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Safe Words and The Freedom To Speak

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK, Jr.

All of the things in life that we have no language for recede from view. And yet our inability to express the feelings and experiences that happen to us don’t make those feelings disappear entirely. Instead they take up residence in our body, manifesting in everything from anxiety attacks to unexplained physical pains. Experience without some kind of verbal expression lives in us deeply, filtering how we think and feel about almost everything else. This is especially true when it comes to our sexual soul, one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanness. Human development is in fact often measured by the evolving ability to both identify and express our experience with language. It is in the act of finding the words, saying them, and feeling heard that we come to know who we are and build a context for our life.

The ridiculous decades of “just say no” abstinence as the standard policy of sex education has backfired in a myriad of ways, but maybe most painfully in the ways that it has all but eliminated our capacity for sexual conversations. Collectively we suffer enormously by the shared loss for words we readily accept about our sexual selves. And this loss not only distances us from growing our capacity for pleasure, but also often leaves us feeling alienated and alone with our unmet sexual needs and hidden erotic wounds.

This summer I have been working with a small team of college interns (most of whom I have known since middle school) to develop our new “Make it Good” ambassador program at select universities. We began with the belief that if we could at least start the conversation about the important topics of establishing consent and equal pleasure for men and women in simple peer-to- peer educational exchanges, it might inspire more attention and perhaps even some deliberate new choices.

After we conducted a small survey of two hundred students and had a few focus group meetings, what became most clear was just how few acceptable words were available to express anything sexual at all. And this problem isn’t just true for the millennial generation. Many older people share the same dilemma of enforced silence around their sexual feelings and experiences. Words get caught in our throats when it comes to sex, which is why it is not unusual for women of any age to be inarticulate about what feels good, what turns them on, or even what has hurt them sexually.

The silenced sexual situations are made more painful by the ways that we hold these injuries inside, often not even talking them through with our closest friends. Instead we send a glib text, like “shitty sex again.” We suppress the shame, and pain gets added to the locked box of questions, doubts, and fear that come to be closely associated with our sexual selves. Verbalizing our experience and being heard is how we process and grow. Without the processing, it is easy to get stuck and the stuck-ness tends to attract more of the same. And really how many times do you have to have painful sex that makes you feel out of control or disrespected before that becomes your sexual expectation? Usually we get what we expect.

Giving words to your experiences is how you liberate them. And establishing code words like they use in extreme sex dungeons could go a long way in a frat on a random Saturday party night. It takes practice to insert words into our sexual encounters, but freeing your voice will liberate and heal your erotic soul and a lot of otherwise unexplained ailments.