Learned Sexual Thinking

Last week I reran a Generous Husband post from 2009 talking about the fact much of what we think about sex is learned behaviour. As Lori proofread it, she suggested I run a similar post here – something I had already decided to do.

A great deal of what we think about sex, including sexual body parts, is learned early in life. Much of it is learned long before we understand what sex is, and plenty of it is well set by puberty. If what we learn is good and true, great. If what we learn is negative or wrong it can cripple our sexuality for years or decades to come.

What makes this particularly difficult is how easy it is to communicate feelings about sexuality. Comments during diapering or bathing, or moving a hand away from a child’s genitals with an angry comment or a disapproving face can give children the idea sex is bad or their sexual parts are dirty. How our parents handle or ignore our change from child to sexually mature young adult also communicates messages. Are we told about the changes our bodies will undergo? Are we warned in a scary way, or is there a sense of joy and celebration? Does a girl’s first period being shame or is she proud? Is a boy prepared for his first ejaculation, or does it terrify him? Are sexual feeling and urges discussed as a normal thing with proper boundaries, or are we made to feel guilty for the urges God put in us?

As we enter into puberty and beyond, our friends add to our thoughts about sex. They may reinforce what we got from our parents, be it good or bad, or they may offer a different perspective. 

Back seat car sex © Antonioguillem | dollarphotoclub.com

As we become sexual with others, we pick up their feeling about sex and about our sexual parts. A causal negative comment about how a body part looks or smells may have a lifelong effect on the recipient of those words. The feelings associated with a new sex act become tied to the act. If it brought pleasure, we want to do it again. If there was discomfort (physical, emotional or mental), we may seek to avoid the act later in life. Making all this worse is the fact most of us have our first sexual experiences as teens, with other teens. We have adult bodies, but we don’t have grown up minds or emotions, and we usually lack a good understanding of the mechanics of sex. We make a mess of it, and then suffer for that for years to come. 

Porn is another influencer of sexual attitudes and feelings. It’s increasingly common for teenage girls to see a good deal of porn before they graduate high school, making this a growing problem area for women. They compare their bodies and genitals to those of the surgically modified and Photoshopped women in porn and become ashamed. They are turned off by gross exaggerations of sexuality and sex acts. They assume the women in porn are enjoying things no real woman can enjoy and decide they are sexually defective.

And yes, women get the short end of this stick all around. As bad as it is for men, it’s far, far worse for women. Additionally the strength of the male drive often pushes a man past negative sexual messages. If a woman has a weak drive, as is common for younger women, she has no push to get her past wrong ideas, lies, and other negative messages.

A graphic case in point. I once walked out of the bathroom after a shower and stopped to talk to my beautiful wife who was on the bed reading. There was nothing sexual about the exchange and I was not aroused. However, I was naked, and my genitals were at my wife’s eye level and rather close to her face. Due to some forced oral sex in her past, she freaked out. She didn’t run from the room, but I know she wanted to.

Now for the good news. We can get past the wrong ideas and other sexual junk forced on us when we were younger. My incredible Lori has worked hard to remove such things from her sexuality, and if I repeated the post shower walk by today she would not freak out. Odds are she would do something that would end my ability to speak coherently. The sight of me naked and close up used to cause her terror; now it incites desire. This is healing, and this is possible for any who are willing to work for it.

Where might your thinking about sex be skewed by something from your past? Where might such skewing come from so far back you can’t remember the event that causes it? Is it possible some of the “it’s just how I am” things you say about sex are not just how you are, but how someone else made you think or feel? Is your ability to enjoy sex limited by lies, disapproval, past failures, and other junk?

The first step to change is being willing to honestly and openly examine your thoughts and feelings about sexuality. Don’t accept things as just how you are; ask yourself why you think or feel as you do. If you can identify why, examine it and see if what caused it was good or bad, right or wrong. If you can’t find why, ask yourself if you want to act based on some feeling you can’t explain.

~ Paul – I’m XY, and I am deeply blessed my wife had the courage to deal with all the sexual junk others put on her.

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12 Comments on “Learned Sexual Thinking

  1. Good post, Paul.

    I came from an abusive childhood, and learned to loathe sexuality…though I did not realize until quite late that the distaste was general, and not specific. Going to therapy after I married (at 41) was too late, because the exercises prescribed seemed…well, hokey. I was a lot happier with a Barrett 50cal in my arms rather than a woman. (And no, there are no Freudian overtones there…talked that through with mu therapist…she said I was just an uber-technician, and that I probably could never change).

    I sort of hate talking about this, but I suspect there are a lot of men and women who went through something similar, and don’t realize the depth of their disgust with sexuality. It’s not that we can’t love, or feel lonely, or be happy with someone. It’s simply that the physical reactions are turned off at the source, and trying to turn them on because one ‘should’ is very, very hard to do with any degree of benefit to the relationship.
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…Your Dying Spouse 70 – Green With Envy {FMF}My Profile

    • @Andrew Budek-Schmeisser – It’s more common for women than for men, but it happens to both. The later in life it’s discovered/dealt with, the more difficult it is to change. Not impossible, but usually beyond what the person is willing to do.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…Friday Flashback: Living SexualMy Profile

  2. Very well stated. I think a healthy counterpart to not just accepting things the way they are is to avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

      • You (as always) make a strong point. Perhaps in the example you shared, a reasonable expectation for Lori would have been to not freak out at the sight of you up close. If she expected to be able to be turned on by the sight of you when she first began working on healing, that would have seemed unreasonable. One step at a time, eh?

  3. I am tremendously thankful that my husband gently challenged me/encouraged me to rethink my idea that female genitalia are gross–at least too gross for oral sex. I think a lot of it was self-taught, however. I have a very strong sense of smell and am always aware of the slightest change of odor down there. I eventually removed oral sex (on me) from the table because it just felt gross to me. (Some of it was lack of technique, but hello, how could he learn if I never let him try because of my own hangups.) He made sure to let me know he didn’t think it was gross at all and in fact was something he desired to do, though he never pushed me. He suggested ways to remove my hangups, like washing, trimming, using coconut oil or flavored lube, etc, not that he cared, but to help me feel better about it. The turning point came one night when he told me I was beautiful… And he wasn’t talking about my face. Now my husband rarely tells me I am beautiful at all, so for him to say that about my genitals was completely jarring to me and the exact opposite of everything I had taught myself. It has taken almost two years but I have *mostly* unlearned this now. Just because it *can* get gross down there doesn’t mean that it IS gross in itself. That was where I went wrong. And I am so thankful that my hubby was lovingly able to change my mind. I was missing out on a lot of fun–all because of my learned hangups.

    • Failed to mention we’ve been married nine years, so oral was off the table for seven years before this.

    • @Kay – Glad he said what he did, and glad you could hear it – and what was behind it.
      When we survey men on oral sex, the vast majority say one reason they like to do it is because of how she smells. If she is halfway clean, they find it a huge erotic turn on.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…When a Control Freak Runs an RV ParkMy Profile

  4. Over our 41 years together we have learned a lot about and from each other. Sex is not “dirty” and our bodies are different and can be interesting to each other for these differences. It has taken many years for my wife to understand that I really do like seeig her “lady parts” reserved for my eyes only.

    The “church” has done much to repress open discussions for husbands and wives. This is of course a wide generalization, yet try to remember the last class or sermon you heard that touted in a positive way, that God has made us male & female – plumbing & wiring.

    When you add sexual misconduct or abuse to young people, folks come to marriage with all sorts of corrupted baggage. It takes years to overcome much of this misinformation. Blogs like this and groups like the Christian Bloggers Assoc.(http://www.upliftingmarriage.com) create a great resource for married couples to gain correct Biblical help for couples who are seeking wholesome advice.

    Thanks Paul and Lori for being early teachers and two people who are willing to be open for us to see that many people have issues in their sex life.
    Jerry Stumpf recently posted…Does your wife crave these 4 self-image boosting techniques from you?My Profile

  5. Paul,
    This a wonderful article. Top notch in every way but one. You needed to also talk how porn effects young men in NEGATIVE ways. Porn teaches men that sex is ONLY about them and their ejaculation. It teaches men that women are only objects and even love mean and hurtful things done to them. It teaches men that all the ‘porn moves’ should be used on all women. It teaches men that porn is RIGHT and women are WRONG. Men should never, ever watch porn. A man’s ONLY teacher should be his wife/lover. Spouses should learn from each other. Women tend to think porn is disgusting and NOT reality. But for some reason (perhaps too high testosterone??) men think porn IS reality and they can learn from it. Porn is lie and only destroys both men and women.

    • @Dee – I talk about this aspect of the problem when I talk to men.
      As for women, the sad truth is more and more women are buying into the lies of porn and thinking it is real. Girls are seeing porn as teens, and it messes them up in so many ways – just as it does boys.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…Grown-Up SexMy Profile

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