Sex, Shame, And Sex-Esteem: Unlearning Harmful Attitudes Toward Sexuality

I imagined marriage as having 24-hour access to your favorite person. Instead, I realized that I had to deal with some complicated feelings of shame around sex. Growing up Southern and Baptist has affected my view of sexuality, even after leaving both. As a Christian raised Black female, it became clear that my sexual expression was limited from a young age. I learned about sex from peers but religious tradition kept me from the clarification I needed. That taught me sex was shameful and shouldn’t be discussed. Unfortunately, I internalized that shame and held onto it for 25 years.

As I approach my third marriage anniversary, it's hard not to see the way that shame has affected my marriage. But this problem is bigger than me. We teach young girls to be ashamed of their sexuality and reinforce those lessons through religion and cultural norms. Although those messages are often transmitted intentionally, the long-term consequences are still overlooked.

It’s time we stop teaching shame and start spending more time fostering healthy sexual identities in young girls. I have made the personal decision to chase a healthier image of sex and I’m willing to do whatever it takes. The following are a few small steps I am taking to achieve this goal:

1. Ending slut shaming

Growing up, I was taught that sexual desire was bad unless in a heteronormative marriage. That message was also used to police women’s clothing. It went something like this: “As a woman, you are responsible for any feelings of sexual desire you cause in men. If you make the wrong choices in clothes, there will be painful consequences.”

This encouraged slut shaming and led me to avoid clothes I loved because I had to be a “good girl.” But now I know this isn’t true. Men are responsible for exercising self-control and there is no excuse for sexualizing women without their consent. Liking short dresses and skirts does not make me “fast,” and even if it did, it shouldn't matter. My husband helps me resist this pressure by encouraging me to buy what I want regardless of length. I am within my rights to present myself in a way that I am comfortable with (even if I make the choice to wear long skirts and turtlenecks most of the time).

2. Actively pursuing sexual education

Most sex ed programs in the United States either teach the bare minimum (STD prevention) or preach abstinence only. My sex ed program was 4 hours across two days and I don’t remember any of it. Since we didn’t learn anything, we asked our “experienced” friends for help. Of course, my peers knew little more than me and I learned nothing.

But the biggest way that our sex education programs let our youth down is by making sex too simple. Sex involves so much more than a penis and a vagina. Sometimes there are no penises, sometimes there are no vaginas, and sometimes there are more than one of each. Even when it's one penis and one vagina, putting the penis inside isn’t always enough to make sex feel good, nor is penetrative sex always what folks prefer to do. This basic sex ed made me think love alone was enough to improve sexual chemistry — it’s not.

 

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My husband and I learned together that there is no one-size fits all for privates. It's funny — we learn that men come in different sizes, but not that vaginas do too. Some are short and wide, others are long and narrow, and the best positions for your partner are affected by those qualities. To get a better understanding of what works for us, my husband and I have started watching educational videos. It's weird to learn the basics in our twenties, but the sex ed we learned as kids was hurting us.

3. Facing my complicated past

My past experiences with sex were the worst of both worlds. I used sex to feel loved and at the same time was reassured that sex apart from marriage meant I was dirty. Together those messages left me feeling unworthy and unloved. Those messages lowered my sense of self and affected my self-esteem. Before I could enjoy sex, I had to examine the role of my past in my issues with sex. Some complications are harder to work through than others. A few of my symptoms possibly indicate past sexual trauma, but I’ve made the decision that I don’t want to know. I’m not completely sure if it's possible to move past an issue you haven’t explored, but I’m not ready to address that possibility.

It’s fine to address my issues at a pace that works best for me. And I’m doing that, one step at a time.

4. Respecting others' choices

A lot of us come from a background that teaches us to judge others' sexuality. But is anyone else's sex any of our business?

Embracing my sexuality has come with the interesting decision to respect others' sexual choices. I’m learning to accept the complexities of sex. Some people are into public sex, others enjoy sex with many people. Being open to other people's choices made me feel more comfortable about exploring my own interests. Now I think about sex preferences like favorite colors; we don’t have to share a favorite color but you deserve to find yours and I deserve to find mine. I don’t have to like your way of having sex. All that matters is that my partner is comfortable with what I want, and that I feel the same way about their wants as well.

Before I can enjoy the beauty of sex in my own relationship, I have to break through my barriers of shame. I haven’t been on this journey for long but I’m already seeing the benefits of my changes. I’m learning I deserve to have shame-free, positive sexual experiences. It may be an uphill battle at times, but I plan to get there.


Related:

Slut-Shaming And Modesty-Shaming Are Equally Poisonous

I'm A Single Mom And I Still Like Sex. A Lot.

"Leave Room For Jesus": Does Purity Culture Devalue Girls?

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