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By Amy Jo Goddard
As the world experiences new health needs, boundaries, and ways of taking care of ourselves during COVID, we are being tasked to interact in ways that mirror how we show care in intimacy and sex. From how we obtain and respect consent and individual choice to establishing our agency over our own bodies and health, the skill sets needed in our human relationships right now are quite similar to how we create healthy intimacy and communication.
Most of us have been in some kind of sheltering-in-place for over two months now, and people are antsy. We want to release some of our restraint. We want to ask for more in our relationships. We want touch.
We can liken our negotiations around risk to a safer sex conversation. You may be a Level 3 (somewhat open) for COVID risk tolerance and you might have friends or family members who are a 1 (strict) or a 0 (very strict). If someone has strict boundaries about their safer sex protocols, it’s not your job to convince them latex barriers aren’t that important or that you are a risk worth taking. The person with the highest protocols gets to be respected in a safer sex negotiation, and you get to make it work for both parties. If it can’t work, then there is no shame for either person, it’s just not a match.
What’s key is that you are able to talk openly about your needs, boundaries, and requests and respect the needs, boundaries, and requests of others. Shaming someone for having boundaries you don’t like won’t get you more sex. It will get you the boot. Making someone wrong for having less of a boundary isn’t your place—you can choose to say “No thank you” and move on, and they get to do what feels right for them.
We don’t all share the same risk tolerance. Many factors go into our decisions about what risks we take—everything from how well we know someone, how much we desire interaction with them, what our current level of need is, our past history, our health status, and personality factors that relate to risk-taking. This list is the same whether it’s about safer sex or who we want to include in our COVID pod and at what level of interaction.
Risk-taking and calculating the risks we’re willing to take, and where our boundaries lie, is a part of daily life. We calculate risks in business and with our money. We calculate risks with collaborators and who to pay to do what.
Many of us are not great at setting these boundaries. We are used to doing what others want of us, whether at work, in intimate relationships, or right now, during COVID. All of us face decisions on a daily basis about when we will speak up to say, “You’re too close,” “I can’t work late on Friday,” or “Not without a condom.”
Our Two Greatest Fears
The same fears come up across this spectrum consistently. We are afraid of being judged for our need or boundary. What will they think of me? Will they think I’m a prude? Not a team player? Paranoid?
Secondly, we fear the rejection we might experience if we say what we need. Will they go away? Will they not want to date me anymore if I don’t do the sexual thing they want? Will they want to fire me for not doing what they want at work, no matter what? Will I lose the contract? Will I not be able to see my friends at all?
The fear of judgment and fear of rejection are interlinked and play into many of our decisions as humans, who are tender and want to be loved. They touch the core of who we are because the fear of judgment relates to whether we feel good enough for our self-worth and our self-acceptance. The more wobbly our own self-worth, the more we will be impacted by our fears that others will judge us; because at the end of the day, we are judging ourselves.
The fear of rejection touches an even more core place: Am I lovable? Am I worthy of love? Will people love me and stay? Or am I not worth it for someone to stay? Any of us who have navigated an early abandonment by a parent knows that fear, whether they physically left, were too drunk, high, sick, or checked out that they couldn’t be there, or were working three jobs and just couldn’t show up the way they wanted.
The major drivers for choices in our human interactions impact us daily. The more attuned we are to ourselves, the more self-awareness we have developed, the less we will be wobbly in our choices and boundaries. Obviously in our current world, information about safety and transmission changes almost daily, so we are in a constant state of evaluation and re-evaluation about the choices we are making.
How to Navigate Choices
What will always carry us and support us in any of these negotiations remains the same: developing communication skills that allow us to bring ourselves forward and respect the voice and choices of those we are negotiating with. Assessing your own boundaries and needs requires that you know what you want and that you are self-aware enough to know when a boundary is crossed. Being able to address that boundary being crossed means you are empowered to use your voice and are willing to take a risk that could result in judgment or rejection.
We can all do well to practice right now in our COVID world without shaming or blaming others for having different needs. We can get curious about where people we care about stand, and accept them where they are. We can up our capacity to negotiate with kindness, collaboration, and care. We can say how we feel about what is happening and not feel like we will be made wrong for our feelings.
I am making a documentary film called At Your Cervix, which will be about consent violations in medicine and the many ways women’s bodies in particular are disregarded and violated. The pervasiveness of these consent violations in our culture is tremendous. We get to learn how to speak up with medical providers and other authorities. We get to set our boundaries in every scenario where our body is put at risk. We get to negotiate what is right for us, no matter who in the room has the greater pedigree or the biggest desire.
I can think of countless times when I raised my voice in my business about something that didn’t sit well with me and how a better outcome always emerged. I can think of times when I didn’t and wished I had spoken up. I can look back at my history of medical care and see similar patterns. These are moments that stick with us—when we made a choice or didn’t speak up for the choice we wanted to make, and the consequences of that.
If we could all learn to do this negotiation well, our relationships would be much stronger and our agency over our own bodies, health, and lives would shift dramatically, bending towards honoring the personhood of each one of us. The possibility that we could create a culture of emotionally intelligent, powerful communicators out of this mess we’re in is big a silver lining. Let’s practice and get really good at this. Every negotiation is a step towards your own agency and honoring the consent of others. We use this skill every single day.
Hailing from Military Dad and Recovering-Catholic-Proudly-Sandra-Dee-Mom, Amy Jo Goddard had no other choice but to become a sex educator just to sail the shaky waters of human experience and help her family survive. Actually they don’t really take sex advice from her.
But thousands of others have—Amy Jo is author of Woman on Fire: Nine Elements to Wake up Your Erotic Energy,Personal Power and Sexual Intelligence and co-author of the best-selling classic Lesbian Sex Secrets for Men, now in second edition. She earned her Master’s degree in Human Sexuality Education at New York University and has been teaching and speaking about feminism and sexuality for over two decades, including her TEDx talk “Owning Your Sexual Power.” She facilitates sexual empowerment programs and trains sexual empowerment coaches and educators. Her Fire Woman Retreat is an annual sexual empowerment event for her tribe of women who are on the path. She also works with companies to create workplace cultures that honor consent, equality, stellar communication and collaborative leadership. Her forthcoming film At Your Cervix, examines patient consent and bodily autonomy in gynecology and medical education, aiming to end unethical practices that harm both patients and medical students.