How many times have you said or heard some version of this: "I don't know. One minute we were dancing, and then the next thing I knew we had just had sex. It kind of just happened." "We woke up together, and she was like, ‘So, when can I see you again?' And now I guess we're in a relationship? It just happened."
"It just happened" is incredibly common when it comes to sexual relationships. It's also the enemy of what you really really want. When we say "it just happened" (and we don't mean "I was incredibly drunk or high or asleep and therefore not aware enough of my surroundings to have actively participated," which is sexual assault, not sex), what we're doing is denying responsibility for our sexual and romantic decisions. That can feel pretty appealing, especially if you're not comfortable with your sexuality or don't believe you deserve pleasure and safety. If we imagine that sex and relationships "just happen" to us, that they're really beyond our control, then we can't be blamed for anything that goes wrong, or shamed for being the sexual people we are, or feel embarrassed for wanting satisfaction.
Trouble is, "it just happened" also denies us the opportunity to be active in pursuit of our own pleasure. There's no room in "it just happened" to know what you really really want, so there can't be any room to pursue it. Letting things "just happen" can also be risky. If you're refusing responsibility for decision making, you're also probably paying less attention to your intuition. And you're less likely to speak up if something feels off, or if you want your partner to practice safer sex, or if something starts to hurt or freak you out and you want to stop.
It's not even always high-stakes negotiations where this winds up mattering. Take pity sex, for example. I slept with a guy out of pity once. It was horrible. We were on a first date, and he was funny and charming and smart and handsome, and basically let him know I was interested in sleeping with him before we even kissed. (Please take my advice and never do this: The way someone kisses can tell you a lot about how they'll do other things.) So we went back to his room, and as we're leaning in for that first kiss, he makes a stiff "O" with his lips and pokes his tongue out of it — before our lips even touch. I can still see it, coming at me in slow motion, and in my brain a thought flashed up as though on a screen: I've made a serious miscalculation. Abort! Abort! But did I? No, I felt too bad. It felt too impossibly awkward for me to stop him midkiss and say, "Actually, I've changed my mind." So I slept with him. And it was terrible. I was just checked out the whole time, wondering when it would be over, and he was like an overenthusiastic, unhousebroken puppy. He had no idea how miserable I was, but that wasn't his fault — I was actively lying. Through my actions and my affect, I was doing my best to convince him I was having a great time, too.
Did anything horrible happen? Unless you count the hives I had at the end of the evening (his dog? His scratchy wool blanket? I still don't know), not really. I felt icky about it for a day or two (and still do when I think about it, including now), and I had to awkwardly tell him I just wasn't that into him when he followed up for a second date. Which must've been confusing for him, since I'd given him no sign the night before that I wasn't into him.
But it was also confusing for me, in dangerous ways — the same ways it's always confusing and dangerous when you ignore your instincts and violate your own boundaries. Which is why, if I ever find myself in a similar situation again, I hope my emotional muscles will be strong enough to allow me to speak up sooner.
It can be really tempting to leave these decisions up to other people. When you let someone else lead, you're not required to put yourself out there as much. If rejection feels scary to you, that can be awfully appealing. You can also avoid rejecting other people by going with their flow, at least in the short term. (Though trust that I speak from experience when I tell you that not telling someone you're not that into them when you're not that into them only leads to bad things for both of you down the road.)
But here's the thing: You can't have sexual relationships without messy, awkward, emotionally risky interactions. You just can't. You can deal with the messy, awkward, emotionally risky stuff up front and honestly and increase your chances of having fulfilling mutual interactions, or you can wait and hope it doesn't blow up in your face. But you can't engage on such an intimate level with another human being without it sometimes being weird. The sooner you make peace with that and stop imagining this stuff is easy for everyone but you (because it's not: It's messy, risky, and emotionally awkward for everyone), the sooner you'll stop letting things "just happen" and take control of your sexual and romantic life.
And the sooner you do that, the sooner you'll discover how awesome it can be. Talking freely about sex and safety with your partners not only makes sex more fun and relaxed — because you're worrying less and getting more of what you really really want — but also makes it easier to tell the great partners from the ones you want to avoid before you get too hurt. And that information means your intuition will get better and better, which means you'll get even better at knowing your own desires and boundaries and finding people who can simultaneously respect and satisfy you. In short: It's the best possible kind of positive-feedback loop.
Dive In: Pay attention this week to the times when you're not speaking up. Do you want seconds at dinner but are afraid to say so? Do you actually want to wear that outfit, or are you doing it because you think someone else will like it on you? Did your friend or partner hurt your feelings, but you aren't letting them know? Make a note each time it happens. Then, when you've got some time, pick one example and write about what it felt like. And then write about what it might have felt like if you had gone the other way and spoken on your own behalf.
From the book What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2011.
Image via Tom Davison/Shutterstock.com