I’ve always had a difficult time separating sex from shame. Growing up, the two were intermingled in my head, like the act of service and the feeling of self-satisfaction. I was taught by my heavily Christian family that sex was not to be discussed in casual conversation, committed before marriage, or “endorsed” through the use of contraception. I have vivid memories of gossiping with my cousins about our ideas of “sex,” bouncing off each other’s inaccurate theories: sex was just dry-humping your partner, sex was only kissing, etc. The fact that the act was, in layman's terms, the method through which humans procreate didn’t even cross our juvenile minds. However, we knew better than to share our theories and curiosities with even our closest family members. My family was chock-full of evangelical Christians who did not even permit the word “sex” to be spoken in the house. When my 6-year-old cousin accidentally let one of our conversations slip, my aunt warned her that if her father heard her “speaking like that” he would “smack her in the mouth.” Not only did these early instances negatively impact my idea of what a great experience sex could potentially be, as a teenager both my body and brain rejected the idea that sex was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of.
By the time I actually became sexually active, I felt that I couldn’t relate my feelings of culpability towards sex to any of my friends. We would laugh and joke about our experiences, but when I asked them if they ever felt shame or guilt after they had sex, they always paused and then replied, “No, not really?” I took to websites such as Yahoo Answers and Reddit to find solace in others who experienced similar feelings of conflict. However, experiencing movies, songs, and conversations in my everyday life about the thrills and joys of teenage sex left me feeling isolated. Why couldn’t I just lay back and enjoy the act just like everyone else? Why was I almost brought to tears every time a partner and I finished? What did this mean for myself, my sexuality? Little by little, I had to undo years and years of reinforced indignity and embrace the idea that I could be a sexual being without losing my value as a person.
Every step of overcoming this mental roadblock in my sex life involved listening to myself and disregarding the harmful attitudes towards sex ingrained in my head from the past. I stopped correlating my sex life with my religion, and understood that what I did in the bedroom had nothing to do with my afterlife or connection to God. For a while, every time I had sex I had a little mantra: this feels good, I am safe, normal, and healthy, and no one is judging me.
I started reading articles on sex-positive websites such as Man Repeller and Rookie, but most importantly, I learned how to be honest with myself and with my partners. Occasionally, feelings of guilt would weasel their way in, and I had to let a tear or two slip afterwards. But when I explained my internal conflict to my partners, they reacted with sympathy. No one likes to see others unhappy at the hand of religion, and honestly, my family was probably trying to protect me from committing “sin” in the future. Fortunately, their harmful religious scare tactics did me some good: grappling with my guilt and shame has led me to speak my mind, fears, and worries in the bedroom, creating the safest environment possible. When I engage in sexual activity on my own terms instead of just letting my sexual partners run the show, I find power in what was once an activity that rendered me powerless.