Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I grew up in a religious household, one that strongly believed in the idea of no sex before marriage. I had chosen to remain a virgin until marriage, but wound up losing it anyway. This upset me pretty badly, made worse when my family found out. I’ve since had more experience (always feeling guilty), had in toxic relationships that I stayed in only to validate the activity. It’s been a long struggle, but I’ve become comfortable with myself and who I am and want to be, especially sexually.
I am now dating someone in my own faith and assumed I would wind up returning to my original choice to wait, especially since he was a virgin. As you may guess, this did not happen, but I find that this time, I’m actually comfortable with the result and enjoying myself and him in a way I never did before. I’m still having one problem, though. He is aware of my sexual history before him and, while he’s never said or even implied anything derogatory, I still feel embarrassed and ashamed at anything that hints at my past. I feel uncomfortable with the fact that I know what I’m doing and with telling him what I like. Half the time, I find myself laughing uncontrollably while I try to spit the words out, but mostly I just want to curl in on myself. I’m almost there, but can you help me cross that final barrier to being a confident sexual being?
– No Longer Waiting
Oh man, there’s so much in this, NLW that I don’t really know where to start.
Actually, I take that back.
Your letter nicely illustrates one of the biggest injuries that our sex-negative culture inflicts on people – women especially. Now I’ll be the first to say that people are welcome to take sex at their own pace and wait until they’re ready. That being said, I think that waiting until marriage isn’t a good idea; sexual compatibility is an incredibly important part of a relationship and one’s wedding night is a very bad time to find out that the two of you have entirely different ideas about sex. I think that this attitude robs people of the opportunity to explore their own sexuality and get to know just what they want, how often they want it, how they need to get off and what they will or won’t consider when it comes to indulging a partner’s fantasies.
Just as importantly however, is that it perpetuates the commodity model of sex – that a woman’s worth is based on the amount of sex she doesn’t have – and perpetuates the Madonna/Whore view of women. And that’s where the damage really starts to sink in. It’s bad enough when guys internalize the idea that women who’ve had lots of sex have something fundamentally wrong with them, but the damage that it does to women, not just to their psyches but their lives.
Bad enough that you lost your virginity in a way that -from the sounds of it – was not the way that you wanted. Even more so that your family got involved – evidently blaming you, because of course women have to police men’s sexuality1. But it was this line in your letter NLW really leapt out at me: I’ve since had more experience (always feeling guilty), had in toxic relationships that I stayed in only to validate the activity.
That, unfortunately, is an incredibly common story, especially among women I’ve known who’ve come from backgrounds similar to yours. One of the side-effects of the sex-negative culture in America – the wackos who insist that women should be virgins until marriage and have no sexual autonomy – is that it promotes the idea that “if he puts his dick in you, he owns you for life.” There’s an implied sense of obligation to stay now because – as Elizabeth Smart articulated brilliantly – you’ve been taught that you’re worthless and nobody is going to want you now. I’ve got very good friends who, like you, stayed in toxic, even abusive relationships because they were taught that sex was dirty and shameful unless it gets the holy stamp of Church and State approval; leaving the relationship would only mean that they’d done something wrong in the eyes of God and man.
So, yeah. I’ve kinda got a beef with the people who teach sexual shame and trades on ignorance, fear and negativity, especially in the name of a caring and loving god. The damage they do is farther reaching than I think anyone realizes.
Case in point: you’ve had a long and difficult struggle with coming to terms with your sexuality and being willing to take ownership of your life… and frankly you should be applauded. This is an incredible testimony to your strength and perseverance and your determination to push past the bullshit that people tried to instill in you. It’s awesome that you’ve come to a place where you can actually enjoy your sexuality like you should and be comfortable with yourself. You should be proud of yourself and your progress… and most importantly, you should not be embarrassed by your past.
Those last niggling doubts and feelings of shame are the last little tendrils of the utter crap you were taught, holding on for dear life around your brain, and it can be hard to extract them. In fact, your brain will actually fight against it at times, even though you know intellectually that it’s wrong. It is very difficult to break old patterns and habits, even when you understand that they’re bad for you. You may notice that these feelings crop up hardest when you feel like you’re about to make a breakthrough – just when you’re starting to truly feel like you’ve come into your own, suddenly there’s that little asshole voice in the back of your head that whispers “Don’t forget, you’re slut and nobody can possibly love you. If he knew what you were REALLY like he’d be disgusted.”
This is what’s known as an “extinction burst”. Because you’re getting close to overcoming this old programming, there’s a part of your brain – the part that absorbed all of these lessons – that says “wait, if I don’t do something, this is going to go away” and suddenly it floods you with feelings of shame and remorse. It’s the emotional equivalent of someone on a diet who suddenly goes on a binge of crappy food. The difference is that while breaking the diet is based on a physical reward system – your body’s used to the high it gets from carbs and sugar and fat – the other is psychological. You’ve been brought up to believe that questioning your beliefs were wrong and that any deviation from these strict teachings means you’re a horrible person who deserves to be punished. Now that you’re starting to step away from those beliefs – you have your faith, but you no longer believe in their dictates regarding sex – that little part that’s supposed to keep you from breaking away is firing up and trying to bring you back into the fold.
It’s also complete bullshit.
The fact that you have a sexual past is inherently neutral. You’re not a bad person because you’ve had sex; the only bad parts were the ways that you were hurt in the process. The fact that you know what you like sexually and want to to tell him? This is unquestionably a good thing. In fact, this is an unbelievably desirable asset in a sex partner, especially when the other is relatively inexperienced. Let’s look at it from another angle: your boyfriend has somebody confident, caring and patient, who wants to teach him how to please a woman instead of letting him fumble his way, learning all the wrong lessons and getting frustrated in the process. Who wouldn’t want that in a partner, especially their first?
This is what your jerk-brain is trying to deny you. It’s trying to take a strength – your hard-won experience – and turn it into a weakness. And you shouldn’t let it.
By all accounts, it seems like your boyfriend’s a cool person who’s not judging you by your number. You care for him and trust him… so take “yes” for an answer when he’s giving you every indication that he’s not intimidated by your past. And if he – or any guy you may date in the future – has a problem with the fact that you’ve had sex before… well, that’s their problem to overcome, not yours. A guy who can’t handle the fact that his girlfriend or wife has a sexual past can hand back his man-card; he’s not a man, he’s a boy and he’s got some growing up to do.
I’m not a big believer in affirmations, but whenever you have that voice from you jerk-brain piping up, remind yourself that you’re strong, that you’re desirable and that you deserve the sex you want and anyone who says otherwise is cordially invited to go fuck themselves. Your past – as painful as it was – has lead you to who you are today, and from the sounds of it, that’s a pretty amazing place. And that past includes the people you’ve slept with. It’s molded you. It’s shaped you, it’s tempered you and tested you and you’ve come out stronger and better for it.
Nobody can take that from you if you don’t let them.
Enjoy the sex you’re having with your boyfriend. Revel in it. Teach him how to fuck you in all the ways you want to be fucked. Take pride in where you are and what it’s taken to get you there and reap the rewards of being a sexually confident woman. There’s nothing to be ashamed of; there are only small-minded chucklefucks who’ve tried to convince you otherwise. And you’re stronger than they are.
- **Barf** [↩]