Over Thanksgiving I spent some time with my awesome 18-year-old niece. I’m in need of your wisdom about a situation I’m trying to wrap my 30-year-old, feminist, protective brain around.
My niece lives in a small town, far from her friends, and has been dealing with some depression. She told me that she’s been driving to meet up and have sex with dudes from Tinder. There have been at least two. I think they’re in their 20s, maybe older. She’s been kind of reticent about details, so I’m thinking there might be some more that would make me more concerned.
When she first told me, I was like “Cool! Sex-positive! Get it girl! Always tell your friends where you’ll be! Condomscondomscondoms! Get tested! Call me any time!” But the more I think about it, the more concerned I am about her emotional health, and the way that she might be using sex less-than-safely.
I’m certain that she hasn’t had pleasure-positive or consent-focused sex-ed and I worry that all the terrible messages about sex that accompany female socialization are setting up this amazing young woman to get hurt.
Are there ways I can encourage her to take care of herself without shaming her?
— Sex-Posi Auntie
Dear Sex-Posi Auntie,
Use your cool, younger-aunt status to your advantage and find a way to talk to your niece about the difference between sex for sex’s sake and sex that feels good, affirming, and consensual. This conversation could be sparked by a sex scene in a movie, a lyric in a song, or you could get real intentional and hold a little viewing of my TEDx talk, which talks about just this — how young people learn about sex in a way that dangerously divorces it from sexual pleasure and consent.
The sex-positivity movement has done wonders in the ways it’s prioritized pleasure over disease, choice over shame, and health over stigma. However, sex-positivity can be wrongly conflated with “all sex is good sex, and the more sex, the better!” “Sex positive” doesn’t mean that all sexual experiences are inherently positive or that we should ignore the things that can be negative about sex.
Rather than throw a sex-posi blanket over your niece’s experiences, lead her through an exploration of the nuances of healthy sex that honors her sexual agency. The World Health Organization’s great definition of “sexual health” prioritizes pleasure and consent:
“A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination. and violence. For sexual health to be maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected, and fulfilled.”
Examine both sides of the sexual coin with your niece — both what feels rewarding, safe, and empowering and what feels scary, unhealthy, or unsafe. Tell her about sexual agency (the ability to say both “yes” and “no,” to negotiate sexual desires, and to assert her decisions) with a focus on the ability part. Depression, lowered self-esteem, power differentials due to age gaps, and her limited social network all undercut this clutch piece of “ability” when considering her sexual agency. Keep it sex-positive by looking toward ways she can increase her sexual agency for healthier, safer sexual experiences.
My mom sat me down for The Sex Talk when I was in high school after she found out I was on the birth control pill. At the end she asked me “Does the sex you’re having feel good?” I was properly mortified by this question and I responded with a flippant, angry “Gross! Of course it does! Weird, Mom!” But this question was the beginning of my ability to critically examine my earliest sexual experiences for consent, agency, and pleasure.
Which is to say, Auntie, even if your niece brushes all of your efforts off out of embarrassment, annoyance, or fear, your steadiness will make an impact whether now, later, or forever. So get to it! Follow up with great teen resources like Scarleteen.com.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sexual advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.