Adventures in Therapy: The Stuff You Do by Yourself – Sex Negativity Edition

In my quest for happiness and, more to the point, general okayness and mental health, I periodically find myself engaging in a “Spring Cleaning” of sorts with My List.

What is My List? Why, it’s my running list of things about myself that I am either actively working to improve or, if I have successfully improved something, things about myself that I must be vigilant about.  Much in the way that my anxiety and depression was eased by shifting my thinking about my body as a complex chemical reaction vessel, having a To Do list of the things that are acknowledged personal struggles makes problems seem not so permanent.  It makes dealing with them a part of a routine and as I develop healthier habits for handling them as I grow, the way they appear on My List also changes.  Slowly but surely, the list becomes less about all the things that are wrong with me and more about things I pay attention to and cohabitate with more peacefully.

Like everyone, I go through low times.  During these times much of My List might be ignored because my energy is focused on handling something difficult and all encompassing.  This is just like what happens when people ignore the laundry or the dishes in the sink for a long time while studying for finals or getting into Hell Week for a theatrical production.  For some of us lucky ones, our low times periodically end, giving way to better times and some clarity of mind.  And this phase of mental clarity is what I am referring to when I talk about Spring Cleaning.

I also refer to it sometimes as a State of the Union kind of thing.  I got that from a friend who used to check in with her partner at the time every so often to see what the State of the Union was.  This was when they would talk about relationship-y things primarily.  In terms of my relationships, this doesn’t really apply because I talk to my partners about this kind of thing all the time.  But when I get through a lousy emotional time, I often find myself reviewing My List and making note of what things are still gnawing at me on a regular basis and keeping me from being as content and calm as I could be.

One of the things was the jealousy I deal with that I talked about earlier this week.  I have been feeling really good about where I’ve gotten with that since my realizations and I can honestly say that this has been a pretty fantastic week.  I have felt, for the most part, calm and collected and positive about that realm of issues and am starting to think that my assumption that I needed a higher dose of meds might have been a little alarmist.  I’ll keep an eye on it still to talk to my therapist about next month, but I think I’m still OK.  This makes me happy because while I’m not afraid of medication (it kind of rules, really), I have been lucky in terms of long term side effects and such and would rather not screw up the balance if I can avoid it.

Unfortunately, I have become abundantly aware (again) of an ongoing source of stress.  I’ll admit that it’s difficult for me to talk about but I think it’s worth talking about in a public forum because, as has been demonstrated again and again by reader’s reactions to these posts, I am not alone in my fears and insecurities.  And, as I said the other day, articulation of issues is the first step towards actually overcoming them and growing more, so here we go.

The other day I talked about how I realized that I am completely terrified of any new dating.  It’s easy to just say “Well, yeah, I’m terrified, but since I have two wonderful long term super committed partners and a small and lovely network of supportive and amazing friends, why bother worrying about it?”  I mean, sure, I have a point.  But ignoring it because I don’t need or necessarily want additional relationships is sort of missing the point of personal growth.  Feeling a supreme fear of something hinders us from living our lives fully and since this is the life we get, wasting it on being afraid when you are capable of being not afraid (with some tough work, of course) is a shame.  So I have thinking about this a lot and realized that it really comes down to something that is really hard for me and presents a very significant challenge.

Sex. Sexual contact.  Assumptions. Expectations. Social Programming. The whole gambit.

I think I have mentioned this before, but I have struggled with some heavily ingrained sex negativity for most of my life.  When I was younger it was easier to articulate why I had such fears and negativity about it.  I was absolutely terrified of getting pregnant as a teenager, so I didn’t allow any activity to get close to making that happen.  Then I went to college and still was completely terrified of pregnancy.  There were lots of reasons for this that included financial fears and anxiety about being The Pregnant Woman at an all male work environment (being a woman in a technical field is tough, yo) and various other neurotic things.  A big fear was that I knew I wasn’t OK.  I was depressed, anxious, and had all kinds of negative view points about life on Planet Earth that I really didn’t want to dump onto a theoretical child.  I had the privilege of not finding myself in the situation of having to bring a kid into the world.  It was still my choice and while it was my choice I knew that I was not equipped to be a great parent.  I had a lot of emotional work to do before I would feel alright about that.

I have since changed my thoughts on the subject, as I have gotten so much healthier in the head over the years.  I think I would be a pretty decent mom now and am not so afraid of that anymore.  At this point also I have been having sex for years and haven’t had anything even remotely looking like a pregnancy scare, so I trust my birth control habits and the miracle of modern science. Hooray!

But having dealt with that fear hasn’t really handled all of the sex negativity.  I am still terrified of it often.  Not with my trusted partners, of course, but the prospect of being put in a position where I have to either say yes or no is scary and undesired.  The worst part is that I can’t even articulate what the fear is or what the thing is that my subconscious is saying when faced with even a thought about it.  There are no words right now…only anxiety and fear and the inkling to just say, “Meh, life as I know it is pretty amazing.  Why add more to the list?”

But it’s not like I just take issues off the list when I don’t feel like caring about them.  They are there for me to see and while each one isn’t the focus of every minute of every day of my life, it doesn’t mean that I should say, “This one is difficult and I don’t even know what to say about it, so screw it.”  I have never successfully done that.  It’s just not how my mind works.  When I acknowledge a problem, I want to take steps to solve it…even if the process will take a long time.

So, I’ve started to think about it a lot more and am attempting to get to the bottom of it.  When I’ve talked about it with Wes, he has said that it seems somewhat simple.  My subconscious simply believes whole heartedly that Sex is Bad.  And thinking about it, maybe that really is all it is…a primal, simple belief that can be paralyzing.  Sex is bad and I am bad for desiring it and enjoying it.  I used to think there had to be something more to it than that, but looking at how I behave now…it just seems so ridiculous.  It’s not that I don’t engage in it.  It’s just that every time I do it, I feel like I am doing something I’m not supposed to be doing and am afraid of getting caught.  Everyone in the house has seen me in this vulnerable way and doesn’t have a problem with it, yet I am afraid that I will be walked in on and that people will be mad at me or disappointed in me for engaging in sexual activity.  I feel guilty about it.  I feel like I need permission from people to be “allowed”.

Some of this I know comes from the fact that up until 4 years ago, I was monogamous.  Since that’s the way we’re supposed to be, working on enjoying sex was a noble goal as long as it was with one person.  While I feel some anxiety about needing permission and such for my sexual relationship with Wes, it’s much worse with Shaun because I feel like I’m getting away with something with him and that Wes might be angry with me or upset for some reason because I am experiencing that with someone else.  This is entirely in my own head, but it’s a hard thing to shake.  It’s especially hard when I tell someone that I am poly and live with two partners and that person reacts like I’m not only crazy and naïve, but also a slut to be shamed.  It’s hard enough being female in a slut shaming society.  Add to that the fact that there is an assumption that non-monogamous people are automatically sluts and it’s a hard thing to not believe (in the “I have not reclaimed the word slut as a positive thing yet” kind of way).

Ugh, just writing all that out makes me a little depressed and anxious because I am not sure what to do about it.

The other part of this is that I am not particularly experienced (in terms of many partners) and since becoming poly, I have had only a few brief dating experiences outside of Shaun and in many of these experiences I have gotten into sexual situations I didn’t want to be in.  Last night I was thinking about it and got a little bit freaked out.  For instance, Shaun (in trying to make me feel better, citing an example of when I was adventurous at a party) talked about us being at a party and me kissing a couple of people in front of him.  I felt bad saying so, but the people I did that with in this particular case I felt them pressuring me.  The guy I was thinking of was hanging around and saw me kiss someone I actually wanted to and then decided that it was his turn and made me feel really uncomfortable about it.  I could’ve have said no, but I thought that made me a prude or something so I did it even though it was really something I didn’t want.  The other experiences were variations on that, some more traumatic than others (one in particular was downright scary and I still get skeeved thinking about it).  While all my other relationships weren’t disasters that make me want to ball up into the fetal position and never show or receive interest in people again, the percentage of ones that HAVE been that way at times is pretty high.

So all this results in a few different things.  The first is that, for the most part, I don’t look at people this way.  Sometimes I might be attracted to someone though and these fears and memories result in me not flirting.  What’s scary about flirting? Well, it might go somewhere and I might have to make a decision, of course!  Because of all these fears, I don’t quite understand my attraction.  If I don’t like someone who likes me, I have to question whether I am not attracted to them because of my issues or because I’m just not interested.  I usually assume that it’s something wrong with me and engage in activity that I don’t really want to because I think it’s a form of therapy or something.  If I do actually like the person, I am afraid that they will turn out to be terrible or that I don’t really have permission to enjoy someone new.  I don’t know who it always is I am looking for permission from…usually Wes because monogamy mindset I guess, but not always.  The underlying problem is that I have a hard time giving permission to MYSELF.  Sex is bad and I am bad desiring it and wanting it.

So how the hell do I stop feeling this way?  Do I need a sex therapist? I consider it but I am apprehensive about finding someone who won’t tell me every week that I am fucked up about sex because I am non-monogamous. But there’s clearly some deep seeded truths in me that are persistent and destructive.  I desperately want this part of my inner workings to leave me alone.  I don’t want it gone because I want to suddenly feel great about sleeping with everyone I meet or whatever.  I want it gone because it makes me sad to be closed off to possibilities.  Having this with me also means that I struggle with certain types of social anxiety because I’m scared of sexuality being an aspect of socializing.  I often consider my being at a party a success if I spend the entire time being contentedly alone (like at conference or something) or not being hit on.  But I remember that flirting and new friendships/other relationships can be fun and rewarding and the solution to this set of problems is not to just disengage.

It’s a lot to deal with but I want to deal with it and make it something that I am vigilant about and am not suffering from.  I’m so close to getting a handle on all the major things that cause me sadness and fear.  It’s just that this one runs very deep and will require more excavating before I can simply put it in the museum and remember the times when it used to be prominent in the culture of me.

So here’s to dusting off and reorganizing My List once again. Progress and growth will reign supreme.

I’m going to need more wine.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Therapy: The Stuff You Do by Yourself – Sex Negativity Edition

  1. Wow! I have very similar feelings!
    In fact I have a BBQ tomorrow that may involve flirting and I’m both excited and terrified about where it may lead. Eeek.
    So, yes you’re not alone. The details are different but I think the underlying neurosis is shared by me … and others most likely.

    I really like the idea of a self-improvement list so I’ll steal that with your permission.

    I presume you have had a lot of early sex -ve advice and experience and by ‘early’ I mean child/adolescent-hood much like myself.
    I was brought up a fairly strict muslim and suffered physical, sexual, emotional and neglectful abuse but it doesn’t have to be that extreme for the impact of sex -ve upbringing to impair your interpersonal skills.
    I suffer from depression and mild social phobia and recently my therapy is pointing towards BPD -borderline personality disorder. The labels are not important, what’s important is that the roots of my emotional deficiencies seem to be the scars of early childhood.
    The more I learn about brain development, esp. infancy & childhood, and the more people i meet with similar symptoms, the more it seems that my -ve childhood experiences have had a terrible toll on my emotional stability.

    Is it possible that your upbringing is responsible for the misfiring in your brain? That feelings of disgust/anxiety of sex can be the relics of early cultural/familial/religious training? I think so, at least for me.

    Much like you I can rationally understand that sex is +ve and in the last year have been exploring my sexual and relationship orientations. At the moment I’m fairly certain I’m bi & poly but it’s early days and i have a lot of support from my wife (we do have a kid btw and I still feel i’m not ready for fatherhood). However, my emotions haven’t caught up yet, no matter how rational I am, my emotions seem to be overwhelmingly primitive and unjustified.
    My interpersonal exploration has come after 2 decades of cultural/religious exploration the end point of which is that I’m firmly an atheist and improving my skepticism daily. I feel the 2 journeys (cultural & interpersonal) are very similar, they are about de-programming (or re-programming) oneself after being taught certain ‘truths’ about the world. It’s difficult to change your mind, it’s harder to challenge beliefs and seemingly impossible to change your emotional reactions. It’s as if emotions are more like reflexes than cognition. The best I have been able to do is manage my unjustified emotions while I attempt at finding the best way to change them.

    Because I’m new to poly, as I’ve been new to to other things in the past, I know I’ll make mistakes. That’s something we have to accept.
    I do some comedy improv with a small group and one of the greatest lessons for me was learning to embrace my ‘mistakes’ as if I meant them. I’m normally overly critical of myself and am devastated when I make even the smallest of errors, I set the bar so high that it’s impossible to achieve. When I inevitably failed I’d berate myself and spiral into a deep immovable depression. Learning the joy in failure saved me. All my previously held mistakes (relationships or otherwise) became the milestones of new parts of my journey, necessary falls and scrapes that moved me toward a fuller understanding of myself, my abilities and my limitations. I hope you find that every kiss you didn’t want was a way of building pressure in you to be brave enough to say ‘thank you, but NO thank you.’ Those shouldn’t be regrettable moments, they are the falls every cyclist makes before being able to cycle. Learning experiences, lessons in life, the testing of boundaries. Through those moments we eventually learn the landscape of what we want/need and what we can offer. Through that landscape we then can negotiate our way better than if we were ignorant to it all.

    I too suffer from anxiety and am learning to manage that too. As I understand it, it wont disappear, it may dissipate a little but mainly I need to be vigilant and catch myself before I react unnecessarily. Sometimes I feel an emotion and react impulsively for better or worse. I do some DBT therapy that helps in putting a wedge between the emotion and the action. I messed up my relationship with my boyfriend last year, luckily he’s very understanding and we’re still friends. Which brings me nicely to my last point, sorry if I’m rambling.

    I learnt recently I can choose who I spend time with. I started differentiating the ‘toxic’ people from the ‘supportive’ people. Most of my biological family didn’t fair very well and I have since slowly (not rudely) distanced myself from them. That trapped, anxious feeling of someone walking in on me while making love or masturbating has ebbed away. I saw my brother recently and for the first time cared nothing about how he felt about my culturo-religio-sexual choices. For the first time I was me. self-certain, self-assured, unblushingly me.

    I don’t know if any of this has helped you, but it has helped me enormously.
    thank you for being so honest, you’ve really touched me deeply ❤
    I hope you find what works for you and that you experiment until you find the best way for you.
    From one depressed-poly-skeptic to another,
    keep strong, keep loving yourself, keep thinking
    Musa x

  2. *great gentle hugs* And, seriously, get out of my head.

    “While all my other relationships weren’t disasters that make me want to ball up into the fetal position and never show or receive interest in people again, the percentage of ones that HAVE been that way at times is pretty high.” SO MUCH THIS.

    And being raised Catholic certainly hasn’t helped me in embracing sex-positivity at all. I hate dating SO much because of the pressure and expectations I assume exist because they so often do. I’m lucky to have great relationships currently, but there is a huge ball of trauma and loathing related to trying to meet and date new people.

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