Heather Corinna replies:
I am a 23 year old female in a serious relationship for the first time. I knew my boyfriend for 3 months and have seeing him seriously for 4 months now. The two of us are clear on no sex before marriage, but are physically intimate. I love to kiss him and cuddle up with him. But, when it comes to touching each other sexually, it feels good at that moment, but later thinking about it all alone makes me feel so guilty and ashamed of letting go of myself that I start crying uncontrollably. Initially I assumed that this must be because I have never been physically intimate with anyone before, but even after 4 months this guilt has not subsided. I am not religious or anything, but I have always wanted to be intimate only after being sure of the guy. I do love my boyfriend and he's sensitive and everything. I haven't spoken to him about this since I don't want him to feel he violated me in any way. Is there a way for me to get over this?
What it sounds like, to me, is that whatever it is you've been doing sexually just isn't something you feel okay with yet or good about right now. I get that it feels good at the time, but when I talk about sex feeling good, any kind of sexual activities at all, what I mean is sex feeling good before, during and afterwards; feeling good physically, intellectually and also emotionally.
It may be best to press pause on the sexual activities that are making you feel this way for now. In a word, if it doesn't feel good -- in every way -- don't do it. You don't have to right now, or any time in your life it isn't right for you and doesn't leave you feeling good. If you're feeling like you do have to because you're in your twenties, please know you don't. I understand that when you're a later bloomer in this regard it can feel like you have to keep the same kind of time as people who started their sexual partnerships earlier, but you don't. The good stuff keeps, and my personal feeling is that even if it involves holding out, you want to wait for the good stuff. What's the value in doing anything that just doesn't feel right?
I'd advise you do take a little break right now from sexual activities so that you can have some time to yourself, without being upset about a recent sexual encounter, and invest your energy in working out and through how you're feeling. That time and space, without any internal or external pressure to have any kind of sex, or the emotional hangover you've been carrying around, should help you better figure out what it is that you want and need in order to feel good about your sex life, whatever it winds up looking like.
Why might you be feeling the way you are? Maybe you're not as "sure about the guy" as you need to be yet: you say being sure about your partner is important to you, as it is to many people. For some people, being involved romantically for a few months isn't enough time to feel that kind of sexual sureness. Maybe you're still really at kissing and cuddling and need some more time to get to more sexual activities, or need an extra level of commitment (or honesty!) in your relationship that'd make you feel more safe in all of this. I also want to invite you to take a look at the dynamics of the kinds of sex you're having, and make sure it really all IS feeling good at the time. Sometimes sex can feel good physically, but not so much emotionally or intellectually. Maybe you need to make sure that whatever you are doing, or ways you or your partner are behaving during sex, do feel authentic to you and right for you. Sometimes, especially when people are new to sex, they can feel like they're performing -- such as by mimicking sex as they see it in media -- rather than truly expressing themselves, and that can certainly feel ooky. Maybe your own sexual responses are freaking you out and you need to spend more time masturbating, rather than with partnered sex, so you can become more comfortable with them alone first.
Maybe you're feeling like this, for example, because you need some extra aftercare with any sexual activities you two do, including having these kinds of emotional reactions in the presence of that partner so he can support you through them and give you comfort. It's also a good idea to have more than one person to talk to honestly about your sexuality and sexual life, so maybe you also could stand to talk to a friend.
It's so important to communicate openly and honestly with sexual partners. That's the way to get to really good sex, to all the kinds of good sex can be. We can't control anyone's responses to our real feelings, but that's okay. We don't need to: each of us are responsible for managing our own feelings and responses, not those of others, nor should we expect others to do that for us. I think you can find a way to fill him in on how you're feeling with sensitivity and kindness so that he can hear this without feeling that he "violated" you. He's not responsible for you feeling one way or the other about your sexuality or the kinds of sex you two are having. No matter how great and sensitive any of us may be, that doesn't always mean we should expect that sex will feel right to a partner we're with: that's something else we can't control, we can only be responsive to the information, verbal and otherwise, a partner gives us about sex and what they wants and need. Your boyfriend's general awesomeness and sensitivity doesn't guarantee a positive sexual result for you both, because a partner being a wonderful person just isn't all there is to sex being good or right for someone else.
What he is responsible for, just like you are with him, is obtaining your consent for anything you two do based on what you tell him and show him. If you're not being truthful, or are hiding your feelings, that really is on you, not on him. And I think someone is more likely to feel they violated someone sexually who hides the range of their feelings than they are with someone openly shares them. If you're not sharing these feelings with him, you're also putting something of a cap on the level of intimacy you two are even having sexually. A lot of what makes sex intimate isn't about people touching each others body parts or making those available to partners, but about people getting close emotionally and intellectually and opening up our hearts and minds. If we're only telling partners the good stuff, the sexy stuff, or what we think they want to hear about our sexuality or sex with them, we're cheating ourselves and those partners, especially if we do want sex to be about getting close. On top of all that? When you are grappling with such tough feelings, not sharing them with anyone, especially the people closest to you, tends to make them a whole lot tougher. Being open about them, getting them off your chest, filling him in and also then having him know this for the future, is likely to take a big weight off your shoulders. And I'd say it's entirely possible that you could find that keeping these feelings secret and not sharing them with him is the sole missing piece in all of this.
I want to add that intercourse is not the only kind of sex there is. I say this a lot, but I'll say it again. Oral sex is sex. Manual sex is sex. People rubbing their clothed bodies on someone else's clothed body and getting off on it is sex. The things any of us do alone or with partners to seek out, explore, or achieve sexual pleasure and to enact our sexuality with others are all sex. So, if your values are such that you feel sex isn't okay before marriage, it may well be that you feel some of what you're doing is sex and you know that doesn't fit your values. You can either choose to adjust what you're doing, then, or to adjust your values. There's no one right answer to which you do, because what our ideals, beliefs and values are, and what our commitment to them is, how important they are each of us, is incredibly personal. You'll have to think about that yourself and draw your own conclusions, then make choices around them in alignment with those conclusions.
Since you express feelings of guilt, chances are good guilt is part of the issue. I don't know you outside of what you have told me here, so I can't say exactly why you might feel guilty, but I can tell you about some of the common reasons why people experience guilt around sex. A lot of people grew up with messages, covert or overt, around or about sex or their sexual bodies infused with shame, religious or otherwise, so they feel guilty having or enjoying sex. Plenty of people grow up with strong messages that there are right ways or wrong ways of having sex, having sex in certain contexts, behaving certain ways during sex, and those messages often trigger feelings of guilt if a person is making choices that conflict with those messages. Perhaps obviously, some people feel guilty around sex sometimes when they are earnestly doing something seriously wrong: having sex without someone's consent or against someone's will, having sex with someone they know they shouldn't be in other ways, doing things which are very unsafe for one or all partners, lying to partners in any way, lying to oneself, or otherwise purposefully doing someone or oneself harm, but I don't think that's probably what's going on here. However, if any part of you feels like any part of what you have been doing or feeling is as wrong as any of those things, then it might be.
I'm a big Audre Lorde fangirl, and you might appreciate something she had to say about guilt, after saying she had no use for it, which was that "if it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge." I'd suggest seeing if you can't think about it that way, and I'd agree with Lorde that's about the only useful thing guilt has to offer anyone at all. In other words, why don't you try transforming those feelings of guilt into a positive spark to explore what's best and what's needed for you based on the information those feelings provide?
There's nothing about sex biochemically that would create feelings of guilt, upset or shame: quite the opposite, actually. Chemically, sexual arousal, mutually-wanted sexual activities and orgasm result in us mentally and physically feeling great. However, because of that chemical boost, it's also normal, after all the happy biochemistry that is going on drops off, to feel overtired and a little low, kind of like how we can feel a few hours after a big workout or an exciting event.
It is also common to feel exposed or very vulnerable with partnered sex, which is what you seem to be expressing when you say you feel ashamed of letting go of yourself. Now, unless you're saying that to express letting go of your values, I interpret that the way people often seem to mean it when they're talking about it in sex. When we're turned on, when we are doing things sexually, when we experience pleasure, when we orgasm we do let ourselves go in some respects: that's part of what makes intimacy intimate, after all, and that's part of what makes sex pleasurable and exciting. We stop thinking about what we look like, what a partner might think of us, how we're supposed to behave in other settings. We go with the flow of our feelings and impulses, even if they look or feel a little strange or silly to us. We trust the other person we're with to be accepting of our sexual self. This isn't a way we probably behave with just anyone, or in any setting, and it's part of what makes sex special. But feeling that vulnerable and that seen -- in addition to potentially seeing or experiencing yourself in a different way than is familiar to you -- can really stir things up for people. There is nothing wrong with feeling stirred, sad, confused or upset around any kind of sex you have. The idea that everyone flops over after every incident of any kind of sex smiling and laughing, casually lighting a smoke and then heading out on their merry way, all la-di-da is hooey: sex can, and often does, create a whole range of feelings for people. Sometimes, sex with a partner will leave one or both of us shaken, or stir up feelings of sadness, worry or insecurity. Sometimes some part of sex or how we respond to it might even scare the living daylights out of us. The trick is to learn to share those responses, rather than to bottle or internalize them.
I do think we should also consider that it's possible, especially if things once everything else I have addressed here is already taken care of, or doesn't feel like it applies to you, that your intense emotions around this are because this is new, and because, by all means, partnered sex and intimacy can be intense and scary as hell in many ways, even when we remove the usual fear-factors we hear and talk about like fears around possible partner violence, pregnancy or sexually transmitted illness. Really opening up to someone else, sexually and otherwise, really starting to explore your own sexuality and sexual responses, especially with another person, are really big deals.
Finally, if you find that despite all of this, and after some time and any adjustments you need to make, these feelings still linger, my suggestion would be to consider seeking out a therapist or counselor to help you work through them. Sometimes, guilt or shame around sex can be so strong and pervasive, no matter what a person tries to do, that the bast tactic is to find an intensive, one-on-one helper and guide to help you get to where it's coming from and work through it.
Here are a few links I hope will give you a little more good food for thought to take on the road with you: