Learning and Unlearning Shame: My Journey toward Sexual Fulfillment
June 11, 2019
When I think of shame I think of this
The day my dad found out I lost my virginity, he walked out of the house into one of the fields on our farm. I remember trying to make out his facial expressions from hundreds of feet away. I also remember wondering whether my step mom, who stood beside him in the field, was making it better or worse for me.
Hours earlier I arrived home from school and had asked my dad if my boyfriend could come over for dinner (we’ll call him John). As usual, he said yes. He liked John, John was an attractive athlete, he was also a Christian (a bonus) and, best of all, he was submissive to my dad in all the right ways (save puns for later, folks) – he referred to him by his last name and laughed at his jokes.
I had just gotten off the phone with John when I went back to the den to tell my dad he was on his way over. Suddenly my dad was unresponsive to me, he wouldn’t even look at me. At first I assumed he was interested in something else, perhaps finishing a final sentence on some website. But when I tried again he just stared blankly forward with an intentional stoicism that I knew well. “What now?” I thought. Home life at that time was always so tumultuous. Both my dad and step mom had tempers and neither one could entertain any patience with the kids – me especially.
At this point I was in a panic. I knew I was in trouble but had no idea for what. I ran into the master bathroom where my step mom was getting ready for the evening. “Why won’t dad talk to me?” I shouted. She told me that the principal had just called and he had informed my dad that he had reason to believe I had been having sex with John. Immediately my heart sunk. “Shit,” I thought. “How the fuck would they know that? What is this going to mean for my relationship? Is John going to dump me? He’s going to hate me for sure.”
But I couldn’t call him. He was already on his way, and this was years before cellphones became a “thing.” My panic increased. I was pleading with my dad to talk to me about it, shaking and tugging at his shirt sleeve as he sat at the computer desk. But dad continued to ignore me until John’s jeep pulled up when at once he stood up, freeing his arm from my grasp with a hard fling of his shoulder, running out the back door – my step mom trailing close behind as she yelled; “he better not come in here, Abbie!”
Was God the culprit?
Fast forward an hour later. John and I had found ourselves sitting on one of the steps on the back porch, trying to figure out how the principal would have known we had been having sex. Did John tell his friends? Did my friends tell the principal? Was God the culprit?
Both John and I had resigned to the fact that neither one of us would ever see the other one again. I couldn’t even cry, I was totally numb, lump in my throat, anxiety filling to the brim. Then suddenly John stood up,cupped both of his hands to either side of his mouth before yelling to my dad in the field; “I WOULDN’T HAVE DONE IT IF I DIDN’T LOVE HER!”
The emotion I felt in my naïve 16-year-old body was an odd mixture of extreme infatuation for John’s unconcealed display of love for me and a feeling of utter humiliation. “God,” I whispered, “Please kill me now.”
The truth comes out
The next day I called my mom to complain. Through exasperated curse-filled sentences I explained to her what had happened. She, was furious. She immediately connected the dots. At this time, my mom lived an hour North of my dad’s house. John, consequently lived three hours North. John was 19, he had graduated from our high school two years prior and I was working on finishing school a year early in order to be with him as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we would meet on the weekends at my mom’s house – halfway between his house and mine.
One weekend prior to the principal debacle, my mom had left to visit my sister in another state.She asked if John and I would be willing to watch her cat while she was gone. Of course, we said yes. Unfortunately, some of the other family members found out we would be alone at her house for the weekend. One of these family members happened to be a superintendent of a Washington state school district, making him a mandated reporter.
In retrospect, I can respect why my uncle did what he did. Despite the fact that John and I had been together for two years, legally, he was an adult and there could have been serious consequences to him if charges would have been pressed. I also have a healthy respect for anyone that might view my mom’s actions as problematic. But, let’s just say, I was a handful. I didn’t believe my uncle whom I never spoke to really did what he did because he cared for my well-being, I just thought he was being a nosey asshole. As a mandated reporter today, I know it must have been a difficult decision, but I’ll allow you to make your own judgements.
Shame and its lasting impacts
How many “this is how I lost my virginity” stories do we share in women-only circles? Over wine and cheese it’s the perfect “lets become best friends” conversation. It reveals so much about us: the way we were raised, who we are as individuals, how we relate to men/women/authority figures/etc., and it provides us an opportunity to dig deep. Not every woman has the same story, but many of us have similar stories. Those stories manifest into beliefs and set the foundation for our cultural values.
The reason I wanted to tell this story is because of the impact it had on me, both the self concept I developed around this experience – and others like it– but also the way it impacted my ability to develop healthy relationships with men.
As a young girl being raised in a Christian home, I was taught that sex belonged within the confines of marriage – marriage to a cisgender man. At school I was taught that the worst thing a girl could be was a “slut” and I didn’t have any space to discover my own sexuality because touching and exploring my body, as a girl, was considered something to be ashamed of.
I remember the first time I had sex I cried. Not because I truly felt a “loss” of some kind, but I distinctly remember thinking that I should be crying. There was something that I should be feeling. To be honest, my first time was pretty sweet. My boyfriend and I were both teenagers we had talked about it a lot beforehand and we both decided how it would be done. I was ready and so was he. Really, it was perfect.
Of course, describing my first time as “perfect” doesn’t automatically equate to “great sex.” I didn’t experience what I would consider “great sex” until my early to mid 20s and even then it was a result of chance – being with a partner who “just knew” what my body required. In fact, from the time I began having sex until I was 25 years of age, I thought that was how sexual compatibility worked. My partner and I were just…compatible. You meet someone, sexual attraction happens, you have sex and BOOM it all works out the way its “supposed to.” But what does that mean?
Let’s back up.
Formulating an understanding of my own sexuality
I began college at Portland State University in the Winter of 2010. I had just turned 21 and moved in to my first apartment with my then boyfriend (we’ll call him Jeff). Jeff and I had sex pretty irregularly. By this time we had been together for about a year. Slowly over that time I lost interest in having sex with him. In fact, I distinctly remember not wanting to have sex with Jeff. I remember sensing when he was turned on and how repulsed I became by the idea after a while.
Jeff and I would go weeks without sex and he would regularly pester me about it. He was so frustrated, and, understandably, feeling rejected by my lack of interest. I often remember “letting him” have sex with me as a way to shut him up. I told myself that sex always turned out well (its always been pretty easy for me to experience vaginal orgasm), so I figured I should just be a good girlfriend and have sex with him. But there was always this emptiness that followed those sessions. I felt used even though I knew he loved me, invisible even though I knew he desired my body. I was still so much in love with Jeff and even had a strong sexual attraction toward him, but I didn’t have any sexual desire for him. I remember feeling very lost at this time.
It wasn’t until about a year later that I started to gain some insight into this problem. I was a sophomore by this time and had enrolled in a human sexuality course that everyone on campus was raving about. The professor was incredible. He was a mixture of the sweaty rawness of Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (I mean, really really sweaty) and the quiet intellect of Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. I looked up to this man. He wore his heart on his sleeve, he wore his sexuality on his sleeve. He was an open book and I ate it all up. I was probably the most vocal student in class. With every point made I had a follow up question, or posed a potential answer. I wanted debate, I wanted possibilities. We talked about sexuality as a spectrum and the differences between female sexuality and male sexuality – we interrogated our sexual culture, and it was exactly what I needed.
During this 12 week course, the topic that kept me the most wide eyed were the intersecting concepts of female sexuality and shame. Cross-examining concepts of desire, sexualit(ies), and sexual morality was fascinating to me and directly applicable to every moment of my life up until that point. These conversations quenched a thirst I didn’t even realize I had. I felt empowered to explore and to reclaim my sexuality. While this conclusion was valid, the way I applied it to my relationship with Jeff was not. I felt like I had discovered something I had been missing and I needed to work through it, but because I loved Jeff, I didn’t want to end our relationship. I thought an obvious answer was to open the relationship, so I asked him Jeff if he would be willing to do it.
To be honest, I cant remember the conversations we had about it. But ultimately we agreed and I started sleeping with other people. Instead of following suit, Jeff became increasingly anxious and possessive. It was obvious he wasn’t happy with the arrangement. But, in practice, I didn’t care. I thought I had found the answer to my problem – if I wasn’t happy with the sex I was having with Jeff then I needed to find partners I did enjoy sex with and that was my right, right?
My relationship with Jeff ended shortly after and we moved apart. What I learned after my relationship with Jeff was that not only did I need to be vocal about my sexual desires, but I had the right to do so. The open relationship concept was an answer I thought would fix this problem because I just believed that Jeff and I lacked a fundamental sexual compatibility. But I got something very wrong.
Where does all this confusion come from?
Western culture has taught women that female sexuality is a myth. For a long time medical professionals believed that the clitoris had no real function, because why would women* have a sexual organ dedicated only to sexual pleasure? I was taught that because women don’t have sexual desire, that when they do it is a result of sinful intent. A woman’s weapon is her poisonous sensuality, after all.
As a girl, I discovered pleasure early. I enjoyed touching myself and understood it as what it is, an enjoyable act. But the messages I learned from the boys at school and the religion I was raised in distorted my perception of my body and of myself. And I developed into a young woman that had learned to stifle all pleasure for the pleasure of someone else.
I remember early sexual experiences being so concerned with how my body might look while I was experiencing pleasure that I barred myself from experiencing real, uninhibited pleasure at all. What mattered most, of course, was the experience of my male partner. Was my body contorted in such a way that he was able to see me as the sexually attractive woman I should be? This was the only way that I could deduce value from my sexual experiences. My sexual relationship with Jeff was the culmination of years of this kind of indoctrination. It wasn’t Jeff’s fault he was taught the same lessons. To simplify it: find a woman, get (read: inspire, encourage, in some cases coerce) her to sleep with you. Women want to be “chased” after all.
We like to act like these messages aren’t at the core of so many of the challenges we face in our lives, we like to think we are stronger and more intelligent than that. But how is it that both men and women know exactly which roles to play on a date when neither communicated about it beforehand?
Communication is the key
I believed that the answer to my problem was finding that perfect compatibility. I believed my answer was found in that classroom – that just knowing I had the right to ask for what I wanted was all I needed to know in order to experience real sexual pleasure. But the problem was that I equated “asking” with “seeking”, I never really verbalized my needs at all. Not when it counted. And that’s the real challenge isn’t it? It’s one thing to be awoken to possibility, it’s another to realize the grueling misery of commitment.
What would have my relationship with Jeff been like if I was able to tell him that the way we were having sex was not enjoyable for me? What if I was able to tell him how to make me feel turned on and to desire him? Can all that was lost in the years after Jeff be quantified; when I was still learning my body and finding my voice? And in my formative years, what if instead of being raised to believe that my own sexual exploration should be reduced to shame, and my sexual purity a mark of my father’s success, I was taught that I had a body with parts that had a purpose purely for pleasure? What if I was taught the boundaries associated with that pleasure? Could I have found partners that listened to not only my body but my mind, too? What if I was taught that my sexual pleasure was also a location of individuality? Would I have allowed my limbs to contort with freedom in front of the eyes of both men and women?
What I have learned through trial and error is that sexual compatibility comes as a result of a commitment both to oneself as well as one’s partner and learning how to communicate can be even harder than spitting out the first words. Commitment to communicating your sexual needs is terrifying. Especially for women who have been taught that claiming sexual desire is fundamental to everything that is non-woman. But it is necessary to living a sexually fulfilled life. Shame has no place in pleasure, so let’s start talking about it. I am only now learning to speak my truth in this way and while it is a challenging journey it is one of the most fulfilling. What I know for certain is that joy in the form of sexual pleasure is both senseless and sensible – and it is okay. So I’m going to keep asking for it.
*It is important to note that not only women (read: cisgender women, but in some cases trans women) have clitorises. Many trans men and non-binary/gender non-conforming and intersex people have clitorises.
Abbie Robinson is a third-year graduate student of social work at Boston University. As a future child and family therapist, Abbie is interested in the ways adolescent experiences shape an individual’s adult relationships and self-concept. Abbie holds a Bachelors degree in psychology and women’s studies with a special focus in sexualities, gender and queer studies from Portland State University. She has a passion for feminist theory, youth advocacy, and rich conversation. On a rare free day you can find her in the Hawthorne district buying earrings and sipping on a soy latte.