This was a typical date. Meeting, flirting, texting, then the anticipated date night. Have drink, dinner, small talk, then back to a private place for intimate encounter. We never discuss what each wants, desires, expects and needs. We enter the realm of dating with an unsaid expectation of sex and connection, in varying degrees. We have all had that “date gone wrong” not from intentional misconduct but from the more insidious one of assumptions and projections. When we live in a culture based on patriarchal values, we silence both men and women. When men are seen as the ones who have to make the “first move”, who hold the power (physically, financially), it not only puts them in a position of abuser, but it silences everyone. We need a sexual cultural shift towards communication in which both men and women can own their sexual needs without judgement, and where spoken words trump mind reading and assumptions.
Bad sexual experience or sexual assault? The encounter between Aziz Ansari and “Grace”, the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian are perfect examples of today’s hook up culture. Reliance on nonverbal communication, sexual expectations, man with more power than women (status, age, finances, reputation, appearance), inability to identify a sexual “freeze” response, alcohol, and need for validation, all contribute to our current sexual climate.
The answer is not about culpability, but about change. We live in a sexual world where we are fed expectations, biases, and ways of behaving from the time we are young. We behave not using words but by projecting, assuming, and creating facades of who we really are. This has created the toxicity between men and women we are facing today.
Alas, there is a solution, a simple but radical one. Talk to each other! Use words as you would condoms, to create safer sex and consensual relationships. The leap from relying on verbal and nonverbal cues, to having an open conversation about intentions, sexual health, and boundaries is not really that difficult. It’s time to jump.
STARS is an easy to remember mnemonic to help guide these important conversations. STARS, which stands for Sexually Transmitted Infection Status, Turn-ons, Avoids, Relationship intentions/expectations, and Safer Sex Etiquette, touches on many of the important aspects of creating a consensual sexual encounter. It is a template we can use to remember what to cover. It doesn’t have to be done in this order, but STARS is a lot easier to remember than RATSS.
Clear communication is the only true solution to the mistrust and fear we are witnessing today. Having a STARS talk early on, before alcohol or sexual desire can cloud our ability to say what we want and need, helps provide this foundation. The #metoo movement helped us speak up, but it doesn’t guide us in a way that we can actually create safer sex. STARS, or any other form of a pre-sex safer sex talk, can help teach us how to shift us away from assumptions and be heard.
It is a change, we are not use to being up front and talk about sex. We fear being labeled as promiscuous or being perceived as needy. We are not taught to take responsibility for our body, emotional and sexual needs. We are not taught to listen and respect our partner’s, especially when it does not align with one’s own. Like so many other aspects of a sexuality, being vulnerable not only helps us overcome our intrinsic shame, it helps us heal and enjoy our body in a healthy manner.
The STARS talk helps eliminate the risks of having sex. It is the condom for a safer sex conversation. If Aziz and Grace had a STARS conversation over wine and dinner, I doubt they would be facing the humiliation they are now. It is time that we learn to ask and listen. STARS is a tool to help change our sexual cultural paradigm. It’s easy and sexy, even if initially it feels awkward. By knowing each others boundaries, desires, and expectations we create safety. Let us now move forward from a culture riddled with sexual misconduct, assault, and harassment. Using a STARS conversation can change this narrative by bringing our sexual script front and center to create consensual sexual relationships. It’s fun as well.