This time on the podcast Meg-John interviewed Elsie Whittington. Elsie is a researcher at Manchester Met Uni who did her PhD on consent and studies youth sexuality.

For the podcast episode Elsie and MJ decided to focus on awkwardness because this was such a big theme in Elsie’s research that it ended up being a whole chapter of her thesis.

How is awkwardness relevant to sex and consent?

Pretty much every one of the young people who Elsie spoke to for her research said that a huge thing they feared during sex was awkwardness, and this was a major barrier to having conversations about consent, or to pausing or stopping what they were doing if it wasn’t feeling good.

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The sex educators and advisors that Elsie spoke with also said that awkwardness was a big barrier to talking about sex openly in schools and youth groups – and evidence suggests that medics, therapists, and other professionsal feel similarly awkward about bringing up issues of sex and consent.

What is awkwardness?

Most of the participants in Elsie’s research said it was a sense of embarrassment or having got something wrong. They felt awkward that they might be exposed as being inept at sex in some way if they brought up consent, or talked about what they wanted, for example. They were scared of losing face and looking stupid.

Interestingly the word awkward – from the Latin – means wrong (awk) and direction (ward – like backward and forward). So it’s literally about a fear of going in the wrong direction. On the podcast we linked this to the sexual script that is taught in media, sex advice, sex ed, etc. Part of why there is awkwardness around sex is that there is a sense of the ‘right direction’ that we could (intentionally or unintentially) deviate from. Even worse, there’s often a sense that trying to do it consensually will risk us going in the wrong direction.

What do we generally do about awkwardness?

In all aspects of life we’re taught pretty thoroughly to avoid awkwardness – perhaps particularly if we’re from cultural backgrounds which have a horror of embarrassment and where saving face is important. We might struggle with restaurants or shops or other unfamiliar environments if we sense that we don’t know the script – and therefore risk being awkward.

As with so many difficult feelings our default may be to assume that the presence of awkwardness is a bad thing, and that avoiding it is a good thing, at whatever cost.

Why is this risky?

When it comes to sex – which feels like such a loaded, vulnerable situation with potential for awkwardness – people may even prefer to risk unwanted or non-consensual sex than facing an awkward pause, silence, or conversation. Awkwardness is also a reason often given for struggling to suggest contraception.

Sex advice and media – including much advice around consent – is largely to blame for people preferring risky non-awkwardness to consensual awkwardness. It presents a script for sex, with everyone telepathatically knowing what to do without communication, and no awkwardness. Even consent ed often presents consent conversations as straightforward and not awkward. We need to see more realistic images and examples of people navigating awkwardness around sex and consent. It simply isn’t possible to get to that point without a lot of practise (including plenty of awkwardness).

How could we approach awkwardness differently?

We spoke about the importance of staying with feelings: learning how to be with awkwardness, recognising that it’s possible to feel and won’t destroy us. The most we can practise being okay with awkward feelings, the more we’ll be okay when those happen during sex.

Naming awkwardness can really take the sting out of it. Saying ‘oh that’s awkward’ or referencing the awkward turtle meme helps to make it a bonding, perhaps funny, moment rather than something that feels terrible.

It can be great to model the capacity to be awkward and it be okay for other people – if it’s something you can do. You can bring in cultures with friends where you see anybody feeling awkward as a great sign that a conversation would be helpful. Naming awkwardness and asking how others are doing can be helpful for social dynamics, and good practise again for when this comes up in relation to sex (whether sex itself or conversations about it).

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020