DISCLAIMER: This is a highly nuanced topic which makes it incredibly difficult to generalize. Beliefs, values, and experience are specific to the individual and/or the relationship. No matter the nuance, we need to be vigilant and practice self reflection.
Sexual health and identity is a very important aspect of our individuality. It is something that needs to be nurtured and explored and yet a lot of clients report this to be very challenging to connect with because of different roadblocks. These roadblocks may include: the messages about sexuality they have heard growing up, being consumed in other aspects of life (stress, lack of time, etc) or not identifying thought processes that could bring about an underlying sense of insecurity or even shame.
If we have a sexual identity where shame, guilt and doubt are present (to any extent), it doesn’t disappear instantaneously once we are in a committed relationship. In fact, it becomes complicated when we have a whole other person to consider when it comes to their sexual history, preference and what their expectations are for a quality sex life. Though sex with another individual can be fulfilling and satisfying, this cannot happen until: 1) We have an understanding of our own sexual needs, wants, and challenges 2) We accept that sexual preferences can change over time and 3) We recognize in ourselves (and in our partner) that there are deep rooted thought processes and it connects to a bigger value (outside of the bedroom).
When assessing our sexual values, it is important to also take into account social influences and how societal messages have been re-enforced to later become biases. In my research, I have identified four societal considerations that have impacted the masses.
- Purity culture: This was a big movement in the 90’s and it was under the basis that you can’t trust your body and its urges and your focus should be to be “pure”. This movement impacted women on a deeper level because they were more likely to be exploited, judged and shamed for their virginity and their loss of virginity. The after effects of this type of thinking is that we ignore normal reactions and urges or we do not talk about our bodies. Lack of awareness creates natural discomfort and begins to fuel a lack of assertiveness. By not asserting our sexual needs or desires, then doubt is embedded and therefore more questioning and shame associated with physiological reactions. By not normalizing our sexual sense of self, we are at a higher risk to develop sexual disorders and sexual performance anxiety.
- Porn culture: I have discussed with my clients the pros and cons to watching porn. In fact, it reminds me of the pros and cons of having advanced technology at our fingertips. On a cognitive level, watching porn can shape and model our sexual behaviors, desires, tastes and expectations. There are specific constructs and scripts that can instill doubt and dissatisfaction if your own sex life doesn’t match what you are viewing. By thinking more critically how porn culture can impact and influence one’s personality and context we can start to identify what distorted view we may be at risk of developing when it comes to sex. Psychologically, porn might be a person’s coping mechanism as a way to isolate, fulfill sexual satisfaction, and possibly perpetuate sexual objectifications. With prolonged exposure, the brain begins to increase your tolerance, compulsivity to watch it, and withdrawal effects. It alters and forms the brain cells to receive the surge of dopamine. The more time spent doing it, the more you not only desire it but the more your brain requires for it. The orgasm associated with it, releases even more dopamine which causes a feedback loop. Not only does it make it harder to break this feedback loop, but because the tolerance has increased, it also makes it difficult to feel just as satisfied from “real-life” experiences. This is by no way to paint porn culture to be all negative. In fact, some couples utilize porn together as a way to “warm up” or activate the senses. This is with the understanding that couples talk about their boundaries, comforts/desires in what they watch and how often they utilize it as a supplemental tool.
- Sex-Education movement: Meeting the requirement for sex education is based off of the policies and curriculum that has been approved. Because the schools have a lot of confluence in what is being taught or discussed, students may walk away with a biased perspective or they may walk away with more questions than they had before. There are two major components to sexual psycho-education: physiological responses and emotional associations. Physiologically, teachers touch on the reproductive system and identify parts/functions. But they may or may not go in depth about the neurological processes of desire, arousal, or symptoms of climax. It’s incredibly difficult to identify emotional associations that each student has because teachers do not know their home life, what is/isn’t discussed and might not have the additional training/resources to support a student’s processing. If we leave sex education solely up to the school, we take away the opportunity to dig deeper such as body image/shame, exploring different avenues for pleasure, how to identify sexual problematic behavior, compulsions, etc. For those who are parents, think about how you are talking to your teens about sex practices and how your sexual development and opinions are being passed down to your children either consciously or subconsciously.
- Masculinity vs Femininity: There are many layers to what we consider to be “taboo” in a sexual dynamic. For women trying to explore their femininity, there seems to be a fine line between sexual empowerment versus what is sexually “demeaning” or “inappropriate”. For men, there is a masculinity culture that they are brought up into, and it could influence what they find acceptable in terms of sexual expression or exploration. For example, anal play could be a “taboo” topic (where the male is the receiver) because there could be assumptions or implications associated to being in that position of vulnerability. With femininity or masculinity culture, an individual is more at risk of experiencing shame or doubt when partaking in something not readily normalized or accepted. Think about your own biases and assumptions that you make about yourself and/or your partner. Reflect on where your biases stem from and how it compares to your larger idea of what you consider sexually normal versus what is considered problematic.
This blog post only scratches the surface on general influential themes. Be cognizant of what has influenced the way you express and explore your sexuality. It requires vulnerability to discuss sexual history, our views, and its impacts on multiple levels. Keep perspective of the big picture, and don’t lose the forest for the trees. To those reading, I encourage you to identify different parts of your sexual sense of self and determine what needs reassurance, celebration, reframing, or more room for curiosity and discovery.
Diana Nesko, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy virtually to those located in Maryland and Washington, DC. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Diana!