relationships

Is orgasm equality something that should be emphasized or important in all sexual relationships, irrespective of partners' gender?

Orgasm equality is discussed in the context of heterosexual relationships and gender justice (for straight cis women) a lot, and I see its value in that context. Is orgasm equality something that should be emphasized or important in all sexual relationships, irrespective of partners' gender?

AA: We are so glad you asked! I do want to start by naming my identities as a straight cis woman, which, of course, impacts how I think about this. Yes, orgasm equality is often discussed in that context, and may matter in any relational or sexual context if the partner(s) involved feel that it does. That being said, in any context, it’s important to separate the ideas of orgasm and pleasure, and that’s where we will spend our time this week.

LM: Oftentimes, we think of orgasm as the “end goal” of any sexual activity, and we believe that there can be no sexual pleasure without orgasm. In our discussion here, we want to clarify that it is possible for some people to have pleasure without orgasm, and also orgasm without pleasure. A starting point is understanding what you hope to get out of the interaction—is it to bring you pleasure, your partner(s) pleasure, or both? If it is to bring you pleasure, does that pleasure include orgasm?

AA: It’s really important to note that not everyone experiences orgasm in the same way, or to the same degree. Not everyone orgasms in every sexual experience and when, with whom, how, why, etc... Whether or not a person orgasms can be impacted by context, physiological factors, psychological factors, and many other elements. If it doesn’t bother you, not experiencing an orgasm is normal and okay, and does not preclude having a positive sexual experience. Emily Nagoski, a sex researcher and author, has developed some worksheets that can help a person think through some of the factors that may impact their sexual interactions—they might be worth checking out!

LM: Once you have a clearer understanding of your hopes for a sexual experience, it can be helpful to check in with your partner(s) about them. Because we might have different expectations or understandings of each partner’s hopes and needs in an interaction, and these might change throughout the interaction, open communication can help the interaction to be mutual.

AA: Another important thing to name is that power dynamics can impact the entire experience of an interaction, and the process of communicating with your partner(s). It may not be possible to safely communicate your needs, or your partner(s) may not be responsive. If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, know that you can always reach out to OSAPR (24-hour hotline: 617-495-9100).

LM: Thanks again for your question; orgasms, pleasure, and orgasm equality are complex and important topics and we’re glad to be able to discuss them here.

I’m in a new monogamous sexual relationship. I heard you should get tested regularly for STIs, and I want us to but I’m worried my partner will be offended. How do I navigate this conversation?

AA: Thanks so much for sending in this question. It’s great that you’re wanting to be open and communicate with your partner your desire for the both of you to get tested for STIs (sexually transmitted infections). These conversations can bring up a lot and it’s great to think through in advance how you want to navigate given what you know of you and your partner.

LM: Communication is a really important part of any relationship, and having a conversation about STI testing can be a great way to normalize open and mutual communication in your relationship. You mentioned that this is a new relationship, too, and beginning to have these conversations early can create relational practices that support ongoing dialogue.

AA: The CDC recommends that sexually active individuals get tested between every three months to every year depending on your sexual activity and partners. More detailed testing recommendations can be found here. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the most common symptom of most STIs is actually no symptoms at all. Thus, getting tested in accordance with the recommendations is worthwhile even if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms.

LM: These could be some useful facts to bring up in your conversation with your partner. Since it’s recommended to get tested every so often, even if you don’t have symptoms, this can show your partner that your desire tcalo get STI tested may not stem from any particular concern about them, but rather that it’s a positive healthcare practice.

AA: It’s important to note that each relationship has its own communication style; only you can fully determine how to navigate conversations that might be loaded with your partner. That being said, there are some ways to engage in these conversations that others have found helpful. For instance, as LM mentioned, starting with the medical recommendations can be a low-threshold way to begin a conversation about STI testing with your partner. Generally people find that these conversations are more effective when they are framed using “I” language. The more each one of us can make our relational requests about our own needs rather than about the relationship itself, the more folks tend to be able to engage. When I think about a potential way to do that, it might look like: “I have decided to make STI tested a part of my preventive healthcare routine. I would like to have a conversation about whether this can become a practice in our relationship.”

LM: If you and your partner do decide to get STI tested, we at SL have previously written about getting STI tested at HUHS if you’re interested in finding out what the process looks like. Again, I want to emphasize how productive it can be to have conversations like these right off the bat. Like AA said, it can be helpful to communicate your own needs to your partner, and this can apply not just to STI testing but to the relationship as a whole.

AA:  I want to make sure that all Harvard students know that they can receive free STI testing at HUHS. You can schedule a STI test online via the HUHS patient portal, you don’t even need to call. First head the HUHS website and log into your patient portal. Once you are logged in fully, click on “appointments” and then “schedule an appointment.” When the next choices appear you’ll need to select Primary Care and choose the location option that corresponds to your PCP's name, then type in STI testing and complete the rest of the form. Appointment time options will pop up and you will be able to choose the time that is best for you.

If the clinician orders a test that requires a blood sample they will most likely send you to Quest Diagnostics which is in the basement of HUHS. Since Quest is a separate company, who does their own billing, it is important for you to remind them to bill HUHS for this blood sample. HUHS pays for all student STI testing, including any tests done through a blood draw. Sometimes, but rarely, there is a small margin of error as billing is done by humans. If a bill is sent to your insurance it will generally just say “lab test” and not the specific type of test. If this is still of concern to you we recommend that students call their insurance company (most phone numbers can be found on the back of your insurance card) and ask that their Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) be sent to their address on campus.

Amanda Ayers
Health Educator

LM
Student

My partner and I just found out that we are pregnant. We both want to be parents, but I read somewhere that pregnancy can add stress to relationships.  What are some things we should look out for?

AG: Thanks for the question! Pregnancy can be a big change for an individual, a relationship, and/or a family system. It’s important to first remember that every person may experience this differently. For some, pregnancy can be a source of intimacy and excitement. For others, it can add stress and uncertainty. For many, it can be some combination of all of these feelings and many others! In this blog post we will address some common themes. We want to note, though, that these may not apply to everybody and that this is far from comprehensive.

RC:  As a person who has now gone through this process twice, my observation of my own experiences is that each pregnancy felt different.  Something that folks often talk about, regardless of how familiar this process is to them, is an experience of navigating a future in which there is less certainty than before.  This is sometimes accompanied by an increase in anxiety or feelings of (in some ways) lacking control.  I want to note, this is partly due to changes in neurobiology; when pregnant and/or parenting, our brains actually redirect resources to increase our ability to respond quickly and effectively to primal threats.  While this was a crucial adaptive strategy, it can make things feel hard or overwhelming in the modern world.  Often people express feeling better able to manage this when in open dialogue with their supportive people.

AG: In part because of these changes, patterns of communication may be impacted. People may feel that they are experiencing parts of the pregnancy and parts of the relationship differently, and that they may not be on the same page. Also, it isn’t uncommon for people to feel that the relationship is no longer the main priority as it might have previously been. People who choose to be parents may be redirecting emotional energy toward the growing baby that was once focused on the relationship and adapting to this shift can be confusing. Naming these feelings to your people can be helpful, if that feels like an option.   

RC:  It’s important to flag that, especially in partnered relationships that are characterized by imbalanced dynamics of power and control, increases in interpersonal violence have been documented.  This often, but certainly not always, correlates with a “mistimed” or unplanned pregnancy.  In relationships with a history of physical violence, pregnancy often correlates to an increase in homicide.  There is little accessible data that speaks to interpersonal violence within broader family systems.  

Often a relatively accessible place for folks to raise concerns during pregnancy is during prenatal visits with a medical professional.  In the US, medical providers are required to screen for interpersonal violence during the course of a prenatal relationship and should ask those questions without any partner(s) present.  If you have any concerns about your well-being, please know that local and federal resources are available.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local Interpersonal Violence agency may be a good place to begin.  OSAPR (Harvard), Transition House (Cambridge), Casa Myrna (Boston), Reach Beyond Domestic Violence (Waltham), The Network/ La Red (Boston), Fenway Health (Boston) or Respond (Somerville) are some of the resources available locally.

AG: Thanks Ramsey for noting all of that. And while it’s certainly true that pregnancy can add stresses on relationships, it can also be a really big source of excitement!  For people that are choosing to carry the pregnancy to term and/or to parent, the thought of bringing a new human into the world can bring up many emotions, experiences, and reactions and some may feel that it gives them a different perspective on things.  Whatever your experience, we hope that you feel equipped to navigate the process in a way that feels right for you.  Please know you are always welcome to reach out with any more questions!  Our email is: harvard.sexual.literacy@gmail.com.

Ramsey Champagne,

OSAPR Community Advocate

AG

Student

 

What can I do on a daily basis, in my classes, etc, to make a safer environment?

RC: Wow, this is such a great question!  AG and Meera spoke to a piece of this conversation three weeks ago in a post about reducing sexual assault here at Harvard, but I always love the opportunity to think about the variety of ways we can all contribute to creating a community that is more accessible for all people.  When thinking about this, it helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which basically posits that individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres or levels through which they move (relationships, communities, and society) and they, likewise, impact the well-being of those around them.

On an individual level, we can all strive to be intentional about the language we use and the way we interact with others around us.  It can be really hard to know when and if we have hurt someone, especially in a place like Harvard, where people have so many different identities and ways of expressing themselves and their feelings.  Because of this, I find it’s really helpful to consistently practice checking in with those around me; we know that neural pathways become strengthened the more we use them.

AG: Basically the more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with the easier it becomes to do so without it feeling totally forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you such a better sense of how your actions and words  impact those around you regardless of what your intentions might have been.

RC: For example, one of my friends grew up in a place with a lot of traffic and gave up on being punctual long ago.  For them, being respectful means it’s ok to be a little late, as long as they get there.  I, on the other hand, grew up in the Midwest, where being on time meant you got somewhere 10 minutes early.  For me, being respectful means being super punctual.  We would constantly be in conflict if we didn’t check in with each other about when it matters to be on time and when I can practice being a little more flexible.

AG: In this example, it gives both people an opportunity to check in and see how the other feels about either meeting right at a set time or having that be a little less rigid. This might seem like a super trivial example, but little things can build up and impact relationships if they don’t get a chance to be addressed. Sometimes these smaller things can be easier to check in about, and then when something bigger might come up, you can be more comfortable and skilled at having those conversations.

RC:  Another key piece of this is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant to or not.  

AG: I like to think about this as kind of a series of steps. First, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then, just like Ramsey said, you can try to understand their experience and then take ownership of your actions. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and then to incorporate their feedback moving forward.

RC: When I think about moving outward across levels of the SEM,  I find that reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms: how can people call each other out; how supportive are the leaders in groups when that happens; what are group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable.

AG: We know that all of this can be really hard. But honestly, by starting with the little things we talked about earlier like checking in and taking ownership, it already becomes easier to have these conversations and understandings with each other. With this though, it’s also really important for group leaders to have meetings at the beginnings of the semesters and talk about all of this frankly. Often a clear discussion like that is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.  

RC: This process can sound daunting; like AG said, starting with check ins about the small things can be a good way to develop the skills and confidence so that when the harder conversations or conflicts arise, we each are more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn.  All of this goes a surprisingly long way toward reducing harm.

AG: If you have more questions about this please feel free reach out to us or OSAPR. Good luck!

AG

Student

RC

Ramsey Champagne

Community Advocate, OSAPR

What should one do if they know they don't want their relationship to last "forever" but don't want it to end in the moment?

EXPERT ANSWER:

Dearest Not Forever,

While not ALL good things must end, many do.  And that doesn’t make them less good!  There are endless reasons we might not see a future with someone we are dating.  Maybe we feel like we’re too young to be settled down, or we don’t know where we’re going in life and how a significant other will fit in, or maybe we’re seeing someone whose values don’t align with our own in terms of long term relationship (LTR) goals such as whether you want children, to get married marriage, or  belief system but aren’t in conflict with the immediate reality.  Whatever the reason, that doesn’t preclude you from dating someone at all.  If we didn’t date people who were wrong for us, we mostly wouldn’t date at all!  

There are a few things I’d recommend keeping in mind:

First, figure out what you DO want, both in terms of a LTR and in terms of this current relationship.  What are limits or boundaries you can identifying for when a relationship has run its course or is no longer working for you?  Knowing these things in advance will help give you some clarity about how to approach your current situation with confidence and kindness.

Second, communicate honestly with your current dating partner about your needs and expectations.  It may be that your partner is likewise not looking for anything serious and this aligns perfectly with their needs and expectations.  It may be that they feel really disappointed because they were hoping for something more long-term or even something with the possibility of a future.  If they aren’t totally on board with your thinking, it is important you respect their needs and wants as well as your own.  Dating ‘for now’ has to be a good option for you both.

And what if the other person wants something long term, but would rather keep dating than break up, in spite of your differing goals?  Well, that’s not an easy answer.  It’s possible to make an argument that we are all adults and capable of making our own decisions - even when they aren’t in our best interest - and we should respect that at face value.  It’s also possible to argue that we can hold ourselves to only pursue relationships that we understand as mutually beneficial, meaning if I want short-term and they want long-term, I can understand the ‘for now’ as only benefiting me and determine that that’s not the sort of relationship I want to be in.  There isn’t a single right answer.  Pursue this question with kindness, empathy, and respect, and make a decision that feels right for you.

Happy Dating!

Alicia

Director of OSAPR


STUDENT ANSWER:

Hi hi,

Thanks for writing! Honestly, this is a really mature and self-aware question. It’s impressive that you realize the distinction between right now and “forever” and are acknowledging that your relationship might only fit in that first category.

I want to start by stressing that this is completely okay. Something can be right for right now without being right forever, and it definitely doesn’t make you a bad or dishonest person for knowing that.

This can get a little complicated if the other person isn’t on the same page as you. Maybe they think this relationship is “the one”, but maybe they also totally just think it’s great for the time being. It’s impossible to know until you talk about it!   

Of course, this is pretty situational and depends on the type of relationship you have, how long you’ve been together, and the type of people you are. You might feel the need to have a long-term conversation with someone you’ve been dating for a month or maybe it feels more appropriate once you’ve been together for six months. The timing is a personal choice but the point is that after awhile it will be a productive and probably pretty necessary discussion to have. It might be hard to explain that you see the relationship as having an expiration date, but honesty is important and it can help the other person from being blindsided or hurt (and help alleviate stress you might have about the situation!).

At some point, if you don’t want the relationship to last forever, then one of you will have to end it. But for now, just enjoy the relationship that you have. What’s important now is whether you are making each other happy and enjoy spending time together. And once that’s no longer true, or if your lives and priorities change so that it doesn’t feel right to stay together anymore then you can reevaluate. The question of whether you two will stay together for the rest of your lives shouldn’t need to dictate what happens today.

Good luck!

AG

Student