Risk is a concept that has different meanings for different people, and by itself, is an emotionally loaded word. In our lives, risk forms a key part of our calculations and perceptions, our decisions and our understanding of consequences. Risk is a part of many of our discussions, and sometimes shuts down the possibility of discussion entirely when a subject is considered so risk-loaded that it isn’t up for discussion at all. So, who is talking about sexuality, where are these conversations happening, and is anyone talking about risk-taking as an integral part of life?
A quick review of literature on risk as available on the Internet throws up useful ways of coming to grips with the concept, such as this, “Risk perception is rarely entirely rational. Instead, people assess risks using a mixture of cognitive skills (weighing the evidence, using reasoning and logic to reach conclusions) and emotional appraisals (intuition or imagination)” and this, “we are greatly affected by what happens around us when it comes to assessing and managing risk. The main finding that we learn from social psychology is that conformity, obedience and social perception are all tied to context and situation, much more powerfully than to character”.
However, during this quick desk review, on searching for the terms risk and sexuality, search results mostly focused on risky sexual behaviour and high-risk sexual behaviour. We want to expand the conversation to sexuality, potential for a larger perspective there, than is offered by the word sexual. And while there is a lot of interesting work that has been done and continues to be done on risk, we decided to go the ground level route to get a sense of people’s approaches to risk and sexuality today. So for this issue of In Plainspeak, we opened out our interview process to a random group of people, in the form of a survey. A small group of 26 people responded. We presented them with 18 questions / cue statements, apart from those requesting identity-related data to help us build a rough picture of the respondents.
The survey was launched on the 22nd of September. Most of the 18 questions/statements offered the choice of simple inputs, Yes/No/Sometimes, and also gave the option of open-ended answers, allowing respondents to share their thoughts as they pleased. We have collated these responses and present some of them with our own reflections and interpretation. We keep this brief, because we’d like to extend the conversation to include all our readers, and request you to tell us what you think in your comments to this article.
While we expand on our findings ahead, based on the responses received to each question, there is an overall sense of understanding that risk is a layered experience. Risk is not experienced in the same way by two persons in what appears to be a similar environment or situation, because any two individuals are at a different location where multiple factors such as gender, sexuality and identity, disability, agency, availability of support, past experience, life philosophies and belief systems, intersect to create a space unique to each person. It is also clear that most people understand and assess risk in terms of consequences, not that a behaviour, an action, or an environment is inherently risky. True or not, this is how risk appears to present itself to most people, in terms of consequence due to an external factor. Yet, while most people see risk as attributable to something outside of themselves, there is a minority that looks at it differently. Some survey respondents have located their understanding of risk, their transactions around risk, in themselves, giving more weight to personal responsibility and the ability to control or mitigate risk through their own decisions, knowledge and precautions. This space of locating risk, or transacting with risk, from an internal anchor point / locus of control rather than external, is a less common feature of the responses that have come in to this survey.
26 people responded using the Google Survey form.
A quick look at our respondents:-
- A majority of respondents are in the age group of 20 to 35 years, and 5 of the respondents are over the age of 50, 3 of these being in their 60’s.
- Of the 26 respondents – 5 respondents specified gender identity specifically as Cisgender or Cis, 2 respondents described themselves as non-binary pan sexual, 2 respondents used the word queer in their description of their identity and 2 respondents described themselves as bisexual. 2 respondents identified themselves as male, and 1 respondent identified as gay. A little over half the respondents identified as female, and/or cis woman / queer woman.
It is important to note that even in a small group of random respondents such as this, the articulation of identity has expanded beyond the familiar binary. Identity, in and of itself, is a subject where, for some people, there is risk associated with the concept, and risk associated with self-acceptance and self-declaration of a gender or sexual identity that may be not easily understood or accepted by many. It is also interesting that over half the respondents who chose to engage with this subject through this survey identified as female. This lends itself to a number of possible interpretations, but the fact is that more persons who identify as women used this survey tool to share their thoughts and feelings about risk and sexuality.
These were our survey questions / cue statements, in sequence, each presented with their responses.
(Y – Yes; N – No; S – Sometimes)
- What do you perceive as a ‘risk’?
Respondents primarily understood risk in terms of consequences, potential for harm, or possibility of an unknown outcome. Therefore words such as ‘pleasure’, ‘tempting’ and ‘want’ have been used by some respondents to explain that behaviours or desires are often offset against possible negative consequences, like a trade-off, or a cost. This invites reflection on the processes and the players, existing between what may be pleasurable and desirable action and the dangers perceived to be the consequences.
It is notable that many participants looked at an expanded notion of risk to include more than just physical/environmental threat and danger. Risk is perceived in a context, (sexual orientation for example, as mentioned by one respondent), when there is a chance of not fitting into social norms, or a threat of social censure and public humiliation. Gender and sexuality have been clearly identified by some participants as the context within which risks operate. Some participants have specified particular risks on a wide spectrum of intersecting aspects, to include blackmail, abortion, STDs, posts on social media, homophobia, meeting someone through a dating app, violation of privacy, and dissent.
Risk has also been understood by some respondents in terms of the potential for damaging emotional and psychological consequences.
Overall, risk is understood in the context of negative outcomes emerging from a complex combination of physical, medical, social, psychosocial, personal, virtual, environmental and individual circumstances.
- Risk is a positive aspect of life.
S – About 70%
Y – About 15%
Only one respondent considered risk as not being a positive aspect of life, and a large majority perceive risk as sometimes being a positive aspect of life.
A respondent noted that risk being a positive aspect of life depends on the situation. This respondent presented their view of risk as an opportunity for rebellion, but they also noted that it isn’t positive if it endangers the risk taker. By implication, a distinction is being drawn here between risk taking and self-harm. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the two are not being treated as concepts that mean the same thing.
- Risk may be managed with knowledge, support and reasoning.
Y – About 60%
S – About 30%
Only one respondent thought that risk may not be managed with knowledge, support and reasoning.
One other respondent also contributed the thought that risk may be minimised. This respondent further described the heart versus head belief system, explaining that acting on impulse, when the heart rules the head, can be dangerous. One may assume that risk is juxtaposed here with some form of rational thinking associated with the head versus heart duality, where heart symbolises feelings, and a lesser value is ascribed to this latter.
This would imply that life philosophies and belief systems that guide decision-making are integral to what we perceive as risky or not risky. Therefore this differs from person to person and (loosely described here) group to group. Risk by itself may not be understood in terms of absolute truths or the way in which we understand ‘facts’. For example, the respondent who mentioned emotional risk may subscribe to a philosophy that places high value on feelings and therefore their perception of risk in a particular situation is likely to be completely different from that of an individual who places less value on feelings and emotions.
- Does risk impact what you do, whom you engage with, where you go, and how you live?
All respondents, with the exception of one, have answered ‘yes’ to this question, and explained and articulated their observations in different ways. They have spoken of risk in the context of decisions in personal, relationship, professional, financial, social and public aspects of life, risk as physical, medical and psychological, risk because of being a woman, the risk of being excluded or included, and risk as varying across culture and context. Again this reinforces the perception of risk as emerging from a complex combination of circumstances.
The single respondent who said ‘no’ in response to this question, self-identifies as male, is in their early twenties, has expressed questioning of social norms in their responses to other questions. This person has also said that they have the agency to take risks and that they take precautions / reach out for support. Their answer to this question, in this context, may be understood not so much as not being impacted by risk, but more as a sense of self-confidence in the matter of risk-taking.
- Do you have the agency to take risks?
Y – About 50%
S – About 40%
One respondent said they did not have the agency to take risks. This individual self-identifies as male and is in their mid-sixties. In answer to the first question of the survey, what they perceive as risk, this person has responded with a single word description, ‘blackmail’. It is neither appropriate nor possible to arrive at interpretations based on these inputs. However, using a more generalised approach, to connect a perception of not having agency to take risks, and risk being perceived as blackmail, these inputs do point to high impact psychosocial and emotional factors involved in risk-taking and risk-avoidance.
- If yes, do you take any precautions or reach out to your support systems?
The responses to this question mostly tend towards a yes, many with explanations and context. One of the most insightful responses pointed out the fact that an individual needs to know that there is risk involved, before they can decide anything about taking precautions or reaching out.
Some respondents have shared thoughts that help explain why some people may not reach out to support systems. These include a thought important to reflect on, that when families are overprotective, the risk of someone having unsafe sex is high, due to ignorance. This thought has not been expanded upon. One could assume that the ignorance being referred to is a consequence of overprotectiveness, combined with conversations around sexuality being fear-driven.
Among the more familiar reasons why some people may not reach out to support systems and persons are, the fear / avoidance of being judged, sense of self-confidence and the feeling that there is no support system / there is no one.
Precautions taken include not revealing all aspects of one’s identity. This is interesting because while this is often seen as a danger (interacting with an unknown someone whose identity may not be presented entirely or truthfully), it is in this case presented as a precautionary measure. These high levels of calculation and assessment that go into decisions around risk-taking quite likely mean that risk-taking is a process that is not the same for everyone, evolves differently, and requires self-reflection. This is a significant input for working with specific groups, such as adolescents and young people, on issues of risk and sexuality.
- If not, what possible consequences inform your decision?
A wide range of different responses have come in for this question. It appears that consequences of significance are unique to individual philosophies and attitudes. Some individuals have focused on a single aspect / one type of consequence, while some respondents have articulated different kinds of consequences that matter to them.
Amongst the consequences listed in the answers, those that emerge in the answers of two or more respondents include, the cost associated with the risk, fear and anxiety, the possibility of physical violence, pain, fear of harm to a loved one, the risk to professional life / career, the risk of being found out / caught / outed. So these are the more commonly thought about consequences of risk-taking, that therefore contribute to defining risk in the first place.
Three responses were centred upon the sense of self of the individual, decisions about risk not being contingent upon external sources. One of these spoke of the responsibility for risk being taken resting solely upon the self, a second spoke of their ‘inner voice’ as guiding their risk-taking, and the third spoke of (not being afraid of) being oneself. These responses are significant because they steer the direction of this conversation inward, centring a sense of control in the individual as opposed to risk as seen in terms of reacting and responding to external forces alone.
- Do your sexual and gender identity, sexual orientation, caste/class location, and (dis)ability affect the risks you take or do not take?
Y – About 70%
S – About 15%
The majority of respondents see the influence of specific locations that an individual occupies in life. 2 out of the 26 respondents answered ‘no’ to this question. Responses to the next question expand our understanding of the thoughts and experiences of respondents in this context.
- How are these different in a public and a private setting?
A common theme emerges from quite a few of the responses to this question. Many respondents have explained the difference between public and private settings in the context of the sense of control that is perceived / felt in the latter.
Public settings are therefore seen as contributing to risk in two ways, by the risk of the unknown / unfamiliar, and also the known risk of dangerous / unwanted consequences of what is already seen to be risky behaviour / identity / circumstances. It is noted, from the responses, that identities perceived as having inherent risks, include being a person with a disability and a person identifying as a specific gender which may be gender queer, while being a heterosexual woman is also perceived as carrying risk. Perceptions of risk in public spaces is high, but at the same time, respondents have also pointed out that there is risk involved in private spaces as well, due to the institution of family, for example, or relationship with a partner, or the safety or otherwise of the private space.
Respondents have identified many other concepts that influence risk taking in both public and private settings in different ways and to varying degrees. These primarily include patriarchy, privilege, vulnerability, anonymity, trust, security, liberty and the interlinking between public and private spaces. Home, and the family as an institution, has been brought into focus as a space that holds its own risks, by more than one respondent.
- While risk is often associated with danger, violence and disease, do you think taking risks can also help us exercise our agency, and enhance sexual and/or romantic experience?
Y – About 80%
S – About 15%
Not a single respondent answered ‘no’ to this question. Risk, despite being something most people treat with varying degrees of caution, appears to be seen as a positive aspect of life, to the extent that exercising agency and enhancing romantic / sexual experience are perceived as positive.
- Is talking about risk from a pleasure-perspective important amid the more frequently discussed negative associations of risk?
Y – About 70%
S – About 10%
Value is attached to the pleasure perspective amongst a majority of the respondents. One respondent answered ‘no’ to this question. One respondent spoke of this as being subjective, and also, interestingly, spoke of risk as being subjective too. This aligns with the overall impression emerging from the responses to this survey, that risk is not homogenous, and does not have a universal form.
- Is it worth taking emotional risks by communicating openly, being transparent about one’s motives and exposing oneself to possible hurt?
Y – About 30%
S – About 40%
Most of the responses to this question indicate caution around emotional risk, with ‘sometimes’ being the answer chosen by the largest group of respondents. However, an almost equal number of respondents say ‘yes’, with an additional number of individuals qualifying the ‘yes’ response with an added explanation. These explanations have touched upon the importance of honesty in one’s relationships, authenticity of self, the positive value of vulnerability and the importance of reaching out to friends and family for emotional support.
- Could consensually decided risk-taking in sexual activity be pleasurable because it is ‘risky’?
Y – About 40%
N – About 15%
S – About 25%
A large majority of the respondents have answered with a ‘yes’ and a ‘sometimes’ to this question, engaging positively with these ideas – consent, risk, sexual and pleasure. Sexual activity is being viewed through a wide-angle lens, challenging narrow, fear and anxiety driven approaches. Two additional inputs from respondents include the importance of trust (in the other person) and individual desire. This use of the word desire may also be seen as an expanding of the vocabulary of sexuality.
Responses to this question and to the previous three, indicate that risk as a theme requires us to actively engage with it, assuming that people are more likely to be drawn to what they perceive to be positive. Risk is a layered concept and connects to our lives as individuals and communities, and to our holistic health and wellbeing.
- We usually associate risk with the outside world. However, home may or may not be a safe space for all of us. During the COVID pandemic, we witnessed a surge in the incidence of intimate partner violence. How, then, do you perceive risk and where we are vulnerable?
11 out of the 26 respondents have specifically spoken of home and family (including intimate partners) as being spaces where there is risk of violence, trauma and vulnerability, particularly for women and for non-binary persons. As one respondent also said, the situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this issue of home not being a safe space, and not being risk-free, to the fore.
Another 7 respondents have said that being vulnerable and at-risk can happen anywhere, and everywhere. Many respondents have added the explanation that this is due to identity, that it is not so much about the space being risky, but who or what an individual is / identifies as, thus locating risk as a transaction between the self, gendered systems and institutions (patriarchy).
We are vulnerable, everywhere, anywhere, is a thought that has been articulated, in these words, often in the responses to this question, across participants. One may pause here to consider that this question itself is emotionally loaded. We are in the middle of dealing with the consequences of this pandemic, even as both the pandemic and the consequences continue, and stir up existing vulnerabilities, risks and rights violations that are rising to the surface in a way that is impossible to ignore. Risk by itself is not a stigmatised subject, but sexuality is, and has been for generations. This has led to closeting, to shutting the door, on many necessary conversations about the risks to rights that millions of vulnerable individuals and many vulnerable communities live with, across the globe. Covid-19 has forced people to have these conversations, privately, publicly, on social media, in a way that cannot be ignored.
- How does your home (whether you live by yourself, with your partner, family, and so on) affect the risks you take in expressing your sexuality?
A wide variety of responses have come in to this question. 3 respondents answered briefly to say that home does not affect the risks they take in expressing their sexuality. One of these respondents self-identified as male, in the age group of the early twenties, who also said ‘yes’ they have the agency to take risks, in response to an earlier question. The other two respondents self-identified as one female and one straight, both in the age group of the early thirties, both of whom responded to the question about agency to take risks with ‘sometimes’. All three affirmed that they take precautions. These three sets of responses also present a sense of personal confidence, locating risk within the control of self.
About 18 respondents specifically, or indirectly, referred to home and/or family, others sharing living space, the immediate neighbours and community, as risk factors, constraining the expression of sexuality. One respondent pointed out that despite being a straight woman, home was restrictive and conversations about sexuality (therefore certainly conversations about risk-taking and sexuality) simply do not happen. How true this is and for how many people, is at this point a matter of guesswork.
3 respondents specifically said that they come from homes where they are supported, and one of these respondents stated that they understood this to be a privilege.
- Can taking risks be an act of reclamation and resistance?
Y – About 60%
S – About 30%
Two respondents answered with a ‘no’ to this question, while the majority look at risk-taking as reclamation and resistance. Again, this points to risk being understood in terms of decisions and actions likely to have difficult consequences due to external factors.
- Do you think there are risks in meeting someone/dating in online as well as offline spaces?
Y – Almost 90%
Dating is seen as carrying risk in online and offline spaces by almost all respondents. It would be interesting to explore this further, as a theme, since dating is a commonly accepted feature of romance and sexuality, with a proliferation of dating apps, and many conversations in private, public and social media focusing on the subject. Dating is not going away, though just how familiar / common a practice it is, located in what socio-cultural spaces, is debated.
One person said ‘no’, in answer to this question. It was pointed out that there are risks in both spaces, but of different kinds.
- Have scientific and technological advancements such as the Internet, location-tracking apps, birth control methods, and so on, affected the risks you take or do not take in expressing your sexuality?
Y – About 45%
N – About 20%
Not much – About 25%
Almost half the respondents said yes in answer to this question, while the rest were neck to neck between ‘no’ and ‘not much’. One of the responses presented personal insights and anxieties around the potential for being trolled, and for emotional stress, on social media. Intersectionalities across various aspects such as location, class, caste, education, nationality were pointed out by this respondent, to expand on the factors that influence risk taking, beyond the use of technology.
This too is an area of questioning that is likely to reveal diverse experiences, issues of concern and quite possibly requires an independent framework of understanding.
 Harvard Health Publishing. (2011) The psychology of risk perception. Available https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/the-psychology-of-risk-perception
 Long, R. (2020) Understanding The Social Psychology of Risk And Safety. Available https://safetyrisk.net/understanding-the-social-psychology-of-risk-and-safety/