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How to gain confidence and maximise your sexual potential

Sex-negative culture has trained us to be self-critical and judgmental about our bodies and our sexualities, and it’s interfering with our sexual wellbeing

Emily Nagoski
Tuesday 05 May 2015 14:04
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I keep a basket of single-use bubble packs of lubricant in my office. They’re all different colours, so it looks a little like a basket of sweets or lip glosses. Coming to my office for the first time, a student will poke her finger into the basket, drawn by the colours, and ask, “What’s this?”

“Different kinds of lube,” I say. “Feel free to take as many as you like.”

About half the students say, “Cool!” and rummage around for a few they like. And the other half yank their hand away like the basket is suddenly filled with snakes.

That’s sexual disgust. It’s a learned withdrawal response from things that are “gross.” Everyone has something that grosses her out sexually, and everyone’s yucks are different. And nobody ever needs to use packaged lube—we got along just fine without it for a few hundred millennia—so it may not matter much if lube is on your list of yucks.

But what happens when that same sexual disgust is activated by one's own body?

Disgust can function as a social emotion—that is, we learn about what aspects of the world (including our own bodies) are disgusting by reading the responses of the people around us.

Often disgust is reinforced in subtle ways, but sometimes we can remember a specific moment when the message is made clear. I talked to a grandmother—a badass Southern belle sex educator grandmother, to be specific—who told me about just such a moment from when she was a teenager. She had been sitting on the front porch making out with her boyfriend, but when she went inside, her mother came up to her with disgust in every line of her face and said, “What you were just doing out there? That’s sex!”

And this sixty-something grandmother told me, “It took me a long, long time to realise why I got so anxious about sex with my husband— and I mean nauseated anxious—and when I finally figured it out, I was angry for about ten seconds, and then I was just so sad for my mother.”

She went on, “Now when I do health education at my church, I just say it right out loud: ‘I like sex!’ I want everyone to know that it’s okay!”

I love this woman.

The research tells us that disgust, as a learned response to sex, impairs women’s sexual functioning and is especially associated with sexual pain disorders. Sex-negative culture has trained us to be self-critical and judgmental about our bodies and our sexualities, and it’s interfering with our sexual wellbeing. So how do we create a bubble of sex positivity for ourselves, where we can explore and celebrate and maximise our own sexual potential? How do we maximise the yum, in a world that tries to convince us we’re yucky? I’ve found persuasive evidence that the following three strategies can genuinely create positive change:

1. Self-compassion

Sometimes we cling to our self-criticism. We think to ourselves: “If I stop beating myself up, I’ll get complacent and lazy, and then I’ll never change!”

And then we cling to our self-judgments even more tightly. We think: “To accept myself as I am would be to accept that I am a flawed, bad, broken person, and to abandon all hope that I could one day be better, that I could one day deserve love.”

Self-compassion is the opposite of self-criticism and self-judgment. Here’s an exercise to help increase your self-compassion:

  1. Write a description of a situation that you’re beating yourself up about—it can be anything from an aspect of your sexual functioning to your romantic relationship (or lack thereof) to your work to your body or anything else. Be sure to include the self-critical thoughts you’re battering yourself with.
  2. Then write the name of a good friend at the top of the page and imagine that that person is describing this problem. Imagine that she’s asking for your help, and write down what you would tell her. Imagine that you’re in your best, most empathic, calmest, most supportive state of mind, and tell her all the things she needs to hear.
  3. Now reread what you wrote. It’s for you.

The shorthand version of this exercise is: Never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t want to say to your best friend or your daughter.

2. Cognitive dissonance

Take off all your clothes—or as many as you can bring yourself to take off—and look at your entire body in a mirror. And make a list of everything you see...that you like.

Of course the first thing that will happen is your brain will be filled with all the self-criticism and disgust you’ve been holding on to for all these years. Remind yourself that the day you were born, your body was a cause for celebration, for love without condition, and that’s just as true today as it was then. Let these self-critical thoughts go, let the judgments go, and notice only the things you like.

Do this over and over again—every day if you can. It will be hard at first, and there will be lots of complicated and conflicting emotions. Practice ignoring the self-critical, judgmental thoughts and focusing on the self-appreciating thoughts. And gradually it will become easier to celebrate your body as it deserves to be celebrated, to treat it with the respect and affection it deserves, and to approach sex with confidence and joy. Which is the point!

3. Media nutrition

Exposure to media that reinforces body self-criticism increases body dissatisfaction, negative mood, low self-esteem, and even disordered eating. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by a multiyear study of the impact of Western media—especially television—on young women in Fiji. In a culture where there had been “a clear preference for a robust form,” after three years of exposure to late 1990s American television (think Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210), rates of disordered eating among teenage girls rose from 13 percent to 29 percent, with 74 percent reporting that they “feel too big or too fat,” in sharp contrast to pre-TV culture. And this wasn’t just a blip—ten years later, rates of disordered eating still hovered around 25–30 percent.

If there were a food that consistently made you sick, you’d stop eating it. So if there’s media that makes you feel more self-critical, stop looking at it.

As you’re looking at movies or television or porn or magazines, ask yourself, “After I see this, am I going to feel better about my body as it is today, or worse?” If the answer is “better!” then do more of that! Increase your exposure to the media that helps you celebrate your body.

But if the answer is “worse,” stop it. You don’t have to get mad and write a letter to the editor or anything (though if you want to, feel free!), just pay attention to how magazines and TV shows and music videos make you feel, and stop buying anything that makes you feel worse. You don’t need to be trained in media literacy and all the ways that you’re being manipulated with digital alteration of images in order to know when something is making you feel better or worse about yourself.

Extract from Come As You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life by Emily Nagoski (Scribe, £12.99)

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