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How Do I Let Go of Feeling Sexually Unattractive?

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Porphyria asks:

I had sex for the first time shortly after turning 20 (about a year ago), but I wish I had done it sooner. I know I had been ready and willing at age 16 or so -- the problem was just that no one was interested in me that way, but in the other girls around me. It still hurts, in a bizarre and surprising way. I feel like being a virgin for so long was not my choice; I feel like the decision was made for me by other people who decided I wasn't attractive enough to be with. To this day I still wonder if I'm intensely sexually unattractive, and if the occurrence at age 20 was just a fluke that will not repeat itself. How can I let go of this? How can I cope with late loss of virginity and stop seeing it as a personal failure to pass muster in terms of attractiveness?

Heather Corinna replies:

I think this is a really great question, and I admire how honestly you've asked something that leaves people feeling so vulnerable. It's something we've had others bring up or ask about over the years, so it's definitely relevant to more people than just yourself. And that includes people who did have sexual opportunities earlier, whether they engaged in sex with those opportunities or not.

Have you ever heard anyone say, "Why is Joe (or Julie, or Jim) with Julie (or Jim or Joe)?!?" And heard them say that when they were only looking at that person, evaluating that person as someone that, at a glance, they clearly don't themselves find attractive?

When I hear people talking that way, the one thing it says to me, loudest and clearest? Is that people sometimes seem to have the idea that what they find or think is attractive, in others or in themselves, is somehow universal. That what they find or think is attractive must be what everyone else, or at least someone else, does. Clearly, when it comes to this, as with many other things, many people have a hard time seeing it through anything besides their own lens.

From where I'm sitting, as someone who works in human sexuality full-time, I find that problematic. And I say that even though a few times I have caught myself doing something similar, like with a lover who I thought was the hottest tamale in the pot, but who expressed to me that others haven't seemed to think so. "How on earth could anyone NOT?" I've thought. Same coin, different side. Just because I thought they were super-super sexypants doesn't mean everyone, or even anyone, else somehow must.

One thing we know about people and sexual attraction is that it is HIGHLY diverse. As diverse as people are on the whole, really.

We also know it's often incredibly arbitrary and in some ways, even random. We know, those of us who work in this field, that it's based on so many possible things, it can make your head spin. Looks, which is what people usually mean when they say "attractive," is often one of those things, but only one of so very many.

For instance, the way we're attracted to others sexually, and they us, can be, and often is, based in most or all of our senses: how someone sounds, smells, looks, feels when we touch them or they us, even how they taste. It can be, and often is, based in things like our early childhood experiences (sexual, sensual and neither), everything from our very best friend to our Aunt Myrtle's skirt length, to whether we felt most comforted or stimulated by things that felt coarse or fuzzy, or things that felt smooth. It can be, and often is, based in cultural cues and ideals, even though those are diverse and tend to shift and change over time. It also can be, and often is, based in who we think -- consciously or not -- will be someone who will be responsive to our individual sexuality, or who we'd like to make babies with (if that's a thing we want to do, again, consciously or unconsciously). It's sometimes based in how interested someone else seems, and other times, people actually feel more desire when someone isn't even available or doesn't seem interested at all (sometimes when someone seems too hungry or in need when it comes to this, it can scare people or turn them off). It's based in part on brain and body chemicals and how we respond to them. It's often based in part on how we like people as whole people, in ways that aren't only sexual or romantic, and sometimes even flies in the face of that entirely: we or others can find ourselves feeling attracted sometimes to people we don't like in other ways at all, and may even strongly dislike in some ways. And it also can be, and probably is, based on things we don't even know about yet.

In a lot of ways, the question "Why is attracted to them?" is like asking, "Why on earth would they like tangerines?" Everyone's going to have a different answer, and often, someone won't even be able to say why they feel the way they do, either about a person they're turned on by, nor about tangerines and why they like them, hate them, or feel apathetic about them.

All it truly proves to us when someone, or more than one someone, finds a given person sexually attractive is that that person is found to be sexually attractive by that someone or someones at that given time, and in that specific situation (especially since we can be attracted to someone one month, and have those feelings go poof the next).

It doesn't tell us anything at all about that person's worth. It doesn't prove or disprove anything about that person, including if that person has any kind of general appeal or not. And on the flip side, someone who did have sexual invitations extended to them at, say, 14, rather than 20, but didn't have invitations of friendship extended to them until later? That wouldn't tell us that person is worthy, or attractive, as a lover, but not worthy or attractive as a friend.

There are also variables we can't account for or even know about with something like this. For example, just because no one offered sex to you in a way you recognized, or acknowledged that you were sexually appealing to them, doesn't mean no one had those feelings. It more likely just means no one voiced that interest to you directly, or demonstrated their interest to you in a way you recognized as interest. Lots of people are shy, unavailable, attracted, but don't want to do anything about it, or presume someone they find desirable wouldn't be interested in being sexual with them, so don't say or do anything about those feelings. Sometimes people express sexual interest they feel to someone, but they do it in such a way that person doesn't know or get that's what they're doing. Communication -- and how much that varies -- is just as big a piece of this as how someone feels, since we really can't know if someone is or isn't attracted to us unless they tell us very clearly and directly, or otherwise demonstrate that to us in the ways we recognize as demonstrations.

I think the bigger issue, though, isn't about what anything like this does or doesn't prove, nor about how many or how few people might be attracted to you. Rather, I think the big stuff to think about is how much stock you're putting into how sexually appealing you are to other people: how much you're deciding this means about you as a whole person, and how much it means or says about you as a sexual person. (If you just said "Duh," I understand.)

The big thing I hear you saying in all of this is you saying that what sexual interest others may or may not have had in you, but didn't demonstrate as early as you'd have liked, is what you see as playing the biggest part in you feeling sexually undesirable or unattractive. I hear you putting a lot of stock and weight into other people's reactions to you and opinions about your sexiness. I also hear you presenting someone else, or others, having sexual interest in you as some kind of proof of your value in that department.

It might help to realize that you could have had sexual experiences earlier that not only didn't validate the feelings you're looking to have validated at all, but might have even been negative experiences for you in that regard.

Someone engaging in sex with us, after all, doesn't always -- even though it often does -- mean someone finds us attractive or sexy. Sometimes it can just mean they wanted to have a sexual opportunity or experience with someone, and we were a person who just happened to be available. I don't say that to make you feel more insecure, or suggest that was the case with the experiences you had. Rather, I say it as a reality check about the limitations of what sex with someone else can even tell us in this regard, and to help you embrace what your own life experiences so far have been, including when they happened, rather than going to a coulda-shoulda-woulda place that I just doubt serves you very well.

I think the biggest player in how you let go of all of this is learning to let go of the weight you're giving others expressing sexual interest in you, particularly in terms of what information you feel that gives you about your own sexuality, and validity as a sexual person. When it all comes down to it, our "sexy," whatever that is for us, and it's very personal and unique, is something I think is primarily just that: ours. Other people can notice or appreciate it, and can, if that's something we want, celebrate and explore it with us, and they can also sometimes validate it. But this a "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?" kind of question where we know the answer: it's yes. Whether or not anyone else recognizes or responds to our sexuality or our sexiness, it's there all the same.

We're all sexual people in some regard, just by virtue of being human beings -- however diverse our sexuality, and however diversely we experience what sexuality, and our sexuality, is to and for us -- even when there are no other people around at all. We could, feasibly, still feel "sexy," and would still be sexual, even if the planet was suddenly populated with no one but us. (Though in that instance, we'd probably mostly feel seriously freaked out, and how sexy we are would be the last thing on our minds.)

Of course, we always also want to make sure, for ourselves and others, that our only motivation, and our primary motivation, to being with someone else sexually isn't to have our sexual appeal validated. That's a recipe for some pretty one-sided (and empty, IMO) sexual relationships or interactions, not to mention we'd be missing out on the richer, more interesting things choosing to explore our sexuality with someone else can offer each of us. Even enjoying having someone feel sexually attracted to us offers us way more than being validated in this way. Experiencing and exploring those feelings and that chemistry together can be a pretty cool adventure, one that certainly doesn't end with ticking an "Okay, I am now proved attractive" box on a checklist with only that one box on it. As well, feeling attracted to each other is something where we kind of can't make it just about us or just about the other person: it's something that's happening together, not just about both of us, but in a way where it really can't be just about us and our own appeal.

I do think this is one of those things time, all by itself, will partly take care of for you. Time and getting annoyed with the emotional real estate this is taking up for you, and how the way you're thinking and feeling about this isn't something that makes you feel good, energized or empowered. Sometimes dumping negative frameworks or feelings is something we get to when we are just utterly sick of the crummy headspace we've been in and break through because we just do NOT want to keep feeling and thinking that way.

I know that's cold comfort if you're feeling really stung by it right now, but truly, people's sexual confidence as well as their own self-esteem does tend to increase with time. Including with time to kind of sit in these crummy ideas you have and get really sick of them or bored with them, which I suspect will happen because staying stuck in thinking we're unattractive and others must prove otherwise to us truly is awfully tiresome.

Lastly, I'd remind you that this is, at least in part, likely also a feminist issue. While people of all genders can feel this way and want their sex appeal validated (and it's okay to want that, by the way, it's human), the truth of the matter is that women, specifically, for a very long time have gotten clear messages from most of our cultures and cultural frameworks, even many of the gender frameworks presented to women, that our sexual appeal to others, especially when those others are men, is THE BIGGEST IMPORTANT THING OF EVER. We are told, or get overt or covert messages, that our worth as people, and our worth as women, has quite a lot to do with our sexual value. We can get the message that even if we are seen as valuable in no other way but that one, we must be okay and of worth, and even if we are seen as valuable, or acknowledged, in every other way but that one, we're deficient: as people, as women.

In fact, if we go back to that business of the question of trees falling in forests and ask a similar question about women's sexuality, period, "If a man doesn't engage a woman sexually, does she have a sexuality?" Based on (really sexist and utterly whack) cultural messages through history that have only been changing recently, the answer would be no.

In other words, even the mere existence of women's sexuality has historically long been -- and in some places still is -- presented as something which is only real, and which only exists or emerges either through male recognition of it, or by men engaging in sex with a woman. As if a woman's sexuality is some kind of gift only men or others have the magic to give her. Yipes. (And this often doesn't serve men well, either. "Have penis = have sexuality and want sex," creates some very big problems and unhealthy sexual frameworks for men and boys, too.)

Now, maybe you know better than that -- I sure hope so! -- and know that was never correct even when it seemed like the only framework in town, and certainly isn't sound now, but even when we know better, it's still really hard to grow up and come into our sexuality without having internalized that to at least some degree, if not a pretty big one. And that's not about anyone being stupid or a "bad" feminist: that's just about the weight all of that history and those messages can have. I think it's safe to say no one is magically immune from them, especially since even though they have been changing, that change has come slow and those messages are still mighty pervasive and loud.

Again, time and getting annoyed with all of that stuff will probably go a long way all by themselves. But it might also help to spend some time and energy exploring your sexuality and your sense of self as a sexual person in ways that aren't so other-focused and directed.

What do YOU do that makes you feel sexy and sexual, even when no one else is around, watching, or may potentially interact with you? What makes you feel lusty and juicy and vital in this regard? What are situations or activities you've been in where you have found sexual feelings, and the feeling of being sexy, get revved up? If you already know about some of those things, I'd suggest spending more time exploring and focusing on them: making time and space for more of those situations or activities. If you don't know, or feel like you haven't ever even been in that situation yet, then I'd say it's time to start finding out.

How do you do that? For one, you just pay some extra attention to your sexuality and sexual feelings; or your sensuality, which both has a lot to do with our sexuality, and can also act as a sort of bridge to sexuality. Try doing some things that engage your senses and your body, things that please you in those ways and feel really good. That can be about a million things, and won't be the same for everyone. Maybe for you it's digging outside in the dirt, or swimming in a pool, taking your time making and eating a favorite meal, dancing, taking a long bath, losing yourself in a sport, drumming, laughing really hard: who knows, the world is your oyster with this.

So, in a nutshell, I say:
• Know your sexuality and sexiness are yours, most of all, and exist whether or not someone else recognizes, appreciates or engages with them. If your sexuality fell in the forest and no one heard it, it would, in fact, still make a sound.
• Keep your desire to let go of these negative feelings up front: you know this isn't working for you and doesn't leave you feeling good. Aim to change it.
• Remember that someone engaging in sex with us doesn't prove anything by default besides that someone engaged in sex with us. Remember that sexual attraction is both very diverse and very holistic, not just about looks or any one thing, and there really is no such thing as universal sexual appeal, even though some people, at some times, certainly may have more people expressing, in various ways, that they are found sexually appealing than others.
• Spend more time and energy exploring your own sexuality by and for yourself.
• Consider all the things you and someone else feeling sexually attracted to one another offers not just you, but both of you; keep in mind that when this happens, it really is something people are experiencing together, not just something coming from one person and going to the next.
• Remember that your sexual "worth," not only isn't something other people get to decide, it's by no means your whole worth, nor even something that is all that important. It's not the only way to be seen or valued, not by a serious long shot.
• When you had a sexual opportunity -- or had one you recognized as such, since you may have had them without recognizing them, for all you know -- and you took it and engaged in sex isn't about personal triumph or failure, in any regard. It's just about the unique, and potentially random, circumstances of your life so far.
• When patriarchy calls your head about this, hang up. Aim to put the kinds of messages about this stuff that clearly come from old, broken ways of thinking and internalized sexism on your internal Do Not Call registry.

I'm going to leave you with a few links that might help you out some more, including one to my friend Therese Schecter's blog, for her fantastic film, How to Lose Your Virginity. There are many first-person stories there from people of all ages -- most your age and older -- about sexual debuts, as well as from people who, older than you, still haven't engaged in sex and have a wide range of feelings and experiences about that. It's really interesting in general, but I also think you might find some particular comfort there.

Here are some other things you can look at, too. I'm including a piece on checking up a relationship to see if it's healthy for you to look at per your relationship with yourself: often if we find ourselves seeking and needing a lot of validation from others it's because our relationship with ourselves, in whole or in part, isn't so great. The self-care piece is in here for a similar reason: you might need to invest more energy in self-care and less in negative approaches to yourself, and the same goes for the Love Letter piece.

Hang in there, Porphyria, and good luck with changing the channel on this for yourself over time. Given how honestly and clearly you're thinking about this, I've no doubt you can, and probably sooner rather than later.

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