Doctor’s Note: I’m working on a new book, due out in 2015 from Thought Catalog. While I’m pounding out the manuscript, Paging Dr. NerdLove is going to be working on a lighter schedule, focusing on reader’s questions. New Ask Dr. NerdLove articles will be going up every Monday and Friday. We’ll be back to the regular schedule after the book is finished.
Hi. I live in a very sexually repressed society, Honduras, specially when it comes to women sexuality. but I pride myself in rising about it, thanks to a feminist cousin and having more female friends (like real, honest to God friends, none of that friendzone bullshit) than male friends.
Lately I started to date the most amazing girl ever, I even think she might be the one, and we haven’t even had sex yet… but yesterday we had the ”past sexual history” talk… and I find out that she has done some shit… like some real nasty shit… And I couldn’t handle it. I just excused myself and left.
I was so embarrassed with myself. There is no reason for me to act like this, I used to think that dating a more experienced girl would be the best thing ever (And I was soooooo cool and above these other savages). And I couldn’t deal with it! Any advise? How can I get over it? I feel that if I just repress this, I would just passive aggressively discharge it and ruin the relationship, I feel that if I talk about it with her I would come out as ”just another backwards guy” and not the thinker that attract her to me in the first place.
What to do, Doctor? What to do?
Just A Small Town Boy
Your situation is a lot more common than you’d think, JASTB, and not just in “repressed” societies. Right now in the US, we’re having some serious backlash over birth control pills of all things. Not even abortion – a contentious topic at best – but hormonal contraception, something so innocuous and ubiquitous that you’d think we’d have to be insane to see it as controversial. But with the recent Supreme Court decision over Hobby Lobby, we’re seeing a metric shitload of people – mostly men, go fig – crowing about how this is a victory over those slutty, slutty women and their evil socialist whore pills. Hell, some of these freaks go apeshit over the idea of – wait for it – cheap tampons.
The point of all of this is that even countries you’d think are past all of this, countries where 50 Shades of Bad Sex Writing And Shitty S&M is the number-one selling book for three years running, still get their tit in a wringer over the difference between our pure saintly women and the evil Slutty McGoodHead. Guys still freak out when they realize their partner’s sexual history doesn’t match up with the cultural narrative. We still labor under the idea that men are supposed to be the sexually experienced ones and women are supposed to be the gatekeepers to sex; where men are lionized for the sex they’ve had and women are valued for the sex they haven’t had. This is one of the long and ongoing reasons why men and women so often can’t seem to connect sexually – no matter how much we may want to.
Now, with all of that being said, let’s get to your question.
I totally get that you’re embarrassed, JASTB – and that says a lot about you. You recognize that wigging out over the fact that your partner has had more experience than you – including some experiences that may be outside of your comfort zone – is kinda unreasonable. That’s a good thing; you’ve got a lot of good intentions going on. The problem is that they’ve run head first into a literal lifetime of cultural indoctrination… and no matter how enlightened or progressive you are or try to be, that is some seriously hard shit to root out. You’ve literally grown up with these messages about sex and about women all of your life, and damn near everything around you from your parents to your teachers to the television shows you watch and the music you listen to has reinforced these ideas over and over and over again. So even though you intellectually understand that it’s all bullshit, you still have this emotional core that raises it’s head and goes “wait, she’s had sex? Lots of sex? BWwwwwuuuh?” and you freak out. This happens all the time to well meaning people in a multitude of situations. The progressive liberal says something that’s actually kinda racist. The feminist says or acts in a way that’s actually kinda backwards. The sex-positive guy has a minor freak-out over finding out his girlfriend is experimental and kinky.
Nobody is perfect. We’re all going to say and do dumb shit – even offensive shit – at times. The key is how you react afterwards when you realize what you’ve done.
So the first thing you need to do is very simple: you need to forgive yourself. Yeah, it sucks that you suddenly find yourself having a hard time handling your girlfriend’s experiences, but you recognize that it’s fucked up and you’re trying to get past that. That’s a big deal. That’s a lot more than a lot of other, less cool people might have done in your situation. You’re not going to be doing anyone any favors if you sit around tearing out your hair and rending your clothing and gnashing your teeth over it and begging forgiveness for being so awful. Hell, in a lot of cases, the people who do that are making a performance that’s all about how unfair it is for people to be upset at them, and why the person they insulted needs to forgive them because otherwise they’re an awful person.
So very simply: forgive yourself for not being perfect and get ready to move forward.
Next step is slightly harder: you’ve gotta talk about it with your girlfriend. The key to any relationship is always: communication, communication, communication. Communication is easy when you’re focusing on the good stuff: how much you love each other, expressing your feelings, maybe sharing your experiences and explaining your needs. It’s a lot harder, but even more necessary, when it comes to dealing with your darker side, the part of you that you’re not proud of, that you wish you could excise away but you can’t. It’s only through communication that the two of you can actually work things out. If you don’t, then all you do is push things down and hope they go away… and that never works. All it does is fester and rot under the surface and end up infecting an otherwise incredible relationship.
So you’re going to tell her about all of this. You say “Hey, listen, I’m sorry I reacted badly the other day when we were talking about our past sexual experiences. I’ve got some cultural baggage around sex that I didn’t realize was there and I had a little freak-out. It had nothing to do with you or how I feel about you. It’s all strictly my baggage, and I want to work past it.”
And then you two have a sit-down and talk about it. You explain your side of things – that you hadn’t realized that her level of sexual experience and sexual openness was going to trigger this backwards emotional reaction in you. It wasn’t something you were aware of and you’re more than a little embarrassed that you responded the way you did. You want to let her know that it has absolutely nothing to do with her or with her experiences and everything to do with suddenly finding out that your comfort zone isn’t where you thought it was. Emphasize that you don’t think she’s bad or wrong of slutty or dirty or what-have-you and – importantly – that you respect her and care for her and want to continue dating. Let her know that you may need a little time to wrap your head around it – you’re trying to overcome a lifetime of cultural programming, after all – and you may say or do stupid things as you do so, but you’re trying to overcome it. And then you apologize, sincerely apologize for reacting badly and possibly having hurt or insulted her or making her feel bad. Don’t grovel. Don’t go on about how you’re a horrible person. Just own your shit and apologize for how you reacted and how it made her feel.
(Also, do yourself a favor: don’t refer to anything in her past as “nasty shit”. That just ends up being judgmental as hell and will only put her on the defensive. You don’t want to make her feel like she has to justify things she’s done, especially things she enjoyed doing.)
Then: you listen, really listen to what she has to say, because she’ll more than likely have a few things to say on the matter. You may feel a bit defensive. Or you may feel especially scummy and bad about yourself. Clamp down on these feelings; neither of these are particularly helpful or productive. They can only hurt things. You want to listen with an open mind. Ask questions, especially if you’re confused or unsure about something.
Yeah, you’re going to feel embarrassed talking about it. You’re going to feel ashamed. But by taking ownership of your feelings and your behavior, by showing her that you understand and that you’re working on fixing it? You’re showing her that you’re not some “backwards guy”; you’re somebody who’s mature and compassionate who’s willing to put the work in on fixing the parts of himself he doesn’t like. Backwards, judgmental assholes never question the rightness of how they feel; they don’t admit to mistakes or being wrong, they double down. You’re showing her that you’re not that guy, you’re the guy who recognizes he has a lot to learn and he wants to do so. And that’s huge.
And then… you move forward. You work together to find ways to make things work. You figure out ways that you can bring your emotional side in line with your intellectual side. You may need to take things slowly at first as you adjust. You may have to agree to be a bit more circumspect about your respective sexual histories as you work to get past that unpleasant emotional reaction.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because she’s had all of these experiences that you need to somehow catch up to her. Similarly: don’t assume that because she did X with one person that she’s obligated to do X with you – or that she’s expecting you to do X if it’s way outside of what you’re comfortable with. Don’t dwell on her experiences or make the physical part of your relationship a referendum on her sexual history. The past is just that: the past. It is merely prologue. The important part is the now, with the two of you together.
It’ll be rocky – enlightenment is never easy – but it will be worth it. And when you’re feeling frustrated, remember: her past and everything in it has lead her to becoming the person she is today. The person you care so much about. Remember that. Hold on to that.
Use your words. Tell her how you feel. And then listen to her. You’re gonna be fine, JASTB.