by Dale Ryan
“Safe” and “sex” are words that belong together. “Safe sex” has, however, become short hand for “biologically safe sex.” As a culture we have, understandably, paid an enormous amount of attention recently to what it means to be biologically safe sexually. But biological safety is not the only kind of safety. While our culture has become attentive to what makes for physically safe sex it does not seem to have a clue about what constitutes emotionally safe sex.
Sex with Strangers
I was powerfully struck by this recently while watching the movie The American President on video. It is a wonderfully done movie – a tender story about a widowed President falling in love. I enjoyed it thoroughly. A story about principles, and values and commitment – what a refreshing thing I thought. Until it occurred to me that the story line includes the President and his new girlfriend having sex on their second date.
Do you know anybody who can have sex on their second meeting and be even remotely close to being emotionally safe? I don’t. It’s really a preposterous suggestion. It’s sex with a stranger. No matter how “fallen-in-love” it might seem at the time it’s still sex with a stranger, sex with someone you don’t really know. From an emotional perspective, sex with strangers is extremely dangerous. It can have disastrous consequences. It is not sexually transmitted diseases that concern me here, it is sexually transmitted anxiety, sexually transmitted distrust, and sexually transmitted disappointment. None of us need these. And yet, in the movies and in other media, the kind of boundary-less-ness represented by sex with strangers is common and has few if any negative consequences. [See the movie Contact for a more recent example of this same thing.]
The fact is that there are no emotional condoms that can make sex emotionally safe. There are no short cuts to emotional safety. To make sex emotionally safe you have to make a relationship emotionally safe. And that involves a lot of hard work. It takes time and commitment and faithfulness to build a safe relationship. Safe sex comes from the regular investment over a long period of time of love, tenderness, playfulness, respect, understanding and shared life. These kinds of investments lead to a safe relationship with safe boundaries. And that’s the kind of relationship were safe sex can flourish.
Boundaries and Safe Sex
The key to emotionally safe sex is boundaries. It is a paradox, of course, that healthy boundaries are what make possible the transcendance of boundaries that is part of sexual experience. But that’s the deal. Poor boundaries lead to unsafe and unsatisfying sex. Healthy boundaries lead to what the Bible calls ‘two becoming one.’
The first kind of boundary that makes for safe sex is a boundary around the sexual relationship. I can’t remember any movies that have celebrated life-long monogamy as the key to great sex, but that just shows how great the gap is between movie-reality and the real world. I’m not suggesting, of course, that monogamy is a guarantee for safe sex. But monogamy at least creates the structure within which safety is possible. Take just the matter of performance orientation. If you learned about sexuality from the media you probably got the impression that any two people can have sex with accompanying vioins and fuzzy camera focus. It certainly looks easy on TV where there is never any suggestion that sexual experiences are anything less than wonderful. Talk about unrealistic expectations! In real life when it doesn’t work out to be spectacular every time, we can easily slip into a performance consciousness that destroys the relaxation and playfulness that are necessary for emotional safety. Emotionally safe sex requires sturdy enough boundaries around your relationship so that you can talk about this kind of stuff, process it in appropriate ways and build, over time, a secure non-performance-oriented foundation for safety.
A second kind of boundary that is key to emotionally safe sex is the boundary between the present and the past. The dynamics of sexual addiction which are discussed elsewhere in this issue of STEPS suggest that sexuality can get really messed up if it becomes driven by unacknowledged and unresolved emotional pain. Memories of past sexual situations – particularly situations involving abuse – will have a powerful impact on the emotional safety of any sexual relationship. Making sex emotionally safe involves coming to terms with the impact of all of our previous sexual experiences. This means cleaning out our emotional attics. Every experience of shame about our physical bodies, our sexuality, or our boundaries can impact our current experience of sexuality. The process of recognizing these ghosts and coming to terms with them is hard work and it takes time. But the end product is safe sex.
Safe is what sex is supposed to be. It is suppose to be one of the ways we can be totally vulnerable to another person and yet still feel totally safe because of the love, the mutuality, the tenderness, the joy, the playfulness and the physical pleasure which sex involves.
May God grant you the grace to maintain healthy boundaries in all your relationships and may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God’s love.