Why Sex can be so Complicated
So we have already discussed how family usually does not set us up for success when it comes to taking care of and cultivating a healthy relationship with our sexual selves. But it is not the only player here.
Religion can often play a role in stigmatizing views of sex.
That is NOT to say that being a religious or spiritual being cannot beautifully exist alongside being a healthy, sexual being.
It has for some of my clients, but usually after a good deal of work around unpacking and rearranging the messages they have received. Younger generations are changing this, but that kind of change takes time and active effort.
In my many years of working with sex and sexuality issues as a therapist as well as teaching Human Sexuality courses, clients and students have recounted many, many stories of being shamed by their church, rabbis, or spiritual leaders.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t have values and standards around our sexuality. Each person should develop their sexual boundaries.
It’s just that often many people don’t grow up learning how to dynamically engage with their religious beliefs and instead these rigid “rules” get passed down without much explanation, discussion, or relational connection. Religious and spiritual beliefs are meant to be explored, wrestled with, and discussed with others. The values behind them are meant to be absorbed, metabolized, and applied in the way that feels right.
There are many, many, many ways to be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. And one can be a healthy, happy, SEXUAL Christian, Muslim, or Jewish person.
I work with a lot of LGBT individuals and couples. I would like to note that familial and religious influences are even more complicated for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals. They get both sex-negative as well as queer-negative messages from their families, places of worship, and society at large. The shame and taboo is exponentially increased. This could be a longer conversation about the ways in which a basic sense of worth, acceptance, and belonging can be a struggle for these individuals but I won’t digress from the sex conversation too much.
Interestingly enough, because queer culture has had to survive outside mainstream culture, I sometimes find that if these individuals have found a way to feel good about themselves and create a community, they are less hung up about sex.
They have often practiced talking about sex with more sophistication, directness, and honesty than heterosexual individuals who have been both protected and influenced by mainstream messages around sex. There are some benefits to living outside the norms and being able to navigate sex with more freedom, creativity, and honesty can be one of them.
But let’s talk about what happens to sex when it is seen as taboo?
Well, whatever is relegated to the shadows and assigned notoriety becomes more powerful (hello forbidden crushes). Combined with the fact that sex feels physically good (hello endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin!), sex can then become dangerous and even, destructive.
Additionally, when something is in the shadows, we don't get good, accurate information about it. This is why kids whose parents do not talk to them about sex learn about sex from their peers. Having worked with teens, many of them are learning complete untruths like "you can get pregnant from giving a blow job" and dangerous medical advice like "sex is supposed to hurt" and "drinking vodka will give you an abortion."
Another place kids are learning about sex? PORN!!! Younger and younger kids are being exposed to pornographic images and videos. This is incredibly problematic for many reasons:
Their brains are not fully developed and these powerful images and videos can impact them in many important ways, psychologically and neurobiologically.
Porn is the opposite of sex within relationships. The people and images are objects, not subjects with whom we are connected.
Porn is a for-profit industry which means that they use actors and scenarios aimed at selling. It is not an accurate depiction of sex in real life. In real life, sex can happen for all bodies, all shapes, all races, and in many ways.
Children are curious about the world - which means they will be curious about sex. If they don't get the information they are hungry for from their families (which many don't), they turn to friends. At best, what they learn is comical. At worst, it is dangerous.
And when they turn to porn, they see sex through such a specific lens and one that really doesn't equip them with the tools they need to navigate talking about sex and having sex within relationships.
Sex within relationships has a difficult history as well.
This leads me to the fact that many people have experienced sexual abuse. According to the Rape, Abuse & Invest National Network (RAINN) the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, every 68 seconds, an American adult is sexually assaulted and every 9 minutes, a child is victimized.
Children have not developed their sexual selves and erotic love maps yet. Abuse that happens in childhood greatly affects this developmental process and gets embedded into the framework.
Given these statistics, many people come to sex with a complicated history of bodily pleasure being combined with pain, confusion, betrayal, secrecy, abandonment, objectification, and fear.
It takes clients years of therapy and good education to disentangle this complex web and to reclaim their bodies and their sexual identities as sources of safety, goodness, and connection rather than danger and disconnect.
Even if an individual has not been personally abused, it is likely that they have been in a relationship with someone who has. Many couples are already lost as to how to navigate the choppy waters of talking about and having fulfilling sex and then when histories of abuse get added to the mix, it can leave people feeling lost, overwhelmed, and discouraged.
Family, religion and trauma can greatly influence how we think about, respond to, and feel about sex. In the next blog, we will begin talking about ways to redefine your relationship with sex, and thus, be able to cultivate a healthier sexual identity. Until then, think about the ways in which these influencers have impacted how you relate to sec.