‘Catholic guilt is ruining my sex life’: Tracey Cox talks to women who struggle with shame caused by their religious upbringing – and reveals the 12 signs YOU might be sexually repressed
- Sex expert Tracey Cox explored how religion had influenced women’s sex life
- She shared the 12 signs that you might be sexually repressed without knowing
- Reveals how to free yourself from shame and enjoy healthy relationship with sex
‘I was so envious of the other girls who had boyfriends and were able to experiment with sex without hating themselves afterwards.
‘Three therapists and two husbands later, I still can’t orgasm.
‘I left the church because I didn’t want my daughter to grow up like I did: fearful of men and terrified of sex.’
Did you grow up in a strict, religious household? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely you experience some kind of sexual shame.
Feeling shameful or guilty for wanting or enjoying sex makes it almost impossible to have a healthy, well-adjusted sex life and relationship.
But it’s not just religious or conservative parents who instill negative messages about sex in their children.
Sex expert Tracey Cox talks to women who struggle with feelings of shame and guilt in bed. Pictured, stock image
You might have had a mum or dad who were promiscuous in their past and a little overly zealous about warning you against the possible consequences.
Rape or sexual abuse can obviously leave us feeling highly distressed about sex, making it difficult to desire or enjoy it; so can struggling with your sexual orientation.
Gender roles – society telling us women who enjoy sex are ‘sluts’ or men being taught women don’t really enjoy it – can also lead to sexual shame and repression.
As children, we’re sponges: we absorb a lot of our beliefs about life by simply watching other people as we grow up. The result is often an adult who struggles with relationships – without really knowing why.
I asked women to tell me their stories of how shame has affected their sex lives. Here’s what they told me.
WE WERE BOTH VIRGINS AND CATHOLICS AND SEX WAS A DISASTER
Tracey, pictured, says you can ‘reprogramme’ yourself to enjoy sex guilt-free
Sarah, 32, experienced deep sexual shame but was ‘rescued’ by a boyfriend’s mother who helped her normalise sex
‘My first memory is my mother barging into my room and shouting at me to stop what I was doing. She slapped my hands and told me to stop touching myself, that it was a sin. She was very distressed and upset.
I can’t remember actually masturbating – I was very young – but I vividly remember the punishment.
I went to a Catholic school and both my parents were devout Catholics. I got three messages about sex: you should be heterosexual, you shouldn’t have sex before marriage and sex was for making babies not pleasure.
When I first had sex – with a boyfriend of four years – I was 22. He was also Catholic and between the two of us, the guilt was palpable. The sex was awkward and we both felt weird afterward.
Intellectually, we knew it was normal for us to want to have sex and that we had the right to enjoy it. But it was like our bodies didn’t want us to. We broke up soon after: I think we both knew we needed to be with partners who weren’t religious if we were to have any hope at all of having a normal sex life.
12 SIGNS YOU COULD BE SEXUALLY REPRESSED
1. Thinking about sex makes you feel embarrassed or ashamed, rather than excited.
2. You don’t masturbate or, if you do, feel guilty and ‘bad’ afterwards.
3. You find sex unpleasant and unenjoyable and rarely experience pleasure.
4. Your parents told you sex was ‘dirty’ or should be done purely for procreation purposes.
5. You feel disgusted with yourself if you experience sexual desire or arousal.
6. You don’t have sexual fantasies and, if you do, feel shameful.
7. You don’t like talking about sex and feel extremely uncomfortable watching sex scenes in a film or TV show.
8. You have difficulty enjoying sex with a partner you love.
9. You feel anxious and fearful if you’re about to have sex.
10. You judge yourself harshly if you have sexual thoughts that don’t fit with your belief system.
11. You find it difficult to orgasm or have never had one.
12. You don’t like looking at yourself naked.
It DOESN’T mean you’re repressed if:
1. You don’t want to try new things.
2. You’re not interested in exploring adventurous sexual activities (like BDSM or anal sex).
3. You only want to have sex in a committed relationship.
4. You’ve have only had one or a few sexual partners.
5. You’d rather wait until you really know someone before having sex with them.
6. You have a very low sex drive
A few boyfriends later, I hit gold. Matt’s parents weren’t religious at all and he taught me to think of sex as something amazing rather than evil.
But it was really his Mum who rescued me: I would talk to her for hours about my upbringing and she was so kind and supportive. She never bad-mouthed the Catholic church or my parents, just gently steered me in a healthier direction.
I was with Matt four years in total and when we broke up, we remained friends. I still see his Mum on the odd occasion, even though he’s now married.
I am with a long-term partner (no strong religious beliefs) and our sex life is pretty good. But I have never been able to masturbate successfully and I still experience guilt, even though I’m able to rationalise it eventually.
It’s often at the point of orgasm that I feel the most shame which, as you can imagine, isn’t ideal. What’s really unfair about all this is that kids don’t choose their religious upbringing.
I didn’t choose to be Catholic or become indoctrinated with the church’s values. It was forced on me.’
HIS RELIGIOUS MOTHER TOLD HIM ‘HAVE FUN BUT DON’T GET SERIOUS’
Emily dated Rob, a devout Christian, when she was 24 and found it a degrading experience.
‘I grew up in an Atheist household and my parents divorced when I was 13. They were both very open about sex and while I was told it was something you did with people you love, there certainly weren’t any negative connotations.
I was 25 when I met Rob and had a few boyfriends and long-term relationships under my belt.
I am distrustful of religion and when he said he was a practicing and devout Christian, I did consider stopping it right then. But he was a lawyer and seemed intelligent enough, so I thought why not give it a try?
We didn’t have sex until six weeks in and I was seeing him a few times a night. When we did, it was joyless. Like he was trying to get it over with.
Out of bed, he was funny and full of personality. In bed, he wouldn’t make eye contact and didn’t look at my body at all.
There was no oral sex, he didn’t ask what I liked or how it was for me after it was over. I was the one who’d instigated it and I felt cheap afterwards. Like I’d forced him into doing something he didn’t want to.
I thought maybe he was just really nervous but it didn’t improve and it was always me who made the first move.
Whenever I tried to talk about sex, he’d put me off. When I mentioned that I worried he didn’t enjoy it, he told me I was being silly and of course he did.
We went away for the weekend to a hotel that had full length mirrors in front of the bed. I said, ‘Great! We can watch!’ but I noticed he didn’t once glance in the mirror, even though I asked him to.
He’d say he just wasn’t as ‘into sex’ as I was and that it wasn’t the most important part of a relationship. We were both in our 20s! Sex is the most important part of a relationship at that age!
I never met his parents in the whole time we dated (six months). Then he told me his mother was concerned about me. She’d told him it was fine for him to ‘have fun’ but not to get serious because I wasn’t ‘the right religion’.
Well, I wasn’t any religion and, at that moment, had never been more proud to be atheist. I told him I found it incredibly insulting that his mother basically told him to treat me like a whore and, when he didn’t stick up for me, left and didn’t look back.’
RECOGNISE THE PROBLEM
If you identify with the case histories here or answer ‘yes’ to more than eight of the 12 signs listed in the ‘Are you sexually repressed?’ box, you may well have issues with sexual shame.
The first step to a healthier, happier sex life is to first accept that it’s not your fault you feel this way: no-one asks to be made to feel bad about sex!
HOW TO ‘REPROGRAMME’ YOURSELF – INCLUDING BREAKING OLD HABITS AND THOUGHT PATTERNS
Rename things to do with sex
Instead of ‘masturbation’ call it ‘treat time’ so your brain doesn’t automatically kick up a negative association with the word and activity. Instead of ‘having sex’ call it ‘having fun’.
Come up with light, happy names for all sexual things
Trick your brain out of immediately flooding you with negative associations. Sounds simplistic but it’s remarkably effective.
Take away the power of the emotion by not getting upset when emotions like shame and guilt arrive
Instead of reacting with ‘Oh no! I’ll never have an orgasm now!’ and feeling upset and angry, just notice the emotion.
Say hello to it: ‘Hello guilt. I thought you’d come to pay a visit at some point. How are you?’ Then continue with what you were doing.
Ignore the negative emotions ‘kindly’ rather than rage against them.
Make friends with sex positive people
Friends are great levellers. Tell them the messages you got and judgement that was made as you grew up. Have discussions about it. They will hopefully help to normalise sex for you.
Get comfortable with your body
If you find sex shameful, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable with nudity’. Over a period of a couples of weeks or months, try looking at yourself naked in a mirror without being self-critical. Observe don’t judge. Sleep naked. Write down three things you like about your body. Add to the list as you become more comfortable in your body.
The second step is to recognise that your belief system may be the reason you struggle to enjoy sex. It sounds easy enough but if you’ve been brought up not to question or challenge things you’ve been told are true, it’s harder than you think.
Few people emerge from childhood to adolescence with a perfectly rounded sense of their sexual self. Even parents with relatively easy-going attitudes to sex, can leave us with feelings of guilt.
But none of us were born feeling guilty about sex.
As kids, we all experimentally touched our genitals with a sense of adventure and curiosity not shame.
Then along came the adults who catch us at it and say things like ‘Stop doing that! It’s a sin!’ or ‘That’s dirty. You should be ashamed of yourself!’ If you were lucky, you got off with ‘Nice girls don’t do that!’ or ‘Never do that in public’ but the message was the same: sex is bad and our sexual feelings should be hidden.
The way to escape sexual shame is to reprogramme yourself – to unlearn all that you learnt.
Therapy helps but this is the type of thing they would encourage you to do.
Clarify exactly what those negative sexual messages were and write them all down. You might write down ‘Sex is dirty’ or ‘Sex is to make babies, not for pleasure’ or ‘It’s a sin to use condoms’. The list can be as short or as long as you like.
Underneath each of the beliefs, write down what you would like to think now. Underneath ‘Sex is dirty’ you might write down ‘Sex is a natural expression of love’.
Writing things down allows you to challenge things on an intellectual level. Seeing your beliefs in black and white activates the logical, rational part of our brain.
Thinking ‘Sex is bad’ seems believable because our thoughts are often muddled with emotion. Seeing ‘Sex is bad’ written down, forces us to challenge the assumption, bypassing the emotional side of the brain for the logical.
It looks silly written. Of course sex isn’t bad. How could it be? It’s how human life is created. The new belief ‘Sex is natural’ appears far more likely.
Look at this list regularly. Read it, say it out loud. Read it in front of a mirror. Smile when you read the more positive beliefs you want to replace the old, disruptive beliefs, so your body associates them with feeling good about yourself.
Find a good sex therapist at cosrt.org.uk, bacp.co.uk and relate.org.uk. You’ll also find lots more practical information on dealing with sex issues on traceycox.com, as well as details of her podcast, books and product ranges.
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