This is going to be the first in a series of posts about sex, sexuality, gender, and how it all relates to mental health. Despite the fact that we live in a hypersexualized culture, sex can still be an extremely hard subject to talk about and I believe shedding light on the subject and opening up lines of dialogue can be extremely helpful! And that’s what I hope to do with this series. We’re gonna take a dive into some uncomfortable topics and hopefully learn something along the way.
That being said, if these topics truly are uncomfortable and upsetting for you, please feel free to skip a post or this entire series. I’ll include trigger warnings as I see fit, as well. Take care of yourself and your own mental health above all!
Today I want to talk about sex negativity, what it is, why it is bad, and how we can foster sex positivity instead. Sex negativity is basically negative attitudes about sex and sexuality. Sex negativity is one reason why parents might not talk to their children about sex, why comprehensive sex education isn’t available in many places, and why people get shamed for their sexuality and sexual behaviors (and in turn, may feel internalized shame).
I’ll talk first about my own experiences with sex negativity and how it impacted my mental health. I grew up in a conservative Christian household that played Fox News and Focus on the Family all the time. If you don’t know what Focus on the Family is, consider yourself lucky. As it turns out, my very religious family was also very sex negative and sex negative attitudes were fostered in me from a very young age. Sex was an entirely taboo topic, never to be spoken of. I wasn’t even given the language to speak about it if I’d wanted to.
My parents hardly talked to me about puberty and why the hell my chest was getting so goddamn big and I hardly understood what a period was when I got my first one. I was never reassured that what I was going through was normal. I felt like I had to be quiet about everything and watch as my body morphed into something I didn’t recognize or particularly like. Any normal sexual feelings I felt as a teenager came with a lot of shame and confusion.
This, as it turns out, was not the healthiest of situations. I dealt with a lot of problems with my mental health during my adolescence, and sex negativity did not cause my mental health issues, but it sure as hell exacerbated them. I developed atypical anorexia when I was 14 in an attempt to change my body because I couldn’t stand how I looked. I felt shame and disgust and confusion walking around in my body and I didn’t know how to deal with my emerging sexuality or the fact that I had breasts.
I became anorexic because I wanted control over my life and my body, and that included my sexuality. I literally was starving myself of food, but in another sense I was starving myself of my sexuality, of love, of exploration. I shut it all down and became utterly silent and punished my body for being a normal teenage girl body. I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but I highly suspect that my anorexia and my fear of sex had a lot more to do with each other than I realized.
I was extremely lucky that I got comprehensive sex education in school and that I found YouTubers like Laci Green and Dr. Lindsey Doe who make sex positive educational content. Without that, I would have been left completely in the dark and I wouldn’t have been able to unlearn all of the toxic beliefs I’d had about sex previously.
According to Advocates for Youth, comprehensive sex education “teaches about abstinence as the best method for avoiding STDs and unintended pregnancy, but also teaches about condoms and contraception to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and of infection with STDs, including HIV.” Comprehensive sex education presents medically accurate information to students without any moral judgement or scare tactics.
On the flip side is abstinence only until marriage programs which “teach abstinence as the only morally correct option of sexual expression for teenagers. They usually censor information about contraception and condoms for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unintended pregnancy” (Advocates for Youth). Anecdotes from students who went through these programs are often disturbing, especially for women. Becca Andrews writing for the Mother Jones recounts her experience with abstinence based sex education as a 14 year old girl in 2006. She tells of her ninth grade health teacher opening up the class with, “Ladies, everything can be avoided if you’ll just keep your legs closed,” before introducing their sex education teachers for the semester.
From what I’ve heard of people who’ve been through abstinence only sex education, metaphors for women’s bodies and for virginity seem to be very common. Andrews describes a piece of clean tape being shown to the class and how it was passed around to all the students, and how they were told to attach it to their skin and pull it off. When it had been around to everyone, the instructor showed how dirty the piece of tape now was saying it was basically trash and it could never bond to anything else; the point obviously being that people who have sex before marriage, and particularly with multiple people, lose value and the ability to bond with others with each additional partner. Because people are so much like tape, and a human’s worth is intrinsically linked to their virginity.
A person’s worth does not have anything to do with whether they’re sexually active, how much sex they have, and with how many people. This kind of sexual shaming of children and teenagers is gross and extremely harmful, and doesn’t even work. It doesn’t significantly delay intercourse, and just means that when people do engage in sexual activity, they’re more likely to feel shame about what they’re doing and will be less likely to seek our resources or accurate information.
I’ve felt this same shame and confusion about my own body. I’ve felt like my body was changing rapidly with no idea why or how. I’ve spent my life feeling so confused and gross about my body and any sexual feelings were stifled immediately. Raised in a radical religious doctrine, I saw sex as a bad gross thing that only sinners did. I didn’t actually know anything about sex and was completely left in the dark to figure things out on my own. I had to crawl my way out of the shame and learn to embrace my sexuality as something beautiful. I had to learn that the status of my virginity was the least interesting thing about me. And I had to learn that my body was fine just the way it was. And I had to learn all this on my own because no one was going to help me figure it out.
We fail youth when we stick our heads in the sand and pretend sex isn’t an important topic to broach. Silence is not the answer for literally any problem ever. Silence breeds shame and confusion. Sure, talking about it is awkward as hell and can be super challenging, but this shame and confusion could go away if more people spoke about it and we lived in a culture when sex wasn’t treated the way it is. I want you to know that your body is beautiful and perfect just the way it is. Growing up and experiencing desire and having a body changing out of your control is super scary, but it’s natural and it doesn’t make you less than. Please never forget your worth and hold on to it. You’re so much more than a piece of tape.
Image credit: abc.net.au