When I was 19, I volunteered at my local rape crisis center. During one of our volunteer meetings, we were asked to journal about a question: What would sex be like if you felt safe in the world?
No one had ever asked me that before. No one had ever helped me to connect the pieces together between consent, communication, and living in a world that is not safe for all of us. By that point in my life I had been teaching sexual health and consent classes, staffing crisis help lines, and providing peer support around a wide array of sexual and reproductive health issues. Yet this question stopped me in my tracks. It was too big. Too scary to really look at. Sometimes it still is.
Like most people in the United States, I wasn’t taught in school how to ask for what I wanted, much less how to know what I wanted. Like so many trans/nonbinary people of my generation, I didn’t grow up with words for my experiences or the opportunity to know that I could be anyone different than who I was told I was.
What could the world be like for all of us if that was different? How could we connect with each other if we grew up learning about the ways that all sorts of bodies look, how differently they can be shaped, how many genders there are, how many different ways there are to be in relationships with each other? How much more fun and joy could we have if we weren’t taught to be ashamed of our bodies, other people’s bodies, our sexualities or lack thereof?
I think about how all of that would change so much of our lives. Wouldn’t it be easier to take care of each other as we age, as we live with disabilities, if we didn’t feel shame about asking for help using the toilet or shower? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were taught to learn what brings us joy – whether it’s flowers or orgasms or help getting the groceries – so that we could share that more easily with others?
How much violence could we prevent if we taught each other the skills to have empathy, to respect people’s boundaries, to communicate and listen to others, to ask for consent, and to value each person and their control over their own choices?
Open, honest, trans/nonbinary-affirming conversations about sex, bodies, and relationships are part of our efforts to prevent sexual violence. These conversations can and should happen in families, in communities, among friends, and in schools or other places of learning. And it’s not too late to start now. It’s never too late to learn something new about yourself and those around you.
So let’s take some time to reimagine what our education around sex, bodies, and relationships could be like.
- What are things that you wish you’d learned sooner?
- Thinking about the messages that you’ve heard that hurt – ones that cause shame, fear, hate – where did you hear those?
- What do you wish you’d heard instead?
How can we make it normal to ask questions about our gender(s)? What if we learned about a variety of body shapes that were intersex-inclusive, a variety of genders, and then got to say for ourselves what names and labels worked for us? What if we got to change that over our lifetimes without shame, fear, or consequences?
Imagine learning about a variety of relationship structures – from polyamory, to open relationships, to monogamous couples or throuples, to platonic life partners. We could learn about asexuality and being aromantic. We could realize that not everyone will want a relationship, and that’s okay. Not every relationship will happen in a certain way, and it’s fine to be in a relationship that will never result in living together or getting a license from the state to certify the relationship. Could this in turn help us to invest more deeply in our friendships and chosen families – rather than the default of prioritizing romantic partnerships? (PS – research shows we need our friends. They make us happier and support our well-being. Let’s take care of each other.)
What about sex? How would sex be redefined if we talked about so many of the different ways that people come together for pleasure, or stay apart for pleasure? We could make it normal to talk about kink, BDSM, not wanting sex, wanting solo sex, figuring out what we like, and how sexuality changes over time. We could take away shame and stigma, which might make it easier to ask our healthcare providers questions when something starts itching or doesn’t feel right. We could learn how to decrease the spread of infections without calling people “clean” and “dirty.” There are just so many possibilities.
And all of the above would be that much better if our world was safe. It can be hard to focus on our bodies or our relationships when we’re scared, traumatized, stressed, worried about where we’ll eat or sleep, or what kind of world kids will grow up in. And we can’t wait to have that world before we talk about our lives now and get chances to connect with others in ways that work for all of us.
FORGE’s 30 Days of Action has an article about trans/nonbinary inclusive sex education. Check it for details about sexuality/relationship education in and outside of schools and resources for starting conversations with children.
Here are some other things that we could do to create more affirming conversations about sex, bodies, and relationships:
Seek out education
- Look into sexuality or relationship education for all ages.
- Seek out information about terms or identities you are less familiar with. For example, despite the fact that almost 2% of the population is intersex, a term used to describe variations in chromosomes, body configuration and other “sex characteristics,” very few of us learn about what that means or hear from intersex people about their experiences.
- Read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts that show a variety of genders, bodies, and relationship structures. Listen to the experiences of people who are trans/nonbinary, polyamorous, asexual, aromantic, kinky, and so on.
- Check out kids’ books. There are more and more books for young people that teach consent, are trans-affirming. There’s no reason adults can’t also read and learn from these.
Notice your assumptions
- Take some time to explore your thoughts about bodies, sex, and relationships.
- Do you think there’s a right way to do any of the above?
- Do you find yourself thinking, “Everyone wants to find that special person,” or “Sex is a normal part of growing up. Everyone does it.” What would it mean if that wasn’t true?
- Talk to the people in your life about their thoughts.
- Ask things like, “What does it mean to you to be dating someone?” or “What do you think makes a relationship a good one?”
- Many of us, self-included, have assumptions about relationships that we don’t always name. What are they for you? What are they for the people in your life?
Take time to notice your own experiences
- Take care of yourself as you do this. The majority of trans/nonbinary people have experienced some form of sexual violence. Even those who haven’t may have had experiences that bring up bad memories. Take time to create a safer environment to reflect in. Perhaps get a favorite blanket or cup of tea. Set a timer so that you have a set limit for your reflection time. Whatever steps will help you feel safer to self-reflect.
- If you haven’t ever thought about it, think about your relationship to your body, your gender(s), your sexuality (if any). What do you like? Who do you like? What are you curious about?
- What are some of the things that could help you get to know yourself better?
- What messages have you internalized that you want to get rid of? Are there thoughts or beliefs that make you feel bad about yourself? Where did they come from? What could you believe instead?
I want to live in a world where we all get to explore who we are. I want to live in a world where we all have the access to information, language, resources, and healthcare that helps us be who we are. I want to live in a world where who we are gets to change over time. I believe that we are part of making that world when we all get to talk about and learn about sex, relationships, and bodies in ways that are inclusive of our diverse and beautiful existences.