Leave the campsite better than you found it.
That’s the “campsite” rule, coined by Dan Savage and practiced by responsible lovers everywhere. It’s a pledge to leave people in as good a state (physically and emotionally) as you found them.1
As someone who sleeps with a lot of people — often people who have less experience — I do my best to live this pledge, so lately I’ve been asking myself what it actually means. How would I know if I left someone better than I found them?
There are clearly many ways to leave people worse. Not respecting boundaries, giving people unreasonable expectations and poor/inconsiderate communication are a few. While the importance of not leaving people worse cannot be understated — I’d like to consider what “better” would actually look like.
What would have to happen to go beyond “not hurting” someone and instead leave a positive, lasting impact on their life? Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Leaving people with more agency.
If our experience someone leaves with more agency — I consider that a win.
Since the words agency and “sexual agency” are relatively new I’ll articulate what I mean. Someone has agency to the extent they are able to advocate for themselves and what they want/need.
Agency is like a muscle that we grow through things like speaking up and expressing what we want, and don’t want. Many women (and men) have had their voice shut down by things like slut-shaming, sexual repression, and manipulation by romantic partners trying to control us — so much so that gaining agency feels like reclaiming something that was taken from us — because often it was.
Let’s look at some things that can happen within the context of a relationship that might help someone have more agency.
Helping Someone Own Their Desires
Sharing your desires with a new lover is often a courageous act. It can be scary, because we may have been shamed for those desires in the past.
When we accept our lover’s desires with open arms, it will not only feel great, but it will make it a tiny bit easier for them to own those desires with their next lover.
That doesn’t mean we have to share their sexual interests, but being a good partner means welcoming other people’s desires and being game to play along (within reason). As they say in the kink community, YKINMKBYKIOK (Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is OK).
By repeatedly welcoming someone’s desires, especially the ones that carry shame, we can help those people learn to accept themselves in a way that creates a new kind of safety and trust as they move through the world.
Celebrating the Word “No”
On some level, we’re all people-pleasers. We want to be a yes to everything our partner wants because we don’t want to be a party pooper, but that’s not always what’s true for us on a deeper level.
Sometimes we’re just a “no” and we need to honor that. What a great lover can do is not just listen to our “no” but encourage it. We can create a culture within the relationship where saying “no” is seen as a positive, because it helps us not waste time doing something we’re both not a full “yes” to.
One of the practices in Cuddle Party — a non-sexual event for adults to practice communication and explore touch — is to thank someone for taking care of themselves when they say “no”. Even though it might feel silly the first time you hear it, after a while you start to see the truth that honesty is a gift to both parties.
Getting the chance to practice honesty in a relationship, whether that’s for one week or one year, can often have someone emerge with more confidence that it’s okay for them to say “no” if that’s what’s true.
Replacing “Yes” with “Fuck Yes”
One of the side-effects of creating a culture inside the relationship that welcomes the word “no” is you begin to raise your standards for “yes”. For example, here’s something I often share with new lovers.
I encourage us both to let go of “yes” meaning “I’m okay with it”, especially when it comes to things like pleasure, our bodies and sex. Instead, “yes” now becomes “fuck yes” and we only move forward with something when both parties are fully on board.
That can sometimes take extra time, but it’s totally worth it. As we practice being a “fuck yes” it slowly raises our standards to the point where it would seem ridiculous to settle for anything less.
Leaving Yourself Better Than You Found You
One of the beautiful things about doing all this for someone else is you get to experience those lessons as well. Even though I’ve been “doing this for a while” I still struggle with everything mentioned in this essay. I say “yes” when I really mean “no”, I don’t completely own my desires and I settle for less than “fuck yes” all the time.
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it, and that’s certainly been true for me. Ultimately by helping our lovers use their voice, ask for what they want and feel empowered to own their desires, we’re also helping ourselves do the same.