An obvious starting place is that sexual safety means the absence of sexual violence, and in particular, sex crimes. I think we can do better than that and think more broadly, deeply and intersectionally. We can think critically about and challenge the whole system of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs, relationships, cultural practices and messages that contribute to moving us away from, or toward, a culture of sexual safety.
Sexual violence doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It doesn’t “just happen,” as new folks to my treatment groups often think. Sexually harmful behavior exists on a spectrum, and within an ecosystem, and a person who is compromising the sexual safety of others is only one component of that ecosystem.
In her book, “What Every Mental Health Professional Needs to Know about Sex,” Dr. Stephanie Buehler explains this in the clearest way I’ve ever come across. Dr. Buehler’s Sexological Ecosystemic approach helps us organize and conceptualize how a person has developed into the sexual beings that they are, and helps us understand what we might need to address to help them move toward more sexually safe behaviors.
We can also be thinking about sexual safety as sexual wellness. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) uses the WHO (World Health Organization) definition of sexual health. The WHO defines sexual health as a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.
We can think of sexual safety in terms of the elements of each individual’s sexological ecosystem that contribute to moving toward or away from a sexually safe, healthy lifestyle. We can also be thinking about ways that we can work at each level of the ecosystem (individual, family of origin, intimate partner relationships, community, workplace, spiritual community, culture, etc.) to contribute to sexual safety in our communities.