What is sexual agency?

When I am asked what I do and what the crux of my courses and classes is, I answer, ‘Sexual agency,’ which is often met with blank faces or confused head bobs. So I break into one of my extra excited talks about sexual agency and feel thrilled to have the opportunity to teach one more soul about this amazing concept. After years of doing what I do, I realize that the concept of ‘sexual agency’ is still foreign to most people. I am on a mission to change that.

In understanding my work and learning how I can help you transform your sexual life and inner world, you need to understand what I mean by ‘sexual agency’ and why I think it is the pinnacle of the sexual conversation.

In short, sexual agency is …..knowing what you want sexually and what you don’t want. You not only voice consent, you do it with confidence and partnership. You have the skills to make and enforce sexual decisions. Your sex life and sexuality are defined by your decisions and informed by your values and dreams, rather than by the perceptions and demands of others. Simply put, sexual agency means that you know there are decisions to make within your sexual life, you know how to make those decisions, and you have the skills to live with the intended and unintended consequences of your decisions.

Some people think that sexual agency means having sex all the time wanting all things sexual, and while that very well may be the case, it isn’t inherent in the definition. And as you learned last week, sexual agency isn’t just about sexual behavior. Sexual agency isn’t about how much or how little sex you are having, it is about the context and reaction in your sexual life. How you think and feel about your sexual experiences before, during and after. Sexual agency also involves so much more than physical sex – it involves the culture of sexuality, gender identity, orientation, communication, intimacy, values and much more.

I think that our national sex education should be renamed “Sexual Agency 101.” To me, the process of learning, growing and owning sexual agency is the KEY to the sexual crisis in our society. I am convinced that with a culture of sexual agency, sexual assault and rape decreases, sexual bullying loses the teeth it currently has, unwanted pregnancies become less prevalent, and we see a rise in wonderful things like happiness, contentment, self-assuredness, connection, intimacy, satisfaction and (oh my!) pleasure!

Why in the world DON’T we have billboards and multibillion-dollar federally funded sex education programs heralding this concept?

Most likely this is because the people making these decisions don’t have sophisticated sexual agency themselves and because our culture still makes a lot of decisions based on fear.

People fear sex. And sexuality.

Sexual Agency in Action

I want to give you one example of how sexual agency can show up in our journey.

A woman, “Sarah,” in one of my retreats told a story from her 20’s. She was at a bar having a great time and hit it off with a guy. He paid for her drinks, they danced and spent most of the evening together. They were flirting and had chemistry. Awkwardly they sifted through the nonverbal dance of communicating that they wanted to figure out where to make out. Their places were far away, so they opted for the back seat of his car. When they climbed in his back seat she quickly realized she wasn’t into it anymore. She thought about stopping it, but she felt bad because he had invested so much time with her, bought her drinks, and it seemed like a lot of work to explain she wasn’t into it anymore. So she ‘just dealt with it’ and finished it. She didn’t feel like it was coercion or assault, and she didn’t really feel badly afterwards, but as she grew in her sexual agency journey, she reflected on that moment. She wondered what needed to grow within her to voice what she wanted and didn’t want in that situation. She later explored that a part of her did have some concern about how he could have reacted if she stopped sex with him, but her gut was that he would have been fine. She said the ‘you never know’ was powerful, too. She reflected on why she felt obligated because of the lead up to the car.  She explored her sense of people pleasing and not wanting conflicting. She wondered if he felt the same. She dove into the context.  Her context.

So what is sexual agency in this situation?

It isn’t a clear answer, and it isn’t the same answer for everyone. AND IT SHOULDN’T BE.  You and I could dissect this story for hours and have different questions and concerns. We’d have different values and opinions.  In a group of 10, we’d have 20 viewpoints. And this is the EXCITING part. If we were to have Sarah with us, our beliefs and values may be different from hers. This is the point. Our come-from’s inform what is right for us, what we know to be true for us, and where we want to be heading. It isn’t about the final answer. It is about the process of reflection and purpose of intention. That is why sexual agency is crucial. It is individual because sexuality is so complicated and fluid. If we focus solely on the details, we will miss the lessons and bigger picture. The thought and feeling PROCESS is the key.

So “Sarah’s” self guided discussion ended with a question for herself—was it ‘smart’ for her to finish sex with him because it potentially kept her ‘safe,’ or was it damaging to her to carry through with it and push her needs and desires aside? I’ll keep her answer private but ask you, what is your answer? For her? For him? For yourself in that situation? How would you answer this questions 10 years ago? Now? In 5 years? I firmly believe that this sort of reflection is crucial, but, again, the focus should be on the process and inner journey as opposed to rewriting history or fixating on should’s and could haves. It should also be focused on YOUR journey and not another’s decision or opinion.

Healthy Sexual Agency 

When people have fully actualized sexual agency they often make decisions from a centered place, a place of self-influence and self-direction instead of outside forces—media, family proclamations, religious tenants, and fear propaganda (fear of judgment, fear of rejections, fear of aloneness). People with healthy sexual agency fill themselves up through purposeful choices and processes, and they continuously learn and grow. They don’t see their life experiences from the vantage point of a helpless victim who has no say. Instead, they are people who are happy with themselves, who make decisions for themselves, and who live with those decisions with maturity and a ‘don’t give two fucks’ attitude. I want to be clear though—not giving two fucks doesn’t mean acting reckless or without care for others or your own safety. It means not putting energy towards other’s judgments and oppressive agendas to the point of pointing those viewpoints before your own needs and desires.

A woman living in sexual agency doesn’t have the need or time to judge others and understands that each of us has our own journey and our own path. She also knows she needs to focus on her own healing and explorations. Trying to control others through judgment, punishment and elitism hurts society, hurts other women, hurts future generations, and ultimately hurts herself.

Now, shit happens. As a therapist, I’ve heard stories that kept me up at night, and I’ve experienced my own tragedies. Life isn’t easy. When you are dealing with humans, you have a measure of unpredictability that plays into all interactions. Some of this is positive, and other times it is horrific or just plain mean. People do horrible things to each other and even the most fully actualized woman can still be raped, stay in a relationship that isn’t good for her, or get sick or experience tragedy. I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t have an experience (or more) that fall into this category but these experiences DO NOT determine her level or strength of sexual agency. How sexual agency comes into play is her healing journey. Her healing journey and inner experience are different when she has a well-developed and practiced agency. Her sexual life, too, has a very different filter when it is being led by a strong inner compass that she trusts and relies on because it was built and oiled by her own thoughts and values. For some, this experience with trauma is the thing that catapults her sexual agency to come into fruition. For others, it is a part of her journey already set into motion or something that she revists from her past in her journey as her sexual agency guides her. We all come to it differently and I love that. I just want us all to get there and to know it is important and to celebrate its presence.

Remember that part about learning to live with the intended and unintended consequences of decision, particularly the unintended part? This element of sexual agency is often the toughest part of the journey. I will address this in an upcoming blog.

Stay tuned. It is a good one.

I’ll close with this. Sexual agency is a powerful compass in our sexual journey and is a concept left out of most sex education models and sex and sexuality conversations. I know the potential power it holds and I urge you to learn more about it, to embrace the empowerment it holds and to find ways to strengthen it within yourself. It is a game changer.

xoxo, Dr. Juliana