When we carry hurt from previous dating and relationship experiences, we become guarded. We think what we’re doing is having boundaries when, in fact, our guardedness is our wall. It’s not unusual, though, to soon find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Why? Because to seek and gain intimacy, affection, connection and the like, means having to be vulnerable. For instance, experiencing physical, including sexual, affection with someone, involves a degree of trust and plenty of unknowns. We might also know that we struggle with being casual about casual relationships.

In knowing our hurt and guardedness, though, we might rationalise that waiting for those feelings to go is unreasonable. What if it’s ‘forever’? What if we ‘dry up’? we wonder. This leaves us with a conundrum, though. How can we date; how we can keep things ‘light’ and have sex without getting hurt or hurting anyone else?

We need to check in with our hurt

Everyone has different views on sex. As a result, we can’t measure our sexual values against someone else’s. Rosie, Jim, or whoever, might be cool with having no-strings-attached sex but we might not be.

If anything, it’s not about comparing our sexual values to someone else’s; it’s about getting clear on why we believe what we do. This includes understanding our associations. Why do we associate dating or sex with being taken advantage of, used or getting hurt?

Many of our long-standing beliefs remain unquestioned. Some are helpful. Others, however, need a bit of tinkering to ensure we’ve removed the shame and fear element. And others need a big-ass delete. Questioning our beliefs isn’t about discrediting them but gaining a deeper understanding and awareness. We need to ensure that we are conscious, aware and present, not living in the past and on outdated beliefs.

Not having sex because we have enough self-awareness to know that we struggle with the emotional consequences of having casual sex is different from avoiding it because we believe sex outside of a relationship equals ‘taken advantage of’.

Not having sex because we have enough self-awareness to know that we struggle with the emotional consequences of having casual sex is different from avoiding it because we believe sex outside of a relationship equals ‘taken advantage of’. Fact is, plenty of people have been in unhealthy relationships and felt uncomfortable about sex. That doesn’t mean that we should race into a casual relationship; recognising that there can be issues around sex within a relationship is about keeping it real. We can then put our sexual values into a context of love, care, trust and respect instead of one of control, fear and shame.

Sex outside of the confines of a being in a relationship doesn’t automatically equate to being used.

When there’s a sense of one person using the other, it’s typically because one lacks agency in the situation. They see the other person as having ‘soaped them up’ to get laid. It plays into this narrative we may have internalised about, for example, how ‘Guys are only out for one thing’. There’s a fear that if we don’t ‘put out’, we risk losing out [on a relationship]. At the same time, we fear that we’ll ‘lose’ if we ‘put out’. Yep, rock and a hard place.

When a date or relationship doesn’t work out and we’re on guard and suspicious of people’s motives, the narrative shifts. We infer that the outcome means that the person took advantage of us previously. It becomes ‘They only spent time around me and said those things because they wanted to have sex. I thought that we were exploring the possibility of a relationship’.

Let’s be real: some people will say anything and pull off a masterful performance to get sex. There are users out there. However, we also need to be honest about where we’ve sometimes been willing to, for instance, have sex if we think it will ‘get’ us what we want. It’s only after things haven’t gone as we wanted and expected that in our self-exploitation, we now feel used.

If we, however, come into a situation knowing ourselves, knowing our opportunity to choose, then it’s possible to, for example, have a fling, enjoy the sex and leave it at that. But ‘casual sex’ isn’t for everyone. And don’t forget that the term ‘casual sex’ is an oxymoron; humans don’t like being treated casually and often struggle to be casual about casual sex.

Every decision we make comes with trade-offs.

When we choose to work for ourselves, it can bring greater freedom and flexibility. Self-employment also means, however, that we have greater responsibility. Becoming a parent brings many delights with it. However, it also means that we, for instance, can’t just walk out the front door without having to make lots of arrangements.

If we choose not to have sex because we prefer it to be in a relationship, we are spared from a lot of the shenanigans that come with sexual contact in dating. It also, however, means that it might be a while before we have sex. We’re also, however, likely to experience disappointment. e.g. When dates don’t want anything more than sex or keeping things light.

If we choose to have sex while dating, we get laid, we [hopefully] enjoy sexual affection, etc. But sex plus dating also brings potential emotional consequences, the possibility of sleeping with more people than we may have intended, and possible disappointment. We also need to acknowledge how where we focus our attention (our bandwidth) matters. If we prioritise sex over our wellbeing or even our desire for a relationship, the trade-off is that we will deprioritise greater priorities.

Every decision has trade-offs.

We must get clear on our needs and intentions.

Yes, there are clear needs for sexual intimacy within a relationship. We don’t, however, have to meet all of our needs for physical affection solely within a romantic relationship. That doesn’t mean that our desire, for example, for physical affection within a romantic context isn’t valid. It does mean, though, that if we’re not in a relationship, physical affection doesn’t have to run dry. It doesn’t have to be feast or famine, all or nothing.

It’s also helpful to acknowledge whether it is sex we need or whether it’s something else.

What is it that we’re trying to feel? What is it that we’re trying to experience?

Sometimes we think it’s sexual attention we need when, in fact, we’re lonely. Or maybe we’re seeking recognition or looking for genuine connection and companionship.

More often than not, when I speak to clients who express a desire for sexual intimacy along with fear of getting hurt, there is a secret desire for a relationship. Or, they’ve decided to pursue sex to avoid their feelings about something else. Or they’re seeking validation of their attractiveness and worthiness. It’s why knowing our ‘why’, our intentions, is so important. It helps us to keep ourselves honest and removes hidden agendas, allowing us to enjoy more successful outcomes.

Going into something from the perspective of what we can ‘get’ out of it as well as what we can ‘avoid’ always leads to pain and problems.

This mentality reveals our hidden agenda. We wind up treating people like a means to an end even though we’d hate for someone to treat us this way.

Knowing that we might want to ‘get in and get out’ with as minimal investment and hurt as possible might be the cue for us to choose another course of action. It might be the call for us to address the pain we’re carrying. Perhaps it’s that no matter whether we’re ‘just’ having sex or we’re dating or being in relationships, we need to commit to being more honest. We commit to being more boundaried instead of walled so that we can process and move on from the hurt.

It’s about clear, open, honest communication and conducting ourselves with integrity.

It may be that we need to evaluate our sexual values and be open to finding a middle ground. Only we can determine our middle ground, though, and it may take experimentation. If we base our choices on how we’d like to feel and continue feeling as well as what matters–our values–we will be okay. We won’t operate with short term, instant gratification thinking that causes longer-term pain.

Ultimately, choosing to have sex with someone doesn’t have to amount to “hurting” if we choose ourselves first. This requires us to confront what has hurt us so that the past doesn’t own us.

Sometimes our way of protecting ourselves against what happened in our sexual past is to refuse everything beyond a kiss. We try to control for danger from a place of judging and guarding ourselves. Having a clearer, more honest recollection, though, of those past sexual experiences allows us to forgive ourselves. We won’t carry each of these situations into dating.

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