“Truth builds trust.” Marilyn Suttle
“I feel so stupid!” my client moaned. “Oh, sure, we talked about safer sex and we used protection. But we didn’t talk about what having sex meant to each of us. Turns out, he just wanted sex but no attachment. I thought he seemed like he’d be a great boyfriend—that’s why I had sex with him. I feel like such an idiot.”
My client’s lament demonstrates the importance of what Steve Bearman, PhD refers to as “the other safer sex conversation,” in which potential partners have a candid discussion before having sex about what it is going to mean to each of them if they have sex. And if they are incompatible in their expectations or the meaning they attach to having sex then they can mindfully assess whether to have sex anyway or take a pass. Please follow the above link and watch the video on Dr. Bearman’s website—it is short, clear and effectively makes the point.
People attach a multitude of meanings to sex:
- “I just want to have fun—I really don’t want a relationship right now;”
- “I only have sex if I’m serious about a person and want to move deeper into a relationship with them;”
- “I like to have sex with my friends—it makes me feel safe and deepens our friendship. But I’m polyamorous, so it doesn’t mean I’m making a commitment;”
- “I’m having sex to help me get over being date raped. I want to enjoy sex again.”
- “I’ve been attracted to men for a long time and want to explore that now. I’m trying to not worry about whether I’m “gay” or not—I just want the experience.”
- “Sex for me is spiritual. I really tap into a greater energy flow during sex.”
- “If I have sex with someone, it means we’re going to be exclusive. Isn’t that a reasonable expectation?”
In each of the above examples, the speaker is sharing a meaning they attach to sex—and consequently, an expectation of what they believe will happen or not happen during and after sex. Where people share the same meaning and expectations, they can have sex without experiencing an emotional hangover. Where people fail to speak their expectations and have sex with someone who attaches a very different meaning, they may feel angry, confused, deceived or devastated after sex. Why take that risk? Yet, it happens all the time!
Having the emotional health safer sex conversation minimizes emotional risk in the same way that the sexual health conversation minimizes health-based risks. It doesn’t automatically mean people with differing perspectives will decide not to have sex: but it gives each person the option to make an informed choice.
Sex with new partners always carries some level of emotional risk that even candid talk cannot remove. However, empowered communication ensures that what’s important to each person is spoken out loud, enabling each to make a clear-headed, mindful decision about whether to go forward. That’s what empowerment is all about.