What’s wrong with you? Other women have orgasms. Maybe you were just made defective.
What are you—an animal? Only bad girls like sex.
Who are you to enjoy sex?
Be careful, hold back; if you really let go you might break down and fall apart. You will have no control over yourself.
Don’t show him how you feel; you will be too vulnerable, and he will take advantage of you.
These are just some of the destructive inner voices that countless female friends and clients have recounted to me that were getting in the way of them fully enjoying sex. So many women put pressure on themselves when it comes to sex with thoughts like: "If you were a real woman, you would have an orgasm" or "you’d better fake it so you don’t disappoint him." They also experience “critical inner voices” about their partner that interfere with closeness like: "He’s so clumsy; He’s just not sexy; He can’t make you feel good; He doesn’t care about your pleasure, he only cares about himself."
All of these thoughts undermine a person’s ability to orgasm. They take us out of our bodies and into our heads, one step removed from the physical sensations we may otherwise be experiencing. They encourage us to tense up and resist fully experiencing a sexual encounter. The emotional closeness or passion we may have experienced with our partner is interrupted, and we are no longer in contact. We may start to see sex as something to “get through” or even “endure.” But where do these destructive attitudes toward our sexuality, our partners and sex in general come from? In my personal and professional experience, I’ve found that only when we answer this question can we truly get out of our heads and back into our bodies, fully embracing our sexuality and feeling the full pleasure it can bring.
Although it can be hard to connect some of the dots at first, when we really explore the roots of our sexuality, we find that negative attitudes about sex and our own sexuality often stem from our early experiences in childhood, along with our previous experiences with sexuality. We may have learned to feel bad about our bodies or to see them as dirty, because we had caretakers who were unloving or felt uncomfortable with physical contact with us. Or we may have had parents who invaded our boundaries and left us feeling like we needed to protect ourselves against intrusion. Research has even demonstrated that having experienced an insecure attachment can contribute to a dissatisfying sex life, as well as emotional struggles in close intimate relationships.
On a cultural level, critical thoughts about the sexual parts of our bodies can stem from living in a society that is constantly defining sexy as having a “perfect” body. On a personal level, having parents who criticized our looks or tried to help us appear “okay” or “fix” us can leave us with insecurities about our physicality and appearance. I have a friend who, when she was a young girl, had a mother who took her to get waxed regularly, from an early age because her daughter’s hairiness embarrassed her. My friend grew up uncertain about her femininity and feeling she always had to hide her body.
A negative body image can keep us in our heads during sex. But sometimes this sense of shame strikes even further below the surface. Many people have a deep-seated sense of guilt about their sexuality, believing that sex itself is dirty or wrong. Even today, many children receive the message that sex is sinful or immoral. These beliefs may be internalized and later leave a person conflicted in a sexual situation, holding back feeling fully excited, because that would be a sin or proof that they are bad.
Both societal and family influences have a serious (albeit unconscious) effect on our views of sex. However, some of these effects are harder to identify and make sense of than others. For example, how our mother experienced her own sexuality, how she felt about her body and how she conducted her romantic relationships provide a role model that has a significant impact on how we experience our own sexuality. If our mother gave up her sexuality or retreated from having love in her life, we may feel guilty to have more in our adult lives than she does. Psychiatrist and author, Joseph C. Rheingold, once said “A woman may bring any number of assets to marriage—compassion, wisdom, intelligence, skills, an imaginative spirit, delight-giving femininity, good humor, friendliness, pride in a job well done—but if she does not bring emancipation from her mother, the assets may wither or may be overbalanced by the liability of the fear of being a woman.”
Many women I’ve worked with have revealed that when they achieved a combination of emotional and sexual intimacy with a man, they felt it broke the connection or sense of safety they felt from the “fantasy bond” they’d long experienced with their mothers. This illusion of fusion leaves many women with a feeling of fear about “growing up” or becoming fully differentiated from their mother or other prominent parental figures. Although these feelings are largely unconscious, they can affect many women specifically in relation to their sexuality.
Furthermore, if we experienced rejection or mistreatment when we were young, then achieving that combination of emotional and sexual intimacy may stir up deep feelings of sadness. If we allow ourselves to be fully present and in touch with our bodies during sex, we may be overwhelmed with sadness. Therefore, we may hold back from letting go in order to avoid experiencing this underlying primal pain. Fully feeling this level of closeness with another person can make us acutely aware of our existence, an existence which feels especially precious in those moments. This can bring up the painful sadness that accompanies the realization of our temporal nature.
This may help explain why some people find it easier to be free sexually and experience orgasm in more casual sexual encounters than in close, long-term relationships. Another reason for this may be that they feel less vulnerable in these situations and more in control. When one is loved and valued in the context of a close romantic relationship, it often brings up feelings of vulnerability and challenges a negative self-image the person has long possessed. While this may sound like a positive thing, it can also feel really threatening and leave the person feeling disoriented and separated from their family of origin and the defenses/adaptations made early on. In addition, being committed to another person and depending on him or her for sexual satisfaction may stir up issues around trust and defenses that we may have adopted of being pseudo-independent and self-sufficient.
Another significant childhood experience that may contribute to difficulty fully enjoying sexuality in a close relationship is sexual abuse. If someone was sexually abused as a child, particularly if the abuser was a caretaker, combining emotional closeness and sexuality may stir up memories associated with the abuse. Some people who have suffered such abuse can easily have casual sex, but once the relationship becomes more serious or committed, they struggle sexually, because the suppressed memories start to surface. They can occur like flashbacks, without a specific memory arising but just a feeling that the person is back in the terrifying experience of being abused as a child.
The first step in overcoming barriers to achieving the combination of emotional and sexual closeness that many people long for is to cultivate a compassionate attitude toward oneself. People can begin to explore and understand the issues that get in their way, with a sense of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and a loving attitude toward themselves. In the sexual situation, they can make a conscious effort to stay in their bodies without getting distracted by critical inner voices sabotaging their experience of sexuality and closeness. Outside of the sexual situation, they can reflect on how they feel, while being intimate and paying attention to any sensations, images, thoughts or feelings that come up when they picture a close sexual encounter.
It is important to recognize that we all come by our limitations honestly and that any feelings we have are acceptable. When we begin to challenge our critical inner voices and face the pain of our past, we can come to be our true selves and have pleasure in our own sexuality and experience the joys of a close, fulfilling sexual relationship.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org