A series of conversations with community members and professionals.
A conversation with Sarah Lorrimar – Sexual and Reproductive Health Coordinator and Sexologist
What comes to mind when you think about pleasure? A quick google search defines it as “an experience that feels good, that involves the enjoyment of something” and “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment”.
We tend to know what is needed for us to experience pleasure – the things that make us feel good and happy. Yet, when it comes to sexual pleasure, many of us are reluctant to explore and share what we need to enjoy pleasurable sex. This is no fault of our own, pleasure is often left out of the conversation in sexuality education. When it’s missed in our education and it’s not discussed as we’re growing up, people are left to develop the skills to communicate and navigate pleasure and intimacy on their own, which can be isolating, overwhelming and uncomfortable.
Without consistent exploration and understanding of our own needs, it can be very difficult to express these when intimate with others. So how are we meant to know what pleasure looks and feels like, or how to achieve it? We sat down with our Sexual and Reproductive Health Coordinator to discuss…
How would you describe pleasure?
It’s important to think of pleasure as more than just a sexual experience. We can experience pleasure in our everyday lives – think about delicious meals you’ve eaten, laying in the sun, or laughing with friends. These are things that make us feel good. We can experience pleasure in so many ways and in so many different areas of our life. We all experience pleasure differently – it’s really valuable to explore and do what feels good for you.
Why is pleasure important?
For a lot of us, pleasure is something we don’t often prioritise. We wait until we’re exhausted, until we’ve met the needs of others, before we allow ourselves rest. This leaves us feeling disconnected from our bodies, our emotions and hyper focused on doing and doing. It’s important to incorporate pleasure into our everyday lives because it so directly impacts our wellbeing and how we interact with other people. Our self-worth does not come down to how productive we are.
It can be hard to make time for pleasure when life gets busy. What kind of impact does this have on sex?
We consume so much information, from the moment we get up to the moment we fall asleep. Whether it be from our phones, Netflix, work, study, conversations, and relationships – our brains are working hard to keep up. This constant stimulation often leaves little time for us to be mindful of what we are doing and this can have an impact on how present we are during sex. Our brain and our body are interconnected, and we need to relax our minds to relax our bodies. Stress and pleasure don’t go together. When we are constantly wired and our nervous system is in switched on it’s hard for us to switch off and be present in our bodies. For many people the mind wanders during sex and we miss out on the experience. With mindfulness we can be more aware of sensations in our body and be more in-tune with the thoughts and emotions that come up.
This is where mindfulness comes in – being aware of the present moment. Not only is this a good practice in our everyday lives but incorporating mindfulness during sex also helps people notice and experience sensations of pleasure more fully.
If you find your mind wandering during sex, or any time when thoughts are overwhelming you – try taking some deep and slow breaths from your belly and name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This is a short practice that can help bring your awareness to the present moment.
What are some other barriers to us experiencing pleasure?
Everyday stressors of life, shame around sex, shame around our bodies, and internalising unrealistic ideas around what our bodies should look like, are all things that can disrupt sexual pleasure.
Some people may have also experienced a traditional cutting of the genitals (FGC) which means that they may not be able to experience certain kinds of pleasure.
Many people feel uncomfortable expressing their needs, or a sense of shame for wanting to experience pleasure.
It takes time, but we can unlearn these harmful messages and learn to accept ourselves and our bodies, we all deserve to feel good, to feel safe, to be listened to, and to experience pleasure.
What do you think is missing from the conversation around sex?
Pleasure, consent, communication and diversity is left out of most sexuality education. We are also often given a very narrow definition of what sex is and how our bodies work. There’s so much more to sex than penetration and orgasms! Did you know the clitoris is the only organ in the human body in which the sole purpose is pleasure? I’d take a bet that most people were not taught this or what a clitoris looks like.
An important aspect of understanding your sexuality is to unpack and expand how you understand sex and your expectations around it – read books, listen to podcasts, have conversations with friends, explore your own body and communicate with sexual partners!
Everyone has different sexualities and different bodies. What feels good to one person, might not feel good to someone else. And what feels good for you at one point, might not later on.
Feeling safe in our bodies and safe with others can enable us to experience more pleasure. To help this to happen we need to learn what feels good to us and learn how to communicate our desires and boundaries to the people we’re intimate with.
How can we incorporate more pleasure into our lives?
Pleasure should be something that we cultivate and integrate into our lives daily, not just on rare occasions.
A good way to start is by making a list of things in your life that bring you pleasure and noting why those things feel pleasurable to you. For example, taking a hot bath might make you feel warm and relaxed, and catching up with friends might make you feel happy and connected.
You could then make a pleasure plan and come up with three things you could do to bring yourself more pleasure in your daily life. This might be starting a gratitude journal, practicing mindful eating, moving your body, spending time in nature, or taking some time to self-pleasure.
Slow Pleasure by Euphemia Russell
Sex and the Law
A conversation with Katia – Community and Partnership Lead
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your role.
I’m Katia, the Community and Partnership Lead at Moonee Valley Legal Service. I oversee community development, legal education and project work, and occasionally do some lawyering.
Our office is physically located on a public housing estate and we cover a large catchment area, so we work with a really diverse group of people. An exciting program we’ve recently started is the Legal Concierge program, which hires young people with lived experience of public housing to lead community engagement and legal education for social housing residents.
What is the legal age to have sex?
You cannot legally consent to sex if you are under the age of 12. Between the ages of 12 and 15, you can legally consent to sex but that person must be within two years (24 months exactly) of your age. So you could be 13 and they could be 15. Once you are 16 you can consent to sex, but you cannot consent to sex with anyone who is in a position of power, so that could be your teacher, coach, or music tutor etc. This means that the law considers the effect of power structures within a sexual relationship. Then after the age of 18 you can consent to sex with anyone.
Does this law apply to things like oral sex and fingering?
Things like oral sex and fingering are counted as sexual activity. Under the law, sex is considered as not only things that are penetrative, but also things that are sexual in nature, which includes oral sex and touching.
What are the laws around sending sexual pictures?
The law around sexting (sending sexual images or content) can be really confusing and young people are often told ‘don’t do it!’
The law states any sexual image of someone under 18 is child pornography, but if you are under 18 and have sent or received a sext you may not get in to trouble. This is a simple way to understand the law and how it applies to you.
‘Send’ – can I send a consensual sext of myself to someone? Yes, if you are both under 18 and no more than two years younger than each other.
‘Keep’ – can I keep a consensual sext of someone that they sent me? Yes, if you are both under 18 and no more than two years younger than each other.
‘Share’ – can I share an image of someone with others? No! If the person in the image is under 18 it is considered distributing child pornography, if the person is over 18 it is considered image-based abuse. If you are found guilty you may get a criminal record, go to prison or be registered as a sex offender. (It’s also not a very nice thing to do).
Remember, if there is a criminal act being committed in the image, it is completely illegal, meaning none of the above exceptions apply.
What are the new affirmative consent laws?
The Victorian government recently introduced laws that make everyone responsible for seeking sexual consent. If two people are having sex, each have positive obligation to show they did not just assume it was consensual. Each must show they actually asked the other person, and the person said yes, or nodded, or smiled in a positive way.
It needs to be more than just ‘we were both there and they allowed me to take their clothes off.’ There must be clear verbal or physical communication, signaling the other person wanted to have sex.
What is stealthing?
Stealthing is the practice of someone removing a condom during sex without consent, when their partner has only consented to condom-protected sex. This is a law that was introduced at the same time as affirmative consent laws. If a person has consented to sex with contraception, particularly a condom, then during the sexual act one person removes or tampers with the condom without the other person knowing, then it is no longer considered consensual sex.
If we’re both drunk but consenting, is that still breaking the law?
There’s lots of times alcohol might be involved or connected to sex, which can be messy. If you’ve had a couple of drinks you can often still consent.
The law says that if somebody is really drunk they are usually not able to consent. This comes back to the affirmative consent laws and the importance of talking and communicating with the person you are having sex with, checking in on how they are feeling and making sure they are safe.
It can be a tricky question because there is a grey area, but if a person is too drunk to ‘freely’ and ‘enthusiastically’ consent or to ‘reverse’ their decision then sex may be breaking the law.
It should go without saying that if people are really drunk and non-responsive then they cannot consent and that’s always a no!
What if I change my mind during sex?
You can change your mind during sex, and the other person should respect the decision that you have made and respect your feelings and emotions.
If you change your mind during sex and express that, but the person continues to have sex with you or forces you to have sex then that is breaking the law.
It is important to remember that consenting to one sexual act does not mean you are consenting to all sexual acts.
What will happen if I break these laws?
Under the law there are different types of sexual offences that range from touching and sexual exposure to rape, incest and sexual assault. The penalties differ depending on the offence and the circumstances of the person that has committed the offence.
The Judge may decide that the person needs to do a course, such as a healthy relationship course or Men’s Behaviour Change Program. They may have to pay a fine or meet certain conditions, like attend a parole office regularly or got to counselling.
For really serious matters a person may be sentenced to prison and be placed on the sex offender’s register. The register is a list of people that have committed sexual offences. Depending on the offence, a person may be on the list for up to 15 years. The register is tightly controlled and requires people report to police their whereabouts and prevents them from doing any activities that involve vulnerable groups of people, like children.
How can knowing the laws help me?
I think that we should approach sex with curiosity and joy. It should be pleasurable, it should be fun, it should be communicative.
I think that sometimes the law can be a bit scary when we talk about sex, but knowing the law can help you feel empowered and help your decision-making process. It may also prompt you to ask questions about what a healthy relationship is, not just in terms of what is legal, but thinking about affirmative consent laws, what does good communication look like.
Communication makes for really healthy, pleasurable sex. Checking in with the person that you’re with, and making sure that they feel safe and cared for is really important. While the law can be really black and white, what it tries to do is capture that fun, healthy element of sex that is good communication.
Do you think porn negatively affects our understanding of consent?
Lots of people look at porn online. I think that what we see represented isn’t necessarily what would be healthy and enjoyable. It is important to have some critical engagement or critical awareness when you are watching porn.
Porn does not always show the messiness and the fun in sex, or the jokes and the giggles. It also does not show the conversations that happen. It’s important to remember that porn is not necessarily a true representation of how sex works.
I think it is important to do a bit of research, there are lots of great Instagram accounts and blogs from sexologists that talk about healthy relationships, respect, enjoyable sex and pleasure. There is also sexual content out there that you can look at that gives some really positive representations of consent, pleasure and sex.
Who can I talk to for support/where can I go for more information or if I’m unsure?
If you want more legal information, you can always go to a Community Legal Centre. The one I work at is Moonee Valley legal Service, and we book free advice sessions, especially for young people that might have questions about sex and law. We are a non-judgmental service. You can come and talk to us if you think that maybe you have broken the law, or if you feel that somebody has harmed you. If you are a victim survivor we will do our best to provide you with advice and support.
We also have a great social work team here, so if there’s information you need, particularly around social or emotional support, we can refer you.
If you feel comfortable, another great place to start is with your school nurse or school counsellor. If you want to go outside of that, I know the Take Up Space website has some great resources and there is also Youth Law, Victoria Legal Aid for extra legal information, and GenWest.
Is there anything else that you think is important?
We see all this media about gendered violence suggesting that things are quite dire, but I feel hopeful because as a young person I didn’t get the kinds of programs that are available to young people today. When I go into schools to talk about sex and the law, I see a lot of young people talking about respect and consent in ways that I didn’t even know about. I went to a Catholic school so there was no sex ed. I feel hopeful that the amount of information that’s available to young people will make a real generational change, but I think it will be slow process.
Sex should be a positive, fun, and a pleasurable experience. I think it’s exciting that young people have so much access to different information. The law can sometimes be scary, but the best way to approach sex and the law is with curiosity.
The main thing is that if you’re in doubt and you have questions about the law, come and have a chat with us and we can work it out together.
A conversation with Kate Vigo –
Health Promotion Project Coordinator
Humans are designed to connect with other humans, we need relationships for our happiness, safety, fulfillment and emotional and mental wellbeing.
Our relationships with others are often the most important part of life.
But how do we know if our relationships are healthy? And what can we do to create healthy relationships? I sat down with Kate to learn more.
*A lot of our conversation is centred around romantic relationships, but most of what we talk about can be applied to all different relationships in our lives.
What does a healthy relationship look and feel like?
Healthy relationships have two important qualities:
- There is an equal power balance between both people.
- Each person has autonomy (autonomy is the right to make your own choices).
Healthy relationships feel like two people being able to communicate their needs and boundaries in a way that’s caring, safe and supported. You both respect each other’s boundaries and at the same time feel understood, free and confident to make your own choices, and safe to be yourself.
What are boundaries?
The zone that separates things that make you feel good and things that don’t make you feel good.
Boundaries are helpful because they keep us safe, and they let other people know how to interact with us. We need to understand ourselves and what we want or don’t want in order to understand and communicate our boundaries to others.
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.Brene Brown
What do Healthy relationships sound like?
Good communication is about lots of listening and talking and using ‘I’ language instead of ‘you’ language. This is when each person identifies their own feelings and communicates them, it stops the other person feeling blamed and can help to reach a resolution.
For example, “I felt, when I heard” rather than “you made me feel this when you said this.” It takes a lot of practice to get it right!
What are some things that can negatively affect a relationship?
Watch out for gender stereotypes! They can come in to play in our relationships and can be harmful. Gender stereotypes assign certain qualities as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine.’ For example, masculine qualities might be things like being dominant, being in control, being strong, and not showing emotion. Feminine qualities might be seen as being submissive, weakness, and being emotional.
Gender stereotypes are socially constructed which means they have nothing to do with biology. They are not “natural” but are created by the society and culture that we live in.
For example, an Australian survey found that 1 in 3 Australians think it is natural for a man to want to appear in control of his partner in front of his male friends (NCAS, 2017). This suggests that there is social pressure on boys and men to be in control in relationships.
If ‘being emotional’ is a stereotype assigned to women and not men, it can create stigma around a woman or girl communicating her emotions. It can be dismissed as “she’s just emotional because she’s a girl.”
Men and boys might not be taught to communicate their emotions and made fun of when they do, because it can be seen as “not manly.”
These rigid gender stereotypes are harmful to everyone.
To communicate well and have a healthy relationship, we need to connect with our emotions and feelings, so we can identify our boundaries and communicate them to our partner and the people in our lives.
Rigid gender stereotypes can affect individual relationships in a negative way. Being aware of gender stereotypes can be helpful in making sure that we don’t fall into unequal gender roles unconsciously.
In a healthy relationship:
- Both people are in control of themselves
- Both people make their own choices about their bodies and their lives
- Both people have emotions and can express their feelings
- Both people are equal
What are some characteristics of an unhealthy relationship?
Unequal power and control over someone.
It can look normal from the outside, but it can result in one person being pressured to do things that they don’t want to do. For example, a partner who tells you to dress a certain way, or tells you when you can and can’t see your friends.
Unhealthy relationships can make you feel worried or unsafe communicating your needs or boundaries. You might not feel understood or feel scared. Sometimes there is violence involved, which is when one person harms the other person physically, emotionally or sexually.
Poor communication might sound like one person talking a lot more, one or both people might use an aggressive communication style and not listen to each other.
It takes practice but we can learn how to be better communicators. Take a time out if you or your partner are overwhelmed and not communicating the way you want to be
Some people might have trouble expressing and understanding their emotions. Brene Brown has a book called ‘Atlas of the Heart about’ the eighty-seven emotions that we all need to communicate our human experience.
Does this look different in LGBTIQ+ relationships?
These concepts are universal for all healthy relationships. Equal power balance and autonomy (each person making their own choices) are fundamental to any healthy relationship.
In relationships with LGBTIQ+ people, she same principles apply but it might look a bit different. Some examples of unhealthy relationship characteristics in queer relationships can be:
- Devaluing gender expression, pressuring partner to look more masculine or feminine.
- ‘Outing’ or threatening to ‘out’ people as lesbian, gay, or transgender if they are not public.
- Gender stereotypes can still come into play in LGBTQI+ relationships because gender is a social construct (and not biological). In LGBTQIA+ relationships we can still fall into these stereotyped roles:
- Masculine – dominant
- Feminine – submissive
How do I know if I’m in a healthy relationship?
You will know that you are in a healthy relationship if:
- You feel confident and safe to communicate your needs
- You can explore your boundaries safely
- You feel understood and heard
- You listen to your partner’s feelings and needs
- You accept and respect when your partner says ‘no’
- You feel confident to make your own choices – about how you look, who you see, self-care etc.
- You have autonomy
- You feel you can be yourself
What can I do if I think a friend of mine is in an unhealthy relationship?
- You can encourage them to get professional support if they feel they need it, such as calling 1800RESPECT
- You can sit with them while they call a support-line if they want you to
- You can listen to them and validate their experience
- Believe them
- Respect their choices – to stay or leave the relationship. Don’t judge them, pressure them or get frustrated if they aren’t making the choices that you would.
Is arguing okay in a relationship?
Arguments are a normal part of relationships. When we feel intense emotions it can be hard to communicate in a healthy way.
The Gottman Method suggests that if things start getting heated, you can make an effort to observe that you are feeling flooded with intense emotion (which makes it hard to think and be rational) and say “I’m feeling flooded right now. I need to take 10 minutes to regulate”.
People can also feel angry or frustrated if they don’t feel heard. Taking turns to play the role of listener and speaker is a good idea.
Using physical violence or threatening to use violence in an argument is never okay. If you or your partner use violence or are worried for the safety of yourself or others, you can call 1800RESPECT. There is also a Men’s referral service called No to Violence.
What are the most important things to remember?
We want to be in relationships where there is an equal power balance and where each person feels free to make their own choices. We want to avoid being in unequal relationships where one person has control over the other person.
Gender stereotypes often give more power and control to one gender. When we fall into stereotypes that are based on our gender in romantic relationships, they can become unequal and sometimes, unsafe.
Sometimes we may not be aware that this is happening. Because of social norms, it might seem normal for one person to do all the housework and the other person to earn money and make the decisions, but this is not equal. It helps us to understand what gender equality is and how it impacts all of us, to avoid unconsciously falling into gender roles.
It’s important to know what feels right for you and respect what feels right or wrong to your partner. Knowing and respecting your own personal boundaries and your partner’s boundaries is important in achieving equal power and autonomy in the relationship. Knowing and practicing healthy communication can help.
In a healthy relationship, we allow each other to be ourselves and support each other to make our own choices. These things are vital if we want to be in equal and respectful relationships.
What is family Violence? – GenWest
The 4 communication styles to communicate effectively
Soft Start-up approach and Non-Violent Communication – The Gottman Institute
Emotional flooding – The Gottman Institute
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