Raised to think sex was dirty and it's left me feeling inhuman and insecure

As a catholic, I was raised believing sex was dirty. My family never spoke about sex and so I am completely naive to everything. And despite the sex-ed classes I had in school, everything is still so abstract to me. I never even really had the desire to have sex or to explore my sexuality. It was all just taboo in my mind. I am now 24 and a virgin and have been with my boyfriend for a while now. And as our relationship progresses, we want to become more intimate. We have tried to have sex a few times but it hasn't worked. I know it is my fault because he is not a virgin. I have wanted to do it with him but I get scared and he doesn't force it. Because of my negative sexual upbringing, I feel very uncomfortable talking about sex so I have avoided discussing it with him. My friends tell me sex is perfectly natural, but in the back of my mind, I still think that I am committing a sin by having sex or by doing anything sexual. Is there any way to alleviate these feelings of inadequacy and fear? Most people, despite their up-bringing, do find it normal to have sex at one time or another. They learn about sexuality. And I am still completely naive to everything. I feel like unhuman or something.
Heather Corinna replies:

You're not inhuman. Please know that.

While, sure, some of sexuality is innate, far more of it is learned. So, anyone who is inexperienced and/or without information on sex and sexuality is going to feel uncomfortable, naive and unprepared. Plus, a lot of school-based sex education can be helpful when it comes to things like reproduction, but often not so helpful when it comes to having sex, the whole spectrum of sexuality and sexual response, and interpersonal skills with sex.

These are things we learn with extra information, but also just through life experience, over time. That's not just the case for you: that's the case for all of us.

It sounds like you've got a really supportive partner, and that's fantastic. If by having sex, you mean intercourse, do make sure that you're both taking things slowly. In other words, before getting to that, have you taken a good deal of time exploring your bodies together in other ways, with other sexual activities like mutual masturbation, massage, petting, manual sex or oral sex? If not, it's usually a good idea to spend plenty of time in those areas before heading to intercourse. When you spend a lot of time with those things first, you get to learn things about each of your areas of sensitivity, what it looks and feels like when you're aroused, what is likely to bring you to orgasm, what kinds of sensations you like best, the works. You also get to spend time learning to sexually communicate together so that if and when you do have intercourse, you're better able to communicate what is or isn't working, and have a better idea about WHY things might not be working out.

And that it hasn't been isn't about it being someone's fault: both partners need to be talking, both need to be attentive to the other's body and sexual responses. This is about both of you, not about you being deficient in some way.

I know you say it's hard for you to discuss these things with him, but it's really important that you be able to. It's fine to work up to that over time: in fact, you might want to slow down with the sex, period, until you develop a little more trust, until you get a bit more comfortable talking about these issues. Do also be sure to have conversations about sex outside the bedroom: it's often a lot more comfortable to talk about at first when you're in a less vulnerable position.

Additionally, have you yet started your annual sexual healthcare and exams: from a private gynecologist or a sexual health clinic? If you haven't, it's past time to do that, and when you do that, you can also ask about this, and have them be sure there isn't also any sort of physical issue that's presenting a difficulty, like a resilient hymen or vaginismus.

I'd also advise that you step back until any kind of sex does NOT make you feel terrible emotionally or intellectually. If you feel you're committing a sin, and this is very strong, you're not likely to be able to get fully aroused -- which is, by the way, pretty essential to satisfying intercourse for both partners that 'works" -- enjoy the sex you're having, or feel good about it afterwards. Those are good reasons to work out the conflicts you're feeling BEFORE entering into a sexual relationship. I'd actually encourage you to seek out a good counselor for this issue if you're open to it: long-time sexual shame and shaming tends to be pretty traumatic for a lot of people, and often takes a good deal of work and processing to overcome. There are lots of good counselors out there who could help you work through this -- and help you feel better about talking about this and sex, full-stop -- and even some who specialize in recovering from sexual shame, specifically.

I'm going to leave you with a pretty big stock pile of links. I think that they'll help you out a lot, and I'd encourage you to read them, and then have a talk with your partner, maybe sharing some of the articles with him. What I'd suggest is being as open as you can that your feelings of shame are pervasive, that it's likely best you two take things a lot slower, and that you work together to get better at communicating about all of this.

I also hope you can come to this understanding, again, that you are not inhuman, nor are you abnormal. An awful lot of people are reared with some pretty unhealthy perspectives about sex: a lot of people are reared with sexual shame, even people who are sexually active -- for plenty of those people, they may be 'able" to have sex, but it often still isn't so great for them. Know that whatever your pace needs to be to be right for you, that's okay, and that individual pace IS the right one, okay? And be patient with yourself, please: just like anyone else getting over something, or new to something, you get to learn over time, gradually, and in steps.

Here are those links:

I'd also suggest you get a copy of the sexuality guide I've written for young adults. It's a great primer, it has a lot to say about learning to communicate, dealing with shame, as well as all the information you need on anatomy, sexual response, sexual activities, and the basics you likely didn't get in school or at home.

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