Interview with Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. “I teach in the area of sexual health and I also do research on sexuality,” she said.
What books or websites would you recommend to people interested in cultivating healthy relationships and intimacy?
When someone comes to me with specific concerns or questions, I’m happy to recommend different kinds of books or websites, but it’s hard for me to say ‘This is a website that is good for everybody.’ Academics are notorious for ‘It depends’, right? But it really does. There’s so much available and it’s so overwhelming.
The stuff I read is going to be different from what I recommend somebody else read. I like to read about the science of relationships and sexuality but that’s not necessarily going to be appropriate for the layperson. So it really depends on who I’m recommending something to and what they are hoping to get out of it: Are they working on a problem right now in their relationship and going to a counselor or therapist is not an option? There could be a book or a website that might help them in that situation.
It might be a student who’s interested in reading a blog regularly on these kinds of topics. I recommend to my students—who I’m usually working with more than anybody else, and I’m biased about this—one of my mentors runs a blog called ‘My Sex Professor’ (mysexprofessor.com) and I enjoy this blog for myself also because I like keeping tabs on who the people who taught me how to be what I am are still considering important things to discuss. It’s tailored toward students somewhat and it’s not just one voice; Dr. Debby Herbenick (Indiana University) has a lot of different contributors. People like advice and I tend to enjoy’s Dan Savage’s ‘Savage Love’ (thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove) I don’t always agree with what he has to say but he always has an interesting perspective and I like the diversity as far as the topics and the types of people and the relationships he addresses. I think it’s important for people to see there’s so many different kinds of questions you can have about relationships.
I try to tend to stay away from highly gendered websites or books that make the claim that this is just for men or just for women. I get very, very frustrated when I see this message in the media that women and women or individuals of different sexual orientations all want very different things. The stereotypical responses like ‘men aren’t good at expressing their emotions’, but there are plenty of women who aren’t good at expressing their emotions, either. One of the things I really like to try to teach my college students that we have a lot more in common than not, and as far as a relationship, it’s about trying to find someone who is at the same point in their search as you. This idea that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ is so overdone right now and completely backwards and old news. It’s not what we’re seeing in science and it’s not what we’re seeing in real life and I’m tired of people being taught that.
We gender so many aspects of our world as it is and we do it with relationships and ideas about intimacy more than probably anything else and it starts from a very young age when we start to send these really silly gender-norm messages. In many ways they really do hurt relationships. It hurts our ability to empathize with one another and it affects our ability to communicate. We think that the person we are partnered with is so different from us; it’s setting us up to fail in a way we don’t even realize is happening.
What are the top things people should know about healthy relationships and intimacy? What are the top misconceptions about relationships and intimacy?
There’s so much pressure on ourselves and our partners that every sexual act needs to be the most mind-blowing experience and if it’s not, that means we don’t love each other as much as we potentially could somebody else. There’s so much pressure and everybody needs to relax a little bit and enjoy things for themselves and not what other people expect out of them.
Pretty much every sex therapist and sex educator emphasizes communication, and it cannot be stated enough. Talking to you partner is really, really important and it takes a lot of vulnerability and it’s usually why we’re not such good communicators. We’re worried about how what we say is going to be heard by our partners and if it’s going to be heard at all. In order to build intimacy, it takes being able to be vulnerable in that way, being able to say to your partner something they might not like hearing or that they might judge you on. Being able to say something like ‘I really like anal play’ to your partner can be really hard, but that’s what’s going to build intimacy, being able to be vulnerable in that moment.
But on the flip side, when your partner is coming to you with something that shows their vulnerability, even if you are initially judging them for it in your head, make sure to try to take a deep breath and recognize how difficult it is to say those words out loud. I think plenty of us just aren’t gentle with our partners as we could be especially if we want to encourage that intimacy. Intimacy is something that you want and when your partner is showing signs of vulnerability, you need to be very careful and gentle with it so in the future they’re more likely to do it again. That’s essentially what it means to be in an intimate relationship regardless of whether it’s sexual or not: to be kind to one another and open to the kind of communication that you just don’t tell someone on the street; you’re special and there’s an intimate connection there.
It doesn’t mean that you have to necessarily engage in those behaviors but it gives you something you can go off of, ‘Well, I’m not necessarily comfortable with anal sex but I’m okay with finger stimulation.’ If you want a healthy sex life and if you want to be more satisfied with your sexual relationship and your overall relationship, you have to be able to talk about these things and have that kind of trust. But it’s going to look entirely different for different relationships, someone you are having sex with occasionally from someone you are in a long-term relationship with.
There’s a lot of negotiation that happens in the bedroom. We barter with our sex lives all the time. Our sexual selves are powerful and there’s always an exchange that’s happening; nobody is entirely selfless in having sex. Even if you’re in it only for your partner’s pleasure, you’re still getting something out of it; you’re getting pleasure from your partner’s pleasure.
Having sex with somebody else is never going to be entirely selfless and it doesn’t need to be. That’s what masturbation is for. Partner activity is about an exchange and sometimes it’s not always equal and that’s okay, too, it depends on what you’re going into that sexual experience looking for and being able to communicate with your partner clearly about what you’re wanting to get out of it.
What do you tell teenagers about sex?
These are individuals who are 19 and older, so I can say a lot more than what a high school teacher could say. I appreciate that freedom. And I wish a lot of what I say to my college students I could be in a high school setting and say in the classroom to them as well, because I think the earlier they hear some of these positive messages, the better. I do recommend that as a society we be more frank with our young adults in general, be honest about issues related to sexuality instead of just focusing on those terrible things, the STIs and unwanted pregnancies that might happen if you have sex. We use these things to scare them out of wanting to have sex, more often than not.
But once they’re married we expect them to have these happy, healthy sex lives and those things just don’t go together the way we’re doing it. If we’re honest with them, they’re more likely to trust us and come to us as the older, more experienced generation with questions and for advice instead of treading the sort-of-scary waters all on their own. Or making mistakes we could have helped them prevent—sometimes lifelong, permanent mistakes—that we could have helped them deal with ahead of time.
If we are honest about the positive reasons people have sex, the fact that most people have sex because it feels good and not necessarily to make a baby—they’re going to figure that out eventually, even Mom and Dad, when they’re having sex, are not having sex to have a million kids; it’s an intimate, fun experience for them. As parents and educators we feel the need to emphasize ‘abstinence is best’ and we also have to pair that ‘wait as long as you possibly can’ without telling them why they’re waiting or what they’re waiting for. Like how to recognize the signs that you are ready to be having sex, not because I am telling you because you are married but because you yourself as a person are ready and feel safe and feel like this is going to be a good positive experience, and that you have all the skills and tools to negotiate a positive sexual experience. Instead of winging it, which is what a lot of teenagers do.
It’s worth talking to your child about sex, it’s worth talking to teenagers in an open and frank way. It’s not promoting sex, but promoting an open dialogue about sex, without judgment.
What do you think is the most romantic music?
Everybody has different experiences they bring to the table, so I have no idea where to begin on recommending romantic music. You’re going to get different responses from everybody about something like that.
For me, personally, I prefer not to have any music. I like to hear noises my partner would make. I think music, especially music with words, can be very distracting and can cover up the actual sex noises. I like sex noises. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would completely disagree with that, but I focus on sex and that’s what I study. I study and talk about sex all the time so it makes sense that I would not be turned off by sexual noises where somebody else might be.
Are LGBTQ relationships more accepted or more challenging today?
They are both more accepted and more challenging. The reason they’re more accepted is because more and more couples are demanding to have equal rights and to be visible in their relationships and not have to hide their sexuality. But because of that, you are going to have more people challenging that; they go hand in hand.
The more individuals who are out in their relationships, the more people are going to be exposed to those individuals and those kinds of couples. Because their friends fall within those categories and their family members and their loved ones.
Amongst my students, it’s night and day from when I started teaching six years ago as far as when we bring up issues related to LGBTQ, especially when it comes to gay and lesbian populations...is hasn’t extended all the way to marriage equality but the majority of my students now believe in marriage equality and it wasn’t that way six years ago.
We spend a lot more time talking about gay and lesbian issues and bisexual issues in very different way now. We used to talk about LGBTQ relationships in a more superficial manner, what it means to be gay or lesbian or bisexual and now they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know, we get it.’. Now we talk about some of the politics behind it, like transgender issues; it’s a hot topic right now but six years ago when I used to bring it up, my students wouldn’t even know what ‘transgender’ meant.
Things have changed in the last six years, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still bias against LGTBQ populations. But I see more and more of my students demanding change in a way they didn’t before, and I really love that. I love seeing them get excited about social justice issues, even issues that don’t affect them indirectly.
With people of different sexual orientation, we tend to ‘other’ anyone who doesn’t identify as straight. We either view them in very stereotypical ways or assume that they’re very different from us in other ways. Some common stereotypes would be that a gay man has so much more sex or he would have sex that is very different from the way we would have sex; it’s kinkier or dirtier. That’s not true--there are just as many gay couples who have vanilla sex as there are straight couples who have vanilla sex. It’s about the individuals and what they bring to the table and how they work as a couple. It doesn’t matter if it’s two men or two women or two individuals who are bisexual, there are differences and commonality among all these individuals.