If you were raised to see sex and sexuality as a source of shame and embarrassment, you might notice that such feelings tend to linger, no matter how educated, open-minded, and open-legged you consider yourself today. If you come from a religious background, it’s probably even worse.
Fortunately, many religious leaders and secular counsellors in the year of our Lord 2021 know that hardline teachings on sexual expression and orientation don’t do much to draw in the spiritually wayward, and can even ostracise believers. So whether you’re trying to balance your religious leanings with your carnal desires or overcome shame you internalised as a child and dragged into bed in your agnostic adulthood, we called on experts who can help.
Don’t be afraid to talk about sex
In a lot of religious households and communities, talking about sexuality is off limits, but refusing to talk about something doesn’t make it go away. A 28-year-old erotic artist in Philadelphia who goes by Claire Voyant tells Lifehacker that her religious upbringing is still causing problems in her sex life, but she’s slowly working through them by talking to friends and counselors.
Leo Morton, an associate pastor and drag queen in North Carolina, suggests the same, adding, “Everybody needs two really good things in this world: One is a good hairdresser and the other is a good counsellor.” Morton is openly gay, but found that when he first spoke to a clergy member about his same-sex attraction in his youth, he was shut down and told not to bring it up. Obviously, that approach didn’t make him less gay — and not talking about sexuality isn’t going to make you less randy, either, only more needlessly ashamed of being so. Not acknowledging your sexuality only leads to repression, and that’s how archaic ideas about sex lead to such a pervasive shame. Talking about sex helps you to break the cycle before the cycle breaks you.
Fortunately, there are specialised counsellors who can help — people like Kevin Salazar, a psychotherapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Centre in New York City, who tells Lifehacker they see lingering shame in their work often.
“I find it is common for clients who grew up in a conservative religious environment to feel shame around how they experience (or don’t experience) sexual and romantic attraction. Folks may feel shame about acting on their attraction even in a supportive and consensual environment,” they say.
Sex-positive friends can help, too
Counseling isn’t the only option, as friends make great listeners, too. Claire, who is also a retired sex worker, explains that because her Catholic education taught her that sexual pleasure was a woman’s duty to provide a man, she has struggled well into her late 20s to masturbate or focus on her own enjoyment during the partnered encounters she began having once she decided not to wait for marriage — in itself is a big step for people with a similar upbringing. Talking to friends, she says, helps, though she does admit she feels “jealousy” toward those who grew up in more liberal households and don’t really get where she’s coming from.
“I totally feel like the odd person out sometimes, like I’m hiding in plain sight,” she says.
Salazar explains, “Folks who grew up in a conservative religious environment and now have a liberal, sex-positive community have also expressed feeling isolated and not understood by their peers who did not experience the same kinds of shame and stigma.”
In some cases, a “hair of the dog” approach might work, especially if you’re still spiritual. Consider talking to insiders who can relate. Not all religious leaders are like the one Morton encountered when he was first questioning his sexuality, especially in this day and age. If you’re trying to square the sexual part of yourself with the religious or spiritual part, you don’t need to pick one.
“The shame and stigma the church has propagated around sexuality — regardless of orientation or gender — is longstanding,” says Rev. Mandy McDow, senior minister at Los Angeles First United Methodist Church, who strives to make sure her congregation is welcoming to members of the LGBTQ+ community and sex workers. “It has been a way in which the church has exercised power and dominion over the vulnerable, which is an actual sin.”
Find community online
Welcoming spaces also exist outside of traditional churches, the most obvious and vast option being right here, on the Internet.
“There are various religious and spiritual communities that will be welcoming and expansive in their understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality,” says Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Centre. “And if it’s important for you to be a part of a specific church that tends to have more repressive teachings, there are often variations in how the teachings are discussed based on geography and in progressive online spaces.”
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Learn how to talk to yourself about sex
Don’t be afraid to work on yourself, by yourself, and for yourself. As Claire can attest, sex isn’t all about your relationship to someone else; it’s just as much about you. Salazar recommends journaling and listening to related podcasts or reading books; Claire suggests reading columns like this one, then taking time to explore your own beliefs and desires in a comfortable space. Go at your own pace, she says, and practice some gentle self-talk: “The more positive messaging you can incorporate into your life about sex, the better. Like, if you can, just max out until you’re sick of hearing people speak positively about sex, because you really need to rewire your brain completely.”
Echoing advice from Salazar, who mentioned replacing stigmatising language with affirmations in their practice with clients, Claire advises, “Think about all of the time that was scheduled into your life for people to talk negatively about sex, and now you have to do that, like, twice as much positively.”
If you can believe an all-knowing god was angry at you for being sexual, why not try believing that same god would be proud of you for it? Morton sums up his thoughts accordingly: “God created us, and we are beautiful and our bodies are part of the extension of God himself.” Praise be.