontario and found that 45% of respondents did not find their sex education classes to be useful or relevant to their own experiences. At the local level, the Ottawa Youth Sex Survey 2.0 found that 47% of participants did not feel comfortable seeking sexual health information from their teachers. But, this same group of respondents ranked schools as one of the top five locations in which they were likely to seek sexual health information.

Study after study has shown us that youth predominately get their information from peers and the internet. It is of course important to arm teachers, parents and other adults with accurate, evidence-based sexual health information, but we also need to equip youth with detailed sexual health info so that they can make the best use of this tendency toward peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing.

In my first year in this job, I started noticing how much casual, day-to-day peer education was happening between the Insight troupe members and their friends and classmates. In the bathroom at school and on a couch at a party, the troupe members were handing out free condoms, correcting misinformation and giving people info on where to go for STI testing, abortion care and affordable contraception. So we decided to formalize that part of the program. We gave the troupe members condoms to keep in their backpacks and created an information package so that they had the info they needed to refer their peers to local sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services as questions came up.

If youth are more comfortable talking to other youth about sex, then let’s train youth to talk to other youth about sex. There are lots of great sex education initiatives out there but, when it comes to really engaging youth, you have to pay attention to what they do and why. Youth trust word of mouth. They trust their friends. They trust the internet. Unless someone they trust has vouched for you, or you’ve proven upside down and sideways that you can be trusted, you’re not likely to get very far in terms of giving advice or being seen to have credible information.

Another big lesson I’ve learned in this job is that sex ed tends to go better when you indulge in a little infotainment. Over my last 15 years as an educator, I’ve noticed how much deeper arts-based educational initiatives go when it comes to youth and the ways they integrate information. Want to talk about anti-oppression? Analyze pop songs. Want to discuss consent? Show clips of TV shows. And, if you want them to listen when you talk about sex, present them with scenes that look and sound like their lives. Quote the TV shows they like, make reference to the songs they’re listening to and give them a chance to talk to their peers about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Promoting sexual health is about more than access to care

My time in sex ed class as a student in the Maritimes was pretty typical. Our curriculum consisted mostly of creating grisly poster boards of untreated STIs that were posted in the bathrooms to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared to even dream of a sexual partner, and whispered stories of the social purgatory that awaited if you became pregnant.

Later, sitting in a university classroom I was introduced to the idea that health isn’t just about the absence of an ailment or disease. Rather, health is a complex set of factors that lead to overall wellbeing for the individual and the community. These ideas, created by women of colour and Indigenous women who saw the ways in which a pro-choice movement based only on access to care failed marginalized people and failed to address the root causes of inequity, were light-years away from the ideas of sexual health I had been taught in grade school.

Sexual health is not simply the absence of an unwanted pregnancy or STI. Promoting sexual health means cultivating a space where people are able to access the information they need to make decisions about their bodies, where social determinants of health are the basis of policy, and where friends, family, medical professionals, and service providers recognize and advocate for social justice that will allow people to make those decisions in a safe environment.

Sexual health, or a space where we can truly Heart Our Parts, is a space where not only do people have access to quality healthcare, but have access to evidence-based comprehensive sexual health education, affordable birth control, services close to their communities, medical professionals who understand queer and trans health, and an approach to services and education that addresses the ways that racism, colonialism and transphobia continue to impact the sexual health of individuals and communities.

For sexual health educators working in communities, it doesn’t take long to realize that effectively working towards building sexual health doesn’t just depend on having free condoms available (although that certainly helps!), it is a multifaceted fight.

While I worked as a sexual health educator in Nova Scotia, I met many young people who were desperate to find affordable birth control. With few options at the time, they were often not able to find what they needed. These young people were often at the intersection of poverty, rural isolation and youth. Unfortunately rather than seeing their health as a complex set of social factors, people in positions of power often judged them on the basis of whether or not they managed to avoid pregnancy, despite the barriers.

While being able to provide affordable birth control through programs like The Compassionate Contraceptive Assistance Program (CCAP) were critically important, it was necessary to simultaneously work alongside those activists and advocates working to address the factors that marginalized these young people.

At its best, sexual health education is an important tool of reproductive justice. Going beyond the birds and the bees or rushed condom demonstration, comprehensive sexuality health education can illuminate the broader social context of sex, sexuality and gender, and give young people the tools they need to grapple with power structures, gate keepers and the social context of their future sexual and romantic relationships.

It’s important to recognize that the majority of people working in sexual health or teaching it in schools in the Maritimes (including myself) are white. Racism and colonialism heavily impact sexual health. The experiences that people of colour and Indigenous peoples have at school, in the doctor’s office, and within the justice system, demonstrates that a sexual health strategy or program that fails to include the voices of people of colour or Indigenous peoples is insufficient.

Advocating for comprehensive sexuality education that includes discussion about social factors as well as access to services gives young people a chance to begin to learn about their bodies in a social context, and is a critical step in achieving sexual health for our communities.