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Warning: naughty language ahead!
I have always hated sex.
Numbing out as my sweaty body curls around another’s heated flesh, longing for the after-cuddles, content to hold and be held with no goal in sight, breathing body to body without pressure to perform or judgement cast upon the way a body behaves.
I wait for that liminal space where no words live, just warmth.
I was the child, like so many I know, who was told not to want, advised aloud and in tacit signals not to root my feet deep into pleasurable soil or stretch my budding body toward the sun’s vibrant rays.
I was the child who explored everywhere but “down there.” I was the child who felt ashamed for peeing in the bathtub (oh, sweet release!). I was the child, adolescent, and young adult who stifled her every sexual inclination in sweets: midnight cream-filled donuts and buttery crisp apple pie crust to satiate a hunger whose name I couldn’t place.
I spent years thinking something was wrong with me for my sexual struggles. What could possibly explain the profound shame that arose during any sexual encounter—with myself, with someone I love and trust, or otherwise? With the exception of a few understanding women, every single time I would say to a new partner, “sex is hard for me,” they’d be thoroughly taken aback.
Eyes wide and brows furrowed, they’d ask, “Oh, so you’ve suffered sexual trauma?” And I felt compelled to say yes, for simplicity’s sake.
But in truth, there wasn’t one specific event of trauma that altered the course of my sexual trajectory. Rather, it was growing up in a family where sex was never spoken of, only whispered about behind closed doors or hinted at in a dismissive “you’d better not get pregnant” comment. No dialogue.
It was the body shame that developed from attending a middle school where girls blooming into their bodies were dress-coded daily for shorts “too short” and shirts “too low” by a male assistant principal who seemed to love his job a little too much and rarely ridiculed the boys’ attire.
It was hearing those seldom-dress-coded boys rate girls on a scale of 1 to 10, making comments about their chest size, ass, and face, all the while smiling to pretend you’re unaffected, but wondering how they rate you when you’re not present.
It was listening to two boys in Spanish class compare how hairy the labia were of the girls they’d most recently fucked. It was crossing your legs a little tighter, laughing along, and shaving your own labia blood-red raw so as never to become one of “those girls.”
It was letting your “friend” finger you to avoid the discomfort and ridicule of saying no.
It was listening to a gruff voice who thinks he’s being kind growl, “Be still so I can fuck you” as you lay strained-faced, pressed to damp bed sheets, waiting for it to end, then kissing him sweetly after he comes, denying the ache within because when you try to give it voice, no one listens.
It was being asked if you’re a virgin over and over and over again until you believe it’s a real concept (instead of a homophobic, misogynistic myth), and all your self-worth lies in its answer—the answer that changes depending upon the crowd, the answer you take care to place in an acceptable space on the prude/slut scale.
It was finally realizing how profoundly fucked up it all is and beginning to reclaim your body and your pleasure, but closing yourself off to every adult sexual encounter in your life because you don’t trust that anyone will understand your story.
The words of Ev’Yan Whitney (sexuality doula™, sex educator, and host/creatress of the podcast “Sexually Liberated Woman”) profoundly mirror my own when she says:
“I wanted to love sex, but…I was crippled with shame. My erotic desires felt like giant burdens on my shoulders, and my sexual expression was still very much entwined with oppressive beliefs.”
Yes, these oppressive and limiting beliefs around pleasure with which we’ve been inundated have an embodied effect on our sexual selves. In the past year or so, I have been doing my own kind of sexual liberation work by tapping into—physically and emotionally—the core wounds and trauma underlying my embodied disconnect from and visceral fear of pleasure.
When I masturbate, it’s a slow, emotionally taxing process. Yes, it usually leads to release, but not before a journey that begins with several requirements for success.
Number one: safety is crucial. I need to know I am 100 percent alone, uninterrupted, and present with myself in the moment.
Next, I must feel sensual—as in all of my senses must be soothed, not just my pussy, god damn it! As Clarissa Pinkola Estés explains in Women Who Run with the Wolves, “the sacred and the sexual/sensual lie very near one another in the psyche for they’re all brought to attention through a sense of wonder.”
I can be eased into the sacred “sense of wonder” necessary for a gratifying sexual experience through taking a warm bath with lavender salts, lighting incense or a candle, singing or listening to music, and maybe nibbling a taste of dark chocolate or sipping a spot of chamomile tea. I find touching other parts of my body before my vagina/clit another form of relaxation, like brushing my hair, rubbing my feet, or giving myself a massage. My stomach is especially sensitive and likes to be caressed, held, listened to, moved with. Only in this state of relaxation do I feel safe, sexy, and sensual enough to even begin to masturbate.
Upon touching my stomach, the insides of my thighs, or my vagina, emotions begin to stir—namely shame and disgust. I used to stop every time I inserted my fingers into myself, feeling physically ill and sick to my stomach, thinking I was crazy even though it’s the most normal thing in the world for a woman to feel shame around her sacred sexual area when she has internalized misogynistic, fear-based messages about vaginas, women’s bodies, and her own pleasure for 20 years.
When the shame or fear or disgust or anger or loathing or impatience or exhaustion or dread or numbness around sex arises, I sit with the emotion, listen to it, rock it patiently to and fro like a loving mother, allow it space to unfold—the space that is often denied when a penis or fingers are shoved inside, searching for release before learning the dance’s cadence.
Providing a safe space for shame to speak is crucial because, as identified by shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, shame feeds upon “secrecy, silence, and judgement” but ceases to exist when shown empathy. Secrecy, silence, and judgement pinpoint the exact cultural energy we maintain around sex.
The term “consent” didn’t cross my radar until after high school. The severe lack of discourse around sexual intimacy leaves us to create our own scripts, quite often modeled after movies, television shows, and pornographic content that systematically objectify women, normalize rigid gender roles, promote sexual violence, fuel racial stereotypes, and delegitimize both LGBTQ+ sex and sex for people of varying physical and mental abilities. We’re caught in this dichotomy where society does not openly talk about this intimate act that sustains our species, yet when we’re in bed we’re expected to unequivocally know precisely what to do, the terminology to use, the invisible instruction manual to follow.
Sometimes I sob while masturbating as I unlearn shame through offering empathy, as Brown suggests, and come to understand that I am allowed to love myself, remembering that there is nothing wrong with me, or anyone of any gender, for craving touch, talk, and emotional intimacy before physicality.
This is again why sex requires a safe space. I must know that when my moans turns to tears, my partner will either stop and rock with me as we seek to understand the story these tears wish to tell or, at my okay, continue the dance because sometimes tears can indeed be joyful. I will always do the same for whomever I am with.
This is a call for sex in all its colorful forms to be talked about openly, lovingly, and wholly, and for the unlearning of our blockages around pleasure and nourishment to be honored. Cultivating openness around sex, sexuality, sensuality, and pleasure from a young age can allow us, collectively, to begin to see our sexual nature as “a source of self-knowledge, creativity, and communication” as Peggy Orenstein advocates for in her Ted Talk “What Young Women Believe About their Own Sexual Pleasure,” rather than as a wounded source of deep shame as it has been for the majority of my life and in the lives of dear friends with whom I’ve exchanged intimate stories.
I am not free of sexual shame, but in placing my feet on a stage where shame may speak, I am uncovering wells of creative energy that lie where the tops of my thighs touch, warmth that comes before the cuddles, the strength to be unapologetically clear about my boundaries, to trust my unique cycles of sexual healing, surrender to my setbacks, and offer myself unconditional empathy each time I fall into the familiar space of sexual shame.