Art By Savanna Fortgang.
I was 12. The name of the color of my room was flamingo pink. I picked it out myself. J-14 magazine cutouts of celebrities hung all over my walls. It was getting late and it was almost time to engage in the nightly ritual that filled me first with pleasure, and then with deep, deep shame. I grabbed my body pillow and rubbed myself on it until I orgasmed. Immediately after orgasming, the guilt would bubble out of me, sometimes making me sob. I often rushed to my radio to turn on the Christian radio station and pray for forgiveness.
This shame surrounding sexual pleasure stuck with me all throughout my preteen, teenage, and young adult life. There were so many cues that reinforced the connection I had made between sexual pleasure and shame. The (very religious) school I went to taught us that premartial sex and masturbation were sins. My (very religious) high school boyfriend broke up with me because I confessed to him that I had been orgasming during our make-out sessions.
From early childhood into adolescence, young people are stripped of their bodily autonomy and dissuaded from exploring what makes them feel good.
In religious settings or otherwise, self-exploration and bodily autonomy from children is typically discouraged by adults.Children are forced to be physically affectionate with extended family members. Children are held down and tickled to the point of tears. From early childhood into adolescence, young people are stripped of their bodily autonomy and dissuaded from exploring what makes them feel good.
In my late teenage years and early twenties I found myself in a position where I really wanted to be sexually active, but felt immense shame over my own desires and little connection to my body. This led me to unfulfilling and sometimes unwanted sexual encounters with (mostly cis male) partners, which left me feeling empty. The sexual shame from my religious upbringing and the norm of bodily oppression toward young people played a major role in the unwanted sexual encounters I found myself in.
Patriarchy, the gaps in conversations about consent and pleasure in sex education, and my own experiences of sexual trauma also contributed to my warped sense of sexuality. This sense of sexuality was one where my pleasure not only didn’t matter, but was something to hide. It was a sense of sexuality in which my body didn’t belong to me.
Constantly remind your children that leaving any situation is always an option and never an inconvenience.
So, how do we prevent young people from experiencing sexual shame? Every caretaker will have to decide how to best navigate these types of interactions with their children based on their personal relationships. Having conversations about gender, sexual pleasure, and consent can be intimidating and difficult, but caretakers have a responsibility to teach children that they are in charge of their own bodies.
Julie, a doula, student midwife, and mother of two, worked with me to come up with healthy and noninvasive ways caretakers can facilitate healthy bodily exploration and consent practices.
FOR CHILDREN UNDER 8
Allow Children To Self-Sooth: As a postpartum doula, Julie has observed caretakers dissuade their children from self-soothing techniques such as pacifier use or thumb-sucking. She urges caretakers to ask themselves what they are telling their children when they don’t allow for these natural self-soothing practices. Are we dissuading them from feeling their feelings? What’s so wrong with children coping in the ways they know how?
Allow Children To Explore Their Bodies: Many caretakers understandably don’t want their children to touch their genitals in public, but instead of immediately reprimanding them, consider explaining to them that touching themselves in public is inappropriate. You can suggest for them to do that in the privacy of their own bedroom.
Teach Children Anatomical Names For Their Genitals: Children should be taught how to identify various parts of their bodies without being ashamed. Not only does this give them power over their bodies, but it makes practical sense to have this knowledge in case they experience any genital pain or discomfort. It can also help children cultivate the language needed to communicate about any instance of sexual assault.
Promote (Don’t Force) Consensual Affection: Instead of demanding that children be physically affectionate to family members, give them a choice in the matter. It could be as easy as asking them if they want to hug their auntie, instead of telling them to. Give them options to opt out of any kind of touch that they don’t want.
Give Them The Option To Leave: Constantly remind your children that leaving any situation is always an option and never an inconvenience. Be available to answer a phone call and provide the young person with a way out during any social situation they are in.
FOR YOUNG PEOPLE OVER AGE 14
Consider Buying Them A Sex Toy: As a starting point, you might want to check out Salty contributor Paris Franke’s article “Why You Should Buy a Sex Toy For Your Teen.” Franke asks this compelling question: “What if we taught our children from the beginning to not seek out relief of these sexual desires in other people, but to teach them that it’s something they relieve themselves? Instead, teach them that when you have these sexual desires, you don’t have to act on them through others, you can use the tools you have to satisfy yourself.”
As for me, I’m still unlearning my childhood sexual shame. I still sometimes sob after I orgasm. I am sometimes filled with fear when talking to my partners about my own pleasure.
Having mindfull, consent-aware queer partners and those with experience in BDSM practices has been a huge help in unlearning my sexual shame. They affirm my sexuality and gender fluidity, and encourage me to figure out what I find pleasurable and what my sexual boundaries are.
Unlearning my childhood sexual shame is an ongoing process of discovery and reparenting myself that will likely span the rest of my life. My sexuality is constantly in flux, but I’ve gotten to a place where exploring it is exciting and sharing it is empowering instead of shameful.
About the Author
Renee Flowers is a queer, mixed race artist, writer, and activist. Her artistic endeavors involve community outreach and attempting to re-center disenfranchised voices, working directly with populations on projects that empower and spread awareness.
Julie Smith CD, CLEC is a mama, educator, full-spectrum doula and student midwife working throughout Southern California.