Rebel Well: Relationships & Sex

This piece is part of Rebel Well: a Starter Survival Guide to a Trumped America for Teens and Emerging Adults.

Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their causethe cause of liberation. ― Paulo Freire


Meeting each other where we are: The ways that people feel and the ways that they want to be close to others during this time may vary a lot. Some people want more space when they’re scared or in crisis: some never want to be alone. Try and find happy mediums as best you can, and accept and understand differences between yourself and others. If you’re someone who wants a lot of time and attention from others who don’t have that much to give — or don’t want to — diversify and widen your circles so no one feels suffocated or like they aren’t being given room for their own needs.

Be mindful about who you’re dumping on or looking for help or support from: People with the least to lose should always be listening to those with the most to lose. If you’re white, for example, your Black friends aren’t here to support your racial anxiety. If you’re trans, cis people should be supporting you first. Those with more hard stuff — who may be in greater danger, suffering more hardship, or have more traumatic life histories — should be given more support and asked for less than those with less hard stuff. Try to listen without composing a response in your head or thinking about how what they’re saying affects you. Listen without judgment or trying to fix their issue. Be fully present. Some people just need to vent, and it’s always better to ask if they want help rather than give unsolicited advice.

Hurting together: Sometimes being scared or angry or hurting together can feel wonderful and be safe for everyone. Sometimes it is upsetting, highly uncomfortable or doesn’t feel safe, especially if everyone in a relationship isn’t feeling the same ways, or we aren’t scared about the same things, at the same risks or coming from similar places. How introverted or extroverted you and others are may also play a part in how much everyone wants to be together in their hurt or fear or how separate. Check in with each other about what feels right, be extra mindful about how you interact, ask for what you need and listen to what others tell you they need. Find middle ground when need be. Set, hold and respect limits and boundaries, and remember that no one person can be everything for everyone. It’s okay to ask for space, and no one can or should be anyone’s sole support system.

New relationships borne in crisis: Any you find and forge at this time may feel extra intense, and you may get close super fast. You may also find yourself deeply connecting with people, or in kinds of relationships, you might not have before. That’s all okay, and can even be wonderful.  People can very deeply connect in times of crisis, and times like these can also expand our worldview and how we interact with other people in excellent ways. Just be sure not to lose sight of your emotional and physical safety: if these relationships or interactions either aren’t themselves safe, or have you so distracted you can’t do what you need to take care of yourself right now, either take some steps back so you can get better grounded, or reconsider them altogether. Healthy limits and boundaries are excellent emotional protection for everyone, and an easy way to be assured something’s a good thing, now as always.

This may be a time when social groups or close relationships change: You may fall out with some friends and fall in with others, particularly if your opinions about or experiences with what is happening greatly differ, your vulnerabilities are not similar, or if friends or social groups no longer feel or are as safe as they were before to you or others. It’s okay to move away or separate yourself from people or groups you no longer feel safe with, whether that’s temporary or permanent. It is also okay for others to do that with you, so try to be understanding, even if it is upsetting or you don’t fully understand why someone doesn’t feel safe with you or your social group. Be aware that sometimes in times of great stress we can feel or get really hostile with the people closest to us, or get very critical of them, because we feel totally out of control and we are looking to create a feeling of control. If you find that happening, take a step back, or ask others to take a step back, get a breather, then come back when you’ve all had a little space to reconnect in a better headspace. Make amends if and when you need to.

Breaking up may feel even worse than it did before: Breakups are often hard enough as it is, but will probably feel about a million times worse now, when so much already feels so uncertain, unstable, and scary. Whether a breakup happens in a romantic or sexual relationship, or a platonic friendship, at least one person involved is probably going to feel extra rough. Don’t go through these alone. Seek out support. It’s also okay to feel more upset than you expected: be gentle with yourself.

If you are in the midst of big family conflict: Being in the midst of family drama, especially when you feel trapped at home, is not comfortable. This is even more true when society is in turmoil and it’s adding to an already highly stressful dynamic. Assess your situation now to determine how safe you feel, how that might change, and what you plan to be doing in the coming years. If your family tension feels intractable and escalating, you may want to consider emancipation, which is an extreme option, but one that will allow you to get out from under the legal control of your family.

Less drastic measures for short-term survivability include: Find your allies. Band together. As best you can, limit your exposure and vulnerability to family members who are not safe for you in any way, and instead share your vulnerabilities more or only with those who are. During the holidays, find out if you can stay at home or with a friend rather than attending a big family event, even if you need to stretch the truth a bit (examples: “I have a big project.” “There’s a lot of reading over the break.”).

Find what local shelters are near you now, for youth, if you are a minor, and for adults if you are a legal adult. Determine whether they are trans-friendly, child-friendly, and/or pet-friendly if any of these things are relevant issues for you. Write that information down and keep it somewhere you can find it in case you need it.

Sometimes it’s not your family that’s the problem: It’s your friends, or their families. It’s okay to take a break from a friendship to protect yourself, and to seek out supportive community elsewhere. While give and take in friendships isn’t always perfectly even — sometimes you need a little extra support, sometimes your friend does — if you find yourself feeling drained by a friend who takes but never gives, never checks in on you but always seems to need something, or always has a good excuse for not being there when needed, that’s an unequal and unhealthy relationship. If you see a friend struggling with a toxic family dynamic, you can offer to be that supportive community, especially if you have space for them to stay.

Spiritual or religious community: In times of crisis, people with spiritual or religious communities often go to them to find community, organize and feel safer. If your spiritual or religious community is not acknowledging the current realities, is supporting or dismissing any kind of discrimination or oppression, or otherwise is no longer a place that feels safe for you, know you can likely still find that kind of community elsewhere. Unitarian Universalist communities are inclusive, theologically diverse and welcome those of all faiths, including atheists, agnostics, and humanists, so finding a UU community/church near you may be a good place to start. Other broadly welcoming faith traditions and communities include: Liberal Quakers, Liberal Christianity, Reform Judaism, Islamic Modernism, Catholic Modernism, Buddhism, and Ethical Culture. Newcomers and longtime members alike sometimes have the misconception that they are supposed to bring their best selves to faith communities, but they are also places where people bring their brokenness and their deepest despair. Finding that place where you feel safe takes courage, trust, and well ... faith. Our reserve of such things is often deficient in times of crisis, so asking a friend to come with you may help ease your way in.


Changes: Times of crisis and fear often result in changes with our sexualities. For example, some people may find that their desire for sex with others, or masturbation, seems to dry up completely or become more narrow, while others may experience increased desire or a wider sphere of people they want to be sexual with. These changes may be more profound for sexualities targeted for or experiencing greater discrimination. For example, it’s harder to feel proud about a queer orientation when our danger in being out has increased. A sexual life that may have been a fit for you before may not feel like such a great fit now.

Any or all of these changes are okay, you’ll just need to figure out what works for you with these new changes, especially if they’re sudden or radical for you. For example, if you now find yourself seemingly wanting to have sex with anything that moves, but in the past have been highly selective or even not felt safe having sex with anyone at all, you can honor the feelings you’re having but still figure out what to do with those feelings that works for your own needs, abilities, beliefs and big-picture wants.

Partners who have been safe for you before, or safe enough, may not be or feel that way now, like partners who aren’t fully on board with gender or racial equality. You may need to reevaluate who is safe for you as a partner and ditch anyone who doesn’t feel safe anymore.

If you have not previously been sexual with others, but feel a strong desire to do that now, be sure you’re equipped with what you need for that quick change to be safe for you, including safer sex barriers and contraception, if needed.

The great escape: Sex, whether by yourself with masturbation, or with partners, can be an excellent escape from bad realities. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but just pay attention to make sure that you’re keeping the realities in mind — like risks of STIs or pregnancy, and the need for clear and active consenting — and also paying attention to your own emotional well-being and that of any partners. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in an escape and stop paying attention to the things that make it a good one for everyone involved.

all of rebel well: front page •  why we made this guide • for everyone • healthcare • relationships & sex • conflict resolution • for those suffering harassment online, at school or at work • for those in abusive/controlling relationships, or who are homeless, transient or in the foster system • for those who are trans or LGBQ • for those who are of color • for those who experience religious intolerance or who are undocumented citizens • for those who are disabled • for those interacting with the justice system • for those engaging in active protest • when everything seems terrible or nowhere feels safe • how to help each other & improve this godawful mess • resources and helplines