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Authors: Alfred Vernacchio

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BOOK: For Goodness Sex
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Hickeys may be deliberately given or they may result from intense, passionate sexual activity in which people don’t realize what they’re doing.

In terms of the pleasure associated with them, getting a hickey may feel pleasurable because they usually occur on sensitive areas of the body that feel good when they’re kissed or even nibbled a bit. The neck is a part of the body that is particularly sensitive to stimulation, and we often interpret that stimulation as sexual—especially when it occurs in a sexual situation. Giving someone a hickey may be pleasurable because our lips are also very sensitive, and when they touch sensitive skin, they are stimulated as well. So the good feeling can go both ways.

Despite the good feelings that may come from giving or getting a hickey, it also must be said that a hickey is usually given as a way of “marking” a person as yours. It’s a way of saying, “you belong to me,” which is pretty oppressive when you think about it. It can be used as a way of showing power over one’s partner (look what I can do) or showing an unequal level of power in the relationship (I’m in charge). When hickeys are used in this way, I think they’re pretty awful.

Q: Is it normal to just randomly get turned on throughout the day multiple times a day? p.s., I’m a girl, not a guy.

A:
Not only is this normal, it’s perfectly healthy. Every person, guy or girl, has a personal threshold of sexual arousal. Some people get turned on pretty easily, so it’s natural for them to feel that way many times in a day. Other people get turned on less frequently. Also remember that our regular level of arousal is influenced by a host of factors, including our physical and mental state. We can all go through periods when we’re more or less turned on than what’s usual for us.

The other thing to remember is that there are a variety of ways to deal with being turned on. Some people masturbate. Some people fantasize. Some people try to think about something unsexy to get their mind off of sex. We all need a variety of strategies for dealing with desire, especially in situations where it’s not welcome.

Chapter 4
Love and Relationships: Becoming Your Authentic Self

B
efore class one day, I observed a small group of girls discuss the relationship status of one of their friends.

“Are they together?” asked someone.

“No.”

“So they’re just hooking up?”

“No. They have a thing.”

“Oh.”

Amazingly, that seemed to clarify the situation for the girls, and they moved on to other topics. I, however, was lost.

“Wait,” I interrupted. “They have a
thing
? What thing?” Usually I’m pretty good at decoding teenage idioms. I am, after all, an English teacher in addition to a sexuality educator. But I had no idea what they were talking about.

The girls looked at me with a kind of pity they reserve for a naive child or a hopelessly out-of-touch old person.

“Mr. V, you don’t know what a thing is?”

Desperately trying to sound cool, smart, and smooth, the best I could say was, “Well, a thing can be a lot of things, can’t it?”

They, of course, saw right through me.

“No, we’re not talking about things in general. They have
a
thing
.”

“Is a thing a relationship?” I asked, grasping at straws.

They sighed and gave me that look of pity again.

“No, a thing is when you’re not in a relationship but you’re more than just hooking up with someone.”

“Oh, so they’re dating,” I said with some sense of assurance. I finally thought I understood.

“Mr. Veeeeee,” the girls giggled, “Nobody
dates
anymore.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we’re headed into the love and relationship unit,” I said. “Clearly, I have a lot to learn.”

What Kind of Relationship Is This?

W
hen we begin the relationship unit in my class, the students assume we’re going to start with romantic and sexual relationships. We’re not. Those are the relationships they’re most hungry to understand, but we need a much wider context in which to place those relationships before we can begin to talk about them. Romantic and sexual relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re influenced by all of the other kinds of relationships in our lives. We’re more than just sweethearts; we’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. We’re friends, neighbors, bosses, and students. When we examine these nonsexual and nonromantic relationships first, we can see how they influence and are connected to the romantic and sexual ones.

So I start this unit by asking students to think about the many different types of relationships they have in their lives, what they expect out of each one, and why. Relationships, especially nonromantic, nonsexual ones, are something you can take for granted when you’re seventeen: Your parents are just
there.
Your high school friends are your world, and you think they always will be. But when you’re having your first serious sexual and/or romantic relationship, you’re dealing with lessons about love, commitment, responsibility, jealousy, and manipulation, and at the end of it, how to cope with the inevitable broken heart. You’re learning a new relationship role and discovering what it feels like to be on the other end of someone else’s relationship role. The only context we have for helping us understand and process all of those new roles and feelings are the relationships we already have in our lives. That’s the starting point.

But there’s another problem with beginning a discussion of relationships with the romantic and sexual ones: within the romantic and sexual category there are many varieties of relationships—friendship, hooking up, friends with benefits, a
relationship
, even a “thing.” And while my students are able to make a list of all of these different terms, they’re not always good at distinguishing the differences among them. For example, they define a hookup as someone you are sexual with once or twice, with no emotional or romantic engagement. A friend with benefits, though, is a friend with whom you do have emotional engagement, but whom you also hook up with on a recurring basis—with no “relationship” strings attached. If that’s confusing to you, imagine what it’s like for them. They’re not so good at differentiating each type of relationship, and they have an even harder time figuring out how to tell when a relationship is changing from one thing into another. Talking about the pros and cons of each kind of relationship objectively is also tough for them. That’s why we start at square one.

A psychologist named Robert Sternberg offers a helpful theory about love that I like to use to talk to my students about relationships. He says that love has three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment—I think that’s a handy rubric for talking about all kinds of relationships.
3
Sternberg defines intimacy as the emotional aspect of a relationship. I call it the heart-to-heart connection. It’s the part of you that wants to be close to the other person and feel connected to him or her. Passion (what I call the body-to-body connection) is the desire for sexual expression and pleasure with each other. The last aspect is commitment. That’s the intellectual aspect of a relationship. I call it the mind-to-mind connection. There’s short-term commitment, when you’re deciding whether or not to take one more step in the relationship, and long-term commitment, when you dig in for the long haul, which, for a teenager, may be a year or even six months. This is a good gauge for kids to begin thinking about different relationships, because almost every relationship we have incorporates one or more of these aspects.

So in my class, we start off the relationship unit by talking about the lowest level of relationship, an
acquaintance
. The acquaintance relationship doesn’t typically embody any of Sternberg’s categories. These are people who don’t turn you on (and if they do, you’re unlikely to do anything about it). You have no desire for an intimate connection with them, and you’re not actively doing anything to keep the relationship going. It’s amazing how many people in our lives fit into this category. For my students, acquaintances can range from a kid they see on the school bus each morning or afternoon to the many adults who cross their paths during a day (like some teachers). They’re the people who take their orders in restaurants and can even be the people they watch on YouTube or whom they’re connected to via social media.

The next level of relationship we talk about is a
nonromantic friend
, or friend
without
benefits. These people would rate low on passion; we’re not usually turned on by our friends, but there’s often high intimacy in a friendship. With friends, we do quite a bit of emotional sharing back and forth. Our commitment level with friends can vary; some of our friends are there for the rest of our lives, but some, like many of our high school friendships, are shorter-term connections.

Then there’s
hooking up
. My students would say that hooking up is high on the passion scale but low on intimacy and commitment, for it’s about the physicality of the moment, not what happens before or after. Adults might refer to this kind of a relationship as a one-night stand. It means you’re not interested in knowing too much about each other—you just want the body-to-body connection, and you want it now.

When you’re
seeing somebody
or
hanging out with somebody
or having a
thing
with somebody, as my students would call it, the language gets fuzzy. It’s high passion with rising intimacy, but there’s also short-term commitment. You’re typically attracted to the person and want it to be more than “just a hookup,” yet you’re not in a long-term relationship.

Being
in a relationship
checks all the boxes: It’s high on passion, high on intimacy, and has long- or short-term commitment—what’s essential is that there’s emotional and physical commitment to each other. My students can easily
say
what a relationship is, but they haven’t always given a lot of thought to what it actually
means
to be in a relationship.

Now, of course, these are fairly arbitrary categories. The reality of our relationships is more fluid. My students push back against absolutes. They’re quick to note that the edges of all these categories can meld into each other, and that’s true. Acquaintances can become friends; friends can become sweethearts; sweethearts can become acquaintances. It’s always best, my wise young pupils remind me, to think of this more like a continuum with an infinite variety of combinations. They’re smart cookies, my kids. They’re also terrified of feeling boxed in and will squirm mightily to twist themselves out of having to define a relationship they’re in. Hence their quandary about
friends with benefits
.

My students are always tripped up when they try to put
friends with benefits
into Sternberg’s categories. As a parent, you should know that
friends with benefits
is one of the preferred relationship models of the younger generation, though that doesn’t mean it’s a model that actually works for them. Just to be clear,
friends with benefits
means you’re friends who can be sexual together without ever moving into a
thing
or a “real relationship.” My students know when they’re hooking up with somebody, and they know when they’re in a relationship, but what they can’t describe is how one turns into the other, the moment when a relationship starts. Here’s why it’s tough for them to deconstruct: When you’re in a friends-with-benefits relationship, the passion is there, and the emotional intimacy is there, but they quickly discover that romantic intimacy is very different from friendship intimacy.

“Your lover can be your friend, but can your friend be your lover?” I’ll ask them. I often push teenagers to share why many of them rely on the friends-with-benefits model of relationships. To me, it’s a cop-out. If I really push them to explain why their romantic relationships often default to it, many will admit as much. “You get all of the good stuff that a relationship has, but you don’t have to do the hard work,” a student once told me.

There are drawbacks and benefits to all of the relationships we have. When talking about relationships (and we talk about this in some detail in class), I don’t judge the hookup versus the long-term sweetheart. A healthy person will have many of these types of relationships over the course a lifetime. There’s no one “right” relationship for everyone, no one goal to which we all should aspire. However, I do think it’s important to have some idea of what you might want your future to look like, and use that as a way of informing the decisions you make and assessing where you want to be when it comes to your sexual and romantic relationships.

“When you think about the future, you know, when you’re (God forbid) as old as me,” I’ll ask my students, “how many of you picture yourself working on your third divorce?”

Nobody raises a hand.

“How many of you want to live alone with a lot of cats?”

One or two wise guys raise their hands.

“So what
do
you want for your future?” I’ll ask.

They’ll blurt a few variations on the same answer: They want a relationship that’s fun and sexy, full of support and pleasure, one that’s stable and loving and that they can depend on.

“Keeping that long-term goal in mind, I want you to think about the path from here to where you want to end up. If you’ve mastered the hookup, that brings a certain set of skills, but does it bring you the skills to get to your relationship goal?”

“Part of the way there,” a boy with a goatee says.

“Sure,” I say. “But if you want to be a good basketball player, why are you practicing on your skateboard all of the time? At the end of the day, you’ll simply be a good skateboarder who wishes he could play basketball.”

I let that sink in. Then continue: “All of the relationships we have in life offer us opportunities to practice, to learn from our mistakes, and to grow. Relationships, whether friendships or sweethearts, don’t just happen; they require work. The only way we can become more knowledgeable about relationships—and thereby our role in them—is by being in relationships, and by being our authentic selves in those relationships.”

BOOK: For Goodness Sex
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