“How do I begin to feel comfortable with myself as a sexual being? It’s scary!”
Whenever someone asks me if it’s strange that they don’t feel comfortable talking about (or even thinking about) sex, I tell them the truth.
No, it’s not strange.
Here in the United States, like in much of the world, we have some pretty pervasive ideas about sex, sexuality, and morality. They go something like this:
- Women who enjoy sex are dirty and less valuable.
- Parents who talk to their kids about sex (other than to teach them abstinence) are bad parents.
- You don’t need to learn about sex in school, because when you do it with someone you love, you’ll just know what you need to.
- People who develop sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are unclean.
- You should look sexually appealing, but act sexually inexperienced (and then be a sexual expert).
And these are just some of the beliefs that shape our society — the ones that are most frequently said outright. There are plenty of others that most people wouldn’t blatantly say, even though they believe them. Both sets of beliefs (the latent and the blatant) shape how we think about sex.
In a world where people are afraid to talk about sex, it’s not strange at all to feel uncomfortable with yourself as a sexual being. When you’re raised in an environment that believes that even talking about sex is wrong, you grow up believing that to be sexual is to be deviant at best and a doomed sinner at worst.
While you may not actively believe that you’re going to go to hell for wanting to have and enjoy sex, you still are someone who was raised in an environment where people implied it. Just like kids who don’t get sex education grow into adults who have never had it, kids who are shamed about sex grow into adults who feel shame for being sexual.
Unlearning sexual shame takes time. There is no magical product that you can buy, therapist you can visit, or class you can take that will help you instantly unlearn a lifetime of socialization. But, there are things you can do to help start the process.
1. Read articles about sex
I’m not going to tell you to go from zero to “build up your sex toy library.” While that’s an admirable goal, there are smaller things you can try first.
For people who feel shame and embarrassment even just thinking about sex, I recommend engaging with more media that thinks about sex in a curious way, rather than a judgmental or prescriptive way. You’re already reading this article, so that’s a start! There are so many online resources dedicated to sexuality, including Scarleteen, The CSPH, and O.School, not to mention all of the websites that dedicate a portion of their content to sex and sexuality.
Shame thrives in secrecy. So, let your curiosity wander and play. Ask the questions that have been on your mind. I promise that you’re not the first person to have wondered something.
2. Look at your body
Have you ever really looked at your body? For many people who experience deep sexual shame, the answer is “no.” You may have checked your teeth in a mirror or made sure an outfit looks okay, but you’ve never examined yourself. Dedicate some time to really explore your body, both clothed and unclothed.
If you have a full-length mirror, great. Set up a private space for yourself, strip down, and just look at yourself. You don’t need to look to judge — just look to observe. What surprises you about your body? What did you not realize was there? What parts do you feel particularly fascinated by?
During your body exploration time, don’t ignore your genitals. Sit down on a blanket on the floor, spread your legs, and take the time to really look at yourself. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s okay! Discomfort generally eases with time, and this exercise is all about getting comfortable with your body.
Studies have shown that people who masturbate have higher levels of sexual satisfaction and self-confidence. I once was speaking to a group of students, and in the conversation, one person shared that they had never masturbated before. This person had been pregnant and was a parent, and they were in a committed relationship. But when their friend asked them why they’d never masturbated, they said “that’s gross! Why would I want to touch that?”
This student isn’t the first person I’ve encountered who has voiced this sentiment, and I know they won’t be the last. Many people — especially people with vulvas — are raised to believe that their genitals are weird, gross, and unclean. There are massive industries dedicated to making you believe that your genitals need to smell and look better.
But your genitals are part of your body, and when you tell yourself that one part of you is disgusting, what you’re saying is “I’m disgusting.” So, once you’ve finished checking yourself out in the mirror, spend some time touching yourself.
You don’t need to hop right into trying to orgasm. Instead, focus on simply touching your body and seeing what it feels like. What types of reactions are you having mentally? What types of physical reactions are you having? What feels good? What feels uncomfortable?
There’s no one way to masturbate, so just let your mind guide you. You may want to use a toy, your shower head, or just your hands. It’s up to you! When you’re ready to stop, stop. You don’t need to focus on any goal other than getting to know your body better.
4. Talk to your friends about sex
You don’t need to embody a character from Sex and the City, but having conversations about sex and asking your friends questions can be relieving. They may have had some of the same questions you do and they may experience some of the same struggles you do.
Turn to someone who you already trust and before you start the conversation, ask them if it’s okay if you talk about sex for a bit. Consent is essential, even in conversation! As you know, not everyone is comfortable talking about sex, or some people may just not be in a space where they can at that moment. Just remember that your friend may be experiencing sexual shame just as you are, so while you should consider your conversation as a way to connect, you don’t need to take their perspective as the utmost truth for you.
5. Attend a workshop
If you’re a college student, this one will probably be pretty easy. Many colleges and universities bring speakers and sex educators to campus to talk about sex. Those workshops are free and usually, they’re pretty fun.
If you’re not a college student, you still have options. Sex toy shops often offer classes (find your local store and check their website), you may have a non-profit near you that offers workshops or guided conversations, and if neither of those options work, many educators offer online workshops that you can attend from the comfort of your own home.
Workshops give you the opportunity to ask anonymous questions, learn in a non-judgmental environment, and be a in a group of people who also want to learn more about sex.
6. Talk to your partners about sex
Some of the questions I get most frequently are about talking to your partner about sex, desire, boundaries, and more. The fact that I get this question so often completely invalidates one of the beliefs we talked about earlier, that “you don’t need to learn about sex in school, because when you do it with someone you love, you’ll just know what you need to” one.
Many people feel uncomfortable talking to their partners about sex because they feel that their partner should just know what they like and don’t like. But your partner isn’t psychic, and neither are you. Open up the conversation about your sex lives, but first, take it out of the bedroom. Talking about sex can be difficult in the moment, especially if you don’t talk about it often. So, go to your favorite place and just ask each other open-ended questions. You might be surprised what you’ll learn!
7. Find a trusted therapist or coach
For some people, sexual shame is an issue worthy of ongoing therapy or coaching. You can find therapists who are highly trained in talking about sexual issues through AASECT’s network, but if that doesn’t yield any local results, you have other options. Online resources like Maven and Open Path Collective can connect you with therapists via video call appointments, and generally they’re more affordable (at least for cash-paying patients).
Sexual shame doesn’t just affect you in the bedroom. It seeps into other areas of your life, quietly telling you that you’re bad, unworthy, or dirty. It’s worth partnering up with a therapist or coach to work through those things, because you aren’t bad, you’re not unworthy, and no one is dirty unless they’ve played in mud recently.
You deserve to live a life filled with pleasure, and unlearning sexual shame is one big way to make that happen.
Have a question you want to slide into my DMs? You can submit it anonymously here. I work to answer all questions within 6 weeks, and I appreciate your patience in the meantime!
(And as a side note, I’ll be leading an online workshop at the start of 2020 that is centered around sexual self-confidence. It’s happening on Sunday, January 5. Buy a ticket and join us!)