How to Actively Unlearn Toxic Beliefs About Sex

“So many things to unlearn…”
– The Other Me

Our beliefs and ideas about sex, relationships, love, and life don’t happen in a vacuum. We are, all of us, steeped in a culture that is sex-negative, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and body-negative. Unless you grew up with parents who had unusually radical ideas, most of us reach adulthood with at least some baggage to unpack, some toxic beliefs to unlearn.

But how do you do it?

I believe unlearning is an active process. None of us can grow, change, and learn to do better without, well, doing. Sitting back and waiting for enlightenment never helped anyone, and it certainly never made any progress towards dismantling the broken system.

So you want to actively unlearn some of the toxic beliefs that are holding you back? Great! Buckle in and let’s go.

Be prepared to be uncomfortable

Unlearning is hard sometimes. If you expect it to be simple and comfortable, you’re not going to be able to engage fully with the process.

Accept it’s going to be uncomfortable. Acknowledge that, and welcome it if you can. Just like a little bit of muscular soreness after hitting the gym means you’re getting stronger, a little bit of mental discomfort means you’re expanding your worldview and opening yourself up to new ideas.

Interrogate why you think something

Why do you believe what you believe? Okay, interrogate that. Drill deeper. “I just do” isn’t a good enough reason. “It’s just a feeling” doesn’t count.

If you hold beliefs that you think might be toxic or not serving you any longer, ask yourself why you hold them. You might find that they’re what you were taught at home or in church or at school, but that they don’t represent your beliefs any more.

You’re allowed to change your views. In fact, as you unlearn the toxic thing you were taught, you probably will.

Confession time: when I was in my late teens and very early 20s, I was anti sex work. Not really in an active way, I just kinda passively believed it was by definition harmful to women. As I got older and started consuming more sex-positive media, I started to question this belief. I realised that I held it because I’d been told that sex work was inherently unfeminist, and as a baby proto-feminist I hadn’t thought to interrogate that any further.

When I held those beliefs up to the light and really looked at them, the logic fell apart. When I started listening to sex workers’ voices and reading more about the subject, I realised those views were actually out of sync with my feminism and my politics. So I changed them.

Don’t be (too) ashamed of what you thought before

As you learn and grow, you’ll inevitably at some point find yourself feeling ashamed. Perhaps you used to have a toxic or bigoted view that you don’t hold any more. Perhaps you are just suddenly very aware of how much you didn’t know.

Here’s the thing, though: none of us come into this world knowing this stuff. Our opinions, views, and politics develop over our lifetimes. That’s a good thing!

So if you’re a little bit ashamed of what you used to think or believe, that can be a useful tool for growth. But don’t let yourself swim in it. That isn’t good for you or for anyone else.

Remember: when you know better, you can do better. Growth and moving forward is the goal.

Have nuanced discussions with friends who have different experiences

I am not, of course, suggesting you put yourself in the path of people who wish you harm. Queer folks don’t owe it to homophobes to patiently educate them. Trans people don’t have to debate cis bigots to earn their humanity. And so on. But if you’re trying to interrogate your views about sex (or anything else), spending time with people whose experiences differ from yours can be surprisingly eye-opening.

One of the things I treasure about my friendship with Christine of Light in Grey Places is that we come from very different backgrounds and had/have wildly different experiences of sex and relationships. Yet we’ve always been able to have respectful discussions that have, I think, led both of us to learn some things from the other.

We also found we had way more in common than not – yes, we come at it from different angles, but ultimately we both value consent, agency, and equality.

Take the time to have nuanced discussions with friends you feel safe discussing these issues with. It’s one of the many reasons why sex-positive friends are such a gift.

Expand the media you consume

Expanding the things you read, watch, listen to, and consume is one of the best ways to expose yourself to more views and experiences. Start listening to sex-positive podcasts, add queer stories to your Netflix queue and to-be-read pile. Flood your social media feeds with the kinds of educators you want to learn from. Soak up their words and read the resources they share.

Expanding the media you consume can include porn and erotica if you’re into those things, too. Do you always watch porn with thin, white bodies? If so, try searching out a greater diversity of performers. Do you exclusively consume erotica featuring young, cis, able-bodied characters? If so, why not challenge yourself to check out content written by and for queer folks, trans folks, older folks, disabled folks? Simply expanding your horizons of what you consider “sexy” is a great step to take.

As you unlearn your toxic beliefs about sex, relationships, bodies, and more, you’ll probably find that you naturally start gravitating to a more diverse range of media.

Step away from environments that reinforce the problematic narratives

This isn’t always possible or easy, of course, and I don’t want to diminish the very real struggles – and dangers – that can come with separating yourself from toxic environments.

But if it’s safe and possible to do so, can you step away from spaces that reinforce the toxic beliefs you’re trying to shed? Can you see your bigoted family members less often, find a more open-minded church to attend, stop hanging out with that one friend who makes “edgy” jokes that are actually just offensive?

It’s hard to unlearn beliefs that are being reinforced every step of the way by people desperate to hold you back from learning and doing better.

But with a little effort and intention, we can all start to unlearn the toxic things we were taught.

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Today’s post is my submission for this week’s Quote Quest, a weekly meme by Little Switch Bitch. Click the logo to see what everyone else is writing about this week. This post is ALSO part of my #SexEdSeptember series! Want to support my work? You can do that by sharing this post, signing up for my newsletter, or buying me a coffee!

Unlearning Sex Negativity

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a long time. So today for Smutathon seems like as good a time as any!

I need to start by admitting something that doesn’t make me look good. When I was younger, I engaged in a lot of slut-shaming. I held a very, very strong belief that people should only have sex in the context of Capital L Love. I kinda low-key considered myself better than other girls because of the small number of people I’d had sex with and the fact that I insisted on a strong emotional bond before I would consider it.

To be clear, I am NOT demisexual. Obviously some people are and this is a completely legitimate sexual identity. However, I experience sexual attraction and desire outside of emotionally committed relationships. Definitely not demi. I just… had some very strange moral ideas about sexuality. I would, in my late teens and early twenties, quite often find myself wanting to have sex with someone but insisting I couldn’t because it would be *wrong* because we weren’t In Love. Even when I became polyamorous, I was one of those insufferable “it’s not about SEX! It’s about LOVE!!!!!!” people.

And now? Well, I’m a swinger! I love casual sex! I’ve had threesomes and foursomes and orgies. I’ve been to countless sex parties and facilitated a few. The number of people I’ve slept with is probably still not particularly impressive to some, but I stopped counting at thirty which is way above the national average.

So… what the fuck happened?

The short answer is that I learned. The longer answer is that I took the time to step back and consider my position – really consider it – and couldn’t find any morally defensible reason for continuing to hold it. I also realised that I could be a whole lot happier if I actually allowed myself to have what my heart and body wanted, rather than holding on to some strange morality that didn’t actually stand up under scrutiny.

I have a fairly clear idea of where my ideas about sexuality came from. Though I wasn’t raised religious, I was brought up in an environment where long-term monogamy was held up as the Right Way and sexual promiscuity was shamed. In addition, my first long term relationship was with an older guy who was very clear that he prized me for my Purity. Because I was a virgin when we met (I was fourteen!) he expected me to somehow stay all innocence, naivety about sex, and wide-eyed-inexperience forever. He slut-shamed me for liking some of the sex we had together (I was supposed to put out, but seem reluctant about it – make of that whatever you like!) In turn I slut-shamed myself and internalised the idea that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex and that being into it made me less appealing to the men I was having sex with.

To be clear, I don’t think my experience was anything particularly atypical. Girls in our culture are often brought up under the weight of massive sexual shame, in a society that still stigmatises and even pathologises female desire and sexuality. Girls are taught it’s their job to say no to boys, to resist any whiff of sexual activity… but then somehow know exactly how to “please their man” once they’re in a socially-sanctioned relationship. It’s fucked up.

No-one who is brought up in this kind of environment can escape without internalising some of it. It’s almost impossible. Some of us fare better than others, of course, but we’re all swimming in this toxic sex-negativity. To escape from it takes a real effort.

It took me years to unlearn some of these toxic beliefs about sex, and to be honest that work is still not entirely done. I still occasionally have to catch myself when I find myself playing down my eagerness for sex or being tempted to lie when someone asks me how many people I’ve had sex with.

But the actual unlearning was a process. First, it required consciously acknowledging that actually, being promiscuous and engaging in casual sex was something I would enjoy. Then learning how not to judge myself, or others, for these types of behaviours. And that took a lot of reading, a lot of critical thought, a lot of listening and talking to others and questioning questioning questioning my beliefs at every step of the way.

I still vividly remember the first time I had sex with someone I didn’t love. It felt as though an enormous weight had lifted off my shoulders. I’d kinda wanted to bang that particular person, a good friend with whom a romantic relationship wouldn’t have worked, for a long time. But I’d always denied my interest and said no because I had this weird moral conviction that it would be somehow wrong and say something bad about me as a person if I engaged in Sex Without Love.

Sex with love attached is great. And sex without love attached can also be great. Sex, in the context of a consensual exchange between adults, is fucking awesome.

If you want to only have sex with the one person you’re married to for your entire life, I support that. If you want to have gangbangs with thirty strangers every weekend, I also support that. When we free ourselves from arbitrary sexual morality, we can look at the things that really matter (consent, agency, risk-aware practices, pleasure) and stop judging ourselves and each other so harshly for the consensual sex we engage in.

This post is part of Smutathon 2019. Please donate if you can and help us raise lots of money to support abortion access!

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It IS [Mostly] All About the Sex

For today’s #KinkMonth post, it’s all about SEX! As you’ll have gathered (unless this is your first visit, in which case – welcome!) I’m doing posts inspired by Kayla Lords’ 30 Days of D/s. Today, Kayla asks:

Have you ever considered D/s without a sexual component? Would you be interested in something like it? How important is sex to your current or future D/s relationship?

So when it comes to me and kink, there is one fundamental thing you need to understand:

I do it because it gets me off.

For some reason, it seems to be a thing to deny that BDSM is mostly, or entirely, about sex. And for some people, this is probably true. But, if I’m completely honest, I’m a bit sick of it.

For me, kink and BDSM are, and always have been, overwhelmingly about sex. Yes, they’re means of connecting with people I love. They’re sometimes spiritual. But for fuck’s sake, the vast majority of the time, I do this stuff because it makes my cunt wet and gets me off.

People have tried to divorce BDSM entirely from sex. I am willing to entertain that there are some people – folks at the far end of the Ace spectrum, for example – for whom this is the case. But at its core, I do believe it’s fundamentally a sexual or sex-adjacent practice 99% of the time.

I don’t fuck everyone I scene with, but I do get turned on during pretty much any good kink interaction. It’s part of my pre-negotiation with new partners: “you don’t have to do anything about it, but you need to be okay with the fact that if we have a good scene, I WILL be aroused.”

What’s wrong with sex anyway?

We live in a world where it’s pretty hard to admit that something we do is mainly or entirely about sex. Sex is not seen as a good enough reason to do something – there has to be a higher purpose, a better reason.

Confession I’m seriously not proud of time: pre-20, I was really judgy about people who have casual sex. “I only have sex when I’m in LOVE,” I proclaimed loudly, as if it made me better than other people. Thankfully, I 1) grew the fuck up and stopped being a judgemental bitch, 2) learned the awesomeness that is good casual sex.

A lot of polyamorous people – and yes, I used to be one of them, much to my embarrassment – go around saying “it’s about LOVE, not SEX!” This often goes hand in hand with, “we’re not SWINGERS!” The problem with this is that it implies being a swinger is a bad thing, that love is inherently superior to sex, and it neglects the fact that sex is a hugely important part of romantic love for a lot of us. In this way, people who are ostensibly part of the sex-positive community fall into sex-negative and sex-shaming patterns.

It’s easy to do and I sympathise with it. We’re taught, more or less from birth, that sex is bad. Dirty. Gross. That sex is only “when mummy and daddy love each other very much and want to have a baby.” A huge part of sex-positivity and the sex-posi movement, in my view, is about unlearning these toxic narratives and trying to do better.

Real talk: I don’t have an IUD to control my period (though that’s a nice side effect.) I have it for birth control.

For evidence of pervasive anti-sex sentiment, see also: “I use birth control for reasons that have nothing to do with sex, like controlling my painful periods.” Again, for a lot of people with uteruses (uteri?), this is entirely true and it’s completely valid.

However, lots of us DO use birth control for sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Saying that it should be freely available BECAUSE it has uses that aren’t sexual is really problematic. It should be freely available because it’s a normal part of healthcare, and lots of people like sex while also liking not being pregnant.

Let’s all just admit that some things ARE about sex

My challenge to you, and to myself: next time you find yourself wanting to defend a part of your life or identity with “it’s not about sex!” …Stop. Think about it. And resist the temptation to jump to this defense. Because sometimes, it is about sex. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the great Oscar Wilde: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

Kinky item of the day: Condoms! If you engage in penetrative sex or share toys in non fluid-bonded relationships, you need condoms to keep things sexy and safe. Buy 2 packs for 20% off.

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