Nov 242012

Most of the time when people ask if being a sex educator means I have a better sex life, I reply, “Knowledge is power.” Being well-informed about sex makes me more relaxed, more creative, and more confident about sex.

But there’s an exception.

When I spend a lot of time doing sexual assault stuff – prevention work, survivor support, policy, etc etc – it absolutely drags down my own sexual health. Absolutely.

I’m gloriously partnered with someone who totally Gets It about consent and respect and pleasure and joy in sexual experiences. But it’s like with smoking: an insidious thing about trying to quit tobacco is that even thinking about how glad you are not to be smoking any more, can trigger a craving. Even my gratitude and appreciation of my partner’s respect triggers awareness of what it’s like for people who don’t have such respectful partners, who don’t feel as comfortable with consent and non-consent, and for people who comfortably and unthinkingly assert their own sexual will, not recognizing or not caring that they are imposing their will on someone consented only because they felt coerced, or hasn’t said yes, or who said no and didn’t get heard.

I mean, I can’t even hear the song, “Kiss the Girl” from “The Little Mermaid” without thinking, “Ugh, rape culture.” So yeah, doing sexual assault work annihilates my sexual interest, dragging it into the swamp of rape culture and drowning it like a sack of kittens. Kittens that would otherwise have enjoyed some tumbling playtime with friends, followed by a nap and a leisurely bath.

Solutions? Non-sexual touching and intimacy. Time to mourn, to move through the emotional tunnel and come out the other side. Paying attention to pleasure, all kinds of pleasure, all sources of joy. Mindfulness and lovingkindness meditations for myself and the survivors and the co-survivors and the perpetrators. And sometimes, day-long binges of “Pride and Prejudice.” And when it gets really serious, a couple days at Ocean House, having massages and pedicures and things.

Anyway. What brought on this sudden “Ugh” moment? Why, something actually pretty interesting! This video is from Emory University’s Project Respect, out of their Office of Health Promotion (trigger warning, inevitably):

emily nagoski

  8 Responses to “how a sex nerd copes”

Comments (8)
  1. This is what I’ve been feeling this week. Thank you.

    I’ve been reminded of some really fucked up attitudes people hold about how much power or control women have. Beyond crazy politicians, some people I usually respect said some very sexist, rape culture things recently. It stirred up memories from my childhood, an awareness of how conflicted my mom was. She was raised to be a caretaker/family laborer, sexually abused by a family member and told she was lying; she put herself through college and married a man who found her independence and strength attractive. I don’t think she ever fully reconciled how much her family hurt her and how wrong they were; it made for some mixed messages being passed down to her kids. I didn’t know she had been sexually abused until I was a late teenager, but once I did I understood my own fear of men and sense of vulnerability (very conflicting feelings for me – they’re much larger and deeper than my own small traumas would elicit).

    All that culminated in feeling much less sexually interested than usual. I’m usually up for anything but this week I just wanted lots of non-sexual loving. I’m also lucky to have a partner who is thoughtful, perceptive, and deeply respectful. I’m glad my daily life is very different from what is in my periphery.

  2. Avoid eye-contact? Jeebus.

    Through the whole first section I was thinking “oh yeah, I see what they’ve done here, I know what’s coming”. But I was still pretty astonished by the descriptions.

    And in terms of survivors, Emily, have you seen Project Unbreakable?

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I started a job a few months ago working with domestic violence victims (which also involves a lot of sexual assault) and it’s becoming exhausting to the point where I’m not sure if I should continue. I’ve been looking for resources on dealing with burnout and haven’t been able to find any. I knew it was intense going in (the average timespan with the job is 3 years) but hearing how someone else deals with the ugly parts of a job is incredibly helpful.

  4. and for people who comfortably and unthinkingly assert their own sexual will, not recognizing or not caring that they are imposing their will on someone consented only because they felt coerced

    Just this past week, I was trying to describe this very situation to a guy who really didn’t get it. He was talking as if all he had to do was keep pressuring a woman into a date or into sex even if she declined his advances. His modus operandi seemed to be all about “her ‘no’ doesn’t matter because eventually she will say ‘yes’ to somebody and it might as well be me”. Wearing somebody down until they agree is just another form of coercion.

    • Ugh, god. Props to you for bothering to try to explain this to him – it sounds like he’s among the 5% of men who, according to David Lisak’s research, commit 60% of the sexual assaults.

      On the rare occasions that I find myself able to have these conversation with rapists who don’t identify as rapists, I go for the “good lover” angle, but I have no idea if it’s effective because I generally doubt that the other person’s pleasure enters their minds. “If she’s just saying yes to get you to leave her to hell alone, she’s going to have a terrible time and you’ll be building a well-earned reputation as a shitty lover. Wouldn’t you rather she actually WANT to have sex with you?”

      And they’re probably thinking, “As long as I get to put my penis in a vagina, what do I care whether or not she wanted it?”


      My romantic euphemism has suggested I make a decision-tree type flow chart along these lines, called “Am I a rapist?” .

      • On the rare occasions that I find myself able to have these conversation with rapists who don’t identify as rapists …

        I suspect deep down they know they are rapists but are in denial, or simply narrowly define rape to only include rape accompanied by physical assault so they can tell themselves they never raped anyone. (side note: Some Republicans in Congress, including Paul Ryan, tried to define rape that narrowly as you likely already know.)

        I doubt the “good lover” angle works either.

        If you ever make that decision tree, I’d like to see it.

        • Very true. In surveys that include questions like, “Have you ever raped anyone?” and also “Have you ever had sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with you?”, everybody says no to the first one, but rapists will say yes to the second one. As long as you don’t put the R word on it, they’ll admit it. I wish I remembered which study this was found in–it was on American military men, finding out whether or not there’s a higher concentration of rapists in the military than in the general population is all I remember. Anybody know?

  5. Oh. This is what’s been wrong with me for the past six months. Part of it, anyway. I’ve gotten so sensitive that, even though my gentleman caller is gentle and kind and respectful and always stops as soon as I say stop, or don’t, or no, or “eurghmehhummmmm…. nyeh…” (you know the noise) (and as quickly after I start closing my legs or pushing him away as he notices that I’m not grabbing at him in passion, which is within a second or two, which is reasonable to me normally), I still get all jumpy and scared when he doesn’t psychically know that I don’t want something before he’s even tried. I think it’s time to slow down for a little while. I need me some affection.

    On the other hand, he didn’t notice that something was HELLA WRONG when I started violently crying when he touched my breast, and then he bought my ridiculous “I just don’t want you to go hooooome” lie (seriously? Seriously. Dude, when was the last time I cried over that? Never, that’s when. And I’m seeing you again in two days. Dude. I’m lying. Duh.) when the appropriate response to that is a hug and a “no, what’s really wrong?” and then NOT trying to keep sexing me up when I’m STILL CRYING. And taking my hand off you when you put it on there. And vaguely sexy-breathing at your ear so you can’t see my face* while you give up (immediately, I feel I should note) and do it yourself. Dude. Come on.

    I’m absolutely confident that he didn’t Halt All Sexiness at once for all the same young-inexperienced-American-whose-only-script-for-sexual-badtimes-is-makeup-sex reasons as I once couldn’t stop for a guy because, he’s participating, right? Even if it was half-hearted and stiff and cold. Where you know they want to say no because you’re wondering why they haven’t already, but because they haven’t you’re not sure whether they really want to stop or you’re projecting or misreading something, and what if they do want to continue, they’re just like that today? And somehow stopping for a little bit to check in** just doesn’t occur to you because, you understand with a whoosh of wet guilt four years later, who has a script for that?

    Looks like it’s time for me to head on over to the fluffy-kittens floor of the internet, because even my illogical feelings weren’t always this sensitive. Thanks for the clue that this might be part of the problem. Hopefully I can re-calibrate quickly.

    *I do this all the time, only, normally it’s because he likes it, not because I’m trying to hide my face. BUT HOW WOULD HE KNOW THAT?!

    **which he did, I just lied to him like an irresponsible person*** and then feel like it’s his fault because feelings are illogical, even if they’re real and true.

    ***also the Myth of the Boner Werewolf is strong in this one

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