I recently attended the inaugural talk of the Sexceptional Lecture Series organized by the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance. This series is being hosted in Austin, Texas and invites sexperts to speak on a range of topics including pornography, pleasure, orgasms, sexual shame, libido, kink, female sexuality, and self-acceptance. The objective of the series is overcoming fear, shame, and sexual misinformation. The series is aimed at sexual health professionals (e.g. counselors and therapists) but is accessible and highly interesting for the lay sex nerd (pun intended). It feels safe here.
The room at the Austin Center, where the event was hosted, was quite lively… actually, it was rather loud. Despite being filled with professionals who, for money, sit quietly and say “hmmmm,” they seemed a social bunch. A colorful, open, friendly group. These were my kind of people. I appreciated the visual feast of pastel hair and patterned pantsuits. I don’t think shame could enter here. It is the only thing not welcomed by this group.Our speaker was Dr. David Ley, a well known therapist, author, and public speaker on sexual and mental health issues. The talk began with a history of porn. Dr. Ley showed images from pre-history, including the oldest known cave art depicting sexual acts. The images were shocking, exaggerated, abstract, and heterosexual.
It piqued my interest to see these early, unfamiliar depictions of human sexuality. I had heard of Venus figurines and other fertility representations from my academic studies in anthropology, but these usually showed only the female form with exaggerated femininity. I was not aware that sexual acts between two people were depicted this far back in our history. Fascinating. Dr. Ley coined a term for these images “petroporn.”
It was unclear why this history was relevant to the discussion of modern porn’s influence on everyday life, but I was happy Dr. Ley included these images. He went on to show other early forms of porn. The first of what you could call “pornographic” films were released in 1896. One was by Thomas Edison depicting a kiss, and the other, “Le Coucher de la Marie,” was more sordid. Before these films were released displays of sexuality and love were confined entirely to the private sphere—the bedroom and the home. There were no public displays of affection. Coy was in. Imagine you had never seen a dick before… and then you watched the film Brüno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. It would feel like that. Whatever you felt when you saw Bruno’s dick swinging in a circle must have been what it felt like to see two people kissing on the screen in 1896. Shocking. Unfathomable. Repulsive. And probably some fainting would have been involved.
We have come far. A kiss is not shocking. We actually find it delightful and heartwarming… at least I do. But how far have we really come? Sex in the media is still highly regulated. Porn is illegal in many countries. We have a ratings system for Hollywood movies and control who is allowed to see content we deem explicit. But who has decided this? Is this censorship? The production of sexually explicit material is even more regulated. Currently, you can only legally shoot an adult film in California, Nevada, and New Hampshire (kind of). All this regulation around sex displayed in media indicates our discomfort about these subjects. And this lack of comfort, openness, and acceptance of ourselves as sexual beings has led to widespread shame and secrecy. What is accepted by he majority is that your sex life is to be kept confidential and private.
Humans have a long and complex history with sexual material. We have been making and consuming it since the paleolithic era and although most people acknowledge that it is part of the human experience, we each, on a very individual and personal level, have trouble accepting our own use of it. This is the fundamental question Dr. Ley addresses in this lecture. How can counselors and therapists address the shame and guilt experienced by their clients? How can an individual overcome their own prejudices toward porn and its related ethics?
Dr. Ley says people have always been afraid of sex. It is viewed as dirty, unsafe, unclean, and addictive. People also have many conceptions of what porn is and what it does to people.
Here are some of those beliefs:
- Porn objectifies women.
- It leads to violence.
- It creates sexual predators.
- It feeds pedophiles.
- It creates unrealistic expectations of sexual experience.
- It creates sex addicts.
- It creates fetishes.
- It feeds promiscuity.
- It causes sex crimes.
- It is responsible for sexual violence.
These are the prejudices, fears, and misinformation that encircle the word “porn”. These are the concepts that are important for counselors and therapists to acknowledge when taking care of the needs of a client. Which of these beliefs outlined above do you carry? Are there other associations you have with porn?
Something I find interesting is the discrepancy between how strongly I feel my conceptions to be true and what can be proven. The overlap is mostly always minimal. 😦 What I know is rarely known by others.
Shame and fear regarding sex affects women more than men. One of the greatest fears for both genders is being judged for our sexual desires and fantasies.
We do not feel comfortable sharing our fantasies with others for fear of not being accepted by others. Porn is appealing because it validates our fantasies and desires.
Women and men have different fears when engaging in sex. What women fear most is being judged about their body. They struggle with body image, acceptance, and feeling sexy or worthy of being a sexual partner. They worry they are not desirable. Not wanted. These feelings are strong and can be triggered easily and unintentionally by a partner. If this sounds like something you have struggled with it is beneficial to have a conversation with your partner about these fears and anxieties. Even better is if you are able to recognize when and how your anxieties around sex are triggered. Has there been a time when your partner said something that killed the mood? Do you need to be dressed sexily to be ready for sex? What are your pre-requisites? Do you know those of your partner?
The greatest fear men have when facing a sexual encounter is related to performance. They fear they will be unable to give their partner the greatest pleasure—the orgasm. This is particularly true if their partner is female.
The female orgasm seems to be more elusive and is not indicated by obvious fluid release. Knowing this, how could you help your partner with his or her anxieties? Have you talked about what you like? What turns you on? What have been the circumstances and sexual actions that usually lead to an orgasm?One of my greatest and most personal fears is fear of the unknown. Of not knowing what is to come. Of not being able to predict situations, people, and my own future. How I have dealt with this fear is by asking questions. Of reading. Of trying to know more. And it has helped. But surprisingly one of the things I never asked questions about or even thought to try to know better was the sexual preferences, desires, fears, and anxieties of my partner. I don’t know why this is. I imagine it is related to culture and upbringing.Sex was never talked about in my own house. I never had an open-ended conversation about sex with any of my partners. Sex was never intimidating for me, but I know it often is for others. And no wonder. We are all just taking risks and trying things without having any idea of what will work. We wander aimlessly around our genitals. We are lost. What surprised me the most when I started this blog was the number of things in my life I never asked about or questioned. Of these things, sex was the largest uncharted territory.Starting a dialogue with my partner at the time, over a year ago, led to many personal and relationship changes. The exploration of my own sexuality and preferences. A paradigm shift away from monogamy. And many revelations about myself and about my partner. Many shifts took place. I have learned so much. And it began with a few questions and conversations on my own therapy couch.Here’s a few good questions to start a dialogue with your partner about sex:
- What are your fears or anxieties surrounding sex?
- What has been your most enjoyable sexual encounter with me? What do you think made that time most memorable?
- What turns you on? About me?
- What makes you feel confident and sexy?
- What kinds of content turn you on? Do you watch porn or read erotica? What situations or attributes turn you on most?
- What is your ideal sexual encounter? Start to finish, describe in detail.
- What sex acts do you like the most? And the least?
- What are your boundaries or no-go zones?
- Are you interested in exploring kink?
- Do you have any fantasies you could share with me?
Through this conversation you will discover many things about your partner. Your partner is exposing themselves to you in a big way. It is a huge step. You will both feel very vulnerable. The only way to quell each other’s fears and anxieties is by first, acknowledging them, and second, accepting them. These, Dr.Ley says are the most important steps. The only real way to overcome our inbred feelings of guilt and shame.Don’t do this lightly. Or give yourself too much credit. It is not enough to say “I love you and accept you.” Are you still secretly judging your partner in your head? They will be able to tell. And this will break the trust they gave to you. It is so important to maintain this trust with your partner when discussing uncomfortable subjects. It’s all you have. Try not to judge. Try to resist imposing morals on them based on how you feel about their fantasies or desires. One of the hardest things in a relationship is trusting your partner with the most personal pieces of information: your fantasies, pleasure, needs, and desires. There is no wrong or unhealthy sexual behavior or fantasy.We all experience the need to hide our sexual lives both from the world and even from our sexual partners. We feel embarrassed to talk about it. Shame regarding our secret preferences and fantasies. We fear rejection. We fear that we are not normal. That others will not understand and accept our viewing of pornographic material, especially if that material exhibits kink or other taboo engagements.
Porn is part of our daily experience. Even if you don’t watch porn visually or experience erotica in a book. You are exposed to pornographic content in movies, advertisements, and by your partners. Porn and sex can make us feel uncomfortable. It is especially difficult to trust another with your sexual secrets.Dr. Ley offered two key pieces of advice for how to overcome our guilt, shame, and fear surrounding sex and porn. The first is to acknowledge. Acknowledge what you are feeling, what your partner is feeling, and acknowledge that the consumption of porn is natural and widespread. Second, acceptance. Accept what your partner shares with you. Accept their preferences, desires, fantasies, and kinks. This does not mean that you agree to fulfill or engage in anything… it just means you accept them as a unique sexual being. Acceptance means you will not call them weird and will not judge them. Accept who they are so you can also receive acceptance.The only way to eliminate guilt is to eliminate how we view the guilt-inducing act. We only feel guilty when we feel we are doing something wrong… something we shouldn’t be doing for whatever reason. The only way to eliminate shame is to remove the arbitrary judgements/ethics/morals that surround the act we feel shame about. If you were my child and I told you every day of your life that eating ice cream was wrong and that God hates people who eat ice cream, you would not eat it. If you did eat, if you gave into that temptation, you would feel many things. Guilt, shame, and fear of getting in trouble. But only because I had set this up in your head. I had created these reactions because of what I taught you about right and wrong. Let’s reteach. Let’s fuck things up. Why should we accept the un-acceptance of ourselves as sexual beings. Why shouldn’t we talk about sex? It fascinates us all. ALL you have to do is acknowledge first and accept second.Resources: