The Three Cs of Healthy Sexual Relationships

by: David Chastity 

I’m in this class called “Ministry and Human Sexuality” this quarter, and it’s so weird to be talking about sexual ethics with a bunch of nice, monogamous, mostly-liberal, (straight and queer) religious people instead of the sluts I’m used to. I’m openly poly in class, and no one’s given me any shit for it (because I’m damn articulate), but I’m finding a lot of the ethical material we’re reading doesn’t quite address my experience. So I sat down to name my own requirements for ethical, loving sexual practice and I’m proud to present David Chastity’s Three Cs of Healthy Sexuality:

1. Consent
2. Communication
3. Caring

These three cover everything you need to live out a healthy, loving, ethical sexual life with yourself and others, and they avoid the accusatory and prescriptive nature of many sexual ethics that imply only certain behaviors are acceptable (and only when performed by certain people).

Under “consent” comes not just “if someone says no, stop what you’re doing,” but also the ideas about power dynamics. In order to freely give consent, all parties must be on relatively equal footing. This means that certain sexual relationships are inherently more difficult to actualize ethically–relationships across races where one race historically (or currently) has more power than the other, relationships across age divides, relationships where the parties involved have a professional relationship that is not on equal footing, etc. These sorts of relationships are more vulnerable to consent being exploited, and those who seek to start such relationships should try to be aware of these issues and address them.

Even in fairly balanced relationships, we have different sexual wants and needs, and it’s essential that all sexual activity be grounded in consent. Consent is always action-specific (“Just because I said you could put your finger in my vagina doesn’t mean I consent to you putting your strap-on there.”) and time-bound (“Just because I consented to marrying you and having sex on numerous occasions over the past 30 years doesn’t mean I consent to sex right now.”). There’s a lot of debate over how verbal consent has to be, and while certainly, when in doubt, say something, I still tend to fall on the side of people who don’t talk a lot during sex. I don’t like talking, it distracts me, and I hate all the words for sex actions, and I’m super-good at nonverbal communication. So me and my partners don’t normally talk about a ton of stuff, we just go with the vibe and make noises and I’m chill with saying “no wait stop” if something’s no good. This takes a lot of trust. When in doubt, use words.

Consent isn’t just about sexual boundaries, either–a lot of the boundaries I need to establish with partners have more to do with things like “at what point in the relationship can we eat breakfast together” and “it’s not really okay to call me on Saturday mornings” than “you can put your finger here but not there.” Proper consent requires that all parties have a decent level of self-knowledge and self-love in order to identify what we really want and be able to communicate it.

Communication is a little more straight-forward and obvious. If you don’t tell someone what’s going on inside your head, the relationship isn’t going to get very far, is it? You gotta communicate both the stuff you want and the stuff you don’t want. I’m always amazed when I see those survey results where when you ask a bunch of people if they’re in an exclusive relationship, some big percentage of couples don’t agree. ‘Cause they never sat down and talked about it. So many of the problems in relationships come from mismatched expectations- if people would just say “I would like you to call me twice a week,” they’d avoid the fight three months later when Shmoopy fails to call. Don’t assume that just because you ask for something, your partner will automatically grant it (or vice versa): there’s an element of negotiation here, too. Healthy relationships give and take, and part of the excitement is working out how to best meet the needs of everyone involved.

I’m also using this to touch on all forms of communication, not just the verbal. Especially in sexual relationships, touch is such an important part of communication, and we should celebrate the state of being so in tune with a partner that we can convey whole conversations with just our eyebrows. I can name like 7 country songs about a marriage that’s falling apart because the husband and wife don’t take the time to pay attention to each other any more, which I assume is country-song euphemism for sexytimes. If you like someone, don’t just say it, do the other stuff that shows them.

Finally, I bring in caring, which is both a way to say love that keeps it in my C-based scheme and a way to get around some of the baggage we’ve stacked the word “love” with in a sexual context. I’m not talking just about whatever romantic notions abound (some of which actively violate the norms for consent and communication!), but about the broader kind of love religious folks tend to espouse for all of humanity and/or creation. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, every person you interact with is of equal worth to you, and contains an equal divine spark. You need to honor that, and meet that equal person in loving care.

I’ve previously laid out my life-giving, ethical approach to anonymous sex, which I do think is a different kind of caring for/about a person than what we do in long-term relationships. No matter what, though, we need to care for and about ourselves and our partners, so that our sexuality can be a place of salvation for us. Caring for and loving other people heals them and us, and makes our world a better place. If you’re sexing someone without caring, you may not be doing anything wrong, but you’re certainly not increasing the good in the world.

I struggle with all of these Cs at some point or another in my sex life. I’ve been known to learn my own boundaries only after someone breaks them. I’ve been routinely awful about opening my damn mouth and saying something. I’m a frequent misanthrope who’s had to work hard to figure out how to let people down gently. The best was to try to get better at them is to apply them to yourself, in reverse order. Start from self-love (jerking off and otherwise), then learn to communicate with yourself, to name the things you love and crave. Finally, you can set your own boundaries, and ask for the things you want best, in a consensual relationship with someone else. You can’t have healthy sex without meeting some basic minimum of these 3 Cs. with yourself and your partner(s), but they also call you to a higher, better ideal.

David Chastity is some girl who lives in a city on the East Coast and likes kissing. She also really enjoys doing the Onion A.V. Club crossword puzzle, drinking good beer and finding the secret sexual meanings in popular music. She’s working on her MDiv and convincing Jesus to marry her.

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3 responses to “The Three Cs of Healthy Sexual Relationships

  1. Great article! In power dynamic issues you didn’t mention men and women in sexual relationships, which is pretty common. Do you have any thoughts about creating true consent between women and men?

  2. Pingback: The Three Cs of Healthy Sexuality « David Chastity·

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