Taking a Personal Inventory for Moms
You say you love; but then your hand
No soft squeeze for squeeze returneth,
It is like a statue'sdead
While mine to passion burneth
John Keats, "You Say You Love"
Of course, dads and other men are welcome to read this chapter, but I want to address specifically the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other women who may be involved in raising our next generation. We know there is a difference in being female, not only in our sexuality but also in how we've been brought up, conditioned by society, treated in the media, and considered by society at large.
These experiences become hardwired into our psyche and play out in everyday life. We don't choose to feel dissatisfied with our sex life or anxious about our child's sexuality, but we often end up with these unwanted outcomes anyway. Rather than attempt to understand causes, we cart out rationalizationsthat sex is just too complicated or that it's vastly overrated. After all, what can we expect from growing up in families and a society that provided little sexual information and lots of mixed messages?
Now is the time to break with timidity and quiet desperation. It's possible to openly face and overcome your hang-ups. Making this change will not only help you feel better about yourself but can also free you to become a credible sex educator and moral guide for your child.
This chapter invites you to take inventory of your sex life. Whether you are married, divorced, or singlewhether you are with or without a partneryou have a sex life. It encompasses several dimensions of your identity, both past and present: your sense of being a woman; your feelings and thoughts about your appearance, attractiveness, and personality; the kind of partner you desire; your sexual knowledge, attitudes, and values; and your experience, feelings, and thoughts in regard to love and sexual relationships.
Taking inventory means taking the pulse of your sex life and deciding whether it is alive and well or weak and sickly. This is an opportunity for self-discovery, and I believe you will find it intriguing and rewarding. As you gain new insight and make changes if they are needed, you become stronger for the task of guiding your child toward sexual health.
Sexual hang-ups come in big and small sizes. But they all seem to affect our ability to think of our kids as sexual beings and to help them survive the risks of growing up. Through the years I have heard mothers casually make comments that reflect apprehension about this aspect of parenting.
"I can handle telling my six-year-old daughter how babies grow and develop, but I just can't imagine letting her know that her daddy and I 'did it' to bring her into the world."
"My fifteen-year-old son has become such a good-looking young man, and I know the girls are going to start calling him. I just don't even want to think about it."
"Things are so different today. At my daughter's school they hear all about abstinence. When I was growing up it was all about sexual freedom."
If you have ever had thoughts like these, treat them as a signal that some sexual hang-up is haunting the depths of your psyche. Tune in to find out what's behind the worry. Unresolved memories or past experiences can be part of a current and continuing uneasiness about sexuality. Consider the following questions to see whether anything in your history might be triggering a sexual hang-up.
Did you engage in sexual activity as a child or teen, alone or with partners?
With partners, what were your motives and what were your reactions?
Did you take risks (using no protection, using alcohol or drugs, having multiple partners)?
Did you ever experience an STD, pregnancy, abortion, or have a child out of wedlock?
Were you ever molested, coerced into sex, or sexually assaulted?
Did you avoid sex or love relationships because of personal choice, fear, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of opportunity?
How do you evaluate your previous serious love or sexual relationships (satisfying, meaningful, disappointing, hurtful, shameful, and so on)?
Have you made an effort to learn about human sexuality and better understand in what ways accurate sexual information can benefit your sex life?
What were your feelings as you reviewed these questions? Paying attention to your emotions and putting a name to them is the first step in defining your hang-ups. When people contemplate their sex lives, their initial emotional reactions tend to mirror their most honest thoughts and judgments. Perhaps you felt mostly comfortable when you answered the questions. If your first feelings weren't obviously positive or negative but veered instead toward worry, ambivalence, or confusion, you may have been trying to avoid even more uncomfortable emotions. If you immediately felt a rush of anger, shame, dread, hurt, disgust, or despair, take these intense emotions a sign that you have some current hang-ups to deal with.
Emotions: The Pulse of Sexual Life
A child whose parents enjoy a happy sex life is lucky indeed. Their positive feeling about sexuality has a good chance of translating into a comfortable, competent approach to their child's sex education. When a sexual issue comes up, they are more likely to think about it rationally, rather than have their intellectual ability "shorted out" by a lightning bolt of painful emotions. Parents who have sexual hang-ups can expect their underlying worrisome or painful feelings to surface unpredictably in the face of almost any sexual topic. As the following scenario shows, merely talking about sex education (not actually doing it) produced a highly charged emotional reaction that led to avoidance, withdrawal, anger, and blame.
Several years ago, Dan, a graduate student in my course called Analysis and Treatment of Sexual Problems, recounted a troubling conversation he had had with his wife Dell. This was the gist of it.
Dell: Dan, you left the book for your sex class just lying on the table in the family room. You ought to think about the kids and watch where you leave it.
Dan: You think it would hurt the kids if they saw it?
Dell: Well, they're just kids. They don't need to see that kind of book.
Dan: Did you look at it?
Dell: No, why would I?
Dan: You might learn a thing or two.
Dell: I thought this was about the kids.
Dan: It is, and I don't think that learning about sex is a bad thing. Susie is eight and Danny is ten. Have you told them any of the facts of life?
Dell: Have you? They're too young.
Dan: I saw Susie watching that Danielle Steel movie with you. She was really taking in all that kissing and groping. They already know more than you think.
Dell: You just have a filthy mind.
Dan: At least, I can enjoy sex. But I had to work at it.
Dell: You mean that's all you think about.
Dan: Look, Dell, let's get back to the kids. I don't want Danny to go through what I did.
Dell: What was that?
Dan: I was eleven. First time I had a wet dream it scared the hell out of me. I thought I was sick. I couldn't ask anyone. I didn't know anything or how to find out anything.
Dell: Well, you go ahead and talk to Danny if you want. When
Susie is older, I'll tell her what she needs to know.
Strong but unacknowledged emotions permeate this conversation. Dell is embarrassed by the book on sexuality and uncomfortable with the idea of giving the children sexual information. Part of her reaction seems linked to her feelings of anger and disgust toward Dan's sexuality, which imply dissatisfaction with her husband's approach to sex and with her own sex life. Dan's comments too reveal an underlying irritation with his wife's anxiety about sex. Without changing her view on the children's sex education, Dell abruptly ends the conversation and refuses to team up with her husband to deal with this matter.
Rather than ignore or deny the feelings that sexual topics trigger, you need to identify them and the message they hold. Several interesting exercises lie ahead as part of your preparation. These will help you think further about your sex life, become aware of your emotions about it, evaluate its quality, and consider how it might affect your approach to your child's sex education. In addition to gaining personal insight, you will also need to take action. If you uncover inhibitions, concerns, or serious problems, you will learn to resolve these in ways that allow you to enrich your own sex life and start guiding your child toward sexual health.
Women and Stereotypes
of Female Sexuality
I believe that a major contributor to women's sexual hang-ups is the social programming they receive when they are growing up. Although many of us have swallowed some of the culture's stereotypes about female sexuality hook, line, and sinker, as adults we don't have to let them continue to dictate our behavior. Exactly how does our culture define female sexuality and the roles expected of women? Think in terms of the dos and don'ts, such as, "Girls shouldn't date around too much" or "Women should let their partner take the lead in sex." We have all sensed, heard, and tried to live by rules like these and many morewhether or not they felt right for us.
Before exploring how rigid gender roles can produce unhealthy attitudes toward sex and wreak havoc on women's sex lives, take a minute to complete the following brief inventory and learn or relearn something about yourself.
Level of Sexual Pleasure
Directions. Answer the following questions, keeping in mind your marital relationship or, if you aren't married, your current committed relationship or, if you aren't in a committed relationship, your most recent ongoing sexual relationship. Place your answer in column A. Later you will come back and add an answer in column B.
1. How many times during a typical, average day do you have a pleasurable sexual thought, fantasy, image, or genital sensation? _____ _____
2. How many times during the course of a typical month do you experience sexual desire or interest on your own (not in response to your partner's desire)? _____ _____
3. How many times during the course of that typical month do you act on your own desire by initiating sexual activity with your partner, in a very direct way, verbally or physically? _____ _____
4. How often do you typically experience orgasm when you engage in sexual activity with your partner? Rate on the following scale: 0 = 0%, 1 = 25%, 2 = 50%, 3 = 75%, 4 = 100% of the time when engaging in sex. _____ _____
5. Would you like to experience orgasm more often? (0 = no, 1 = yes) _____ _____
6. Have you ever clearly told or shown your partner the kinds of touch, caress, activity, or stimulation that you enjoy or that bring you the most pleasure or to orgasm? (0 no, 1 yes) _____ _____
7. How many times in the past six months did you masturbate and reach orgasm alone? _____ _____
8. Rate the physical and sensual gratification you derive from sexual activity in a typical sexual encounter with your partner. (0 = none, 1 = a little, 2 = some, 3 = a lot, 4 = completely satisfied) _____ _____
9. Rate the psychological and emotional satisfaction you derive from sexual activity in a typical sexual encounter with your partner. (0 = none, 1 = a little, 2 = some, 3 = a lot, 4 = completely satisfied) _____ _____
10. Do you have a favorite image, scenario, memory, or fantasy that you see as an ideal or exciting sexual encounter? If yes, close your eyes and imagine this for a minute. What are the exact ingredients? (See the note in the text on how to score this item.) _____ _____
Now go back to each item, and in column B rate the amount of anxiety or embarrassment and discomfort that you experienced in answering each item. Use the following scale: 0 = none, 1 = a little, 2 = some, 3 = quite a bit, 4 = a great deal.
Scoring. Here is how to score question 10. If you had no ideal sexual scenario, score 0. If you did, go back to your ideal sexual scenario, decide which one of the following is the major ingredient, and score accordingly. If your imagined fantasy focuses on your own physical desire, physical arousal, or genital excitement or pleasure, or focuses on pleasurable physical, sexual acts involving your or your partner's genitals, score 4; if kissing and nongenital touching and caressing are the focus, score 3; if holding, talking, or both are the focus, score 2; if a romantic setting, activity, or ambiance (for example, music, candlelight, beach, dancing, clothing) is the focus, score 1.
Now add all the numbers on the lines in column A to arrive at your total item score. Next, add all the numbers in column B, which rates your anxiety, to arrive at your anxiety score. You can enter these scores here:
______ Total item score
______ Anxiety/embarrassment/discomfort score
Interpreting your scores. This inventory is highly focused on only a few aspects of your sexuality. It is not an indicator of your overall satisfaction with your sexual or intimate relationship. So, that said, what can it tell you?
The total item score reflects your level of sexual desire, the degree to which you are motivated to act on it, and the value you place on physical and sensual sexual pleasure. Are you satisfied with your level of desire? If so, are you satisfied with your frequency of acting on it? If not, is it something about you or the relationship or your lifestyle that keeps you from initiating sexual activity? Are you satisfied with the level of physical pleasure that you receive from your sexual encounters? The lowest possible score is 0, which suggests a total disinterest or disavowal of sexual desire and pleasure. Another negative scoring pattern consists of high numbers on sexual desire and interest (questions 1, 2, and 5) but low numbers for acting on or achieving sexual pleasure (questions 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8). On these five items, the higher numbers mean that you take greater initiative to experience sexual pleasure and that you derive physical satisfaction from your sexual activity.
The anxiety score reflects the amount of negative emotion that you feel about your level of sexual desire and the physical pleasures of sex. Is your anxiety high for the questions about independent sexual desire? Is your anxiety high for the questions about the pursuit of pleasure (masturbation, orgasm, physical gratification)? A total score between 0 and 10 suggests very little negative emotion; 11 to 20 suggests some; 21 to 30 suggests quite a bit; and 31 to 40 suggests a great deal of negative emotion. The idea here is to reflect on what these numbers mean for you. Do they cause you to think about your sexuality in a different way? Do they enable you to face some personal concerns that you typically ignore or avoid? In the next section, we continue to explore how understanding stereotypes about female sexuality can help you identify and overcome sexual hang-ups.
Society's Double Standard
In many ways, society endorses male sexual desire and need for pleasure as a normal, innate pursuit. In contrast, women's sexual interest and need for pleasure have been minimized and marginalized. Women can be "horny" and sexually turned on as long as this is in response to a husband or male partner with whom they have a loving relationship. And even when a male partner gives an eager female partner permission to fully enjoy sexual pleasure, in other contexts (the locker room, breakup of the relationship, refusal of sex, and so on) he may slap a disparaging label on her (slut, whore, tease, lesbian, and the like). This kind of experience, and other forms of it, can leave women and girls ambivalent about or alienated from their sexuality. As a result, they may get little enjoyment from sex, inhibit their erotic interests, or simply devalue the notion of sexual expression, even with a loving partner.
What are we to make of the findings of a nonscientific Ann Landers survey in 1985, in which 72 percent of the ninety thousand women responding said they would be content to be held tenderly and forget about "the act"? Of the women giving this response, 40 percent were under the age of forty. How would a mother who views sex in this way present sexual information to a daughter or to a son? Did these women ever enjoy the sexual act? If so, when, and why did they cease to find pleasure in it? Simple surveys never answer the really important questions. But here you can find your own answers, discover what they mean, and move on to solutions if needed.
Ambivalence About Female Sexual Desire and Sexual Pleasure
In addition to constant exposure to society's negative stereotypes, there are other reasons why women feel ambivalent about sexual desire and sexual pleasure. This response could have roots in a fairly typical adolescent and family life, or it could stem from traumatic sexual experiences ranging from sexual pressure or coercion to rape or other forms of childhood or adult sexual abuse or assault. Clearly, sexual trauma, especially if repeated or never resolved, is likely to have the most serious impact. For some women, traumatic sexual experiences can result in such extreme anxiety, shame, and disgust with sexual activity as to produce various types of sexual dysfunction, as well as other mental health problems. The next section addresses these more serious sexual problems, but here we will briefly consider the more typical ambivalence about sexual pleasure that is common to many women who have no history of sexual trauma.
My clinical work over more than two decades brought me into contact with numerous women who were uncertain about their right to sexual pleasure or who did not take ownership of their sexuality. Some clients openly admitted that they wanted to have better sexual functioning to benefit their husbands, not themselves. Women with perfectly normal female bodies saw themselves as not measuring up to some ideal female body image. It's no wonder that during sex their energy centered on concealing their perceived flaws rather than on having a satisfying, pleasurable experience.
Anna, a thirty-four-year-old married mother of two children, captured these attitudes in her written response to a body awareness exercise that I assigned her to do at homelooking at her nude body in a mirror. "The top half from my waist up is disproportionate with the bottom half. In relation to my buttocks which stick out so far, I guess my tummy does seem flat. I also have saddlebags and thick thighs.... If my fifteen-hundred-plus miles jogging [through the years] turned out to be preventative inches, I'd hate to see what I would look like if I hadn't taken up the exercise.... Now I'm not thrilled about wearing shorts everywhere in summer except they are cooler. I wonder why Steve does not object to seeing me in short shorts like I do."
Another young woman, Beth, entered therapy because she and her husband were considering having a child and she worried whether their marriage would last, given her intense dislike and avoidance of sex. Beth clearly said that she was not interested in changing for herself but wanted to improve their relationship. She too recorded a litany of body flaws: "sagging breasts, flabby thighs and knees, cellulite on the back of my legs, and my hips really look wide when I'm sitting down."
The problems and attitudes of Anna and Beth stemmed from various causes, including personality, stresses in the family of origin, dissatisfaction with their partners, and lack of sexual information. Nonetheless, some of their attitudes are quite pervasive in our culture and affect women who never seek therapy and never resolve negative or ambivalent feelings about their own sexuality.
As already mentioned, society barely acknowledges that females do or should experience sexual desire. Today, in spite of the sexual revolution and more openness about sex, women are still seen as primarily interested in a loving relationship. A common expectation is that they express sexual desire more as a romantic rather than physical need, or that they primarily feel sexual interest in response to a male partner's sexual desire. Girls growing up today are not likely to have many experiences that would contradict these attitudes. Many messages about sex warn them about males' persistent pursuit of sex, with the implication that girls' own sexual interest is too inconsequential to mention.
Few girls ever hear from any source that their own sexual desire is a normal, healthy, natural response. Those who experience masturbation may discover that they have desire as well as the capacity for sexual pleasure, but the power of social programming often diminishes this knowledge especially if they judge the behavior as wrong or abnormal. In the case of teenagers having sexual intercourse, the focus is likely to be on the male's, not the female's, sexual pleasure. Thus my study of adolescent sexuality found a huge difference, not unexpected, between the percentage of males (75 percent) and females (18 percent) who reported feeling "sexually satisfied" from their first experience of intercourse.
The Instrumental View of Female Sexuality
Another factor that devalues female sexual desire and interest in sexual pleasure is the apparent energy that girls themselves place on being chosen for a relationship, keeping a relationship, and satisfying a boyfriend's sexual desire. Consequently, when they do engage in sex with a partner, a major motive may be to show their love to the partner or commitment to the relationship, rather than to gratify their own sensual and sexual needs. Here's how one young woman, eighteen-year-old Lindsay, put it: "When you're younger, you're told by your friends that guys are assholes, they're pigs, they're basically just trying to get in someone's pants. And the girls are like, 'I think I'm gonna let him. I'm gonna let him sleep with me.' It's not, 'I'm gonna make love to him.' It's, 'I'm going to let him do this to me,' like a reward or something. If you didn't, you were a tease. And if you did, you were a slut. A lot of adults still think that way."
Excerpted from How Can We Talk About That? by Jane DiVita Woody, Ph.D., M.S.W.. Copyright © 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.