My journey from shame to sexual enjoyment
By Maddy Bloxham
Lots gets in the way of enjoying sex; like bad experiences, negative body image and porn. But we don't talk about this stuff nearly enough. Maddy's personal journey reminds us that the first step to having better sex is being open about it.
Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault.
Sex is supposed to be fun, right? It’s the steamy hand on the car window in Titanic; it’s bodice-ripping in a saucy BBC period drama; it’s that scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Hugh Grant gets stuck in the cupboard. But until recently, I felt totally embarrassed about the whole affair.
Until around five months ago, I was incapable of discussing sex and I would automatically begin turning a faint, sliced-gammon shade of crimson whenever someone brought up the subject.
Turns out, I am not alone: a huge proportion of young people feel too embarrassed to talk about sex and shame around sex and our bodies is even stopping young women from having routine smear tests, with many saying they worry about “being judged”. It also stops many of us from enjoying the experience full stop.
While the forces that conspire to make us feel too embarrassed to speak openly about sex are myriad and unique to every individual, I have gradually come to terms with my own complex relationship with the touchy subject. Doing so has helped me to achieve much healthier and more enjoyable experiences.
By unpacking my journey of uncomfortable yet necessary realisations, I hope that I can help you to enjoy sex more too.
There are four different corners of my sex life that I feel contributed to my intense shame surrounding the S-word; losing my virginity, of course, being the first.
I entered the mythic yet disappointing realm of “not being a virgin anymore” at 15 years old. I thought that popping my cherry was the perfect way to feel less “on the outside” of things; more popular and more attractive. I guess losing your virginity at a time when everyone was talking about it as some sort of exciting rite of passage proved you were worthy of sex, desirable enough for sex and, in some ways, grown up enough for sex. In fact, all losing my virginity did was put me off sex altogether. Looking back, I was definitely too young for the experience and I certainly wasn’t in a hurry to experience clenching, raging pain on someone’s mum’s sofa again anytime soon.
Deep down, I still felt undesirable and having sex didn’t cure me of the anxiety I had about my body image.
The thought of having sex again became a terrifying prospect, not only because of how much pain I’d experienced, but because sex meant having to expose myself. All I could think about was how I looked in front of somebody else’s eyes: naked, bared, and completely alone. I imagined “him” discussing my nakedness amongst his friends; my self-harm scars, my “enormous” body (I was actually a size 8). I felt increasingly worried that I would take my clothes off and a man (boy) would feel obliged to have sex with me, out of pity. Until recently, I’d always felt terrified to climb on top of a man, especially with the lights on, if I didn’t know beyond all doubt that he already had a strong enough attraction to me that he'd be able to look past my flaws.
The fear of “not doing it right” plagued me throughout my teens after a less-than-tactful comment from an ex-boyfriend.
He had the nerve to make a disparaging observation about my technique, despite the fact
that he didn’t make me cum. When this EVENTUALLY happened a few years later, via a
different boyfriend, I was caught off-guard. Uncomfortable, even. Despite the evident “right”ness of that moment when I did first cum, I still had that voice in my head telling me I was “doing it wrong”.
Getting sweaty during sex also made me feel like I was “doing it wrong”; I hadn’t realised that it was pretty normal to get sweaty during sex. Sexy girls didn’t get sweaty, did they? Girls also love penetrative sex, don’t they? I had asked myself. I’m meant to get an orgasm from penetrative sex, aren’t I? I had told myself. Does this noise make it sound like I’m having an orgasm from this? I asked myself, with increasing desperation. No matter how many questions I asked myself, I always felt I was “doing it wrong” in some way or other.
Prioritising my own pleasure was the next hurdle in my journey to sexual enjoyment.
For years I felt it wasn’t right or even possible to vocalise what I wanted during sex. I felt I had to lie about what I liked and didn’t like. My preferences didn’t feel particularly relevant. I would pretend to like certain things that I thought ex-boyfriends and ex-sexual-partners would want me to like.
While this inability to communicate isn’t consigned to one gender, women are particularly conditioned to sublimate their desire from an early age. At the tender age of seven, I remember seeing the “Stacey’s Mom” music video on the telly, and feeling for the first time that tingling warmness in my vagina. I remember the subsequent, totally crippling fear and shame at the idea that I was essentially watching porn, and that I was disgusting for having this embarrassing, alien, uncontrollable physical reaction to it. Sexual desire felt wrong and I, over the subsequent years, was made to feel that it should be kept hidden from the disapproving eyes and ears of the world at all costs.
This hard-to-shake assumption that I should play a submissive role during sex stopped me from recognising the truth that I was abused by an ex-boyfriend.
My memory of my lack of consent was sadly easy to ignore. The man in question peeled himself off me after “it” had happened and said “sorry”, as if he had simply not had a choice in the matter. I was a possession of his, and he just needed to use me in that moment for my primary service, and for any inconvenience that this might have caused, he was “sorry”. It’s only now I’m accepting that this actually happened. I don’t feel comfortable enough yet to talk about this incident in any more detail, or to use the real term to describe what he did to me, but I’m getting there, slowly.
Embarrassment around masturbation has been one of the biggest challenges I've had to overcome, and I know I'm not alone in that. While I now realise that sexual enjoyment with another person is only possible if you’ve made peace with your own body, it’s been a long journey to accepting myself. I was terrified of having sex with myself. I don’t think this can necessarily be attributed to any social rhetoric that girls enjoying sex or enjoying masturbation is wrong. In my case, I actually think it was because I had such little confidence in every aspect of myself and my body that I didn’t think I would be able to get any form of enjoyment from it. I was also scared to reach the point of orgasm, as this meant losing control. Not being in control meant being vulnerable, and I couldn’t be vulnerable.
Fast-forward three years and, as if by some miracle, here I am, masterbating. Obviously not as I type this article, but you get the point.
How did that happen?
After my last break-up, from a relationship which had left me feeling unwanted and unaccounted for, I felt brave enough to properly try and masturbate for the first time. I’d had the odd fiddle down there before, but most of the time it had felt awkward and I’d got bored of what felt like little more than, quite literally, and seemingly pointlessly, flicking my clitoris. I realised at age 22 that whilst I didn’t want to let a man close to me, I did want to feel the euphoria and pleasure of sex. I then realised, that if I could take control of this particular problem myself and own it, I could maybe take back a little bit of the control I was missing.
I’d spent so long feeling 'un-sexy’ during sex that a part of me thought I wasn’t attractive enough or skinny enough to be capable of enjoying sex at all.
This saddens me and embarrasses me to write down and share. It doesn’t fit with my own personal views, or my views of other women. I now feel ashamed of the fact that I’d closed myself off so completely to my own sexuality, and stopped myself from exploring this other, more intimate layer of myself.
This has another effect I wasn't aware of until recently. Casual sex can’t be enjoyed until you can enjoy yourself and sex with yourself.
Casual sex can make you feel wild, free and empowered, whilst simultaneously making you feel intensely awkward, embarrassed and unsatisfied. Up until I was 21, I hadn’t really engaged in sex with anyone other than a boyfriend or somebody who was very likely to become a boyfriend. I’d fooled myself into thinking I just “didn’t really have a sex drive”, to silence the voice inside me telling me that sex with someone who didn’t know me would be too embarrassing.
So I was 22, nearly 23, bored of men but not bored of sex, comfortable (some debate over whether too comfortable) with masturbating, and finally feeling sexy. I was ready to begin my “casual sex chapter”. Don’t worry, this wasn’t me doing the Carrie Bradshaw “I started having sex like a man”.
I enjoyed sex without being attached to the person I was having it with. But that isn’t called “having sex like a man”, that’s just called having sex.
So, to put it bluntly, I started having sex. Actually having sex.
I’ve realised now that my casual sex crusade over the past few months might have been the start of my coming to terms with what happened with that ex-boyfriend in the past. It might have been me trying to take ownership over sex and prove to myself that I didn’t need to be submissive. I didn’t enjoy all of these sexual encounters I had, but a part of me felt like I needed to have them regardless.
One encounter in particular makes me feel self-assured to this day. After sex, a man told me he found hair on women (presumably he didn't mean on their heads and their eyebrows) a turn off. He said if he saw a bit of hair “down there”, he “wouldn’t go down on a girl”. At first I felt pleased that this wouldn't affect our encounter, as I’d made the rare, unnecessary effort to shave my vagina in anticipation of seeing him. But then it dawned on me: he wasn't going to "go down" on me. He had already made that pretty clear (despite repeatedly asking me to go down on him). I slipped my hand down my pants and grasped three stray pubic hairs. Rather than feeling embarrassed, vulnerable and as if I had, yet again, "done it wrong", I laughed. Needless to say, I haven’t texted him since.
If I could summarise my “learnings” for my younger, more embarrassed-self, I’d say that sex is an entirely natural thing.
I would say that sex is consensual. I would say that sex is about you. I would say that sex should be explored, not suppressed. I would say that you can’t really do it wrong. I would promise her, that scared, vulnerable girl, full of shame, that she will one day describe herself as a sexually-active, sexy, confident person, and that, when that day comes, she will finally feel like she’s doing it right again.
Image by @stupidfer aka María Fernanda