That’s What She Said
In our society we are bombarded with sexual images and sexual messages. It would appear that we are a sexually liberated society. But how relevant are those images and messages to our own personal sexuality? Are they a true reflection of who we are? Are we really sexually free? In truth, most of us carry a lot of shame around our own sexuality. In contrast to the sexy images that we see every day, often the messages regarding our bodies and sexuality that we received early in life from our caregivers and other influential people, were messages of shame.
Perhaps at the tender age of 4 or 5 when we were caught touching ourselves, or playing in a “sexual” way with a friend or cousin, we were yelled at or told to “stop that” by the adults around us. Perhaps growing up we never saw our parents being affectionate with each other, and/or they never talked about sex. Then we went to elementary school and from other kids learned all kinds of slang and derogatory words for our body parts and sexual behaviour as though our sexuality is cheap and to be made fun of. And at puberty, as our bodies changed and developed, perhaps we were made fun of by family members or peers, and now we lack sexual boundaries and are cutting because we hate our body so much. Or perhaps we discovered the pleasure and release of touching ourselves, while at the same time learning from church members that that behaviour was “wrong” and wondering if we were the only “sinful” one engaging in such behaviour because nobody talks about it. Or perhaps because the adults in our life never talked about sex, we went looking for it ourselves and discovered porn, and are now so addicted that we’re not even sure we are capable of connecting with a real person, and are struggling with erectile dysfunction at the early age of 18. Or perhaps as other teens were swooning about members of the opposite sex, we felt shame for noticing that we really weren’t interested, or were different somehow, or were really actually interested in our friend of the same sex. Somehow we were different from everyone else. We didn’t fit in. Or perhaps we were powerless and exploited in some way by someone for their own sexual gain. Or we gave in to sexual activity even though we weren’t comfortable with it because we really wanted that boy to like us. We became the object of someone else’s sexual life, rather than the subject of our own. And the biggest shameful message of all. Silence.
So what is the antidote to all this shame? How can we avoid perpetuating the shame from generation to generation? It starts with open and honest conversations. Of course there are appropriate boundaries in that it’s not information to be shared with just anyone. Perhaps start by sharing with a trusted loved one, or a trusted therapist. Our childhood experiences are what form the foundation of our sexuality. What were your earliest sexual experiences growing up? What was the context of the first arousals? Who was your first romantic interest or crush? What did you observe in your parents/caregivers and family of origin with regards to affection and sexuality? What messages did you receive regarding the body and sexuality from the adults in your life? From the peers in your life? From the Church and other organized communities? From the media? What was your experience and views on masturbation, and how was it similar or different from messages that you were taught regarding it? Include conversations on where you are at currently. Do you have interest in sex, or do you not, or are you not sure? What are your desires and fantasies, and what is your attitude towards them? With whom or what are you sexually active or would like to be? What do you like about your sexual activity, or absence of, and what do you not like? What is the frequency and what would you like the frequency to be? Are you aware of when you are comfortable with a sexual behaviour or activity or not? Is your behaviour or activity consensual?
These conversations are likely not easy and involve a lot of courage. In some cases, if our sexuality was exploited by others, the conversation might be extremely painful, or traumatic, or even seemly impossible. Those conversations would best be handled by a trusted and trauma-informed professional.
When comfortable with your own sexuality, it makes it easier to have open conversations about sexuality with children and others that we may influence. Conversations can start early with children teaching healthy boundaries and how to respect their body, and the bodies of those around them. There are many resources on age appropriate conversations to have with children on relationships, self-respect, and sexuality.
Starting conversations at an earlier age makes it easier to have conversations on relationships and sexuality when they are most critical as children become adolescents. Adolescents long for meaningful conversations on sex and relationships with important adults in their life and are significantly influenced by them. Several studies have demonstrated that adolescents want to have access to information about relationships in general and specifics about dating relationships, and despite developmental shifts towards preferring peers, trusted adults remain as important consultants across issues and time, and are perceived to be more accurate than friends or the media.
When adolescents do not have conversations on sexuality with the adults in their life, they turn to other sources for information, which often are unhealthy or less desirable. It is disheartening that the 12 – 17 year old age group has become the largest consumer of Internet pornography, according to a report commissioned by Congress (Kastleman, 2007, p. 6), and pornography content that brings about sexual arousal is constantly changing and is becoming more and more violent and non-consensual. Young males and females are learning an impoverished view of femininity and sexuality right from the start as their sacred sexuality is developing. With the ever increasing consumption of Internet porn amongst young people, we have a generation of disconnection and isolation developing.
With the bombardment of sexual images and rampant spread of unhealthy influences, it seems that open and honest conversations about sexuality are more important than ever, especially with our young people. Start taking steps today to reduce shame around your own sexuality, and be a positive influence on those around you. Your sexual health gives permission for those around you to be sexually healthy.
Shari Derksen, MA, is a Registered Psychologist with the College of Alberta Psychologists and specializes in the areas of sexuality and sexual health, as well as many others. For more information on Shari, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.