I’ve said it a bunch before, but I’ll keep reiterating the point because it feels important: “Sex” or “Sexuality” are based on cultural values.
Almost inextricably so, at least to begin — we ingrain cultural messages around sex from a young age, wether it’s done so overtly (“Wait until marriage!”) or covertly (“Cover up, you’re showing too much”). These messages can be called scripts, because they’re scripting how sex “should” be or present, like an actor following a script in a movie; staying on-script is good, and daring to go off-script is risky, can feel bad, and lead to consequences.
I’ll illustrate an example here about one’s relationship with something and how it can be impacted by values and beliefs, whether ones overtly given, or others due to non-exposure or inexperience. Let’s take a look at it —
Think of sushi, and your relationship with sushi. Maybe you have never heard of sushi. Maybe you got exposed to it at a later age. Maybe you heard it talked about on movies or TV shows with young city-dwellers just casually going out for sushi, like it’s some fancy thing, or some rite of passage, to be able to go “grab sushi” with the girls. Maybe you researched it some and found out it’s round and strange looking and doesn’t exactly look like the food you’ve experienced before. Maybe you do some more googling and learn it’s raw fish! Raw fish, you think, why would anyone want that? Maybe you come from a family that doesn’t eat fish at all so the idea sounds totally foreign to you. Maybe you’ve heard people complain about “fishy odors” and have come to dislike fish as a food even though you never really ate it. Maybe you find you cannot fathom why anyone would want to eat fish, let alone raw fish, cold, packaged into a little circle with rice. Maybe you can’t understand why anyone would eat it, but you’re still so curious since those people on TV really seem to like it. Maybe you talk about this with a friend, who’s also heard the sushi rumors but hasn’t tried it. Maybe they remark Well hey, they sell sushi at the gas station across town. Hmm, you think, gas station sushi, well OK, I do like the gas station meatball subs so let’s try it. Maybe you go, plop down your five dollars, and then retreat to some privacy with your friend, giggling about how ridiculous it is you are about to eat circular raw fish. Maybe you try it and think it tastes weird, but whatever, you’re doing it, eating the thing. Maybe you have no idea what that soy sauce and wasabi are doing in there, bleargh it’s really salty and weirdly spicy, and what is this pungent ginger crap?! Maybe a few hours later you barf a bunch and resolve that you actually despise sushi because you were uneducated and ate fucking sushi from a gas station because you didn’t know any better.
In this above example, can you isolate any factors that impacted the main character’s beliefs about sushi? Their relationship with sushi? Both before and after trying it?
You can notice that the speaker’s experience with sushi was heavily impacted by scripts they picked up around fish, sushi, and food, among other things, including culture, lack of exposure to or education about sushi best practices, and more.
Of course, sex is way more prevalent than sushi in our culture here, but if the sushi example felt at all relevant, then it’s almost certain that one pertaining to sex, sexuality, relationships, and values around these will prove to feel relevant in your life. Sex and sexuality are present in many conversations and topics pervading our culture, and steep into most advertising, politics, religion, relationships, biology, body image, work with animals and pets, learning about societal rules from a young age like nudity and safety — I could go on and on. This isn’t to say that the references are necessarily overt — they generally aren’t. And the lack of a message about sex — its avoidance, shushing, accompanying shame — is in itself a message. Sex and sexuality are taboo. This matters to how we developed relationships with sex.
Generally, a lot of work I do with folks is to work to deconstruct all of the messaging around sex that’s entered our brains, and begin to work with what we want to keep and what we want to discard (harkening back to the garden metaphor in Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are). That said, it’s also helpful just to know and recognize that some of this stuff originated outside of us — creating a sense of distance between us and these scripts can help to increase our own power and self-efficacy over them.
As you work to deconstruct your relationship with sexuality and how it was influenced by cultural factors and other events from a young age, I ask you to consider the above, and for those interested in a more guided experiences, you may go in search of a sexual history workbook — I have a brief one in an earlier blog post; there are also a few hard copy books and guided journals circulating around the subject, thankfully.
As far as future directions in this work, it’s also important to note that my relationship with my body, my relationship with my sexual orientation, my relationship with sharing sexuality with a partner, and more are also related to cultural scripts.
As in the example above, it’s unlikely that this sushi tester would have gone through life without some sort of messaging pertaining to fish as organisms that humans eat, and even if they had, it would have felt totally alien then to consume an unknown animal. So it’s likely it would have been entirely impossible for them to consume sushi for the first time without some preconceived notions or judgements coloring that experience.
Likewise, even had the messaging been overtly positive (society at large, parents, friends, raving about their love of sushi) — what then, if the sampler found they did not like sushi as much as they’d been led to believe; it was not found to the the ultimate pinnacle of human pleasure? What then? — Sound familiar? Positive messages about what sex “should” be also impact us and can potentially cause comparison, guilt, shame, you name it.
Case in point, scripts can affect many experiences we have as people, both external and internal. Even though our internal experiences feel so “us,” there is an insidious and invisible hand directing these experiences at times — our beliefs, values, feelings, motivations, among other things. Understanding this more helps us to gain more control over our lives, and more understanding and self-compassion.