Are You Feeling Pressured? A New Way to Ask for Sexual Consent

Sexual Consent

I’m recently single after the end of a 5-year monogamous relationship, so negotiating sexual interactions with new men is back on the table. I’ve started dating, moving slowly to get my bearings and allow things to unfold at a pace that feels right. This matters to me both emotionally and sexually. During a recent sexual encounter with a man I’d been on a few dates with he surprised me with the question: “Are you feeling pressured?” It was our first time doing anything sexual and we were slowly progressing through a sensual evening. His question gave me pause. Was I? I did not want to have intercourse, but how far did I want to go, and was he pushing those boundaries? I appreciated his willingness to check in with me.

Compare this to another recent situation with a different male friend, where I blatantly stopped his sexual progress. He acquiesced, but had an odd look on his face. When I questioned him, he stammered a bit. “You stopped me like you didn’t want me to do that, but I think you do want me to do that.” “No,” I said, “I didn’t.” While I was experiencing sexual interest and arousal, that didn’t mean I just wanted to charge ahead.

Men and women often perceive sexual interest and consent in different ways. Recent research (1) on gender and consent found that men seemed confident they knew how to read their female partner’s consent, and relied on nonverbal signals. However, women responded that they were more likely to use verbal indicators to actively give consent. Another research (2) study found men where more likely to perceive sexual interest from women in situations where it was not present, especially if they deemed her physically attractive. Women, on the other hand, underestimated the sexual interest of men. In addition, males are socialized to be the initiators and aggressors in sexual situations, so pushing boundaries is how they learn to make sexual activity happen. Females are often socialized to be nice, non-confrontational, and “good girls,” so rocking the boat by slowing down or halting intimate situations can feel so uncomfortable and inappropriate, they will avoid it. Combine all of these factors and we can see how sexual miscommunication can be the norm.

I highly admire and appreciate being asked, “Are you feeling pressured?” for several reasons. He asked for verbal consent, instead of making assumptions. He noticed I was not rushing the process and wanted to check in. His tone of voice conveyed care and concern, and a genuine interest in my well-being. And he stated it as a passive question, compared to asking, “Am I pressuring you?” I was asked to respond to how I was feeling, instead of being asked to make a direct accusation. This language made a big difference to me because I felt more comfort to respond honestly. This subtle but critical difference helped accommodate the socialized “good girl” in me.

Was I feeling pressured? After a pause, and a quick emotional and physical scan of the situation, I responded, “No, you’re not pressuring me. I’m OK. And thank you for asking.” Even with my self-awareness and comfort around sexual conversations, I still had to pause and reflect. An important part of consent is knowledge of self in any moment, which includes one’s sense of safety, desire, arousal, attraction, fears, expectations, identity, and alcohol consumption. These are complex topics. I appreciated his awareness that helped me reflect on mine.



(This was originally published to The Good Men Project.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus -- San Diego Sexologist, Sexuality Speaker, Sociologist


15 Things I Love About You

Looking for something better than chocolates and roses to give your partner for Valentine’s Day? Dr. Jenn has an idea for you to really let your partner know they're loved.

I love Valentine’s Day. But I hate what we do with it. Since when does showing your love involve how much money you spend or buying culturally-prescribed, unimaginative gifts? And how much time do you spend trying to find just the right card when the words from Hallmark don’t quite fit your needs?

If you actually want this Valentine’s Day to be about experiencing and celebrating your love for your intimate partner, I suggest you share 15 things you love about them. You can do this over dinner, while enjoying a glass of wine or beer, or wherever you can both relax and engage in this beautiful conversation. Here’s how to get started.

How They Take Care of You

Does your partner take good care of you when you’re sick, or do you appreciate their nurturing and selflessness overall? Do they provide financial stability or contribute financially in a way that betters your life? Perhaps they creatively cook and make each meal an adventure, or wash your clothes in the particular way you prefer. Do they edit your blogs before you post them? Maybe they are open to sexual exploration and fulfill your desires for physical connection. Consider how they make you feel safe, grounded, and cared for so you can face the world.

Traits You Admire

Does your partner make you laugh? Or perhaps your partner has much more patience with your children than you, and you admire their strength. Does a specific physical trait turn you on, or their intelligence stimulate you? Maybe you’re grateful for their emotional vulnerability and understanding. Possibly you appreciate their social skills in any context, or that they volunteer once a month to assist disadvantaged youth? Consider both the traits you have in common and those you don’t possess yourself, but are damned glad your partner does.

Shared Hobbies

Are your weekends filled with activities together? Do you enjoy cheering on your football team, or reading and discussing your latest book? Perhaps you enjoy physical activities, such as hiking, yoga, or bike rides. Maybe home improvements create the context for the best of your mutual talents. In evenings after work, do you enjoy hashing out your political views, doing a crossword puzzle together, or watching your favorite drama series? Don’t just share the examples of the specific activities you jointly enjoy, but how it feels and what it means to you to be able to spend that time together.

Favorite Memories

Remember that time you hiked into a cave, got lost, and never thought you’d find your way out again, but now can laugh about that exhilarating experience? Did you share awe at the birth of your first child? Maybe there was a birthday party when you partied like rock stars or that time in church when you both couldn’t stop giggling. Was there a relaxing vacation that helped you reconnect and remember why you’re together? These are the best moments that have marked the passage of your relationship and your growing bond.

Big Picture Commonalities

Does your partner share your moral compass? Do you have similar spiritual beliefs, political opinions, or ideas about balancing finances? Perhaps you prioritize similar values in your parenting styles. Do you both fight fair, and believe respect and kindness should always be present? These may be reasons you got together in the first place, or commonalities which unfolded as your relationship evolved and made you love your partner even more.

How They Make You a Better Person

How does your partner challenge you to be the best version of you? Do they gently discuss your parenting style and help you break the patterns you’re unwittingly mimicking from childhood? Have you supported each other in eating healthier, drinking less, or exercising more? Do you feel affirmed in your dreams and passions, even if your partner has different goals? Ideally, intimate relationships create a synergy that elevates each individual to a higher level of themselves.


Be sure to give details and examples for all of your listed items. Your partner may not know the depth or meaning behind your appreciation if you don’t explain it. Love is appreciating your partner for the moments you enjoy together, who they are in the world, and how they make your life better. Brainstorming 15 things might have sounded daunting at first, but I hope all of your love items are freely flowing now. I’m reminded of that popular quote from Maya Angelou:  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I hope you and your partner will never forget this Valentine’s Day.

(This was originally posted in the Relationship, Love + Sex section of The Good Men Project.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexologist, Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker

Why The Vagina Monologues Can Make You a Better Man

Think the Vagina Monologues is just for women? Think again. Dr. Jennifer Gunsaullus explores some of the important ways that men can learn about women, female sexuality and female bodies on VDay


By now you’ve probably heard about The Vagina Monologues, but unless you’ve seen a production of it yourself, you’ve heard more about the controversy and less about the education or empowerment of the play itself. Written by playwright Eve Ensler in the mid-90s, this piece is a bunch of women talking about vaginas and vulvas. And talking about sex, their bodies, relationships, and sexual violence. It’s based on real interviews with real women, making each monologue powerful, and taking the audience through a gamut of emotions around female sexual experiences. Women who are open to exploring this sort of thing typically exit the production feeling powerful and grateful that their experiences finally have a voice. They are excited that these taboo topics are being discussed. The Vagina Monologues is produced by community groups and universities around the world, all raising funds for local women’s nonprofits.

But what about the men? Is there anything in the show for a man?

I’ve been involved with ten productions of this play, as an actor or director. So I’ve cajoled more than my share of men to attend, and have fended off many excuses. Afterwards, my male friends were always shocked with how much they were moved and amused. Sure they were uncomfortable and even confused at times. But definitely not disappointed they attended. If you’re interested in checking out a show, this will help prepare you for the experience.

First, there are always men in the audience, so you will not be alone. The audience will be primarily women, and everyone on stage is a woman. You may not be in situations like this very often, so it could feel uncomfortable or intimidating. Going with friends you can joke with may ease this discomfort.

Second, it is a very emotionally challenging event. You might feel moved to tears, or the women around you might cry. You will laugh—a lot. You’ll get angry, worried, and be amazed at what you likely don’t know about the complexity of women’s sexuality. If raw emotions are hard for you to sit with, and empathy isn’t your strong suit, you might even hate the show, anxiously waiting for it to be over.

So it isn’t for everyone. But of the dozens of men I’ve talked to about the show, I heard only one negative review among all of the other positive ones. I understand that my male friends might be reluctant to share certain aspects of their experience, but what they expressed is very telling. What did these guys get out of the show?

Here’s what they said in their own words:

“I was surprised there’s a lot going on that’s not in the male realm of experience.”

“It was slightly awkward initially, hearing about vaginas that much. But also kind of liberating, as it was such a taboo thing to mention, let alone talk about.”

“[I] didn’t realize how complex women’s relationships with their junk are . . . dudes on the other hand, from age 13 know our junk cold and have no problems discussing it. Stark contrast.”

“It brought awareness to my life as a male that I would have otherwise never considered, and I consider myself to be fairly forward thinking and informed on matters of feminism and women.”

“I’ll be the first to admit women are a mystery, and the VM definitely opened my eyes to struggles I would not have previously been aware of or cared about. I laughed a lot . . . but most of all felt saddened by the event . . . my lack of knowing, and how reflective that is of the world we live in. Saddened by the fact that the Vagina Monologues is necessary and that women have struggled, continue to struggle and are still not given the respect as human beings they deserve.”

“One thing that stands out in my memory is the surprising realization that women in first world countries still face several of the same issues as those in the third world. Especially when it comes to the abuse, violence and the denial of ownership of their own sexuality.”

“It was moving, sad, hopeful, a little uncomfortable, funny.”

Being uncomfortable and vulnerable around sexual topics is not a bad thing, especially if it helps men realize that there’s a lot more to learn and understand. These experiences can deepen the vulnerability of conversations between women and men about sexual topics. Such discomfort can lead to questioning, learning, and growth. Female sexuality is complicated—or beautifully complex, as I like to say.

I’ve read some critiques that The Vagina Monologues is “male-bashing.” My thought is if you’re looking for male-bashing, you’ll find it anywhere that women are speaking out about harm they’ve experienced, especially in the sexual realm. On the other hand, if you’re open to hearing a different perspective that could be uncomfortable and make you look at yourself and the world differently, then you’ll appreciate this experience. I believe talking about it openly is so much better than shameful silence.

I don’t think The Vagina Monologues is a perfect play that accurately depicts all the depths of women’s sexuality around the world. Eve Ensler took the stories that were shared with her and filtered them through her lens as a woman with poetic license. Some of it may be outdated and outrageous, but it does a damn good job of opening a dialogue that is still sorely missing, and opening a space for compassion. As one man explained, “By the end, I felt like a more progressive human being.”

Check out VDay’s website to find a production in your area, from February through April.

(I wrote this article as a Relationship, Love + Sex writer at The Good Men Project.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Sexologist - Sociologist - Sexuality Speaker - Vagina Warrior!

Test Your Sexual Compatibility

Test Your Sexual Compatibility

Unfortunately, we can be terrible sometimes at assessing long-term sexual compatibility at the start of a relationship because our feel-good neurotransmitters are running the show. Most of us know that feeling of overwhelming passion the first few weeks and months, when you can’t imagine not being easily aroused by your partner….

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How Strong is Your Marriage? A Checklist

His wife shakes her head back and forth with disbelief. “I’ve been telling you for five years that I’m not happy.”

“I didn’t know it was that serious,” he sighs.

Unfortunately, this exchange is not that unusual. I’ve seen it in my office more than once, and divorce statistics show that women are much more likely to initiate a divorce than men. When I’m counseling a couple with a deeply unhappy wife and a husband downplaying the seriousness of her concerns, I encourage the husband just to be empathetic. It can take a while for him to realize that her (or his) unhappiness is enough to bring down their marriage.

If you want to avoid a shock like this in your marriage, I suggest daily and weekly check-ins with your partner. While this structured approach to communication and connection might feel contrived at first, the initial awkwardness will pass. Over time, checking in can become a natural way of evaluating the health of your relationship.


The intent of the daily check-in is to give each partner space to be heard and feel important about their day. Spend about five minutes each sharing any highs, lows, challenges, and successes from your day. After each person has shared, end the conversation by exchanging some words of appreciation about and for each other.

Talking about your day facilitates support by ensuring you’re aware of your partner’s struggles and celebrating their successes. The moments of gratitude help retrain your mind to look for the positive aspects of your relationship. Vary the kinds of things you appreciate from day to day: these can be observations about physical appearance, qualities, joyful moments, strengths, kind gestures, and feelings of love. Even if one of you is traveling, you can still maintain a routine of checking-in and sharing moments of gratitude together.

Now, if you’re thinking you don’t have time for this on a daily basis, stop and consider that. Are all of the other responsibilities, tasks, and activities you do throughout the day really more important than your marriage? Is your strong, healthy marriage critical to your happiness in life? Keep this big picture in mind as you read about weekly check-ins.


Weekly check-ins are more in depth, and can focus specifically on whatever is important to your relationship. What are you struggling with or concerned about: communication, intimacy, happiness? If you find it difficult to measure concepts like happiness or to quantify how intimate you feel, use a ranking system from 1-10. For example, if clear communication has been a concern, keep a weekly log of how you each rank your communication for the preceding week, 1 meaning terrible and 10 meaning fabulous. Create a checklist of all relevant concepts and factors, and maintain an ongoing record of relationship statistics. This way, you can measure positive change and monitor for danger. This may sound like overkill or just plain nerdy, but I know some couples who thrive with this type of awareness.

Below I propose nine factors to consider in creating your weekly checklist. Some of these factors overlap, but each speaks to a different area for potential relationship problems. Weighing several factors at once can help you take an accurate pulse of your marriage.

1. Love (How loved did you feel?)

2. Intimacy (How strong was your emotional intimacy?)

3. Sexual Interaction (Did you experience enough sexual intimacy?)

4. Connection (Did you have an overall feeling of being on the same page with your partner?)

5. Communication (Did you communicate clearly as a couple?)

6. Respect (Did you feel respected in interactions with your partner?)

7. Teamwork (Did you feel like a team when planning and doing tasks?)

8. Nurturing (Did you feel cared for?)

9. Happiness (How much joy and happiness did you experience?)

The ground rules of the weekly check-in are to be open-minded, compassionate, and mindful. Also, agree ahead of time about the meaning of your scores. For example, a 5 isn’t comparable to a 50% grade on a test, indicating failure. It means that you felt average in that area—not great, but not bad either. Record your scores separately and then share them, one by one. Speak to what a 6 in intimacy means to you in the context of your week. Why wasn’t it a 3, and could it have been an 8? Be truthful yet kind, and take ownership that this is how YOU perceive your relationship. Recognize that your partner may perceive it in a different way. Indeed that’s the whole point—to voice these differences before they start breaking you apart.

It might seem surprising that a married couple living under the same roof could be so out of touch with each other’s happiness, but this happens more frequently than you’d expect. Daily and weekly check-ins have the potential to provide insights into your own motivations, learn what matters to your partner, and voice concerns in a timely manner. This is taking responsibility for the strength of your marriage.

(This was originally posted on The Good Men Project website, which you can view HERE.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexologist, Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker

Opening the Tiny Hurt Locker - Why Men Need to "Hurt" Their Partners

I am a new writer for the Relationships, Love + Sex section of the Good Men Project. The Good Men Project's tagline says it all: The conversation no one else is having. I like to think I have a lot of conversations with folks daily about things that don't usually get talked about. So I'm excited to bring my perspectives on sex, intimacy, relationships, gender, and power to the GMP table. Below is my first article with them published today:

It’s necessary to hurt your relationship partner. No, seriously. Think about it this way: it is inevitable that when you come together with another person with different experiences, expectations, beliefs, goals and needs, you will sometimes disagree and disappoint your partner. That can hurt both you and your partner emotionally. But sometimes, that’s necessary.  For example, your partner wants to spend the afternoon shopping with you. You agree, although you’d rather poke your eye out with a sharp stick. On Friday night, you assume you’re hanging out with your partner, but then learn she chose to spend time with her friends instead. And the list goes on. These things may seem minor, but they add up over time if you don’t discuss them honestly because they are based on a false compromise.

Some men are afraid to hurt their female partners. I see this in my private practice all the time. Kids are often told by their dads: “don’t ever hurt a woman.” That’s great advice for raising men who respect women.  And it’s great to acknowledge that many men do have the power to physically hurt women. Unfortunately, kids don’t have the brain development to grasp the nuanced meaning of social issues. Therefore, by adulthood, this well-intentioned guideline becomes a black and white principle for many men, even around complex emotional situations. If men want to talk about anything that could hurt their partner, they don’t. This is where real problems emerge.

When you don’t express your thoughts or opinions, bad shit starts to happen. Your unspoken truths turn into unspoken resentments. I’ve observed that when people have negative feelings and their feelings go ignored or unprocessed, people behave badly. So in the long run, your initial silence ends up hurting your partner even more. This silence is based partially on fear and guilt: fear of confrontation, fear of feeling horrible for hurting the woman you love, and the guilt over making her cry. That fear and guilt come from a noble and responsible belief system. But it’s imperative to recognize the difference between “small hurts” and “big hurts.” Small hurts, handled responsibly, can avoid big hurts.

Easier said than done though. Let’s say you disagree with your partner’s decision to discipline the kids, but keep your opinions to yourself and become passive aggressive with your resentment. Later on, when your partner is disappointed by your attitude or your lack of support, you avoid taking any responsibility at all, or even lash out because you didn’t feel like you had a choice. However, you did have a choice. You always do.

It all comes down to learning how to acknowledge and sit with the discomfort of hurting your partner. This means building resiliency, including establishing trust in yourself that you can handle your negative feelings, manage seeing disappointment in your partner, and know that you’ll still be loved.  It means remembering that you are a good man. It means choosing to acknowledge your discomfort and staying present with it. This is resiliency.

Where do you feel the discomfort inside your body? Is it a gnawing in your gut? A sinking feeling in your stomach? An ache in your chest? Sometimes, clients describe a tightness in their throat when they are afraid to say something. These sensations are so uncomfortable. Most of us probably learned to run, numb or distract ourselves, withdrawing into video games or the Internet, alcohol or eating. Sometimes, we even lash out in anger. But staying present with the pain and facing the discomfort head-on allows for more conscious and authentic interactions that are critical for relationships to thrive.

It is natural, normal, and even healthy to have disagreements. This is all part of the negotiation required to merge two lives. When you choose to acknowledge and negotiate the small hurts honestly and responsibly, you live more from love than fear.

Conscious conversations like this one must include the participation of both partners. It is tough when it’s one-sided, and this could happen if you start speaking your truth in new ways. Over time though, you can model responsible communication and claim ownership of difficult emotions, co-building a relationship where both partners are resilient enough to handle disappointment and move on. If one or both of you lack the skills to communicate in this way, a counselor or therapist, or even a good relationship book, can offer you tools.

I’m reminded of my mother’s framed needlepoint that hung on our living room wall. It read, “A stitch in time saves nine.” The more adept you become at addressing small hurts, the less likely you will need to address the big ones later on.

(Image Credit: Flickr/-Rodrigo Vargas-)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexologist, Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker