Sex is more than a just a desire or behavior - it’s a part of the human life cycle, and likely it’s something that most people will experience or engage in at some point in their lives. Since sex is so common in the world, it’s worth taking a look at how we can learn more about it, and how that knowledge can help us going forward.
The Sex Positivity Movement
The term “sex positivity” wasn’t coined until the 1920’s, when psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich began speaking on the different aspects of humanity. He suggested that sex was a normal part of human life and was actually healthy for the body. While his ideas didn’t gain much traction at the time, they were picked up and revitalized in the 1960’s, an era often referred to as “the sexual revolution”. Since then, it has turned into a movement based on the idea that no one should judge another for their sexual activities (or lack thereof) as long as everything is consensual. The sex positivity movement centers around the belief that sex is a healthy and normal part of life and is something to enjoy, not something to be ashamed of. In recent years it has become a direct response and solution to sex negativity and shame culture. Many in the movement advocate for more comprehensive sex ed, healthy sexual exploration, and supporting all sexualities and identities.
Consent Tastes Good as FRIES
I’m sure we’ve all heard about consent before. It’s that thing teachers try to use lots of metaphors for in school, like pizza or ice cream, and how if you don’t really want seconds that’s the same thing as ‘no means no’. In reality, consent is a little more detailed than that. Thanks to Planned Parenthood, we can use the acronym FRIES and break it down:
- Freely given: must be given of someone’s free will with no coercion, gaslighting or manipulation.
- Reversible : a “yes” can become a no at any time regardless of circumstance, no questions asked.
- Informed: everyone involved knows exactly what they are agreeing to and what limits there are.
- Enthusiastic : only “yes” means yes - not maybe, whatever, sure, I guess, or I don’t know. If there is any hesitation or uncertainty, everyone involved should stop and communicate.
- Specific + Sober : “yes” only means yes to whatever was spoken and agreed upon. If someone wants to do something new, they should check in with their partner(s) again. A person must also be sober to obtain and give consent, and it’s a legal requirement in the state of Michigan.
Consent should be the very first step to any activity, especially ones of physical or sexual nature. Anything other than a “yes” is a no, so take care of others (whether you know them or not) and yourself, and never take advantage of a person or situation. We all have control of our own bodies and no one should be able to take that away from us.
Pleasure = Power
When something is reclaimed, power is restored. For hundreds of years, active expression of sexuality (especially female sexuality) has been oppressed and shamed. This has led to sex, sexuality, and most related topics being considered ‘taboo’ or shameful and censored in society. Pleasure is something everyone has a right to in whatever form it looks like for them. This is because we as people have autonomy: power over ourselves to make decisions concerning our bodies and to act in accordance to our personal values and interests. By reclaiming our right to pleasure and refusing the shame society tries to place on it, we reclaim power over ourselves. In this way pleasure can be used as a tool to help someone feel more confident, gain more control, learn more about themselves, understand theirs and others’ bodies, and make more informed decisions regarding physical intimacy.
Reclaiming bodily autonomy and learning to embrace pleasure can be hard. Most people aren’t raised with a sex-positive outlook, and most sex education programs teach only the risks of sex and not the benefits. It can take lots of time, patience, introspection, self-nurturing, and bravery before someone feels like they’re ready to try something new, or even admit to themselves they haven’t fully loved what they’ve been doing. Becoming comfortable with your body and learning to communicate what you want and not shy away from pleasure takes trust - with yourself or with anyone else.
Masturbation and Stimulation
Masturbation is the quickest and easiest way to learn what feels good. Masturbation is self-stimulation of the genitals and other parts of the body for sexual pleasure. It can’t hurt you or become addictive, and no one can tell someone masturbates just by looking at them. Masturbation is actually scientifically proven to have several health benefits, including stress relief, better/easier sleep, and relief of menstrual cramps. Regular masturbation or orgasm is said to help with depression and anxiety as it produces an extreme amount of endorphins and lowers the amount of cortisol in the brain (a hormone related to high stress levels). It can also greatly improve self-esteem, sexual validation, and confidence. Being able to speak to what you like in the bedroom can be very empowering, and it can also help sex (whatever that is for you) be a more pleasurable or positive experience. To read more about masturbation and orgasm, try our blog post Foreplay, Orgasm and Self-Pleasure.
Playing with Toys
Sex toys are another easy way to reclaim power over your pleasure. Toys can be used to enhance or change the pleasure or dynamic experienced during sex. They can also be used as an aid to help with sexual dysfunction, low libido, gender dysphoria, anorgasmia, and disability. Regardless of the reason, having a toy in hand can make you feel powerful - it can be proof that you care enough about yourself to make a purchase to support your happiness and pleasure. That same kind of pride someone might feel when buying a new uniform after making the team, or buying new shoes for an upcoming show, can be felt making purchases for your pleasure.
There are a TON of different kinds of toys - some are made for specific genitalia, some are made for 1 person vs 2 or more people, and some are made for certain kinds of activities. No matter what you’re into, remember that it’s okay to want whatever you want. That’s what’s so awesome about pleasure; it’s personalized and special to everyone, so no one has exactly the same mixture of tastes and turn-ons as someone else. Your pleasure is uniquely yours, and you have the authority on who, what, when, where, how, and even if it’s ever shared, used or discovered.
Dipping a Toe into the Deep End
Kink is another world that is often used for reclaiming power and autonomy within sex. When being done correctly kink and BDSM should be based on consent, pleasure, setting & negotiating boundaries, and mutual respect between everyone involved. It may seem unlikely or even backwards to some, but the kink community and the spaces where it is practiced tend to be safer and healthier in relation to sex culture, and often feature less sexual violence and more responsibility than the ‘vanilla’ world. Kink can be a helpful tool to unlearn shame, as a large proponent of kink is enjoyment of sex and pleasure in ways deviant from the mainstream. Many victim-survivors of sexual assault also use kink/BDSM as a method of healing, re-liberation, and redefining trauma. There is great power in having control over or being self-aware of your relationship to sex and pleasure: what you want now and what you may want in the future. Kink is just one more possible path to use to explore that relationship in a way that is based on autonomy.
You Have the Power
Ultimately, sex is a choice - some people may never want it, some people may never have it, some people may have it all the time, and others might only want to have it with a certain someone. No matter what choices you make regarding your body and your pleasure, it is your choice. We all have personal autonomy and we can use that power to ensure our experiences are as positive and pleasurable as possible - even ones that aren’t sexual! Remember, consent needs to be the first step in any situation so that everyone keeps their power of choice.
For more follow: @sexpositivefamilies (an educational insta about consent, sex positivity, and how to talk about/react to different sexual health topics!)
By: Beck Lukins (they/them/theirs), WIT Peer Educator
Jessica Epplett, MPH Candidate at GVSU shares about her MPH practicum project - planning Sex Ed Week at GVSU.
Sexual health is an important topic that is not talked about nearly enough and has been made to feel taboo in our society. Because the topic has been made to feel so taboo, schools are afraid or not allowed to teach all of the elements (or anything besides abstinence-only) of sex ed that should be taught and too many students have gaps in sexual education. These gaps can be dangerous.
In 2014, a study done by the CDC found that 76% of students were taught that abstinence is the most effective method in preventing pregnancy and STIs and only 35% of students were taught how to use a condom properly. Only receiving this level of education can leave many questions unanswered and can leave people at risk once they decide to start having sex. An article written at Columbia University’s School of Public Health helps to outline this. They have found that abstinence-only education is harmful and does not delay when people start having sex or reduce risk behaviors, like having unprotected sex (Santelli & Berger, 2017). They have also found that this type of education reinforces gender stereotypes, isn’t always medically accurate, and makes a large number of students feel excluded (Santelli & Berger, 2017). Comprehensive sex ed, on the other hand, shows improvement in contraceptive and condom use, reduced number of sexual partners, lower rates of STIs and pregnancy, and a decrease in sexual risk behaviors (Santelli & Berger, 2017). This is why we planned a Sex Ed Week at GVSU.
Sex Ed Week has been my Master of Public Health practicum project since September, and it’s been exciting to work with a topic I care so much about! I have put in many hours doing research and looking into issues that college students face when it comes to sexual health because it is a topic that I believe is extremely important and needs to be talked about, especially at colleges and universities. Sex isn’t taboo and I am a strong believer in ensuring that everyone should be given all the information they need to take control of their health, including their sexual health. I was fortunate enough to have a sex ed in middle school that was comprehensive, interesting, and didn’t pretend that students weren’t going to have sex, and I’m excited to give students at GVSU a fun, sex-positive sex ed experience, too! This week of events is tailored to the GVSU community and has topics that are important to students and that have been left out in the previous education that many students. This week is a fun way to learn more about sex positivity and be empowered to make the right choices for you!
We created an exciting variety of event types to make learning more about these topics entertaining and less awkward. I know that it can be hard to discuss some of these topics and feel a little uncomfortable because this could be the first time some are learning these things or maybe they just feel taboo because they aren’t talked about as often as they should be, but our hope is to create a fun, welcoming environment where everyone can feel comfortable asking questions and learn something along the way while we work on normalizing sexual health and giving students the tools they need. Some of the topics that are covered during the week include how to use condoms properly, consent, how to have healthy relationships, LGBTQ+, and many more!
I encourage everyone to join us for this week of fun and to step out of their comfort zone!
By: Jessica Epplett, MPH Candidate and RecWell Intern
What Is Sexuality?
Sexuality is a concept that has infinite definitions and forms. Its meaning is abundant, but is often defined by society as something extremely clear-cut and particular. For example, the dictionary defines sexuality as a “person's identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are typically attracted to.” Sexuality goes much deeper than attraction though.
The Deep Dive
The RecWell webpage “The Facts About Sexual Health,” explores the differences between sexual health, sexuality and sex according to the World Health Organization. “Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships.” While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed at the same time. Sexuality is HUGE and we all have sexuality. You do not need to be in a relationship or engaging in sexual activity to have sexuality, because it is such a broad and fluid concept (remember, your values/beliefs around sex are part of your particular sexuality, too). Sexuality includes our bodies, our hormones, our feelings, our values, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our relationships, and our culture. (Check out Scarleteen's great blog post that really dives deep into sexuality)! Let's talk about just some of these aspects:
Feelings: Feelings and our emotions have an influence on everything we do in our lives. How you feel about an experience can change future decisions as well as perceptions on the things around you. So naturally, when it comes to sexuality, feelings play a large role. They can make you happy, excited, embarrassed, nervous, eager, anxious, giddy and so much more. It’s important to be in tune with and take care of our emotions (positive and negative!), recognizing them and honoring them when it comes to our sexuality and sexual health.
Hormones: When it comes to hormones, the pituitary gland releases estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormones affect sex drive in different ways depending on the amount of each hormone. Libido, meaning sexual appetite or sex drive, is affected by these hormones. For example, estrogen has a major role in increasing libido, while an imbalance of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone can decrease libido.
Gender Identity: Gender Identity is how you feel on the inside and how you express your gender to others through clothing, behaviors, and personal appearance. Gender identity shapes a person’s sexuality because who we are influences our own unique sexuality. For example, a person who identifies as a woman may feel confident in their sexuality when they dress feminine, while a different person who identifies as a woman may feel confident in their sexuality when they wear masculine clothing. Even though some people may share certain identities, their sexuality is unique to them.
Sexual Orientation: You may already be familiar with the acronym LGBTQIA+ when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation, but the two concepts are distinct and different.. Planned Parenthood uses the acronym LGBQQAS (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, and straight), which specifically highlights sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to and want to have relationships with. Want to learn more about each of these sexual orientations? Check out this Planned Parenthood article.
Culture: Simply put, culture is the ways or norms of life in a particular population, that are typically passed down from generation to generation. These can be based on geography, nationality, religion, political affiliation and so much more. Sexuality can be influenced by culture because a person may be raised to express their sexuality in specific ways. Culture can also highly influence a person’s specific values and beliefs about sex and sexuality. Being aware of society’s (or your particular cultural) influence can help you understand what your own feelings are compared to what the world is telling you to feel.
How Can I Explore My Sexuality?
It can be easy to find yourself lost in it all, and if you “stray” from what society sees as the “norm,” it is common to feel that something is wrong. Who you love, how you love, as well as a relationship with yourself, can seem all mapped out by the world around us; in reality, the only person able to navigate this journey is you! Like any self exploration, there is not one way to figure out what you like or dislike. A good place to start is by writing down what comes to mind when you think of your own sexuality. Remember, sexuality is more than just sexual attraction - it involves our emotions, hormones, relationships, identity, culture and more. From there, you could talk to a trusted friend or do some research online. There are many books and podcasts that delve into all things sexuality. An insightful podcast that explores pleasure, identity, sexuality, and healing is, The Sensual Self Podcast with Ev’Yan Whitney. Ev’Yan Whitney is a sexuality doula who helps people explore their sexuality! Another way to explore your sexuality is to experiment with self love. This can come in many forms and is not strictly sexual for every person. For example, a person may feel physical attraction and enjoy holding hands, hugs, or cuddling. This is a good way to find what feels good to you, so you not only learn what you like, but communicate that with future partners if you wish. There are many more ways to explore, so make it your own and do what works best for you! Grand Valley also offers many resources. The Milton E. Ford LGBTQ+ Resource Center, located in Kirkhof, has many programs and events regarding all things sexuality. There are always new events coming up, which you can find on their website or in person at their office.The Gayle R. Davis Center for Women and Gender Equity has lots of programming around healthy relationships and preventing gender-based violence. And, Recreation & Wellness has lots of information on our website - WIT peer educators can answer questions and we have lots of resources for safer sexual health, no matter your sexuality!
Sexuality and exploration can feel daunting at times, but know you are not alone. Discovering the things you enjoy, the way you like to be loved, and the way you love others can take some time. The journey is for you and each path is individually beautiful and unique. You got this!
By: Annie Seeber, WIT Peer Educator
“Wellness” has become a bit of a buzzword lately. We’re bombarded with ads for wellness products, we see the term tied to fad diets, and we’re told to buy items in order to practice self-care. But, do we really need all of that to be well? Unfortunately, it feels like the word “wellness” is being used to market consumerism rather than what its true meaning is...
According to the National Wellness Institute, wellness is a life-long journey; "a conscious, self-directed, and evolving process of achieving full potential.” And if you look even bigger, the Global Wellness Institute says wellness is “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.”
There’s no purchase necessary when it comes to wellness. (But, there may be some reading and learning!)
Nowadays, a lot of us want short and simple information that we can read quickly and keep scrolling. But, there are some topics that require just a little more attention than a social media post.That’s why our WIT peer educators are going to be writing blog posts this semester to dive deeper into topics of general wellness, nutrition, sexual health, and rest. All of these areas can help you on your well-being journey.
If you want to check out previous posts written by the team, we’ve got plenty on the RecWell blog already (you can filter the posts by topic!). This is also where the new posts will show up each week - or you can just click the link on our Instagram stories each week.
Follow along with us this semester as we focus on what wellness really means, how we can improve our lives, and why learning about these topics is so valuable!
By: Ryleigh Emelander, MPH Candidate, Health Promotion Assistant and Katie Jourdan, Student Health Promotions Coordinator
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
Happy summer GVSU! We can’t believe this semester is already at its end. This winter we have been so excited to bring you all weekly content for our first ever Sex Ed Series, because we think this information is so important for everyone to know. All of us on the WIT Peer Educator team are so passionate about sexual health, and we hope that these blog posts over the past 15 weeks have sparked interest in you all to learn more. Now that we’ve made it to the end of the Sex Ed Series, we want to leave you with a sex-positive and empowering recap of everything we’ve touched on this semester so you can have the safest and most fun summer possible!
It’s Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
Many people are uncomfortable talking about sex, but these conversations are so important for normalizing sexuality, as well as sexual autonomy. Shame and embarrassment are closely related and are both due to the lack of cultural acceptance and the taboo surrounding sex and masturbation. It is so important for kids, teens, and adults to receive proper sex education to prepare them for any and all future sexual encounters they may have. Overcoming the associated shame and stigma is the first step to owning your own sexuality and having a great sexual experience.
In the Mood
Next, is embracing your own desires. As you become more comfortable with your sexuality, you can learn to explore these desires. Whether you’re with a partner(s) or by yourself, sexual pleasure is about understanding your own sexual needs, and knowing the right ways to satisfy them. When it comes to sex, it’s not always about penetration, but it is always about what makes you feel good! Here are some ideas to get you in the mood:
- Foreplay: Foreplay helps warm up your bodies for the fun to come - physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is the time to build up the sexual tension and desire between you and your partner(s) to have the best, most pleasurable sexual experience possible.
- Masturbation: Touching yourself in the comfort of your own home is the best way to explore your body and find what you like (or don’t)! Masturbation is not only a fun way to pass the time, but it lets you take your sexual pleasure into your own hands--literally!
- Sex Toys: Whether you’re being intimate with your partner or having a solo sesh, sex toys are a great way to add some spice to life! Before buying toys, it's important to know what places and techniques you enjoy when masturbating so you know what kinds to get. Check out Planned Parenthood’s information on sex toys.
- Trying Out New Erogenous Zone: Erogenous zones are those places on your body that feel ~extra~ good when touched. Places like ears, neck, nipples, inner wrists, the vaginal or penile region, and inner thighs are some common ones that could be fun to explore!
- Porn: Watching porn can help some individuals feel more empowered and less stressed. It can also give ideas of some fun things to try in bed.
Some people believe that because they’re menstruating that they have to give up sex for a week, but that couldn’t be less true! There are SO many benefits of having sex on your period, like period cramp, headache and migraine relief, shorter periods, natural lube, and an increased sex drive. Period sex can be a fun way to make the most of your time of the month in the bedroom, so don’t be afraid to embrace your sexuality and add some spice to your sex life!
Pain During Sex
Feeling some sort of pain when engaging in sex? It’s called dyspareunia, and it's not uncommon, but it's important to know what’s going on down there:
- Pain For Vulva Owners: The muscles of the pelvic floor play a big role in sexual function and sensation. Sometimes these muscles can tense up during arousal, resulting in the same sort of pain as period cramps. Other causes of dyspareunia could be vaginal dryness, a yeast infection or urinary tract infection, irritable bowel syndrome, or STI’s.
- Pain For Penis Owners: There are many possible reasons for pain during sexual activity, but most common are excessive friction, urinary tract infections, prostatitis, or STI’s.
A one-time pain during sex is not normally a cause for worry, but if pain during sexual activities is a common occurrence, then it is highly recommended that you see a health care provider. While it can be embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about your pain, for most people this is not a lifelong concern, and getting treated can have you feeling better in no time.
When engaging in sexual activity with someone besides yourself, it’s good practice to use some method of protection to prevent pregnancy (if that’s a goal of yours) and transmission of STIs.
- External Condoms: covers the shaft of the penis or toy (have some fun with different flavors or glow-in-the-dark condoms!)
- Internal Condoms: sits inside the vaginal canal
- Dental Dams: small sheets of latex or polyurethane plastic that cover the genitals to protect you during oral sex
- The Pill: an oral contraceptive containing hormones to prevent ovulation. This is 99% effective with perfect use and 91% with typical use.
- The Implant: a rod surgically inserted into the upper arm that releases progestin to prevent ovulation. This is 99% effective.
- The Patch: looks similar to a bandaid that sticks onto your skin and delivers hormones into your bloodstream to prevent ovulation. This is 99.7% effective with perfect use and 93% effective with typical use.
- The IUD: a tiny T-shaped device inserted into the uterus by a healthcare provider to prevent ovulation. This is up to 99% effective.
- The Vaginal Ring: a flexible ring containing estrogen and progesterone that you insert into the vagina for 3 weeks at a time. This is 99.7% effective with perfect use and 93% effective with typical use.
- The Shot: an injection of hormones by a healthcare provider. This is 99.8% effective with perfect use and 87% effective with typical use.
- Emergency Contraception: a pill you can take after having unprotected sex, aka the “morning after” pill. This is between 75% and 85% effective.
If you’re looking to get started on birth control, do your research to see what fits you and your lifestyle best. Set up a meeting with your healthcare provider, and make sure to voice your birth control goals: wants, needs, questions, and concerns. From there, you will work together to find the best method for you.
It is important to remember that the birth control methods listed above do NOT protect against STIs, only pregnancy. If you don’t use barrier methods, consider participating in routine STI screenings. Getting tested is no big deal, and if you happen to test positive, it's important to know what next steps to take to keep yourself and your partner(s) healthy.
COVID-19 has affected us and our sex lives for over a year now, but those who are dealing with the stress and trauma from COVID-19 after already having suffered from sexual or relationship violence are some of those individuals being impacted the most. To read more about the connection between COVID and sexual violence, check out the guest blog post from Ariana Deherder, Violence Prevention Student Assistant with the Center for Women and Gender Equity.
Sex and the LGBTQIA+ Community
Sex education in America often excludes the teaching of LGBTQIA+ identities and relationships, leaving youths across the country uninformed. As a marginalized population, LGBTQIA+ people have an even greater need to know about themselves, their community, and how to safely and consensually participate in relationships (sexual or otherwise). When looking at the sexuality of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is best to use a holistic approach. This view intertwines sexual identity, gender identity, sensuality, sexual health, and more to have an encompassing perspective on the individual. We live in such a heteronormative society that sometimes we say things that negatively effect those around us unintentionally. Ways that people can be more inclusive and respectful towards the community are simple, like using “folks” instead of “ladies and gentlemen,” or using the term “partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” This is all just a surface level recap, so please read our “Sex and the LGBTQIA+ Community” blog by WIT Peer Educator Beck Lukins (they/them) for an extremely comprehensive and informational post.
Sex and Disability
The World Health Organization lists three dimensions of disability: impairment, activity limitation, and participation restrictions. People with disabilities aren’t always thought of as beings with feelings outside of their disabilities, but they are not defined by their disability. There are so many myths surrounding sex and disability, such as people with disabilities can’t have sex, only have sex with each other, or that they don’t need comprehensive sexual education. But, people with disabilities are sexual and sexy people too! As an able-bodied woman I cannot speak on any experience, so here is a list of educators and influencers to follow on Instagram that have lived experiences with disability and sex:
Sexual Rights Are Human rights
Planned Parenthood uses FRIES to explain consent: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. When it comes to sexuality, it is a human right to decide freely on all matters related to your body, as well as freedom from coercion, violence, or intimidation in all sexual encounters. The definition of sexual autonomy is that you alone have complete control over when, with who, and under what circumstances you engage in any sexual activity. Recognition that all individuals have the right to determine what’s best for themselves is key to living a safe, sexually satisfying life. Even if you decide to never engage in sexual activity, it is important to stay educated in sexual health and the rights you have because there is SO much more than the physical acts of sex. No matter what you decide to do with your sex life, its entirely up to you! Of course, when with a partner, their consent is required too. When it comes to your sexual encounters, no one knows what's best for you better than you! Self-determination over your body leads to an empowered sexual experience.
With all of this being said, we hope you have learned some valuable information, and that you continue to stay informed about sexual education. Happy summer & see you in the fall!
By: Camryn Lane, WIT Peer Educator
Sex and the LGBTQIA+ Community
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
More than 1 in 3 LGBTQIA+ Americans faced discrimination of some kind in the past year, and this discrimination has moderately to significantly psychologically impacted 1 in 2 LGBTQIA+ folk. This discrimination can occur in any sector of a person’s life – at school, at work, or within their own personal relationships. Sex education in America often excludes or even prohibits the teaching of LGBTQIA+ identities and relationships, leaving hundreds of youths across the country uninformed. As a marginalized population, LGBTQIA+ people have an even greater need to know about themselves, their community, and how to safely and consensually participate in relationships (sexual or otherwise).
A Holistic Approach to Sexuality
Holistic Sexuality refers to a multi-dimensional approach towards how one views their sexuality. It encompasses more than just a person’s sexual identity; it also includes a person’s gender identity, intimacy, sensuality, sexualization, and sexual health and reproduction. This is helpful because all of these aspects of a person’s body and soul are interconnected and fluid and can change throughout the course of life. This allows for you to have a better sense of yourself and be more confident in your desires.
This holistic approach is also very useful for some members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Asexuality, Demisexuality and Greysexuality are all sexual orientations on the ace spectrum and are often misunderstood or rejected. However, they are all very real and valid identities which may or may not include physical attraction or sex. Sexual attraction or desire is different from a sex drive, or libido. Everyone is unique; some people may have low or high libidos but will choose to act on them differently. Some people are very interested in sex and enjoy having it, while others may not be as interested or don’t enjoy having it. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and no right or wrong way to be.
Sometimes the words we use can have unintended effects on the people around us. American (and most other) societies have been raised and continue to function on The Binary, which is the concept of a gender structure consisting only of two genders: male and female. This means that almost everything in our world is constructed to fit into one of these two categories, regardless of what it is. Colors, music, jobs, clothes, toys – almost everything can be described as “girly” or “manly”, “pretty” or “handsome”. Everything comes with a predetermined label on it, forcing conformity. Unfortunately, this means that for folks who don’t fit into either of these categories, they are left with a hard decision: to allow themselves to be incorrectly categorized or speak up and inevitably face the challenge of no longer fitting in anywhere. For this reason, inclusive language and acknowledgement of the existence of more than one gender and of same-sex couples is massively important. It helps let LGBTQIA+ people know that they are seen, safe, and welcomed by a particular person or in a particular space.
Some examples of inclusive language include:
- Instead of “Ladies and Gentlemen”, say “Everyone” or “Folks”
- Try not to say ma’am or sir if you don’t know that that is how the person identifies
- Ask about someone’s partner or relationship instead of assuming boyfriend or girlfriend
- Use the terms “people with penises” or “vulva-owners” instead of saying men and women, since not all people who have a penis or vagina will identify as a man or woman
- Introduce yourself with your pronouns and ask other people for theirs
The Acronym: Labels and What They Means
What does LGBTQIA+ stand for? Here are the letters from the acronym and some of the most common labels used in the community.
- Lesbian: a woman who is attracted to other women. The label is also used by gender-nonconforming folks.
- Gay: someone who is attracted to those of their same gender. Can be used as an umbrella term but is also sometimes used to specifically refer to men who like men.
- Bisexual: someone who is attracted to those of their same gender as well as people of a second, different gender. Can be used as an umbrella term for anyone who is attracted to more than one gender.
- Transgender: Someone whose gender identity differs from the one that was assigned to them at birth. Many transgender people identify as either male or female, while others may see transgender as an umbrella term and identify as gender nonconforming or queer. This term is used as an adjective, avoid using it as a noun.
- Queer/Questioning: Queer is an umbrella term to refer to someone who is not straight or cisgender and is increasingly being used as reclamation due to its past use as a pejorative term. Questioning is exactly what it sounds like; anyone who is questioning their gender or sexual orientation and doesn’t yet have or want a label for themselves.
- Intersex: someone who is born with variations in anatomy, hormones or chromosomes that does not fit within the traditional definition of male or female bodies
- Asexual: someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction, or experiences attraction but doesn’t want or feel the need to act on that attraction sexually
: the plus here refers to any and all other labels
that exist in the community
- Non-binary: someone whose gender identity does not conform to the gender binary
- Pansexual: someone who is attracted to people of any and all genders.
- Cisgender: someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth
- Genderfluid: someone whose gender identity or gender expression varies over time
There are many more labels not listed, but you can find them on this glossary if you’re curious. A label is unique and deeply personal, so know that these definitions (while universally accepted) are not definitive and may mean something slightly different to each individual who uses them.
Increased Health Disparities
LGBTQIA+ youth are at a substantial risk for health disparities related to STIs, unplanned pregnancies, and intimate partner violence. Additionally LGBTQIA+ people are up to 30% more likely to be forced to have sex and up to 5 times more likely to consider or attempt suicide. And because the healthcare system is not designed to support those who do not fit conventional molds, queer people are more likely to avoid going to the doctor and therefore less likely to receive quality medical care. Overall, this means people who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community are more likely to need support and education but are less likely to receive it.
When sex and relationships are talked about in the media, they are often talked about in a way that is harmful to LGBTQIA+ people. In songs, movies, tv shows, and social media, the most common representation we see of sex is heteronormative and cisgendered. This means that what is most often shown or talked about is sex between a straight man and a straight woman. Reality is very different however, and we know that there are many people who don’t fit into that model. A lack of representation and visibility in media when it comes to sex and intimacy is especially dangerous regarding the LGBTQIA+ community. People are scared of what they don’t know or don’t understand, and if queer people are not shown to greater audiences than they can never be understood and accepted as normal.
Helpful Barrier Methods
While the traditional condom barrier method is still used by LGBTQIA+ individuals, there are other less common barrier methods which are specifically used by queer couples. These include the dental dam, latex gloves, and finger cots. These can all be used by anyone of any orientation or gender identity, but currently tend to be most utilized by the LGBTQIA+ community. All the common birth control and contraceptive methods are also still applicable to LGBTQIA+ individuals and couples if they are looking to prevent pregnancy and they are engaging in sexual activity involving a penis/sperm and vagina/ovaries. Safer sex is just as important in the queer community as it is for straight couples, and if you’re interested in how to have safer sex with yourself or with a partner, you can find out more at our other blog posts.
What is Dysphoria and How Can You Overcome It
Transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) individuals often experience something called dysphoria, a medical diagnosis for the significant psychological distress a person feels when their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. To help alleviate this distress, TGNC individuals may choose to pursue transitioning, which is the process of physically, socially, or medically changing their body to align with their gender. One way to do this is with the use of packers and/or breast padding. These prosthetics can also help in the bedroom, where dysphoria can be extremely hindering during a person’s attempt to be physically intimate with themselves or with another person or people. Packers are silicone penises and come in both soft or erect positions and can be worn during the day or during sexual activity. Breast padding are bra inserts or breast forms made of either fabric or silicone. They can come in any color or size (as can packers) and help enhance or create a person’s chest.
Sex Toys and Pleasure
Sex toys are also a safe and helpful way to learn what you like and experiment with your sexuality. They can help affirm gender identity and relieve gender dysphoria and are a great way to keep sex feeling new. Sex toys can also help take the pressure off performance anxieties and encourage new experiences. Keep in mind that sex toys are not federally regulated and manufacturers are not required to be honest in their labeling, so it is best to buy from well-known, trusted sources. The most common materials are silicone, stainless steel, glass, and hard plastic. Not all lubes will work on all materials so make sure you read the instructions before using. Toys should be cleaned before and after every use and should be stored in a cloth or plastic bag between uses to avoid bacteria. If a toy is being shared, change condoms before the toy touches someone else. Additionally, if you are using the toy in more than one location on your own body, you should also change condoms before you use the toy in a different orifice. For anal activities, all toys should have a flared base to ensure it is not lost inside the body - and as the anus is not a self-lubricating area, lube is your friend!
Many couples have their own definition of what sex is, and how they have it. This is particularly true for LGBTQIA+ couples who don’t fit into society’s definition of a traditional couple. Everyone gets to decide what counts as sex for them, and what sex means for them. Make sure you know what you want or what you’re open to before you start something. It’s only fair to yourself and anyone you may be with that you’re in the right headspace. Be open-minded and communicative. Talk with yourself or your partner(s) so you know what’s happening and if everyone is liking it. Lose all expectations; a certain act or position doesn’t have to mean anything, and liking or not liking something doesn’t make you more or less of who you are. And finally, sex is not necessarily all about achieving an orgasm. It’s about finding pleasure and having fun. Not everyone needs or even wants to achieve orgasm – sometimes, having sex is just about the experience of sharing intimacy, learning what you or your partner(s) like, and building a bond.
Know Your Rights
LGBTQIA+ people don’t have all the rights that their straight, cisgendered peers do. However, LGBTQIA+ people do currently have:
- The right to change healthcare providers at any time and for any reason
- The right to accurate and uncensored information
- The right to affordable healthcare
- The right to free speech and free press
- The right to autonomy
A Personal Note on Freedom and Expression
I would like to take a moment here to address something. During this article, I have talked about things that range from “vanilla” (by which I mean relatively accepted within the realm of the normal societal mainstream) to things more traditionally unconventional. Therefore, I want to end this blog with a short aside on the LGBTQIA+ community in relation to sex. Sometimes, when people think of gay people or trans people, they may think of sodomy or of how or who that person engages with in sexual activity. I want to note that when people make this association, they are perhaps unknowingly engaging in a homophobic implicit bias against queer people. They are not acknowledging the full humanity of the queer person - only their sexual nature and ways in which they find the queer person to be different or lesser than them. Alternatively, I would also like to note that perhaps part of the reason so many LGBTQIA+ people feel free to express themselves in ways that some people find deviant or “unnecessary” is that we as a people have had to fight simply to be ourselves. Some of us have come to a state of mind where we know who we are and love who we are, and refuse to hide or change any part of ourselves any longer - and no longer care what other people think.
By: Beck Lukins (they/them), WIT Peer Educator
A note from the author: If anyone has any questions, curiosities, or would like more information (even if it’s something I didn’t touch on), please feel free to reach out to me! I am a completely open book when it comes to my story and my identity, and I have spent several years now working to better educate myself and others. As a queer and trans student here at GVSU, I take great pride in being a source of information for people both in and outside the LGBTQIA+ community, and I am always happy to respond to folks. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org , or if you are not a GVSU member you can contact me through my Instagram @beck_lukins. Cheers!
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
*Please note that the writer identifies as able-bodied, so she has included a list of influencers and educators to follow on Instagram that have lived experiences with disability and sex.
In the United States, 61 million adults live with a disability. According to the CDC, a disability is “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.” According to the World Health Organization, disability has three dimensions:
- Impairment in a person’s body structure or function, or mental functioning; examples of impairments include loss of a limb, loss of vision or memory loss.
- Activity limitation, such as difficulty seeing, hearing, walking, or problem solving.
- Participation restrictions in normal daily activities, such as working, engaging in social and recreational activities, and obtaining health care and preventive services.
People living with disabilities are often grouped into a single population, even though there is a wide variety of experiences with disabilities. Socially, those with disabilities are seen as asexual beings without feelings, desires, and needs outside of their disability, all 61 million of them. But let’s set the record straight: a disability does not define an entire person. People with disabilities can be and are sexual beings!We want to debunk some myths about sex and disability.
Myth #1 - People with disabilities can’t have sex.
American society often tends to define sex in one way: penis-in-vagina intercourse. However, there is no such thing as real sex, right sex, or wrong sex. Sex is not exclusively penis-vaginal penetration; it is so many different things, because every body and everybody is different. Sex is for everyone and anyone who chooses to participate - as long as it’s consensual. Depending on a person’s disability, there may be some planning involved in making sure everyone is comfortable during sexual activity. For example, some people with physical disabilities choose to use devices like a liberator wedge to help with body support during sex. Or, as another example, there might need to be discussions about when or how to have sex if chronic pain or fatigue are a part of a person’s disability experience. Having open and honest conversations to make sure you are getting what you need is vital - whether you have a disability or not!
Myth #2 - People with disabilities only have sex with each other.
Nope! A person is not their disability, and it does not decide who they can and cannot have a sexual relationship with - as long as it’s consensual, safe, and enjoyable!
Myth #3 - People with disabilities aren't sexy.
It’s important to understand that attraction is based on a connection between people, not a beauty or “sexy” standard our society has set. (Westernized beauty standards could be another whole blog series!) What people find sexy differs and is usually more than strictly someone’s outward appearance. It could be their sense of humor, smell, intellect, touch, love of dogs, and so much more. Although, wearing something sexy can also make a person feel more confident and sexier too, so it’s okay to explore that too! For individuals with physical disabilities, finding certain clothing that makes you feel sexy and confident can be harder, but it’s possible! An online shop called Elba London creates bras for people with mobility or dexterity limitations, and Intimately has adaptive bra and lingerie options, too.
Myth #4 - People with disabilities do not crave sex.
There is a common misconception that individuals with disabilities are child-like and therefore do not desire sex or have sex; this is simply not true! Sexuality is a vital part of being human. It is physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and cultural. Every person experiences sexuality in their own way, but they experience it with or without disability. No matter who you are, the decision to have sex is a personal choice, and whether you crave sex differs from person to person.
Myth #5 - People with disabilities don’t need sex education.
Understanding sexual health is extremely important, whether you choose to have sex or not. Being aware of STIs, pregnancy, contraception, and overall safety is key. All people should have access to resources and tools that make sex safer, healthier, and enjoyable if they choose to engage. We know the U.S. has not done a good job of providing comprehensive sex education, and we’ve done even worse in providing specific age and ability appropriate resources to people with disabilities so that they can experience fulfilling sex lives. Also, it’s important to note that comprehensive sexual education can better equip individuals with disabilities to resist sexual violence, abuse and coercion in social spaces. Sex education is for everyone!
Learning from those with Lived Experiences
Let’s repeat this because it is so important: people with disabilities are sexual beings!
While, as an able-bodied person, I cannot understand having a disability and navigating sexuality and sex, I can learn from those with lived experiences. Here is a list of some amazing educators and influencers that speak directly to their experiences with sex and disability that you should follow if you want to learn more!
Follow these people on Instagram:
While I spoke a lot about physical disabilities, you could also take a peek at this Australian blog post on cognitive disability and sexuality if you’re interested in learning more.
By: Annie Seeber, WIT Peer Educator
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
As per 2018 National College Health Assessment statistics, 74% of GVSU students have engaged in sexual activity which means 26% have not. So in today's post we are going to discuss sexual abstinence and virginity.
Sexual-abstinence means refraining yourself from participating in sexual activities.
The interpretation of the word ‘abstinence’ may be different for different people. For some people, sexual abstinence may mean that there is no sexual activity of any kind. While for some other people, abstinence may mean not taking part in vaginal or anal sex but that practicing oral-sex, kissing or masturbation is ok. Communication is key in practicing abstinence: it is important to communicate with your partner(s) regarding if, when, and how you want to practice abstinence.
Anyone can practice sexual-abstinence if they want to, irrespective of their age, gender, or sexuality-orientation . You can practice sexual-abstinence even if you have participated in sexual activities before. Your partner(s) should respect your choice to be abstinent, and they shouldn’t try to pressure you into having sex or any other sexual activity you don’t want to do.
There are many reason why people practice abstinence, some of them are:
- To prevent pregnancy - or using it as a mode of contraception
- Because of any underlying medical conditions
- Waiting for the right partner
- Not feeling like have sex or lack of intimacy
- Practicing celibacy
- Personal or religious beliefs
Many people may also practice outercourse, which is participating in sex and other sexual activities except vaginal sex - or any sexual activity that can get any semen in the vagina.
Virginity is slightly different from abstinence in that virginity is often thought of as something a person who has not engaged in penis-vagina intercourse has or possesses. Many times virginity is associated with the presence of hymen in individuals with vaginas. An intact/unruptured hymen is believed to be a sign of virginity. (Note: there isn’t often an equivalent definition of virginity for a person with a penis).
But, much like abstinence, being a virgin can mean different things to different people. For some people, virginity means never had penetrative sex (vaginal, anal) before in their life. For some others, it may mean not engaging in penetrative vaginal sex anytime in their lifetime, but they have enagaged in other sexual activities such as oral sex, anal sex, etc. On the other side, some people also believe that masturbating or having other kinds of sex play- including fingering or touching a sex partner’s genitals with the hands can make people to lose their virginity. There are different beliefs and concepts regarding virginity in our society, and they vary from person to person.
Virginity does carry a lot of emotional weight for people and while we know many people believe in virginity as a concept it is important to share that virginity is a social construct - which means that it was an idea created by society. A few reasons we think that’s important to share this? Well, you can read this blog post from the School of Sex ed for more, but they tell us that: 1) the focus on penis-in-vagina sex as the “key” to virginity erases experiences, desires and preferences of others; 2) the association between purity and virginity serves to control female bodies; and 3) you can’t tell by looking at genitalia if someone has had sex (so the myth about an intact hymen is just wrong). Perhaps take some time to explore how you feel about virginity and if you agree or disagree with its basis.
Sexual Decision Making
If you are considering having sex for the first time (or any time) there are a bunch of things you and your partner(s) should know and evaluate. You should consider the emotional and physical needs and wants of everyone involved. You should also take note of your relationship and if you have safer sex supplies available. For more information regarding sexual decision making please checkout the ‘Ready or Not’ checklist from Scarleteen. It has so many different questions for you and your partner(s) to answer to determine if you are ready or not!
As we conclude, we want to remind you that any choice you make about sexual activity is ok if it is consensual! It is okay if you choose to be abstinent. It is ok if you choose to participate in sex or sexual activity. We believe there should be no stigma attached to either one of the choices.
By: Sonal Subhash Mandale and Beck Lukins, WIT Peer Educator
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
April is STD Awareness Month so we’re getting a head start and taking some time to share about STDs (though we’ll call them STIs throughout the blog because that’s the newest, most accurate description).
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), previously known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or venereal diseases (VD) are infections that are passed on from one person to another through sexual contact. This contact is usually oral, vaginal and/or anal sexual activity. However, sometimes STI can also spread through other intimate physical contact, like herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV) which can spread through skin to skin contact as well. STI can spread through five fluids; namely, vaginal fluid, semen, breast milk, blood and rectal fluid. They spread through genital skin-to-skin contact, genital-to-mouth, genital-to-anus, mouth-to-anus, anything-to-sex toy and sharing things during a sexual activity.
If not diagnosed early or left untreated, STIs can cause serious health-complications, including, but not limited to Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases (PID), infertility, mother-to-child transmission (example HIV, neonatal-syphilis) and neurological manifestations.
The most common symptom of an STI is: no symptom at all. Other common symptoms present are unusual looking/smelling discharge, itching or burning sensation in the genitals, or pain during sexual-intercourse.
What does our data say about STI prevalence?
According to CDC’s Survey of 2018, one in five individuals in the United States has an existing STI. In 2018 alone, there were 26 million new cases of individuals who tested positive for an STI in the United States, and half of them were 15-24 years old. They are prevalent among individuals irrespective of their gender or sexual-orientation.
Exploring Some Sexually Transmitted Infections
We’ll share just a little about each infection below, but learn more comprehensive information about each through the CDC.
Viral Infections: Viral infections are caused by viruses. They are treatable but cannot be cured.
- Human ImmunoDeficiency Virus (HIV) infection weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. In its advanced stage or when left untreated it causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which results in failure of the immune system and can be fatal. AIDS is Stage 3 of HIV infection in which the number of T-cells present in our body decreases drastically compared to the normal count. However, most people in the U.S. do not develop AIDS anymore, and remain with a case of HIV, thanks to treatment options like antiretroviral therapy. Treatment options are so good now that a person can have undetectable amounts of HIV in their body and no longer transmit the virus. Legally if you have HIV/AIDS, you must disclose your positive status to all sexual partners before you have sex (any act that could spread the disease) and it is illegal to disclose anyone else’s HIV/AIDS status (positive or otherwise).
- Herpes - This common infection causes recurrent outbreaks of painful blisters (though most people don’t know they have it and may not have symptoms). There are 2 types of herpes viruses. The Herpes Simplex Virus-1 is oral herpes and Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 causes genital herpes. Most people get infected with HSV-1, and it results in cold sores around the mouth. If this occurs, refrain from oral sex. HSV-2 results in blisters or sores around the genitals or rectum.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) - HPV is a common virus that can lead to certain types of cancer later in life. We have vaccination for HPV/genital warts and a vaccine for this STI is given around 11/12-years-of-age in all genders. Men are less likely to show symptoms but they can still pass it on to their partner(s).
- Hepatitis B - Hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV).We have a vaccine for Hepatitis B STI at birth. Hepatitis B can actually be cured by prescription if treated immediately after exposure.
Bacterial Infections: Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. They can be cured with antibiotic prescriptions. This is why it’s important to get tested and if you have an STI, to get treatment from your healthcare provider.
- Gonorrhea: A very common infection that can cause serious complications when not treated. Untreated gonorrhea may also increase your chances of getting or giving HIV – the virus that causes AIDS.
- Chlamydia: A common STI that can infect both men and women. It can cause serious, permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system. It is often known as the “silent infection” because most people do not have symptoms.
- Syphilis : The infection is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). There are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage. If left untreated causes extensive damage to the nervous system.
Parasitic infections: Parasitic infections are caused by parasites or mites. They are curable by prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
- Trichomoniasis: Is caused by infection with a protozoan parasite and usually has no symptoms. It is curable by prescription medicine.
- Pubic Lice (crabs) : Pubic lice typically are found attached to hair in the pubic area but sometimes are found on coarse hair elsewhere on the body (for example, eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, mustache, chest, armpits, etc.). Lise cause itching usually beginning after 5 days after contact, but they have no long term health effects. It is curable by over-the-counter medication or prescription.
- Scabies: The microscopic scabies mite burrows into the upper layer of the skin where it lives and lays its eggs. The most common symptom is itching. It is curable by over-the-counter medication.
How to Prevent STIs
The good thing about STIs is that they are preventable, getting tested is no big deal, and most STI are easy to treat.STIs can prevented by:
- Using barrier methods during sexual-activities can prevent STIs. These include internal and external condoms and dental dams. GVSU Recreation & Wellness partners with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health to provide external condoms through Wear One. Condoms can be found in several offices all around campus for students to pick up - for free.
- Participate in regular STI screening and health check-ups when you are sexually active.
Not sure about which test you need, the CDC has some guidance.
- Vaccination is another way to prevent some STIs. Vaccinating for Hepatitis B and HPV have medically proven to prevent the respective infections.
As they say, an ounce prevention is worth a pound of cure, it is equally true and applicable for Sexually Transmitted Infections and hence: Take control, be aware and educate yourself about STI and participate in safe sex practices.
By: Sonal Subhash Mandale, WIT Peer Educator
Part of our Sex-Ed Series
As we’ve reached the one-year mark of COVID-19 in Michigan, it is important to take a moment to reflect on how we are all experiencing collective trauma and grief. This pandemic has impacted everyone in some way, whether big or small. Those who are dealing with the stress and trauma from COVID-19 after already having suffered from sexual or relationship violence are some of those individuals being impacted in a big way. Victim survivors are uniquely experiencing this pandemic and can be affected differently than others. Although it may not be clear at first how there is a connection between COVID-19 and sexual violence, the following sections will help to explain this strong and harmful connection.
When thinking about COVID-19 and victim survivors, the first thought that likely comes to mind is how those who are currently living with an abuser are being harmed by stay at home orders. It’s true that staying at home can be very unsafe for those living in violent situations. This can increase their risk for domestic and sexual violence, while simultaneously restricting access to outside resources and supports, like friends and family. Abusers take advantage of the pandemic by using it as an excuse to limit visitors and deliveries, errands, canceling appointments, not allowing survivors to work outside the home, and more. Given the context of the pandemic and orders to stay at home and socially distance, this can be interpreted as perfectly reasonable and can be much more difficult to resist by the victim survivor. These are typical victim-isolation tactics, but are now able to be excused as compliance with public health guidelines. Additionally, many people are feeling the economic burden of COVID-19. While this is harmful to anyone who is experiencing it, those in abusive situations may be suffering unique consequences. A loss of income could force victim survivors to stay with their abusers. Although they could have been saving up money for an exit strategy, they may have to now abandon this strategy due to loss of income.
COVID-19 Retriggering Trauma
Victim survivors do not have to be currently experiencing sexual or relationship violence to still be facing challenges and a retriggering of their trauma during this time. Although the conversation about COVID-19 and victim survivors typically stops at a discussion about domestic violence, there is much more to unpack.Those who have experienced sexual violence in the past are facing a retriggering of trauma during the pandemic. Triggers are defined as “memories stored in our physical and emotional selves”. Those memories can resurface when experiencing specific sounds, tastes, feelings, or events. Staying at home may be triggering for victim survivors who were assaulted in their homes, leading to anxiety, fear, or symptoms of PTSD. Even if home is considered a safe space, having to remain at home for prolonged periods of time can still bring up its own set of challenges as the mere isolation of being at home can be triggering. A feeling of isolation can be a long-term effect on victim survivors, and that feeling is being heightened during the pandemic. Coping mechanisms that victim survivors used previously to manage their triggers, such as connecting with others, may no longer be as effective given the current state of the world. Further, many of us are currently experiencing changes in our body’s systems. It is normal for people to be experiencing sleeping and eating changes, high levels of anxious energy coupled with total exhaustion, and more frequent dreaming and nightmares. While this may be the first time some people are experiencing this at such a heightened level, for victim survivors, this can be reminiscent of what their bodies and minds endured in the early stages of recovering from sexual violence.
Medical care for victim survivors
Medical care for victim survivors are being impacted by the COVID-19 crisis as well. Forensic exams are examinations provided to sexual assault victim survivors to gather evidene that is suitable for use in court. These exams typically need to be conducted within 72 hours of the assault, as physical evidence is typically gone after this time period. 85% of forensic nursing programs in the United States operate out of emergency departments, according to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). These emergency departments have noticed a significant decrease in the volume of patients seeking non-COVID related care. The IAFN conducted a survey that found that 4 out of 5 programs have noticed a decrease in the number of patients coming in, with almost all of them describing it as a “noticeable decrease”. This could largely be a result of victim survivors fearing infection if they enter an emergency department or hospital. Under normal circumstances, forensic exams can take 4 hours or longer to complete, so it is not surprising that a victim survivor may feel hesitant to be in a hospital for that long. They may also be impacted by the social messaging we are experiencing right now that encourages people to make sacrifices for the greater good, such as avoiding entering hospitals and burdening an already overwhelmed healthcare system. Even if a victim survivor does decide to enter a hospital, the experience is changed. For a while during the pandemic, trained victim advocates were not allowed to accompany the victim survivor to the exam, leaving them alone during possibly one of the most traumatic times in their lives.
As mentioned previously, prior coping skills that a victim survivor might have engaged previously may no longer be as effective. It is important to develop new coping skills and new routines given the circumstances of the pandemic. Here are some ideas:
- The first part of recovering after a traumatic event is to calm
the body and the activation of the nervous system. To accomplish
this, try some of the following techniques:
- Breathe mindfully: place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, and do 4 second inhales, a 4 second pause, and then a 4 second exhale. Set a timer for a minute or two and do nothing but mindfully breathe
- Low intensity exercise: high intensity workouts can exacerbate your nervous system while it is working hard to regulate itself. Therefore, workouts like yoga, swimming, pilates, or walking that won’t raise your heart rate too high are a great option for bringing your body some calm. Bonus points if you can be outside while doing this!
- Make sure you’ve eaten: It can be easy to forget to check in with your physical needs, so take a minute to check in with your body and assess whether you’ve eaten enough or drank enough water.
- Trauma informed yoga: This can be a great way to bring your body some calm without raising your heart rate. If you are interested, check out the trauma informed yoga CWGE is putting on in collaboration with RecWell for Sexual Assault Awareness Month!
- After calming down your body, victim survivors may still
experience racing thoughts or triggers. Here are some suggestions
for how to bring your mind some relief after you’ve done so for your
- Journal: in documenting your thoughts, you may want to acknowledge that you are reliving memories of the trauma. Try asking “when did I know I was safe after that happened?” Gently move your thoughts to when you knew you were safe, rather than the traumatic event itself. Continue asking yourself what or who has made you feel safe since then? Let the prompt take you where you need to go
- Reach out to a safe person: reach out to someone who you feel safe with and supported by. Send a text, have a video chat, phone call, or socially distanced meet up.
- Watch a comforting show: Watching a show, especially one you’ve seen before, can bring a sense of comfort and predictability to a time that feels very unstable and unpredictable. Cuddle up with a blanket, a furry friend if you have one, and indulge in some Netflix!
- Say affirmations aloud: affirmations can be a powerful and grounding tool for when you are struggling. Cassandra Corrado has some wonderful affirmations specifically tailored to victim survivors on their website.
If you are interested in hearing more about this topic and diving deeper into the connection between COVID-19 and victim survivors, join the Center for Women and Gender Equity on April 7th at 4:00pm. Register for the event using the following link. Check out the Center for Women and Gender Equity’s other events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month as well. See you there!
Take care of yourself, Lakers!
By: Ariana Deherder, Violence Prevention Student Assistant