No, not like that…
Let’s move past the discussions of longest relationships, bad dates, and “body counts” — your sexual picture, so to speak, is more comprehensive than that. The conversations we see modelled for us on this subjects, the pillow talk, the gruelling first date, the doctor visit, are not the full picture.
In my work of meeting with folks, sometimes we have to go back to where it all began. Not in that stereotypically Freudian way of lying prone on a couch and saying, “It all began when I was 3…” (see all the scripts we are deconstructing here?), but, kind of. Sex (like money) is a culturally constructed practice. How a person has learned to view sex, and to feel about it, differs based on geography, culture, religion, family of origin, you name it.
But, at some point, we all had to learn that sex, well, exists.
This, to me, is a fascinating topic. How did you learn that sex was a thing? That people do? …With their bodies?!
People like to ask me how I got into this work. I have a cute story of myself as a kid, with a voracious appetite for knowledge that resulted in multiple weekly trips to the library, testing my ability to carry a huge stack of books out of there at once, not to mention everyone’s patience. I would go to my local library, look over each shoulder carefully, and then sneak to the section on books about sexual development and puberty. There was one book there, for pre-teen girls, about the changes that would happen as puberty took its course, called “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls”.
To my parents’ dismay (and perhaps other folks in my age bracket, now that I think about it), I must have checked out and renewed that book a hundred times. I just kept reading it over and over, learning about sexual development, bodies, relationships, and health implications of all of this. This was certainly a huge moment in my life, in my sexual history — a primary source of sexual information that was informative, affirming, and hopeful. I would say that this positively affected my knowledge and opinions of sexuality, and encouraged this young and budding interest that would eventually become my life’s work.
However, like most folks in the world, my sex education had a dark side, so to speak, one that revealed itself only later as potentially detrimental or not affirming of The Person I’d Like To Be™. A sex education of “shoulds.”
I also remember being a kid and watching TV as a family, all piled in the living room, my Dad probably lying on the floor as he did my whole childhood of Seinfeld reruns. There was some sort of documentary on about sexual reproduction in which the producers must have been excited to show off their newfangled computer generated imagery (CGI) because there were CGI sperm all over the place trying to burrow into this egg. (As an aside, it seems like this is one of the only aspects about sex that’s OK to talk about, right? The reproduction part? What’s up with that?) I watched this in that horrified, pre-teen, my-parents-are-in-the-room kind of way, and then I remember afterwards my parents asking me to promise that I would wait to have sex until after I was married. Gross, I thought, who wants to do sex?? But now, looking back, this memory means something different to me when I consider what I learned from this experience, when I look between the lines at the messages it imbued in me. It matters. Right?
Some people never learn about sex. They are taught about driving a car, cholesterol in arteries, how to tie a tie, balancing a checkbook, that the Oxford comma either does or does not matter, mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, yada yada. They don’t receive messages about sex, dating, communication, consent, or pleasure. I’m here to inform you: The absence of a message is a message.
As harmless as these messages may seem at the time, sometimes they take root, and they matter. If I am allowed to learn about mitochondria but not about why there is currently a patch of hair growing between my legs (and what am I supposed to do with it?!?!), I may try to determine a reason as to why this is the case. I may surmise that sex is shameful, bad. If I ask about it and get shot down, I learn I’m not allowed to talk about sex, or that I am shameful or bad! Can you see how these ideas may impact me down the line, as a teen or adult? In my personal relationship with myself, or partnered relationships?
(By the way, let’s have empathy for the folks perpetuating these messages (or lack thereof), too. My parents aren’t supervillains scheming to ruin my life when they asked me to wait till I get a ring on my finger. They are survivors of this sex-negative, puritanical culture, too. They only have the tools they were given to cope. And those tools aren’t much.)
But I digress. One of the most important steps of “The Work” is to reminisce. To recall your own personal sexual history, to understand it in context, and to deconstruct what you have been given. Early experiences influence values, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings around sex. You might consider,
Where did I learn about sex?
What messages did I receive about sex
From friends and peers?
Was there an overarching religious or faith institution in my life that influenced my opinions on sex?
Did I receive information on various genders and sexualities?
Were there embarrassing experiences or jokes around sexuality that I can recall?
How did I learn about
Dating and relationships?
Was I able to learn about birth control, safe sex methods, and risks of sex? How?
What were my first sexual experiences? Or formative experiences?
What was my relationship with porn? How did others talk about it?
What were my first experiences with arousal or sexual pleasure like?
What messages have I received around
This is a cursory overview of questions you might ask yourself.
I encourage you not only to consider them, but to interact with them, to write about your experiences, revisit them, cross stuff out or write in the margins, communicate about them with loved ones, deconstruct them, and ask, what have I been left with regarding this?
Let’s talk about it.
Let’s break the cycle of perpetuating silence and shame around sex.