This post is an edited transcript from a truly insightful conversation I hosted with Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers about the importance of cultivating a healthy relationship with our own sexuality as adults.
Dr. Tina is a licensed family and sex therapist, researcher, professor, and a leading voice on the on the impact of shame on sexual health. She’s also the best-selling author of Shameless Parenting – Everything You Need to Raise Shame-free, Confident, Kids and Heal Your Shame Too! and Sex, God, & the Conservative Church – Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy.
Below are some of the questions we explored during this conversation:
- What does “healthy sexuality” actually mean?
- Why don’t most of us have a healthy relationship with our own sexuality?
- Why does having a healthy relationship with our sexuality matter?
- How can we cultivate a healthy relationship with our own sexuality?
If you want to listen to this two-part conversation, click on the links below:
I’ve color coded the questions and answers to make this an easier and more pleasant read. My questions have a beige background with Dr. Tina’s answers remaining on a white background.
I would love to start with defining sexuality, especially the way in which we will be referring to it today. So how do you define sexuality? And how do you see its role in our lives?
I love that we’re going to begin with this question, and I want to invite everybody to wonder about that question themselves. It’s not a question that most of us have been asked in our lives.
I taught human sexuality at the graduate level for 30 years. I teach it now at the postgraduate level and I’ll often ask people to take time to just think about this question. Because it’s such a fascinating question.
It can involve the body, senses, desire, the heart, and trust with another. It can have aesthetic beauty, and ecstasy, and thus it can facilitate connection, pleasure, joy, catharsis, and transformation. But it does not need to, and it does not always. Sexuality does not neatly fit in any boxes.
But when coercion and manipulation is involved, there is sexual trauma. And a sexual wound becomes a wound to our soul. That takes us back to that Greek word Eros, that coming together in beauty of body and soul.
There was a definition by the Surgeon General back in 2001, where he said sexuality is an integral part of human life. It carries the awesome power to create new life and can foster intimacy and bonding, as well as shared pleasure in our relationships.
Sexual Health is intricately bound to both physical and mental health. I thought that was an interesting definition coming from someone inside the medical field, which often doesn’t recognize the totality of sexuality and the human experience.
And as far as the roles that it plays in our lives, I think of it really as sort of having three different primary roles. The first one is that it helps us connect to ourselves and our desire, joy, comfort and pleasure.
If you hang around little ones, you really see this naturally emerge in children as soon as they are almost a year old. They’ve just discovered their genitals which have enormous amounts of nerve endings – 8,000 in the clitoris and 5,000 in the head of the penis. And they’re pretty excited about that.
There’s this natural joy. They find comfort in touching that part of their body. And there’s pleasure there. This is how we are wired.
If they’re in a home where someone is really uncomfortable with them finding their genitals, eventually they will absorb that adult’s feeling of shame. But surely, babies don’t start with any of these shameful feelings.
Secondly, sexuality fulfills our desire to connect with others in pleasure. And finally, and least often but certainly important, sexuality is part of what we do to procreate.
What is interesting and a little bit surprising is that most of us don’t associate the term sexuality with a connection to ourselves. We think of it more as a way to connect to others.
Our sexuality is so beautiful and powerful, so the question is, why don’t most of us have a healthy relationship with our sexuality?
I think it would be worthwhile to talk about what it means to have a healthy relationship with our sexuality. When I think about healthy sexuality, I really see three things. First, seeing you and your body as worthy of love, joy, comfort, connection, and play.
As I had mentioned, we all start out that way. We come out of the womb and as a baby, we are seeking connection. That’s core to our sexuality.
But beyond that, it also means that we’re willing to know our own body – its likes, its pleasures, and its particularities. Many of us drift away from where we started as children, so we might need to do some learning, and unlearning, depending on how we grew up, so that we can get connected with the truth about our bodies, what we like, what we don’t like, and what feels good to us.
And once we have a better sense of our preferences, it becomes about our willingness to speak up for ourselves with people who want to honor us, be curious with us, and enjoy that discovery with us.
We desire to be in relationships with people who make us feel comfortable to speak up and find the journey enjoyable. I think of those three aspects as part of a healthy relationship with our own sexuality.
So why don’t most people – especially in the US – have a healthy relationship with their sexuality? No matter where we grew up, we are all shaped by our environment, our families of origin, our ethnicities, our culture, whatever religion might have informed our families, our society’s values and norms, our experiences, whether they’re positive or negative.
And that mixes with our own particular personality blend from our DNA that got passed down, genetically and epigenetically from our particular family and genetics. We might be anxious or earnest or shy or empathic or perfectionistic or detailed or cautious or super adventurous or laid back.
I grew up in a Swedish immigrant family. I grew up very athletic and pretty easygoing as a kid. My family ethnically and culturally was very body- and sex- positive, as many northern European cultural families can be. I happened to be taught about bodies and sexuality growing up by all of my family members.
I wasn’t ever shamed for finding my genitals at age one or pleasuring myself at age three, or by being curious about somebody else’s body at age five, or any of the other things that naturally happened along the way.
My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles just explained things pretty matter of fact along the way and I thought that was normal, but it really wasn’t. I didn’t learn that it wasn’t normal until I was probably in my 30s.
It’s really eye opening to realize that our individual relationship to our own sexuality is shaped by our upbringing and culture. And that there are so many differences across cultures depending on where we grew up.
The Netherlands, for example, is a place where attitudes towards sexuality are very different from what we know here in the U.S. What is shaping these attitudes in their culture?
I love that question. First, I want to say no country is perfect. Because that would mean that there would have to be humans that are perfect. And that’s an oxymoron. I always like to say humans are radically valuable and radically imperfect.
But in those countries that have comprehensive sex education, it begins in preschool and runs all the way through high school or to age 18, and it’s age-appropriate.
Kids can then learn everything about body autonomy, and where their body begins and another person’s body begins and ends. They also learn about how you ask before touching somebody. That’s really the beginning of learning consent.
They learn about the value of themselves and other people, and why kindness and respect are important. They learn relational and emotional intelligence from the very beginning.
And in elementary school, they begin to learn about the deeper intricacies of anatomy, physiology, reproduction, and then about intimate relationships as they move into junior high and high school.
So it’s very age-appropriate. It matches what they are naturally curious about and want to know about. And they’re free to ask all the questions that naturally emerge for them.
There’s a really wonderful book called Not Under My Roof: Parent, Teens and the Culture of Sex by Amy Schalet. Amy grew up in Holland, and came to the U.S. to do academic work. She was immediately struck by how odd the adolescents were in relationship to their sexuality in comparison to where she grew up.
She then decided to do some research, interviewing families in two different towns in the United States and two towns in the Netherlands. She interviewed both adults and kids in the families about sexuality and included the research in her book.
The kids in the Netherlands would actually talk to their parents about their sexual readiness and they often had their first sexual experiences at home.
Contrary to that, the kids in the U.S. did not talk to their parents past the age of eight or nine. They had their first sexual experiences often in cars, or in some place that would not necessarily be very comfortable or enjoyable.
Their first sexual experiences often weren’t necessarily positive and this is because their parents weren’t resources for them. They didn’t know how to be.
Because many Americans grew up in silence around this topic, they don’t have access to any words or feelings other than shame.
What we know about the European countries is that based on every single measure including teen pregnancy and rates of STDs, they end up making safer sexual choices.
Because their first sexual experiences are better, they tend to pair with people who fit them better. They describe their sexual lives as more satisfying and more varied later when they are adults.
Was there an age difference between the kids in the U.S. versus other countries when it came to having sex?
We find that kids are having sex somewhere between the age of 16 and 18. That’s typically true in most industrialized countries. It doesn’t vary drastically.
But what is different is the lack of shame. You see kids having good first experiences with people that they care about in the countries that have comprehensive sex education. You don’t hear as much about hookups, kids feeling used, or having bad experiences.
But in places like the U.S., you hear much more of kids having bad first experiences or wanting to get it over with because they haven’t had sex, but they feel like everybody else has, so they just do it to do it. Or kids having sex without contraception, because they can’t tell parents.
We only have 18 states in the United States right now that require medically accurate sex education. The sex education therefore doesn’t have to be medically accurate. That leads to higher rates of teen pregnancies and STIs in the conservative states. And higher rates of kids not using contraception.
If you begin to get shamed at two for finding your genitals, and then sitting on the couch and playing with your penis, or your vulva and someone yells at you, and you get yelled at again in the bath, and it all happens again at five, and keeps happening, this reaction shapes your relationship to yourself.
When you continue to get shamed for everything related to your body, you begin to believe that something is fundamentally wrong with this impulse, this erotic part of you. That shapes your core self-esteem, because it is who you are.
You fundamentally believe if people knew who you really are, they couldn’t possibly love you because inside, you feel you are damaged. You are bad. Because you’ve been told this in various ways since you were a toddler.
What is fundamentally different in these countries we discussed, is that they tend not to give that message. It’s just always saying who you are is fine. You’re good.
What else can you share with us about the U.S.?
I believe that in the U.S., our first shame is often sexual shame.
Many times when we have been shamed, it’s pre-verbal. We’re getting our diapers changed. We’re 10 months old and we now have control over our hands – we know how to reach for things – and we find our genitals. And that’s exciting.
In the U.S., when these little ones find their genitals on purpose and are excited about that, they usually don’t have caregivers who say “Sweetheart, that is a wonderful part of you” and finish diapering.
The vast majority of people have someone saying: “Oh, that’s yucky”, and then slaps their hand away. That’s the experience of most people.
Now, that’s a pre-verbal experience. And that doesn’t happen just once. That happens many times and the child doesn’t stop doing it but continues until maybe the age of five, and then gets in trouble playing doctor. And that memory sticks.
These pre-verbal experiences then translate into something that’s deeply unconscious that might come out much later in their lives.
Sex education is happening now through media and porn on the internet. Currently, it is all that is readily available.
Also, there have been some significant shifts that have occurred in the United States. It’s a confluence of value shifts, technology shifts, and political & socio-political shifts that have created some massive changes in what families are experiencing now versus a generation before, and the generation before that.
There has been a shift away from news, so the normal regulations or standards for journalism no longer need to be followed. And then we began to have video games, music videos, and then the internet came on board.
And due to a change in regulatory laws, corporations were able to do things they weren’t allowed to before. For example, over the last 40 years we have seen a dramatic increase in female violence and humiliation in all forms of media.
So now we have the technology and social media algorithms shaping how people think. And we don’t really know what to do about that. As it relates to sex education, we don’t have the actual knowledge but instead, fantasy knowledge being shared with our children. And that’s very confusing for them.
So for example, if a heterosexual boy learns about sexuality primarily through pornography, movies, TV, and video games, that is through a male gaze. And that is not what a female likes, or who women are. Women tend to like lesbian pornography because that is written by women for a female gaze.
But they usually don’t even know that, since they were never taught what was accurate knowledge. Instead, they grew up in a country that saw sex as dangerous, therefore did not provide sex education.
A thought occurred to me as you were talking about sexuality in general and the idea of exploring our body with somebody else from a place of curiosity. Even if one person in a couple has a healthy relationship with their own sexuality, and the other doesn’t, there is a disconnect.
And the one who has a healthy view won’t be able to partner up with someone who doesn’t. This can kill a relationship before it starts. What are your thoughts on this?
You’re absolutely right. I have counseled people who are doing their own work around healing their shame. And they realize how important it is to be in relationship with someone who is also doing the same work (or has done that work).
There can be a lot of anger and it can be really painful. It’s really important to be with someone who recognizes that maybe their childhood was not affirming of bodies and sexuality. And therefore, they are doing this work to get to a place where they can celebrate themselves, their body, and their sexuality as a good and wonderful part of being human.
And that you’re in the healing process together. Because it often is very difficult to be in relationship with someone who fundamentally believes that they’re not okay. There are a lot of people where that’s the truth for them.
We’ve been talking about what has been preventing us from having a connection to ourselves and others through our sexuality. I know that you have a desire for everyone to get a glimpse of possible shifts, as it relates to our own sexuality. Where can they go from here? This is an important part of your life’s work.
And we talked about the fact that we can acknowledge where we are and understand that the path to healing isn’t necessarily easy for most of us, but what are the pieces that are necessary to be able to do all of this?
Firstly, it’s important to assess the amount of sexual shame in your sexual story. If you want help with this, you can go to my website and there’s a free download under the Sexual Reclamation Project. This will actually give you some questions to start, so you can have a sense of your own sexual narrative.
You can think about how the experience has been for you and whether you want this legacy, or whether you want to change it up for something better. And if you want something better, the Sexual Reclamation Project will help you do that.
And whatever you learn from that is valuable. Because you can then tell your story to someone else. Because I promise you, there is someone in your life who is loving, compassionate, and empathic that you can tell your story to. And they can tell their story to you. And will find out that you’re not alone – that the vast majority of people grew up in homes that they wish were slightly different.
You can go through my parenting book and see how it needs to be for kiddos. Here you’ll realize how it could have been, and how you can begin to heal. You can start to establish a new relationship with your body and understand that if you are in relationship, you have the right to ask for what you want. That you get to have joy and pleasure in your life. So this is all part of the process, but it takes time. It just takes time. But you deserve to have it.
Secondly, there are some really great books, podcasts, and other resources that are on education or even on communication around sexuality out there. There’s a book called “Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships” by Stella Harris which is really good. There’s also a book called Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski which focuses on female sexuality. And Esther Perel’s podcast, “Where Should We Begin”, which is really great as well.
Also, it’s important to examine your relationship to your body. What is your relationship to your body? Our relationship to our body can be hard to discern because it is shaped constantly in our culture. It is as prevalent as the water we swim in and the air we breathe that is constantly telling us that we’re just not good enough. And that’s what drives our economy.
We know that 50% of six year olds, two thirds of nine year olds, and 90% of 15 year olds are modifying their diets. They have already “figured out” they’re not okay. And this is not true!
We are who we are, and our bodies are what they are, because of our heredity more than anything else. So check in on your relationship with your body. How has it absorbed the message of culture? Do you see it as a mechanism by which you get to love and hold and play and experience joy, and be silly and do life? Do you want to experience more life and more joy through it? If so, then start working on that, because it takes time, and it is hard.
I’m a Swede, so I’m built strong. And probably 40 pounds more than what would be the ideal in the US. But I look like all of my relatives, and this is just how I am. And I love it. I remember when my daughter was four years old (she’s now in her 30s), she said to me “Mommy, I love hugging you, you’re so squishy”. I remember saying to myself at that point, “I need to receive this as pure love”.
So I’ve been working on my relationship with my body for a long time. And it’s worth it because I don’t want to go to my deathbed saying that I didn’t appreciate this body that I’m in.
So if you grew up feeling shame about your body and sexuality, you can start with learning about and loving on yourself, and re-parenting yourself. So you can write a new positive narrative for yourself.
If we don’t heal ourselves, we’re just going to give it to the next generation and they will have so much more trouble.
You’ve talked about the importance of sharing our story. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on this.
It’s beneficial to either find a therapist, talk to and share your story with a friend, or a group of friends. What we’ve learned in shame research is that when you share your story of shame with someone who’s compassionate and empathetic, shame can’t grow. Shame starts to dissipate. Shame grows in silence.
And what shame is always telling us is that we’re not worthy of love. We’re not worthy of belonging. We’re not good enough. And shame is always lying to us. Because we came into this world good and beautiful.
And so we have to do things that help shame melt away, so that the truth of who we are and who we’ve always been begins to come shining through. Sharing our stories helps us liberate ourselves from shame.
Well, I love that! I now have a few frequently asked questions.
How do we know if our sexual fantasies are normal? We might have fantasies that, to us, are super-hot, but we would never want to act them out in real life.
Most of us have fantasies, but most of us don’t act out our fantasies. That’s why we call them fantasies. And in fact, most people look at the kind of pornography that they wouldn’t actually act out. That’s not even related.
So fantasies are just that – they are fantasies, and it’s totally okay. So just let yourself have them. And if you’ve got little things that you want to do to kind of spice things up in real life, that’s okay too. It’s good to keep making things fun.
Hundreds of times in my clinical career, I hear my patients say: “Oh, my gosh, I have fantasies, and they make me terrible.” And I tell them that I’ve heard that a million times, and it’s completely fine and normal.
Another popular question. What is a healthy relationship to porn? And what is not considered a healthy relationship to porn? Does it depend on the kind of porn that we’re watching?
This is a fabulous question. First, I want to say, there actually is no such thing as being addicted to porn. This is not in the diagnostic manual, which is what we use to diagnose people with mental illnesses.
There is a condition associated with feeling out of control, or being obsessed with something. So if it’s getting in the way of eating, sleeping, working, or your relationships, then it’s out of control. If you don’t think it’s getting in the way of those things, then it’s not.
Wow, is it that simple? Dr. Tina, I didn’t think it would be that simple.
What about the kind of porn you’re watching? Does that matter?
It doesn’t really matter. You might be interested in something that you might think of as kind of weird, or spicy, or violent. But it’s not necessarily what you want to do with somebody. So it’s just a fantasy. If it’s not getting in the way of the life you want to live, it’s not a problem.
Often, I see one partner in a couple call up a therapist and say: “My husband is addicted to porn.” But this is only because she/he doesn’t like that his/her partner watches porn. That’s not an addiction to porn. That is a relationship problem.
That’s what needs to be dealt with: the relationship problem. And how the two of them think about erotic material, and probably the secrecy that’s been going on in their relationship.
What’s the best way to navigate a situation for a couple with different histories and a different relationship to their own sexuality?
Perhaps one has a healthy relationship and the other does not. What is the best way to approach when each person came from a different culture with different influences and conflict ensues?
That’s a terrific question, Avi, and not an easy one. We are all really sensitive, because it involves our body and soul. We’re super sensitive around it. So it can be tricky. But one of the things that I think and feel is that when we are struggling sexually with a partner, it’s never one person’s issue. Ever. It’s always both of ours.
And if we can align in the desire for our sexual relationships to be fun, connective, and pleasurable, then from that place we can figure out how to shape and grow it.
Our histories and paradigms might be different, but we share the same mission. And that is a good mission. And a fun mission. It’s an adventurous mission. It might be challenging, but it’s a worthwhile mission to have.
And it’s a mission that a lot of people don’t actually pursue. Some get into a relationship and then just forget about their sexual relationship. So having a shared mission, and being willing to keep your eyes on it and keep working at it and shaping it is a very worthwhile mission.
It’s good to talk about it, and to ask questions. “How do we want to go about our mission? What do we want to bring to this shared mission? Do we want to read a book together? Do we want to listen to a podcast together? See a sex therapist together?”
When my partner and I had been together for 4 months, we opted to fly to Santa Fe to go to a sexuality and spirituality conference. He would go to one workshop and I’d go to another, and then we meet in the hotel room at night.
You can do all kinds of things to help you share the same language and get on the same page. You can shape your sexuality together when you have that as a shared mission. So okay, you come from different places, find your shared mission, and go for it!
Dr. Tina! I LOVE that you and your partner went to this conference after dating for a few months. It speaks to the fact that even for the best of us, even those who are experts on a topic, education continues.
That we continue to learn and evolve with that deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. And that curiosity is the key to building and nourishing thriving relationships.
I can’t think of a better way to conclude this insightful conversation. Thank you so much for all that you’ve brought to it!