Unlearning shame around sex and pleasure

How my journey of self-discovery taught me to be curious and embrace my sexuality

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A dimly lit room with a bed and a book open on top of the bed. The only source of light is coming from a small lamp on a bedside table.
You shouldn’t feel shame around sex. PHOTO: Lightbield Studios / Adobe Stock

By: Hannah Kazemi, SFU Student

From a very young age, I could name all parts of the reproductive systems, explain how pregnancy happens, and tell you which phase of the menstrual cycle is best for conceiving. I was raised in a house with an open-door policy and a mother who did her best to educate my sisters and me on our bodies and how to protect them. “You can talk to me about anything” was a phrase I heard a lot growing up. While the sentiment was nice, I didn’t always find it to be true.

For most of my elementary and high school years, I didn’t really know sex had any purpose other than to make babies. 

I thought going to a strip club was something only weirdos with sex addictions did, and that people who had sex for fun didn’t have anything going for them. I didn’t grow up thinking I had to wait for marriage, or that it was necessarily wrong to have sex, but it wasn’t something that was really discussed further. While I knew all the technical stuff regarding sex, I didn’t know anything more than that. I didn’t know what it meant to date, fall in love, or be intimate with someone outside of the context of marriage and babies. There wasn’t a lot of room to be curious about sex, sexual identity, and experiences.

In my mind, most relationships were meant to be transactional. My parents divorced when I was too young to have developed real memories of them together, and my mom didn’t date again until my sisters and I were much older. I grew up thinking every relationship was doomed and there was no point in engaging in sex unless you planned to commit to that person and have a baby with them because duh, sex always equals babies.

It wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 years old that I started to think differently about sex and I became more curious about pleasure. What helped me on this journey was the discovery of adult romance novels.

I had initially started out with the typical manic-pixie-dream-girl falls in love with boring-male-protagonist John Green YA love stories. As I got deeper into the romance rabbit hole, I moved away from YA romance and into romance novels meant for adults. What I didn’t realize was that YA novels lack the explicit content that most adult romance novels contain. It got spicy real quick. We’re talking heat. Straight-up erotica.

And because I was almost exclusively reading e-books, this meant what I was reading wasn’t physically accessible to my mom or younger sisters — preventing unwanted questions.

I was reading about things I had never heard before, or at the very least, I recognized words but didn’t know what they meant. Orgasms, blowjobs, the names of different positions, what it means to masturbate — even descriptions of people flirting were so new to me and I was intrigued.

I sometimes felt embarrassed or ashamed when I would read — and like — a chapter or a book that was more explicit or erotic. I thought it was wrong or that I was too young to be so interested in sex as something that could lead to pleasure. It felt like I was keeping a secret. There’s a heaviness that accompanies the topics of porn and sexual pleasure, and I’ve really had to work to unlearn the shame that accompanies talking about and even thinking about sex.

In high school, because of a myriad of personal and mental health struggles, I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I had crushes but never acted on them, I didn’t date, and honestly, I was a bit afraid of it. I was afraid of the thought of falling in love and giving my heart to someone, and I was also a little bit scared of what the expectations were going to be surrounding sex. I knew my peers in relationships were having sex — they were experiencing the things I had read about in my books. I found myself a little bit jealous, wanting to experience this image of sex and pleasure I’d built up, but not feeling ready.

Books were my way of exploring without having to commit to the real-life bit yet. Learning about sex and pleasure through reading helped me grow to be more comfortable with my sexuality in romantic relationships and in talking about sex with people close to me. I could quietly explore different scenarios and experiences by reading through the lens of different characters at a pace that was comfortable.

As I got older, and even now as I navigate having a boyfriend for the first time, talking openly about my experiences with sex has made it easier for me to express myself and communicate my curiosities when it comes to sex and pleasure. There’s a comfort that comes with being validated by another person in this way; knowing that it’s okay to have different sexual experiences. There’s also a comfort in knowing each of us is entering the relationship with a sex-positive mindset and a willingness to be vulnerable with each other. It’s also a really cool thing to be experiencing.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have been more ready for a relationship or more willing to ask questions about sex if discussions of pleasure happened more openly in society — and I also wonder how many people have had similar experiences. Am I “normal” for being exposed to sex, pleasure, and porn in the way I was? Is it “normal” to have learned about my turn-ons and mood-killers through descriptions of fictional characters and relationships?

What does it even mean to be “normal,” anyway?

I realized I’d been holding onto the expectation of being “normal” for a really long time. The timeline I subconsciously held myself to didn’t exist. I didn’t kiss someone romantically until I was 20, and that really fucked with me for a while. I felt unlovable, incapable of getting into and maintaining a relationship — I felt like I had fallen behind in a race no one else was running.

I’m really proud of 15-year-old me for sitting in discomfort for so long in the pursuit of self-discovery and confidence. I no longer feel the shame and anxiety I once felt when talking about sex and pleasure. I still feel a little bit nervous sometimes, but it’s becoming increasingly easier as I reflect on myself and the way that my perception of sex and pleasure has changed over time. In the past two years, the heaviness and shame I used to feel has dissipated. I’ve gotten to know myself at a much deeper level, and have become more connected and comfortable in my sexuality than I ever have been before.