I was almost 29 when my younger sister got engaged and then married. The day after her wedding, she came to my parents’ house for a family event before she and her husband left on their honeymoon. She’d never had partnered sex before—and was very upset because she and her husband had had vaginal intercourse several times on their wedding night, and she hadn’t orgasmed.
It was my mom, my sister, and me in the car. She said she had a question to ask my mom. My mom pulled into the garage at our house and said to me, “you have to get out of the car, this isn’t appropriate for you.” What was implied was that it wasn’t appropriate because I’m not married and as a result, I wasn’t allowed to know about sex. I can’t remember what I said, but I know I was really fucking angry. How did getting married make my sister more deserving of information about sex?
As an almost 29-year-old woman, why wasn’t I entitled to know? I angrily left the car. My mom came down to my room afterwards trying to gloss over the situation. It didn’t change how angry I felt. The anger was sacred, and a signal that things weren’t right. I continued to feel anger afterward as I travelled back to graduate school. I was no longer going to tolerate not knowing what was going on—to know about sex, my body, my own sexual identity.
I came back with that anger in hand and brought it up to my therapist immediately. I felt so angry and upset that I didn’t have information. Embarrassed that I didn’t know my own body. I literally didn’t know where my own clitoris was, or the difference between a vulva and a vagina. At first, I couldn’t use the correct anatomical terms for different types of sex or my own body. I would uncomfortably use my hands to gesture to my vulva, but I couldn’t use the words. My therapist was patient and kind. She’d gently say, “okay, I’m going to use the correct terms and I’d like you to try it, too.”
Outside of my work in therapy, I started seeking out information online. In an act of divine intervention, I found the website “Scarleteen” created by Heather Corinna. The information was geared towards adolescents and emerging adults. The banner at the top of website read: “Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the real world. Inclusive, comprehensive, supportive sexuality and relationships info for teens and emerging adults.” This was what I had been looking for all along! I inhaled every article and piece of information I could find. I was so relieved to find something that provided information that was concrete, empowering, and made me feel like it was okay to be sexual if I wanted to.
In the one of their articles (Benac, 2014) I read the following:
“The best place to start is to know that you, as a person, are worthwhile. You're worth fighting for; you deserve good things in your life. You deserve to set goals for yourself. You deserve healthy relationships that make you feel good. You deserve to have your voice heard. You deserve to physically present yourself however you want. You deserve to feel at peace with your body. And, if you're interested in sex, be it by yourself or with partners, you deserve pleasure and joy.”
The parts about being at peace in my body and deserving sexual pleasure if I wanted it felt revolutionary. All my life, I had been taught in my family and my faith I wasn’t allowed to be sexual or have a sexual identity until I was married, and that self-pleasure was definitely not allowed, especially as a single person and a woman. Masturbate. I could barely say the word, let alone touch my body. Even though I felt so worried and conflicted and afraid, it felt right and even intuitive to explore my body and my feelings about sex, no matter what my faith, my parents, or anyone else had said or might say.
The first time I masturbated, it wasn’t even really on purpose, though I now realize it was my intuitive sexual self coming forward. I had no idea what to do at first. I simultaneously started to feel peace and comfort and safety in my body, but at the same time, I felt profound guilt and shame. That first night I masturbated, I called my therapist and left a panicked message. She called me back the next day, and she was kind and gentle about it. She told me that most people touch and explore their bodies, and that it’s okay.
I had to process the sometimes-overwhelming guilt and shame I felt. Most weeks, I would go to therapy, cry, and say “I feel like I’m going to hell.” My therapist would gently say “I don’t think you’re going to hell, it’s okay.” Even though those feelings were so powerful, I knew it still felt right to explore my body, be alone with myself, and have time to be sexual. I did all the things I knew how in order to create an environment of safety and pleasure.
I used mantras to help calm myself if I was feeling anxious or guilty, even putting up a sticky note on the headboard of my bed that said “I am in a safe space. It’s okay for me to relax now.” I often would repeat similar mantras in my mind if I started feeling guilty or ashamed: “it’s safe and you’re okay. It’s alright to feel good in your body.”
These are some of the things I know now:
I deserve to feel peace in my body, and I deserve to have sexual experiences if I want them. It doesn’t matter whether I’m married or not, or whether I have a partner or not. I deserve to be sexual in my body if I want to. I deserve to feel pleasure, and comfort, and safety.
- Natalie M