I've recently realized that I have some deep seated negative thoughts about sex. I feel that it's dirty, wrong and I'm bad if I have sex or use sex toys. I've always had some pain when I've had sex but I thought it was because I was nervous that it would hurt, so I would clench and it would cause pain. But I just got my first vibrator and I couldn't use it because I was clenching so hard that it hurt to use it. I realized that it's not that I'm scared of the pain, it’s that deep down I have the belief that if you have sex, or use sex toys, that you're a bad person and that it's not normal. I know that this is untrue, but it’s impacting my sex life enormously. How do I overcome my irrational fears?
Recognizing that you have negative beliefs about sex and sexuality is a huge step in clarifying what you think to be true and the value system you want to follow. That is a major task of growing up, and not just related to sexuality. As we move through youth, adolescence, and young adulthood we are constantly clarifying our values, being challenged, and forming our own thoughts and opinions about so many things in the world.
Human beings are incredibly relational creatures. What I mean by that is relationships of all sorts (family, friends, partners, etc.) are important to us and that most of us view ourselves at least partially in the context of how we relate to others. That’s part of the reason why there is such a huge media and advertising industry; humans tend to care what other humans think, and tend to receive a lot of information from social connections. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it does mean that messages we’ve received growing up—from family, friends, the media, the people surrounding us—can have a huge influence on the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Messages about sexuality are everywhere. I recently read an article about sexuality education in schools and the author, Courtney E. Martin, wisely pointed out, “We ask [youth] to conform to either one of two views -- that their sexual desires are sinful outside of the context of marriage and must be tamed, saved, and resisted, or that they are helpless to resist them, sex being natural and they being hormonal teenagers, so they must be responsible and protect themselves. In either case, sexuality is not a joy, not a means through which human beings actualize their unique desires and relationships, not a potential site of transformation. It is a landmine.” These messages are everywhere, so it’s pretty easy to see how you could have internalized some negative beliefs about sex and sexuality.
OK, so we don’t live in the most sex-positive culture. When I say “sex-positive” I’m not only talking about intercourse or whatever activities you define as “sex”—I’m talking about the ways that our sexuality touches every aspect of our being. SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, proposes a (long) list of the life behaviors of sexually healthy adults (which, of course, we hope that all of you are becoming!). And, yeah, while there are things on that list directly related to sexual behavior—expressing one’s sexuality while respecting the rights of others, making informed choices about family options and relationships, practicing health-promoting behaviors—so many of the behaviors on that list do not explicitly have to do with sex itself. SIECUS believes that sexually health adults develop critical thinking skills, appreciate one’s own body, identify and live by one’s own values, and avoid behaviors that exhibit bigotry or prejudice.
One model I really like that helps put sexuality into the context of the rest of our lives is called the Circles of Sexuality Model. (If you’re a visual learner, you can follow the link to see a diagram of what I’m about to explain.) Basically, the Circles Model proposes that there are 5 interlocking aspects, or circles, to our sexuality, each critical to our development and identities as sexual beings. Those circles are:
Sensuality: Sensuality is your feelings about your own bodies and others’ bodies, which includes…
Sexual Intimacy: Sexual intimacy is your ability to be close to someone(s) and to accept the same in return, which can include…
Sexual Identity: Sexual identity is our understanding of ourselves, our attractions, and our roles and identities, which include…
Reproduction and Sexual Health: Reproduction and sexual health is generally what we think of when we think of sexuality education, including…
Sexualization: Sexualization refers to the ways in which sexuality can be used to manipulate, influence, or control others, including…
Are you still with me? Basically the Circles Model just underscores the idea that sexuality is a really broad subject and it touches every aspect of our lives. How, you may ask, does this even begin to answer your question? Well, I’m getting there.
First of all, I don’t believe that your fears are irrational. As I mentioned above, we all grow up receiving a ton of (often conflicting) messages about our bodies, about sexual behaviors, and about sexual expression. Ways that our families communicate, what sorts of relationships we have, and media can all influence what we come to believe about sex and sexuality. So your fears are coming from somewhere, and maybe you have an idea of how they began but maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’re interested in thinking about where you got some of your early messages about sexuality (and remember: silence about sexuality sends a really loud message!), but, regardless, here you are right now with some pretty challenging beliefs engrained in your head.
I’ve talked a lot about the broadness of sexuality because I think that in order to tackle your fears and negative beliefs about sex itself, perhaps it’s helpful to think about the broader definition of sexuality. Are there any aspects of sexuality (some of which are outlined in the Circles Model) where you feel more comfortable? What sorts of attitudes do you have about your own body? What goals do you have for how you want to relate to others? What do you love about yourself? What makes you the awesome person that you are? What in general—not only sexuality-related—makes you feel good? And what does it feel like to sit with some of those more positive aspects of (broadly defined) sexuality?
You said that you know that having sex or using sex toys are not really bad or abnormal, but it’s worth pointing out that there are different types of “knowing”. It’s easy to intellectually know something is not true, but that doesn’t do a whole lot to battle our emotions or feelings about stuff. It might help, but I think it’s pretty impossible to use logic to make sense of something that is really emotionally felt. Sometimes logic fails, you know?
So try placing sexuality as something bigger—and more important—than sex itself. Perhaps you could try to move your thoughts away from sex itself, but rather into thinking about the other aspects of sexuality that perhaps feel better or safer for you. Not everyone will come out with the same values, and that’s one of the really cool things about exploring; you get to decide what values make sense for you.
As for your pain, I’d definitely recommend not doing it if it hurts. Remember that there is more to one’s sex life than any one behavior, so if something is causing you a lot of pain or distress, there’s no reason to keep doing it! We all have the right to experience pleasure, but there are about a billion (give or take) ways to do that. Be kind to yourself, and be patient. Maybe at this juncture in your life, sex toys aren’t going to be your thing. Maybe using them brings up too many conflicts for you, and that is a personal decision. Either way, I urge you to think critically about what messages you’ve received—and continue to receive—and decide whether you want to accept them or reject them….or jumble them around and make them your own. Your body is yours, and your values are yours. It’s a huge task to figure out and come to love your perfectly flawed existence, but I promise that it’s worth a try.
Here are some other ideas for resources and reading: