Who is your authentic sexual self?
It’s a question rarely posed, and difficult to answer. As a therapist who specializes in holistic sex education and pleasure-focused care, I often find that this is the question many of my clients are desperate to answer. The impact of being in the dark about our sexuality is painfully clear, and also painfully common. Folks who struggle with confusion around sex and sexuality are often also struggling with anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and shame, feeling isolated or “like a freak,” and, sadly, sometimes also bring histories of trauma into the room. They show up overwhelmed, sad or frustrated, and full of self-blame and self-criticism. Most often, they describe feeling “stuck,” both within their important intimate relationships, and within their relationships with themselves.
As a sex educator and therapist, I truly believe that our embodied experience of sexuality, our connection with our sexual selves, is perhaps one of the central most important ways of being in the world. Now, with so much fear and overwhelm being generated in response to the global pandemic COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus, as well as the biological stress that accompanies very necessary harm reduction methods like social distancing and quarantine, discovering and cultivating our own unique experiences of pleasure is more important than ever. Pleasure, eroticism, and the balm of being authentically who we are is healing; it soothes our nervous systems, decreases our stress levels, and ultimate keeps us healthier.
This is all true regardless of orientation (and, I want to note here, also includes experiences on the asexual spectrum, since asexuality is as valid an experience of sexuality as any other). When we don’t understand this aspect of ourselves, we feel blocked. It becomes difficult to come into contact with our source of erotic and creative energy, life force energy which sex and relationship expert Esther Perel calls the “antidote to death.” An authentic and embodied connection to our sexual selves is crucial to our well-being, particularly in this moment in time within disaster capitalism, where all the power structures that organize our society force us to relate to ourselves as workers whose job it is to produce, rather than as human beings whose calling it is to play, to love, to care, to feel, and to create.
It’s not surprising to me that many of my clients come to therapy seeking help understanding their sexual identities and relationship styles. This goes double for my queer clients, the demographic that makes up the majority of my practice. One of the first things I learned when I started my study of sex education, after all, was just how abysmal the state of sex education is in the United States, with only 39 of all 50 states and the District of Columbia requiring sex ed and HIV education to be taught in schools, and only 17 states requiring that the information, if provided, be “medically, technically, and factually accurate.” Only 3 states prohibit sex ed programming from promoting religion, whereas 19 states “require instruction on the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage” (emphasis mine). For queer folks, the state of sex education is often even grimmer, as evident in the fact that even in the year 2020, seven states still require that “only negative information to be provided on homosexuality,” and that heterosexuality be “positively emphasized.”
These requirements have to do with sexuality education’s place within public schools, yet most of the clients I see are at least in their early twenties if not well on their way into adulthood. This, too, is unsurprising, as mainstream sex education seems to consider sexuality as something that just springs upon us during puberty, rather than considering the fact that an erotic engagement with the world is something that all of us experience since birth. The reason for this is multifaceted: sex and sexuality are, of course, still highly taboo, nowhere more so than when considering the topic of sex alongside the topic of childhood. Parents are often uncomfortable discussing sex with their children, and are very rarely given the tools and education required to do so in a way that not only prepares them to impart accurate and age appropriate information to their kids, but also guides them through the discomfort of unlearning the harmful messages they’ve internalized from their own childhoods.
The fact that most sex education occurs in public schools present another facet to the taboo: In order for teachers to feel safe enough to discuss such a highly stigmatized topic and keep their jobs, they of course have to operate within the requirements set forth by their individual districts and states. Curricula is often limited to abstinence and pregnancy prevention and information about STIs; if students are very, very lucky, they’ll have lessons that include the topic of consent outside of the overly simplistic standard of “No means no.” But too rarely is any space given to some of the most important aspects of sex education outside of the umbrella of mere safety: the nuances of consent, embodiments of gender and sexuality that diverge from compulsive cisheteronormativity, non-normative relationship styles, and pleasure.
All of which are, of course, aspects that feed into a person’s understanding of their authentic sexual self.
Sex educators online have heroically filled the gaps where mainstream sex education has fallen short. And, of course, guides to uncovering your own authentic sexuality abound in articles, books, podcasts, and coaching courses. These resources often suggest creating an intentional masturbation practice, or spending time getting to know your own unique fantasies, or even challenging yourself to watch porn for inspiration. (Pay for your porn if this is the route you take! You’ll be doing the ethical thing by sex workers, and will be getting better quality porn for your trouble in the meantime!)
But the road to authentic sexuality is as unique as the person seeking it, and there is no one size fits all method. Similarly, even the most well meaning suggestions and advice folks find online is often several steps ahead of where they’re at in terms of what they’re willing to try. If that sounds familiar, here are some things to keep in mind.
Where did you first learn to be “good,” or what behaviors or desire made you “bad” (and how are these delineations related to pleasure)? Where, or how frequently, do the “should” statements pop up in your life, and what happens when they do?
What does it mean to ask someone “Who is your authentic sexual self?” When working with clients, one of the places I start involves listening for the stories people tell – and listening to the unspoken stories they’ve internalized. They’re simple, but quite subtle, and often have to do with being good (and thus socially accepted and safe) or bad (and thus socially ostracized and in danger).
When, with some gentle prompting, clients begin to bring their attention to some of these things, it’s often transformative. In sex education terms, part of what we’re talking about is the idea of sexual subjectivity, or who you are as a sexual subject. For folks of marginalized gender identities, often we’re taught to relate to ourselves as objects rather than subjects; things to be acted on rather than protagonists with agency at the center of our own narratives; performers for others’ pleasure rather than people capable of experiencing and pursuing immense pleasure of our own. Sexual subjectivity is your own unique sense of sexual selfhood, and it is a key component of uncovering your authentic sexuality.
Because we’re social creatures, our idea of self is created in the context of relationships; relationships with other people, certainly, but also with the structures and social forces that inform our identities and the relationships we have. This is why, as sex educator and sex ed business coach Cameron Glover notes, “It’s not comprehensive sex ed without racial justice education.” Racism, misogyny, ableism, fatphobia… all of these are hurdles to navigate in the journey towards a more authentic sexual self. The specific ways these hurdles inform the stories we tell about our lives, of course, depends on who we are and how we experience the world.
For example, sex educator, writer, and bisexual superhero Gabrielle Alexa described one impact of biphobia on bisexual sexual subjectivity thus: “We have to go so much harder to prove that we belong and that we’re authentic, so we often minimize the different-sex aspect of our attractions and behaviors. It definitely means that we’re influenced to perform queerness a little bit louder than we might otherwise, which requires code-switching because it also puts us at risk [of violence]. And of course, a large part of bi+ identity when you’re perceived as a woman is viewed as performing for the male gaze.”
When asked how this has influenced her life personally, she said, “I feel like I have to perform PDA twice as much or my bisexuality will be doubted – but if I’m too enthusiastic or I’ve chosen the wrong space, it can lead to rejection or violence. Bi+ folks therefore have to sacrifice safety for visibility, or vice versa, or find a middle-ground between the two, when considering how we want to express ourselves.”
We keep ourselves hemmed in for so much of the time, in an effort to be “good” and avoid shame. But avoidance of shame is not pleasure or authentic joy; it’s stagnation, anxiety, and spinning your wheels – often in the service of the oppressive structures that got you there in the first place. For one week, practice paying attention to moments in your life when you notice your “shoulds” popping up. You can scribble them down in a journal, just a sentence or two, or make note of them on your phone. What decisions do you make around how you “should” be and things you “should” do? How do you feel?
Just notice – you don’t necessarily have to change anything yet, if it feels safer to listen to the “should” voice. And in working with clients around sexuality and authenticity, since those topics are so charged, I’m also quick to remind them that we start out small, so you don’t even need to be focusing purely on sexual “shoulds.” But in those moments, allow yourself to imagine other alternatives, the things you want (and the feelings associated with them), rather than the things you “should” do.
Creativity, Curiosity, and Play
What messages did we receive about sex and pleasure from the time before we were consciously sexual beings capable of experiencing what we now recognize as desire? And are we still allowing these messages to influence how we show up in our sexuality today?
In an ideal world, all of us would have been encouraged to develop our sense of autonomous erotic selfhood from the time we were children. To be clear, this does not mean that children should be encouraged to have sex, or that it’s not of utmost importance to educate children about their bodies, sex, and sexuality in a safe and age appropriate way. But our fear of even having conversations about sex and childhood, and the continued taboo around sexuality, along with entrenched systems of oppression under capitalism, is part of what creates such a sexually dangerous environment for children and young people in the first place.
And yet – children are more naturally in touch with the erotic world than adults are by a mile. (This is perhaps one reason why our culture encourages parenting that deprives them of their autonomy in the name of supposed safety.) In her famous essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” Audre Lorde describes the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” Systems of oppression, she writes, must, in order to continue and maintain themselves, “must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.”
To Lorde, the erotic was not only about sex, and in fact, the conflation and relegation of eroticism solely to the realm of sexuality was part of what retracted from its true power: the power of creativity, curiosity, and play. This was, of course, a direct result of capitalism: “The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need—the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment.”
Clients often come to me looking to “solve” the problem of their sexuality, a limiting and judgmental mindset in and of itself, though an understandable one. We live in a world where we’re supposed to have it all – a great, fun, well-paying job, a loving intimate relationship (but with ONE person, usually someone of the so-called “opposite” gender), a wild gaggle of friends who you spend every weekend with (while somehow still having time for your partner), several degrees and babies (somehow simultaneously), and multiple simultaneous orgasms every single day – within circumstances that leave most of us almost nothing to work with in any sustainable way. And we’re supposed to do all of that in front of our legions of followers on social media, because pics or it didn’t happen, right?
But our sexualities are not something to solve, and our lives are not just a series of images we’re creating for validation from friends and strangers. Authentic sexuality is about experiencing and embodiment, and being attuned to what that means for you, specifically, is powerful. It’s a powerful unlearning of what we’re all taught we’re supposed to be, and how we should behave if we want to be deemed “good.”
Think of the way a baby eats: food smeared all over their face and hands, flecks of raspberry and mango everywhere, unworried about stains on clothing or making a facial expression that might offend. Think of the way a toddler interacts with the world when they are somewhere they feel safe: no toy box left unturned, loudly and with abandon, fearless, shameless. What would it be like to imagine these attitudes for yourself as you begin your excavation of your authentic sexual self? In what small ways could you practice childlike wonder and newness?
Remembering Adolescent Desire
Who were you when you were a teenager? What did you interact with that set your whole spirit on fire? What stirred your curiosity and left you lying awake at three in the morning with your whole body humming? What made you cry into your pillow or rage at your parents or sneak out of the window at night?
As mentioned above, typically we think of sexuality as starting somewhere around puberty. Most discussions of sexuality before that point have to do with determining what is “normal” and what is “problematic.” A quick Google search of “childhood sexuality” will show you article after article listing how to assess your child’s behavior for signs of sexual abuse, or instruct you in how to “shape and manage” your child’s behavior. While it’s certainly important to know how to keep children safe from abuse, the tenor of information reads dishearteningly more like scare tactics than education – much like mainstream sex ed itself.
The tension between normal and not only continues once puberty hits, though by then, we’re also doing it to ourselves. When I think back to what puberty was like for me in terms of sex and sexuality, the word that comes immediately to mind is stressful. I was very afraid, a lot of the time, that something was deeply wrong with me. More than anything else, I just wanted to belong, to fit in, and to be like everybody else (while also, of course, being known for being exactly who I was).
But my private desires, my fantasies, were my own, and not anyone else’s, and returning to that time and time again is what has helped me uncover my own sexual authenticity.
Teens, like children, are often wild with creativity, a key feature of the erotic. Teens write zines, poetry, fan fiction. They make art. They make music. They sing, they perform, they choreograph dances that take the nation by storm. Does anything in your life move you in quite the same way now, even the smallest hint of it? Find those corners, those edges, those threads, and pull.
Reflect on your first experiences of fantasy. One of the brilliant things about being an adolescent is we interact with sexuality for the first time in almost a more pure and physically charged way. Part of that is just puberty (hormones on parade!) and where we’re at developmentally, struggling to carve our own sense of who we are while still navigating the tension of our desperate need for the approval and solidarity of our peers. We interact with sexuality before we learn more explicitly some of the “shoulds” of sex – what’s “problematic,” what’s “normal,” what might make us “freaks” for wanting it, thinking of it, getting turned on by it. But the beauty of fantasy is that there’s no wrong way to do it, and you can’t harm anyone by indulging privately in your imagination. Take some time to think back to your first experiences of being turned on. What were your drawn to? What would it be like to playfully indulge in those fantasies once again? What feelings come up? How does your body respond?
Holding Space for Trauma
It is impossible to write about sex at all without writing about trauma. Uncovering your authentic sexuality is a healing process, and if we’re healing, by necessity, of course there is harm from which we must heal. All of my clients are healing from trauma in some way, shape, or form, some to greater degrees, others, lesser. The sex negative and purity-obsessed culture we all grew up in is traumatizing. As always, I recommend support from a caring and informed professional through this process, if it’s available for you, especially around trauma.
The world we live in – organized by white supremacist, cisheternormative, ableist, fatphobic, whorephobic, sex negative capitalism – is also inherently traumatic. Many of us have experienced interpersonal acts of violation and betrayal on top of that. In the words of Dr. Jennifer Mullan of @decolonizingtherapy, “I heal in parts – because systematic dis-ease took me apart.”
It’s okay to go slow. It’s go to commit to this process in fits and starts. It’s okay to doubt yourself, to be afraid, to phone it in, to disconnect if you have to. It’s okay if the idea of childlike wonder is a foreign concept to you, or that even thinking about thinking about your adolescence is too uncomfortable, or painful, bear. There is no timeframe to adhere to. There is no race, no goal, no comparison to make. Your authentic sexual self is waiting for you, whenever you’re ready. Your authentic sexual self may show up unexpectedly, too, shining into your life here and there when you least expect it. Your authentic sexual self has been there all along, buried deep beneath the bullshit, but still there. You are here to be curious and creative, no matter what you have experienced. You are here for pleasure and joy.