One of the most common reasons people come to see me for sex therapy might surprise you: It’s the fact that in American society, it is so threatening to talk about sex that the members of a couple actually want me in the room as a referee.
I always pay close attention to interactions between parents and children when it comes to sexual matters. Discussions about sex are difficult if you grew up in a family where the level of communication was low — and they are almost impossible if you grew up in a family where talking about sex was forbidden.
What was acceptable and what was not acceptable in your family in terms of talking about sex and human bodies? My parents were liberal, and my mother had no trouble talking to me about such things when I was a child. I’m certain that’s why I wound up choosing sex therapy as part of my professional identity.
But my mom was also a social worker, so she was sophisticated about differences in people’s values. She always reminded me that I had to be aware that many people do not feel it is appropriate to talk about sex.
Years ago, I was struck by a scene between a mother and her young daughter in my suburban town’s recreation center. I recounted it in my book “SexSmart,” and it is worth retelling here.
At time, the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid” had just come out, and the stores and media were filled with images of the pretty mermaid, Ariel, who had two peach-colored scallop shells to cover her breasts, and a green fish tail
After the free swim period, the locker room was full of women of all ages, sizes, and descriptions walking around in various states of semi-nudity while getting themselves and their children dressed.
One little girl began walking around in her underpants with her hands cupped in the shape of seashells, one hand over each tiny nipple.
“Look, Mommie, here are my boobies!: she said happily.
The mother walked up to her, yanked her quite roughly by the arm, looked at the little girl with venom in her eye and harshly hissed, “Shut up. You don’t say things like that.”
I don’t know if the girl grew up remembering this painful incident or not. But I know others who have recalled such incidents. I specifically ask people their early memories of talking about sex. My patients do remember incidents like this, because they are traumatic.
And I can assure you that somewhere inside that little girl’s memory is stored some very unhealthy beliefs.
Here are a few that might be there:
• Talking about sex is bad.
• My mother thinks sex is bad.
• My mother hates it (and seems to hate me) when I talk about sex or my body.
• People who talk about sex or bodies are bad people.
• Talking about your thoughts about sex or your body with another person is risky and probably dangerous.
Ask yourself which thoughts about sex you should be sharing — but are not — with your partner. If it’s scary to communicate about sex, ask yourself what you might have learned in your family that has made these important discussions feel challenging.
Take out some paper or go on your computer and write down your thoughts on what you want to say. And then set a goal to overcome your negative experiences and to have these important talks, at a safe and mutually agreed upon time.
It’s a very healthy and smart thing to do.
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