I was a virgin long past what is considered normal and acceptable in this country’s sex-obsessed culture. Due to the intensive and extended nature of my mental illness, my desire to be sexually active faded into the background as the fight for my life took priority.
My mother never actually took the time to educate me on what to expect. I watched the standard film produced by the sanitary napkin company in 6th grade, then when I got my first period, my mother slapped me across the face (a Jewish tradition). “Now you’re a woman,” she congratulated me. I was shocked and remained puzzled, but I kept my feelings to myself.
The question of birth control and sex never came up because I never had a boyfriend; not through high school or college. I convinced myself I was too busy with my studies and varsity sports to worry about such trivial things. I became more self-conscious when l graduated from college a virgin and my softball coach (a man) suggested I go into therapy to deal with my “relationship issues.” Which my therapist and I never seemed to get around to.
Until the third or fourth year of my current therapy with Dr. Adena,* I wasn't comfortable using the correct terms for parts of men's and women’s bodies and using words like masturbation and fellatio. I felt “dirty” and ashamed using words like those as if using them is only suitable to do in private as is the act. I don’t know where I learned them; certainly not from my parents who never kissed or even held hands in my brother’s or my presence.
Having come to this position later in life, I have great patience and empathy for others who also have difficulty articulating sexual terms and phrases. I am also aware when my patients are struggling to find the right word, that they may be hesitating to say what they are thinking out of shame or embarrassment. A woman may refer to her period as “my friend” or her vagina as “down there.” A man, instead of saying that he had sex the night before, says, “You know, we uh, did it.”
I find that because I am now comfortable with using definitive sexual terms I can gently prompt and encourage my patients to do the same. When a man says “it,” I ask him if he means sex. When I show him with my demeanor that I am not embarrassed by using these straightforward expressions, hopefully it will encourage him to begin to use them as well. If not that day, perhaps in the future
Just as I became gradually more comfortable a word or two at a time with gentle encouragement and moderate exposure over an extended period of sessions, I hope that my patients who cling to a measure of embarrassment about verbalizing their feelings regarding sex can also relinquish their hesitation.
Being able to say vagina and penis feels good; the lack of shame and embarrassment is liberating. Not only in therapy, but wherever the topic arises; with friends or lovers, in mixed company or just among us girls. Straightforward sex talk is a different kind of freedom of speech.
* Names have been changed