Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Making Mistakes

I made a mistake today.  I left my reading glasses behind at the gym and had to go back to get them.  I’ll probably make a mistake tomorrow too, although I don’t know yet what it will be.  In fact, I’m going to make tons of mistakes this year, and actually I find that thought pretty frightening, given that it’s my first year of graduate school and my first year sharing a home with my partner.  Those are some huge responsibilities, and I shouldn’t be going around making so many mistakes.

Given the inevitability of mistake-making, the meaningful question is not whether I will make mistakes, but rather, which mistakes will I make?  Although mistakes are, by nature, accidental, I can still engage in a practice of intentional mistake management, choosing to increase my risk for making some mistakes while decreasing my risk for others.

In my mere two weeks as a graduate student, I’ve already made mistakes—for example, I responded to a question in class with the wrong answer.  But I’m ok with the risk of making that kind of mistake again because I’m in this program for the purpose of learning.  Others mistakes, however, I don’t want to repeat, like when I wore casual clothes to visit colleagues at another university.  I felt awkward and out of place.  Next time I’ll err on the side of dressing up.

Intentional mistake management could be a powerful concept for sexual health, as it offers a approach with more potential to promote sex-positive values in combination with risk reduction practices.

Since we all make so many mistakes, we’re going to make mistakes in our sex lives as well.  A person might kiss someone and later decide just to be friends. Another person might invite a date to stay overnight and in the morning yearn for solitude.

As an educator, I would ask people to consider which mistakes they are not willing to risk and which mistakes they could willingly leave themselves vulnerable to making.  Once people decide they are unwilling to mistakenly contract HIV, they can commit to using caution.  Once people decide they unwilling to mistakenly violate someone else’s boundaries, they can make a habit of asking for consent.

Most mistakes are tolerable.  Some are not.  To what extent do you think we can commit to preventing intolerable mistakes, in sex and in life? How do we discern which mistakes we can tolerate and which we cannot? Furthermore, how can sexuality education support individuals in making that determination for themselves?


  1. How do we most responsibly think about intentional mistake management in an arena that often so intimately involves another person's preferences and risk assessments? Choosing to allow increased risk for myself also deeply affects the risks of those with whom I'm engaging sexually (now and in the future) and sometimes even others who might be affected by the consequences of my decisions. When teaching mistake management, how do you teach people to weigh what constitutes a tolerable mistake when others in addition to the one making the decision will be affected?

  2. That's a really important ethical question. Part of intentional mistake management is thinking deeply about the potential consequences of a mistake, and the effects on relationships with other people and other people's entire lives are really important to consider. Thanks for your insight!

  3. Recently a fraternity at my school put up posters advertising a Golf Pros/Tennis Hos party with a picture of Tiger Woods and the words, "Everyone makes mistakes, but not all mistakes are bad." As in, girls are supposed to come to the party and "make mistakes" by hooking up with members of the fraternity, and they won't have to feel guilty (!) because "not all mistakes are bad." So... that happened.