How to Be Sexually Autonomous

October 22, 2020

  minute READ

Everyone has an opinion about what you should do and what your sexuality should look like. You receive messages from family, friends, and society at large.

The shoulds run rampant, and leave you questioning what you want and why. Today we’ll check in with guest Shaun Miller, and learn how sexual autonomy can assist you through “should sexuality”.

Shaun is an independent scholar focusing on the philosophy of love and sex which includes sexual ethics, intimate interactions, and reforming gendered expectations. Among other things, he’s taken deep dives into models of consent and positive masculinity.

Consent-Based Society

Consent at its best is a practice that you live out as an expression of your sexual autonomy.

When you grow up understanding consent, it’s not usually something you feel the need to examine. Many of us didn’t grow up learning much about consent, however, so consent has to be learned. 

Many men are turned off by discussing consent, and consent is seen as a gender-specific topic. Men are the pursuers in our society who are seen as trying to ‘win’ sex. A lack of a consent focus in society tends to favor men in sex and relationship, so why question something when there’s no downside?

This is in part because female sexuality is such a taboo, and often women struggle more than men with what they want and what feels good. When studying hook-ups specifically, the data indicate that women experience a ‘pleasure gap‘. Society encourages men to be active in sex, and so men tend to experience more pleasure during hookups than women do.

The thing is, such a laissez-faire approach to the consent status qup severely constrains the types of connection and pleasure available to you, because bold sexual exploration requires sexual autonomy.

The seeds of a sexually autonomous approach are sown when you begin to see consent as a dynamic process, instead of as a hurdle to overcome. 

No Means No, Yes Means Yes

You may have heard, at various points, ideas about consent that boil down to no means no and yes means yes. 

We began with “no means no,” where a voluntary agreement was the standard of what made something consensual or not.

That evolved into “yes means yes,” where consent needed to spring from an enthusiastic desire in order to meet the standard.

If both of these leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed, that actually makes a lot of sense. While these standards contain important grains of truth, they’re also lacking.

No means no, the legalistic voluntary agreement interpretation of consent, opens itself to a soft coercion of sorts, i.e maybe someone agrees voluntarily because the alternative is worse. 

Yes means yes, the idealistic interpretation of consent, sets the bar in a way that can feel impossible to meet. Maybe sometimes you’re not massively enthusiastic about sex but you want to have it anyway.

If either of these views of consent is where you’re currently at in your understanding, that’s okay. There has been a lot of mixed messaging in our wider discussions about consent.

Here’s the rub: where both of these standards fail is they introduce a transactional element. Consent becomes a means to another end, a hurdle to be cleared on the road to what you actually want.  

Sexual Autonomy is a Skill

Sexual autonomy isn’t a matter of choice or willpower in the essential sense. Instead, sexual autonomy is a skill you build up over time.

As a sexually autonomous person, you build a mastery of who you are and you see yourself as someone that directs your own life.

Instead of just going along with sexual interactions, due to peer pressure or social expectations, you enter into sexual interactions out of your own doing. You do it for yourself by directing yourself towards that activity. 

You actively understand the choices you have and engage because you genuinely want to because that desire is a part of who you are.

Several skills contribute to building and strengthening sexual autonomy over time:

  • Context
  • Communication
  • Introspection
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Self-nurturing
  • Self-reliance
  • Asking for help
  • Negotiating risk
  • Pursuing pleasure
  • Setting boundaries and accepting the boundaries of others
  • Emotional intelligence.

Any qualities that cultivate self-reliance are valuable ones to add to your sexual autonomy practice. 

Putting Skills to the Test

How can you bring sexual autonomy to date or hook up?

When going into a date it’s important to create boundaries around what you are comfortable with. Communicate your limits and desires to your date, and see how it plays out.

This honesty can open up the conversation and allow your date to feel comfortable doing the same thing. That way, if something does happen, it’s happening because you both want it to. 


Your body is a compass and can support you on the journey of cultivating sexual autonomy. Sexuality is much larger than we think, and it’s greatly influenced by the expectations we place on ourselves.

When we grow up being told how we must be in order to be loved, we react unconsciously to these messages. To build sexual autonomy, it’s important to differentiate between wanting to engage out of desires and doing what you’ve been told is best.

Keep your eyes peeled for the shoulds and work on cultivating a practice that focuses less on expectations and more on what feels right. 

Thanks to Shaun Miller for joining us on the Sexual Craftsmanship podcast. Shaun was born and raised in Utah and went to earn his PhD in philosophy. He currently resides in Washington DC.

Shaun’s research interests currently include BDSM, sexual consent, positive male sexuality, and investigating how sex robots could change our intimate lives. You can learn more about Shaun by visiting his website.

About the Author

Sarah Martin, MA, CSC is CEO of Dignified Hedonist, a sexuality support company that guides introverted men to lead desire-led, sex-forward, and pleasure-focused lives. Sarah is the host of the Sexual Craftsmanship podcast, a weekly podcast packed full of actionable information and advice for sex and relationships in the 21st century. Sarah loves rainbows, books, and Pokemon Go.

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