Getting Over Negative Sex Messaging
10 May 2017: Last night I saw episode 18 of Jane the Virgin. The theme that really stood out for me was that of the lasting effects of negative sex messaging in a person’s life.
Jane waited until marriage to have sex because her Catholic grandmother very strongly suggested that to behave otherwise would be a grave mistake. Though Jane chose to remain a virgin, the show emphasises that that did not mean that she did not have an interest in sex or have any sexual urges at all.
Over three seasons the show has explored Jane’s relationship with her own sexuality in interesting ways, showing that while remaining virgin was an important part of her identity, it was not the only thing that determined how she moved in the world.
At this point in Jane’s story, she has had the fairy tale wedding and the perfect (hard-won) first time, and she has also experienced the risky and tragic side of love and romance. She has been through a lot, and she has mostly handled it with grace and maturity. In this last episode in particular, I wished I could have the same optimism and confidence when it came to my own sexuality and sex life.
Jane managed to reconcile strict messages from her childhood with what she was comfortable with in terms of her own sexuality. I have yet to do the same.
Thinking about it now, I really don’t remember a time when my parents or teachers spoke to me about sex and sexuality in a way that was not ominous. It was always about consequences and diseases, never about attraction, desire or even love. In fact, a part of me still believes that boys and men cannot be trusted because all they want is to persuade you to have sex (because it could never be something that you actually want), and they are not above lying and saying they love you to get what they want.
Besides that, there is the fact that no one really spoke to me about what happened when I was younger. I mean about that time when I was maybe 5 or 6, and my older male cousin put his fingers in my vagina, then told me not to tell anyone. When my parents heard about it they dismissed the topic as something we should never talk about again. It would have been better if we had spoken about it, because for years afterwards (after I could no longer repress the memory) I resented the fact that I was the one who was dealing with what happened while the cousin in question was carrying on with his life as if everything was normal.
That’s one of the things I admire about the Villanueva women: they talk about everything. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, and talking does not guarantee that they will agree, but most of the time everyone feels heard, and in their family a problem shared really is a problem halved.
If I had had that chance, if the only real conversation I had with my mother didn’t include the warning “don’t kiss boys – because kissing leads to…something else”, maybe I would be in a better position. Maybe if I had felt like I could talk to my parents about what I was feeling or thinking about, I wouldn’t have had to struggle on my own to process what happened all those years ago and figure out what it meant for my present knowledge and experience of sex.
As it stands, I’ve had to deal with my feelings of guilt and confusion on my own, and I have had many questions. Why did my cousin do what he did? What made him think he had the right? What were his intentions? If I say his intentions were not malicious, does that change the effect of his actions? (The answer to this one is no. I don’t know what he meant by what he did, but it affected me in a way that I am clearly still not okay with.) Whose responsibility is it to teach me about sexuality: my parents, teachers, the Bible, friends, the media? And in all the messages that I receive about sex daily, who is right? Who should I believe? Who knows what’s best for me? Why do I feel guilty about wanting to express my sexuality, about feeling desire and wanting to be desired? (I have become so proficient at stifling my desires that I worry if I will ever be able to truly appreciate the feeling again.)
“I guess I missed the moment when everybody got cool with sex…”
In school, while my peers were dating and exploring their sexuality, I retreated further and further into myself. I didn’t believe that anyone would like me or want to do anything with me because I was tainted, both by what had happened and by how I had been hurting myself. By now I had been struggling with my feelings about masturbation, and I believed I was doing something wrong. I didn’t quite believe that I was “learning good things about my body and my desires”, like some magazines or websites said.
These days, I laugh along to sex jokes (pervasive as sex is in everything that my friends and I consume for entertainment); I listen when people discuss “good sex” and “bad sex” as if I have any true knowledge or valid opinions to add to the discussion. From the outside, I look like I am okay with sex. I’m the virgin in the group, the one who doesn’t even entertain the idea of a relationship because men are devils, and everyone just thinks that’s my look, when really it’s my defense mechanism. Defense against the possible pain, guilt and confusion that I fear will come from any attempt I make to show or share my intimate thoughts and feelings with anyone else.
I live in constant fear of being found out as a fraud or a freak: someone who lied about knowing anything or who does things that no one can tolerate. I feel like I will be persecuted for knowing and understanding more about sex than I let on.
Maybe this is linked to the way I never felt like sex was an okay, normal topic of discussion. It was always embarrassing (when a scene came on TV and I was watching in the presence of my parents) or bad (again, when seeing stories about teenage pregnancy on TV), or just generally off-limits. Which is astounding because where did my parents think I would get the information I needed? Was I going to just magically know and feel all the right things on my wedding night? (What wedding night? LOL)
So this is the attitude I have had about sex for most of my life: it is a scary thing that only belongs to certain people, and though it looks like fun from the outside the truth is that there are so many things that can go wrong. So, while I want to one day get to a point where I can experience sex for myself and with someone who won’t leave me too damaged, I am also terrified of the level of vulnerability one needs to get to that place.
I don’t know when I will be okay in this regard, I just know that it is going to take a lot of work. A lot. Also, I feel like it is too late to go back to my parents and ask them to talk to me about this. It just feels like everyone has moved on and I should find a way to do the same.
But where do I even start?