Most of us learn about sexuality in the context of fear and were taught to be afraid of sexuality on some level: you might get hurt. You might get an STI. You might get pregnant. He might treat you badly. She might trap you. You might get raped. Most of American sex education focuses on the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and, as I pointed out in my TEDx talk, even the way we talk about sex is often phrased in deficits and through an external locus of control: losing virginity, giving it up, giving someone else an orgasm, making them come, etc.
We learn sexuality through this lens of fear and yet sexuality is really exciting. We get a thrill in our bodies when we begin to wake up to our own eroticism. We get tingly when we have sexual firsts like a first kiss, first fondle, first intimate moment, first date, first hand job, first sex.
Here is the thing about excitement and fear: they feel the same in the body. So it can be hard to distinguish between them.
For many of us, this culture of confusion about sexuality creates a vacuum in which our deeper fears pour in; fears of our own inadequacy or unworthiness, which often pre-date sexual experience.
If you remember a time when you were abandoned by someone who was supposed to be there for you, someone who was supposed to love you like a parent, then you know the genesis of that fear. Maybe you were abandoned at birth and were adopted by someone else; maybe a parent left you when you were young like my mother left me and my sisters. Maybe no one left physically, but one of your parents or caretakers were too drunk, too high, too sick, too depressed, or too neglectful to care for you — so even though they were physically there, they still abandoned you, even if they didn’t mean to. Maybe the rejections or abandonments came on a smaller scale, but they still got woven into an internal story about your unworthiness or unloveable-ness.
These wounds cut so deep, and we lodge into our psyche a deep fear of being left.
Of being unloved, not getting our needs met in our relationships. And later on in life, the experience of rejection starts the same old tape: “See, I knew it. I’m not loveable enough. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’m not sexy enough. I’m not a good partner.” It’s the pain of that early abandonment all over again!
So now you might chase a ring because it gives you a false sense of security. (I say “false” because just because you marry doesn’t mean it’s forever.) Or you might protect yourself and not let yourself get too close to anyone… because that’s dangerous and makes you too vulnerable. But as long as you fear being vulnerable with others, no one will be able to get as close to you as you want them to.
Or maybe you start the painful pattern of people-pleasing, of trying to anticipate what will make other people happy so you can gain their approval. Women are socialized to people-please, and in my programs we really look at the question of when genuinely caring behavior heads into dysfunctional waters.
To be clear, people-pleasing is not about being nice: it’s actually a form of manipulation.
It leads you to forsake your own preferences, desires and boundaries in order to gain someone else’s approval — and it leads to resentment, disingenuousness and crossed boundaries on both sides. People-pleasing in sex is especially dangerous because the stakes (of physical and emotional safety) are so high.
But is it any surprise that sexual people-pleasing is so endemic? Our parents, caretakers, and school systems have failed us with regards to teaching us the sexual skills and information that we need to have a healthy and consensual sexual life. Many of us were left with fear and confusion about the idea of sexual power: not taught to set boundaries, when and how to say no. Not taught how to ask for what we want, or how to understand the body, pleasure, and desire. In such a culture of ignorance, early sexual experiences become riddled with confusion, one person’s pleasure follows someone else’s agenda, the lines of consent get blurred by misinformation. And this is how boundaries get crossed.
If you relate to this, perhaps you have carried these patterns throughout your sexual journey; but at the end of the day in all of these scenarios, you’re living outside yourself. And when you unconsciously bring those fears into your adult relationships, you make intimacy the landscape in which they must play out.
These are the most common fears about sexuality and intimacy that I hear:
- That if someone sees the real you, that if they really know who you are, on a very intimate level, they won’t love all of you… so you hide who you really are.
- That if you ask for what you want, someone will tell you want too much, or that you can’t have it, and make you feel bad for wanting it.
- That someone else will deem your sexual performance “inadequate.”
- That if someone sees you naked, they’ll laugh.
- That if you let yourself come too hard or be too loud they might not like you and then they’ll go away.
- That if you’re honest about your sexual past, they will judge you.
Many people arrange their sexual lives and relationships in an attempt to avoid dealing with those fears, yet the only way out is through.
At some point you have to take a stand, you have to face your fear square in the face and befriend it. You have to stop letting it make you small. You have to stop letting it get the best of you, or letting it control your decisions. You can’t make decisions for your highest good from fear. You have to make them from a place of courage and invite the fear to go with you and transform, or just be there even as you take big leaps.
So I know when someone wants to change their sexual and intimate life and relationships, that fear almost instinctively comes up. If you’ve ever had a negative consequence related to your sexuality, then it got even more ingrained. But if it’s time for you to grow your sexuality, then you’ve got to face your fear and take a step.
In the meantime, notice when and how that fear and excitement comes up for you, and start putting a positive spin on it and just see what that shifts for you.
Sexuality is about so many beautiful things. Don’t let your fear eclipse the beauty, magic and joy of it. Let’s turn fear into excitement.