What Is Sexual Self-Awareness?
What Is Sexual Self-Awareness?
“When we cannot talk about sex, shame will fill the void left by our silence.”
I remember as a teenager that on Sunday nights I would sneak off into my room with my Walkman (Hey, I’m an eighties girl, what can I say?) so I could listen to pioneering sex educator, Ruth Westheimer. I was as fascinated by the topic of sex, as I was aware that I should not be the kind of girl who was fascinated by the topic of sex. During graduate school, I received little to no training in how to talk with individuals and couples about sex. Instead, I was simply told that once I helped my couple fight less and communicate more effectively, their sexual connection would be restored. This message from our field reinforced my sense that nobody, not even therapists, should be talking about sex. When we cannot talk about sex—in our clinical offices, in our classrooms, with our partners, with our children—shame inevitably fills the void left by our silence.
Each of us has a sexual self—an evolving relationship to the world of the erotic. For many of us, that is a radical notion. We may think about sex as a behavior, not an identity; something we do, not something we are. If you begin to think of your sexuality as an unfolding aspect of who you are as a person, important questions arise, including:
- What is the relationship between me and my sexual self?
- How well integrated is my sexual self into my overall sense of who I am as a person?
- To what degree do I feel entitled to access that part of me?
- To what degree has that part of me been cordoned off because of shame, fear, or pain?
These questions are at the heart of what I call sexual self-awareness—an ongoing, curious, and compassionate relationship between you and your sexual self.
As a therapist, professor, and relationship educator, I am passionate about helping people understand and reckon with all of what intimate partnership stirs in them. Our relationships are first and foremost classrooms, offering us essential lessons about trust, vulnerability, courage, and grace. But our access to these lessons is blocked when we get lost in one of two places: shame or blame. If we are invested in focusing on who is right and who is wrong, we can neither connect nor grow. My first book, Loving Bravely, was an introduction to relational self-awareness, and it focused on how early experiences and cultural identities shape our beliefs about loving and being loved, as well as how to move from reactivity to responsiveness in order to cultivate intimacy.
Here’s what I know to be true: Those tendencies toward blame and shame? The ones that block connection to ourselves and to our intimate partners? They follow us into the bedroom where we arguably have even fewer tools for self-understanding and heartfelt dialogue. Researchers have found that in relationships that were over a decade old, partners understood only about 60 percent of what their partner liked sexually, and only around 20 percent of what they didn’t like sexually (Miller & Beyers, 2004). And being able to talk with each other about sex is tied to all kinds of good stuff like sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, erectile function, and less pain (Mallory, Stanton & Handy, 2019).
Think for a moment about your sex education. Who taught you about sex when you were young? How was sex talked about in your family growing up? How much training in sexuality did you receive when you were in your clinical training program? In my work as a therapist, I’ve seen firsthand how difficulty talking about sex can compromise our well-being and the quality of our intimate relationships. I also have been teaching a relationship education class for undergraduate students at Northwestern University for the past two decades, and it’s abundantly clear that very few people enter adulthood with the sex education they need—sex education that is wholehearted, comprehensive, inclusive, and that answers the questions that weigh heavily on young people’s minds. The bottom line is that most of us need to claim time and space to cultivate sexual self-awareness.
My belief that each of us is entitled to sexual experiences that evolve, heal, and connect us motivated me to write Taking Sexy Back. This book offers women and female-identified readers a journey toward a deeper understanding of their sexual self. Because I am a clinician who was trained in integrative systemic therapy (IST), the book invites readers to examine their sexuality through seven different lenses: cultural, developmental, mental, physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual. In each chapter, readers are offered specific tools to help them shift from shame to self-compassion, from silence to voice, and from fear to love. And because I know that change in one person shakes the entire system, I included a chapter for men who love women who are taking sexy back!
When it comes to the topic of sex, the outside noise of “should” and “shouldn’t” can drown out our inner voice. We are bombarded with fantastical images of sex in romantic comedies, pornography, and advertisements, and we are blasted with rules, strategies, tips, and lists of dos and don’ts. Sexual self-awareness is about moving from an outside-in experience of our sexuality to an inside-out experience. It is about understanding our inheritance so that we can determine our legacy. It is about the kind of sexual healing that allows us to honor the erotic as one of the pleasures of being human.
Andrea S. Miller and Sandra E. Byers, “Actual and Desired Duration of Foreplay and Intercourse: Discordance and Misperceptions within Heterosexual Couples,” Journal of Sex Research 41, no. 3 (2004): 301–309.
Allen B. Mallory, Amelia M. Stanton, and Ariel B. Handy, “Couples Sexual Communication and Dimensions of Sexual Function: A Meta-Analysis,” The Journal of Sex Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2019.1568375.
Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, is adjunct faculty in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and author of Loving Bravely.
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