Attitudes towards sex imposed on us by our parentscan have a dramatic effect on future sexual relationships. Guilt has a lot to answer for.
The sex act is physical; it is largely about the technicalities of what you and your partner do with your bodies to give each other sensual pleasure. Sexuality, however, meaning the way that you perceive sex, the value you put on it, the things that arouse or even prove disturbing to you and how you feel about yourself as a sexual being, is less about the physical nature of sex and more about the emotional and intellectual factors, and is the most complex and influential ingredient of your sexual life.
Like all the other aspects of your personality, sexuality starts forming in early childhood, long before you have any experience of sex or even have begun to fantasize about it. It is then that the seeds of guilt that have the potential to sabotage so many sexual relationships in later life are planted.
It is generally agreed that if you were brought up in a warm and loving environment where kisses and cuddles were dispensed freely, you are more likely to grow up to be a demonstrative and affectionate lover. Unconsciously, you will have formed the idea that you’re a lovable person and that your body is lovable, too. It is equally true that if your parents were openly and demonstratively affectionate to each other, you will regard sex as a natural and integrated part of everyone’s life.
You and your parents
There are many ways in which your parents’ attitudes to sex will influence your own. Some families, for example, are very uncomfortable with nudity. Mother and father make sure they are always scrupulously covered and teach their children to do the same, reacting with embarrassment and discomfort if they are accidentally caught in a state of undress. This instils in a child the feeling that nakedness is shameful, a feeling that can persist into adulthood where it will stand in the way of joyful and uninhibited sexual relationships.
How your parents dealt with your questions about sex – such as ‘Where do babies come from?’ – is also important. If they responded in a frank and relaxed manner, creating an atmosphere of reassurance and trust, you will have been able to discuss the sexual matters that inevitably arise during the confusing and unsettling time of adolescence. If, on the other hand, they became flustered and changed the subject, fobbed you off with fairy stories, or even rebuked you, you will have got the message that sex is dirty, a taboo subject that is not to be talked about at all.
Religion and responsibility
The notion that sex is dirty or bad is often – although not always – taught as part of a strict religious upbringing. For many, a strong religious faith is a source of comfort and inspiration. If there is an over-emphasis on sin and consequent punishment, however, it can cause problems. To live in constant fear of transgression can result in a child becoming so guilt-ridden that he or she starts repressing perfectly normal impulses and actions. This is particularly true when it comes to masturbation.
Babies and small children learn about the world through their senses, particularly those of taste and touch. They are fascinated, not only by their parents’ faces, hands and hair, but also by their mother’s breasts, which for both sexes are a source of sensual pleasure as well as nourishment. They explore their own bodies in the same way, including their genitals.
Playing with genitals is as normal for a child as playing with fingers or toes. It is also normal for a child to enjoy the sensations this very natural fondling produces. Problems only arise when adults react to this activity with shock or disgust. If they become upset, tell the child off or resort to punishment, the child will begin to think of his or her genitals as off-limits or ‘naughty’. Although it is not only parents who are religious who are phobic about masturbation, it becomes doubly difficult to shake off repressive attitudes when they are reinforced by warnings of an all-seeing God who is sitting up there taking stern and censorial notes. Guilt about masturbation can lead to severe sexual problems with partners in adult life. Some men who were taught that ‘spilling the seed’ is wrong find they have difficulty in achieving a climax and ejaculating. For others, whose experience of masturbation was an angst-ridden and hasty affair, the trouble can be the opposite – premature ejaculation. Guilt about masturbation also leads some women – for example those with long labia minora – to form the mistaken belief that touching themselves has resulted in their genitals becoming deformed.
The idea that sex is only acceptable when it is for making babies can be another legacy of a strict religious or puritanical upbringing. The notion is not usually stated directly, but implied by attitude, and it can take root in a deep and subversive way. As a result sex that is indulged in simply for the erotic, recreational pleasure it provides, or even sex that expresses tenderness and love, can become unfulfilling and awkward. Although it is usually women who suffer from this, men can also be affected. When it occurs, the man can find it difficult to become aroused if he knows that his partner is on the pill or using any form of contraception.
It is for similar reasons that some women only feel comfortable with conventional penetrative sex, preferably in the missionary position, or the ‘matrimonial’, as it is sometimes called. Adventurous lovemaking, oral sex and prolonged focusing on foreplay are all perceived as amoral, shameful and not in keeping with a clean and virtuous life.
In Victorian times it was common practice for a man to have occasional polite sex with his wife, while unleashing his lust and passion on servant girls, mistresses or prostitutes. In that repressed and repressive era sex and guilt were inseparable. Respectable women were expected to have no carnal desires whatsoever and sexual intercourse was simply one more – often irksome – marital duty. Women like Queen Victoria – who reputedly relished her love life with Albert – were an exception to the rule and were regarded as above suspicion and disapproval.
Madonna vs whore
Nowadays, fortunately, we live in a totally different sexual climate and the main beneficiaries of this are women. They have claimed the right to a fulfilling sexuality and are increasingly assertive in pursuing what turns them on in the bedroom. Despite this, the Madonna/whore dilemma continues to exist for many men, causing serious problems.
In most cases, a child’s first and closest relationship is with his or her mother. For a boy, his mother is the first intimate picture of what a woman is like, and through her he forms an idea of what womanhood stands for. Men with a Madonna/whore complex transfer the sort of feelings they had for their mother onto their wife, fiancée or live-in partner. They would not dream of asking her to perform fellatio, for example, because that would not be ‘respectful’ to the Madonna role in which they have cast her. Like his Victorian counterpart, this sort of man feels sex is essentially dirty and degrading to women. He can only be erotically free with a woman he neither respects nor loves.
It is quite common for a couple who have enjoyed a passionate and adventurous sex life before marriage to experience a dramatic drop in libido once the knot is tied.
Very often this is due to an idea of ‘good’ and ‘naughty’ sex. Before marriage it is okay to have ‘naughty’ sex. You are allowed to make love on the kitchen table or in doorways and experiment with any wild position that takes your mutual fancy. Afterwards, however, it’s time to be ‘grown up’ and ‘responsible’. This is when many couples put erotic play and experimentation behind them, feeling such behaviour is no longer appropriate or even acceptable.
These attitudes are absorbed unconsciously during the formative, growing-up years. Your idea of how married people should behave towards each other is largely formed by watching your parents interact. If they gave the impression that marital sex meant the occasional, chaste kiss, you could find yourself contending with guilt because your own relationship is evolving differently.
Sexual guilt – like all guilt – is very difficult to eradicate. It is insidious, working like dry rot in the deep recesses of our psyche. The important thing is to recognize its workings when it surfaces. Then you can take the action necessary to deal with it.