AUTHOR’S NOTE: The ideas presented in this article come from my own experience, readings, conversations with friends, and participants in human sexuality attitude and counseling workshops that I have facilitated. Many or only a few may apply to you; what I believe is important is that you be aware of what your attitudes are, how they have developed, and how they effect you now.
We are sexual beings from the time of our birth until the last years of our life. Sexuality is not a behavior that occurs between adolescence and “old age.” A male baby’s penis becomes erect about every ninety minutes, and a female baby lubricates her vagina with approximately the same regularity. The ways that we feel and think about our bodies and our sexuality greatly determine how we behave. The messages that our parents conveyed to us about our bodies can have much impact on how we view ourselves today. Some of our parents had/have negative feelings about their bodies, especially their sexual organs, and passed these attitudes to their children.
Attitudes can be conveyed by a parent removing or slapping a child’s hand that is touching his or her genitals, or by verbally showing displeasure. As a child grows older, a parent’s responsiveness to questions, sexual vocabulary, physical exploration, all teach what attitudes are correct (how he or she should feel). Children almost inevitably want to know about their genitals and the “facts of life”; the feelings that the parent has will be imparted to the child. Acceptance, warmth, repulsion, fear are all comprehended and integrated. A parent who labels every body part correctly (be sure to wash your ears and neck and toes and “down there”) except the genitals is giving a message about “down there.” A child that learns that the genitals must be covered (clothed) is developing different attitudes than the child whose parents are comfortable with nakedness. Parents are frequently in conflict between society’s values and what they think is healthy, and, sometimes, overemphasize what they believe is “necessary learning.” Children often learn that their genitals and sexuality are not proper topics of conversation or even curiosity, and negative feelings surround this wonderful and vital human process.
As children grow older, their physical maturation is frequently a source of discomfort and sometimes anguish. Girls soon discover that, unlike boys, they must wear shirts and cannot play the same games. A girl whose breasts develop more quickly than her classmates may feel embarrassed and different from her friends. A girl whose breasts develop more slowly may suffer from fear of whether they ever will appear (everyone else is wearing a bra). Most Americans have been indoctrinated (a la Playboy) as to the desirability and beauty of large breasts: the negative effects on women’s self-concept and men’s view of women have probably been immense. Menstruation is frequently regarded as a mysterious curse rather than a blessing of womanhood; many women are physically and psychologically unprepared for their first menstrual discharge. Boys learn early that penis size means “manliness” and puberty is often a period of doubt and confusion. Penises are frequently compared and contrasted in gym class and boy scout camp; and there are no private shower stalls for the late developer to hide himself.
Children stimulate themselves sexually from the time they are young and during adolescence most masturbate to orgasm (probably ninety percent of all males and over half of all females). Most people in our society are taught that masturbation is immoral, physically and/or psychologically debilitating. Verbal and non-verbal messages from our parents, peers, and significant others all have important effects on our attitudes about this common behavior. And what happens? . . . Young men and women masturbate with guilt and bad feelings. This pleasurable activity is tainted with anxiety. Boys masturbate quickly so that they won’t get caught (this rapid ejaculation may become a behavior pattern that carries to intercourse). Masturbation is perhaps more difficult for teenage women because of the values that they are taught about the “goodness” of virginity and “badness” of sexual activity.
Boys frequently regard sexual intercourse as the height of pleasure and manhood; girls are taught that sexual behavior means depravity and sickness. These antithetical values can permeate our existence into the present: men view themselves as aggressors, on the prowl, looking at women as sources of gratification; and women often fear whether men want “their bodies” or “them.” Couples can spend years or lifetimes trying to achieve a balance.
Physical affection and sexuality are frequently interchanged and confused while, by definition, they can be distinctly different. Many people in our society are brought up to be afraid of homosexuality; males are especially afraid of being thought of or acting as homosexuals. These fears frequently prevent heterosexual men from being able to express caring to other men through touch. Men shake hands or squeeze shoulders but often are frightened by hugging or kissing another man (although athletes pat each others’ asses on television). Women seem to touch each other more easily. I have heard women say that they find it difficult to be affectionate with men to whom they are not sexually attracted because men are prone to interpret affection as sexually inviting.
The famous sex researchers and therapists, Virginia Johnson and William Masters have concluded that attitudes and ignorance are responsible for most sexual problems. This means that we don’t experience the sexual pleasure and sharing that are possible because of preconceived ideas (that interfere with awareness and communication) and because of a lack of knowledge about how the human body works. Premature ejaculation and secondary impotence in men and non-orgasmic response in women are usually caused by non-physiological factors. People who are uncomfortable or unaccepting with their partners will probably be unable to fully experience their sexuality. Certain environments (for example, a parked car where intrusion is feared) may be responsible for people not having a pleasurable sexual sharing. Old entombed attitudes such as “sex is immoral” or “sex is for a man’s pleasure not a woman’s” may contribute to faulty awareness, communication, and sharing. People who do not accept or value their sexual feelings (who do not believe that sexual feelings are worthy of expression) will probably have difficulty enjoying their sexuality. People with negative body concepts may have difficulty getting full pleasure from sex (“I don’t like my body — how could someone else enjoy me?”). Men frequently believe the myth that a smaller penis will not satisfy a woman (this is only true if the man or woman believes it). Couples who think mutual orgasm is the peak of sexuality may put so much energy into observing themselves that they cannot enjoy what they are sharing. People who think that they are too old to enjoy sex may become sexually inactive when they could actually be sexual into their seventies and eighties and beyond ( the body processes slow down but do not stop).
Our sexuality is a blessing and it can be more pleasurable and fulfilling through increased acceptance, awareness, and communication. Examine your attitudes (many people act from distinct value systems but have not clear awareness of what their value systems are). Remember how you have formed your attitudes; which are useful and desirable, and which are dysfunctional (and which really belong to someone else?) Attitudes have been developing for years and, of course, cannot be quickly changed, but an awareness of which values you value, and which you don’t want or like will be helpful to you in becoming the person that you will most enjoy being. As a sexual person, be aware of how you are sexually comfortable and uncomfortable, and, even if you want to change, try to accept yourself as you are now (you will be giving yourself positive energy that will be more facilitative to change than being critical or negative about whom you are). Communicate with your partner what feels good and not good (how else could he or she possibly know?) and find out how to pleasurably touch your partner. Ask for what you want and need to enjoy sex. Be aware that sex is a sharing, a giving and a getting. Be as understanding and loving to yourself and your partner as you can be.