“I feel like a teenager with this stuff.”
“I feel like I shouldn’t still be figuring this out at my age.”
I have heard my clients say these sorts of things about their sexual development. Whether it was a modest adult virgin learning about their body and their partner’s, or another client frustrated with themself for not knowing their body’s sexual response and what turns them on, these expressions of embarrassment and shame surround so many people’s interactions with their own sexuality which I hear almost every day through my Zoom screen.
And it is totally, completely, 100% to be expected.
I believe everyone raised in our culture has some aspect of their sexual development delayed or missing, even therapists and sex therapists. Our culture is still quite immature when it comes to understanding, honoring, and demonstrating the complexities of adult sexuality and sexual relationships. The fact that we are just now really grappling with consent on a societal level is proof of this—and we haven’t even gotten that totally right, because consent is not black or white; it is a nuanced and changing endeavor vulnerable to interpretation.
In a culture such as ours in which we do not value sexual discovery, only sexual mastery, the idea of learning about your sexuality and/or your partner’s sexuality or how to be in a sexual relationship is not (a) appreciated and (b) demonstrated practically anywhere. Another way to describe this idea is growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. When you try something new for the first time, do you expect to get it perfect? Of course not. That would be expecting mastery. So why do you approach sex with this assumption: Are you trying to be like the actors in porn? Does it feel too vulnerable to be in learner mode? Is your self-esteem tied to your sexual performance?
Even when sexual discovery is demonstrated in the media, it is usually portrayed with embarrassment, guilt, shame, awkwardness, and clumsiness, which then creates or reinforces such feelings as the ones my clients expressed above. What I so like about human sexuality is that, to borrow from Zen Buddhism, if you adopt a beginner’s mind about it, that mindset will benefit you more than you could possibly know. To have a beginner’s mind is to experience each moment with fresh eyes and without judgment, conditions, goals, or preconceived ideas — tough to do if you have ever seen any sort of media whatsoever. To have a beginner’s mind is to get curious and stay curious — even when your thoughts and feelings pull you into having a different experience.
Where people trip themselves up is when they expect sexual mastery. They make assumptions regarding something about sex, maybe based on a past experience or a past partner or what they have seen in porn or other media, but do not deal with what and who is directly in front of them: “Well, all my past sexual partners didn’t mind anal sex; why do you have an issue with it?” “All the women in porn seem to enjoy facials, what’s wrong with me because I don’t?” “I’ve never had a problem maintaining an erection before now so it must be because of my partner.” Nothing in sex is guaranteed — not erections, not orgasms, not getting everything you want, and certainly not pleasure. Your experience is your responsibility. You and your partner must take active steps to make anything enjoyable happen. You are not owed anything, not in life and not in sex. Once you understand this and begin practicing it in your sex life you will begin to grow up and stop feeling like a teenager.
The bottom line: Understanding your sexuality is a life-long journey and it changes over time. The things you learned about your sexual self as a teenager or young adult may no longer apply now that you have an adult or middle-aged body with some amount of experience and self-knowledge. This is a powerful point: Context matters. Sexuality does not happen in a vacuum and is not solely the result of biological processes. It can be, and is, impacted by many things. There’s a fluidity to it over the lifespan. And if you are lucky, you will be a sexual learner for the rest of your life.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor located in Sonoma county, California.