Why We Treat Sex Like a Dirty Word
From a young age, we are conditioned to believe that sex and our bodies, and even our reproductive health (periods, anyone?), are taboo.
It begins when our parents give our genitals cutesy names, instead of treating them like any other part of the body. They do this because they are terrified of sexualizing us.
But their fear is misplaced. This avoidance of our genitals—of appropriately naming our genitals—only ensures that they fail to normalize a part of us that is normal. This, in turn, can lead to discomfort with our bodies and our bodily functions. It can lead to bodily shame, which can make us less safe. When we’re uncomfortable with our bodies, it’s more difficult for us to verbalize our needs and set boundaries, and even to disclose when something inappropriate takes place.
Later on, in our sex ed classes, much of what we learn is fear and shame-based. What this means is that we only learn about the most horrifying consequences of teen sex, such as sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. Anyone else remember slides filled with close-up photographs of genital sores and skin rashes?
While learning about pregnancy and STIs (and, by extension, contraception and other forms of safe sex) is important, our teachers should also normalize discussions of intimacy, pleasure, and healthy relational decision-making. How else can we possibly prepare ourselves for our future intimate relationships and sexual interactions?
Then, we go to college. In recent years, some colleges and universities have implemented consent education programs. But, when we come to these lessons without a strong foundation already in place it can be too little, too late. We haven’t learned comprehensive sexuality education around bodies and boundaries and relationships that enables us to better understand lessons on affirmative consent and responsible bystandership.
What Does This Have to Do with Our Adult Sex Lives?
By the time we enter adulthood, we don’t know how to communicate about sex. We hesitate to ask our doctors essential questions about our sexual health. We go mum when sex comes up in conversation with our peers… if it comes up at all. We even struggle to talk about sex with our sexual partners!
We maintain this silence around our sexuality because we feel embarrassed. We feel ashamed. We feel inadequate. We feel self-conscious. We hesitate to speak up about our own pleasure, our own wants, and our own needs because we don’t want to be judged or rejected. With the way conversations about sex and bodies were handled over the course of our lifetimes, is it any wonder we’re so reticent as adults?
But this silence around sex doesn’t do us any favors.
Because we don’t communicate with each other about sex, we end up silently comparing our sex lives to what we think everyone else is doing in the bedroom. Inevitably, we come up short. Our silence keeps us ignorant and makes us feel alone.
Because we don’t communicate with our partners about sex, we miss out on the sexual experiences and sensations we’ve been craving. Our silence walls us off from our potential pleasure.
Because we don’t communicate with others about our boundaries, we may end up having sex we don’t want and/or enjoy. To be clear, I’m not talking about coercive sex here. I’m not talking about rape. That is never our fault.
I’m talking about the cues we fail to give our partners during consensual sex that would enable them to learn more about what makes us feel good and, in turn, would enable us to have more enjoyable sex.
This is ridiculous. All of this is ridiculous. Sex is a normal part of our lives and an integral part of our overall health and well-being. To feel silenced when it comes to sex does us all a disservice.
So, What Can We Do About It?
I know. We can’t turn back the clock. We can’t change what we learned from our parents, teachers, and faith communities.
But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed.
(Lord. That would make for a lot of doomed sex lives.)
Explore your body… with or without a sex toy.
Look at your naked body, focusing not on the parts of yourself you wish you could change, but on the parts you love and admire.
Get familiar with your genitals. You’re already cool with your elbow, right? Why not your vulva, too? Why not your testicles? Seek out initiatives like The Vulva Gallery and the Diverse Bodies Project, which celebrate body diversity.
Engage in some continuing sex education.
I created Guerrilla Sex Ed (GSE) as a resource for those who weren’t getting adequate sex ed in school. A lot of the books and websites listed on the site are for young kids, pre-teens, teens, and their parents. But the advocacy organizations listed there will send you into a rabbit hole of educational awesomeness. GSE aside, new sites like Salty, OMGyes, Blood + Milk, and our own Buzz blog are great sources of information. Plus, there are a ton of individual educators kicking butt on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Learn what turns you on.
I’ve already written about reconnecting with your sexy self. So, review that post and begin to explore what actually brings you pleasure. While you don’t necessarily need props to engage in this self-exploration, you might find that you enjoy experimenting with sex toys, erotica (visual, audio, or written), and more.
Have casual conversations with your partner(s) about what you do and don’t like.
Finally, remember that communication is key. Once you get comfortable with yourself, work on having those conversations with others.
Talk about what you might want to try. What you’re looking forward to doing in bed together. What you’ve enjoyed before and would like to do again.
Maybe even fill out a Yes / No / Maybe list together.
As long as you approach these conversations as a vehicle for you and your partner(s) to take your sex life to the next level—rather than as a critique of what has happened in the past—, you have nothing to worry about.
You may have grown up internalizing the message that sex is a dirty word.
But it’s never too late to flip the script.