This episode we addressed a question sent in by a listener about talking about sex with their friend. Specifically they wanted to know what to do when most of their conversations with their friend revolve around sex, sometimes around other people and in workplace contexts, and they would like to talk about other topics sometimes too.
We started the show with a couple of caveats. First off of course we don’t want to shame people for being interested in sex. Generally speaking, it’s great if sex can be a topic of conversation that friends can talk openly about. It would be wonderful if people did this a lot more in our culture which has so much shame around sex. Second it’s worth thinking about who does and who doesn’t get to talk about sex in our society. Often it’s culturally accepted that more normative people get to mention their sex and relationship lives in a way that less normative people don’t, in the same way that we see far more representations of those kinds of sex and relationships in the media (e.g. heterosexual, monogamous, couple relationships). So, for some people, talking about sex as a non-normative person can be an antidote to the shame of having their sex lives erased.
That said, there are certainly some possible consent issues here.
First, it’s worth attending to where talking about sex strays into actually having sex. Things like talking dirty and sexting count as having sex. Whereas talking about your sex lives with no arousal on the part of either friend doesn’t count as having sex. But there is a grey area between these where one or more person might be getting a frisson out of talking about sex with a friend, either because they want to be sexual with that friend and it’s a kind of flirtation, or they just find it exciting to talk about sex. Like all kinds of sex that’s only okay if both people are consenting to it. It is possible that discomfort on the part of one person might be because they’re picking up that this sex talk is in the grey area and therefore not consensual. That’s definitely worth raising if you feel able, and it should be on the person who is finding it sexy to be checking out the consent of what they’re doing.
Even if the conversation is very clearly in the ‘friends talking about their sex lives’ category, consent is an issue whenever one person is dominating or controlling what gets to happen in a relationship or interaction, for example if all the shared activities are the things they most enjoy, or if all the conversation is on topics they are most interested in. Ideally the person with the most power in the relationship would take responsibility for ongoing consent check-ins that the other person is comfortable, and getting their needs met from the relationship/conversations too, and that this is balanced and mutual. For example, culturally men and people in powerful positions tend to speak more in conversations than women and people in less powerful positions, so it’s important that they take some responsibility for making enough space for people with less power and privilege to be equally involved. There’s more about navigating consent in our video on the topic: you might think about what a second and third handshake approach might look like in relation to conversation topics.
In terms of what you can do if the other person isn’t attending to these imbalances between you, you could open up a meta-conversation about the kinds of things you talk about together, maybe using the Venn diagrams from our relationship user guide to get explicit about what topics you are each interested in and where the overlaps might be – recognising that this can change over time and that’s okay. You could explore why sex is spoken about so much in this relationship. For example it could be that your friend has nobody else they feel safe talking about these things with – in which case they might explore online or offline groups, or consider if it’s possible to bring this into their other friendships to take the pressure off this one. Again it could be good practice in all relationships to have regular check-ins about the kinds of things you end up talking about and whether everyone’s desires and needs are being met by this.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2019