My friend and I were sitting in a café talking about sex. The topic of the day: women who have never had orgasms. My friend had known a few.
“The thing is, none of them even masturbate,” she said.
“Maybe they are ashamed,” I said, “People will still tell you that masturbation is shameful. I went to a confirmation class in Catholic school, and they told me that masturbating would make sex with my eventual husband worse.”
Her eyes narrowed, “How old were you when they told you this?”
I shrugged. “I dunno, eight?”
She put her hand to her heart. “That is so messed up on so many levels,” she said, “I am actually heartbroken that anyone would say that to eight-year-old you.”
In reflection, so am I.
Sometimes I stop to marvel at my current community. I consider my friends to be some of the most sexually and socially liberated people I have ever met: conscious, poly, queer-friendly and generally experimental — a far throw from my conservative Catholic school upbringing way down below the Mason-Dixon line.
And yet I find myself in a strange and frustrating position: I do not feel sexually liberated. In the midst of this kinky, free-loving, power-of-touch centric, tantric yoniverse, I feel sexually stifled.
I’ve been taking my mental trowel to my emotional dirt to try and discover why this is. What I’ve unearthed: I think I have sexual aversions, left buried in my subconscious for a long time. This feels strange to say, because I love sex. My last partner used to call me insatiable.
It is the new person, the person who approaches in the beginning stages of flirtation and gently or boldly begins to try and take me with them to the next level—it is to this person I am adverse. This person will often send me fleeing for the hills.
Why is this? I’ve wondered and wondered. The possibility that arises is one that frightens me: in spite of years of living amongst radical friends and my own attempts at reprogramming, maybe I am still expecting a husband, and, worse, maybe I still think sex is a sin.
What did I learn in Catholic school? What did I learn in church? I learned to be careful with my heart and my body, so careful, in fact, that I should rarely open them for anyone. To do so for the pursuit of pleasure, I learned, would be a dangerous road that will lead to stress, abandonment, heartbreak and disease.
I learned that the only safe (and morally acceptable) road would be to wait for the person who will commit to spending their life with me, relieving me of the pain of pursuit and the danger of heartbreak. This person would arrive like a savior and whisk me into a heaven of romance, sex, love and stability and I wouldn’t feel the need to give in to loneliness ever again.
At least, this is the impression such teachings made on eight-year-old me.
I remember being given a card at the end of that confirmation class. On it was printed a vow to save my virginity for my husband, with a line waiting for my signature. I knew the world I was living in. I knew if only from movies and overheard conversations that to wait for marriage would put me into a very tiny minority of my chosen peers. I threw the card away. I can’t help but wonder, though, how much the implications of that vow weaseled into me and how has it manifested in my adult life?
I reflect: how many times have I mentally talked down someone who was interested in me so I would no longer be motivated to pursue them? How many times have I pursued people who I knew were not available? Why did it take me so many years to learn to be comfortable with allowing myself to be touched, to touch others? Why was I a virgin so long after my friends had started having intercourse?
It seems to me that I simultaneously hold potential partners to the standard of this illustrious, rode-in-on-a-white-horse “husband” (will this person be able to commit? Will they “complete me”?) and yet feel most attracted to the people who will obviously (at least, it’s obvious in retrospect) not be available for me emotionally.
I believe I am not alone in these struggles. I watch others wrestle with the conditioning from their own conservative upbringings when suddenly faced with challenges in their relationships. I see such people either cling to their relationship as the thing that can validate them, completely reject their relationship out of fear that it is carrying them towards the type of nuclear, hetero-normative, married family life they decided to escape, or enact some dark medley of both.
My friend asked if I thought it would help to get together with other people who grew up in conservative religious environments who share my belief that these teachings can be destructive: talk it out, share our experiences, feel less alone in a radicalized world. Maybe that’s what it would take to heal the old teachings that have barbed onto our hearts and souls.
Because the truth is that ideas of family and ideal forms for our relationships to take are rapidly changing. Not only is gay marriage now legal across the US, but there is also a growing community of people who are rejecting any intention to enter into a traditional legal marriage as a matter of personal choice. We are becoming single parents. We are becoming triads. We are painstakingly negotiating open relationships. We are choosing to fly solo. We are carefully considering the question of children. We are cautiously and courageously shaping lives that hold space for the relationships we really want, and trying to release the beliefs that hold us back from them.
I am not attached to the idea of getting married (although I’m not opposed to it either), I’m just attached to the idea of having a life full of sensuality and love, and I’m tired of the implication—implications still being taught to children, no less!—that in order to achieve it I need to find someone to marry me, and that without that someone my life will always be at least a little bit lonely, a little bit barren.
What if we started teaching children (and, honestly, adults, too) how to highly value all of their relationships? What if we started to embrace the choice to live outside of monogamy as equally valid and rich to a married life with kids? Are we teaching them how to feel validated without a partner, how to challenge gender roles that the traditional portrayal of marriage often idealizes, how to live a life of their choosing?
It seems by not teaching each other the tools to navigate the fluid and complex pathways of love (like, for example, teaching them that touching yourself is a healthy way to find out how you like to be pleased instead of treating it like something you should be ashamed of) many of us are ending up floating through the seas of society without having learned how to swim.
If I want to live in a network of lovers, past lovers and intimate friends, I am left to my own devices to find the tools to do so. For me, it is an uncharted road and considered by many in my life to be a futile one to walk.
However, the world around me is changing and I want to change with it. I want to break through the simultaneous fear of commitment and loneliness to be able to explore all the possibilities available to me. Slowly, day-by-day, I take that trowel to the dirt and separate the garbage from the flowers.