SAFAFU: How to Overcome a Sex-Negative Upbringing


By Cathy Reisenwitz

Over on r/SexPositive, there is a heartbreaking story about a girl (I think) who is having trouble overcoming sexual shame and stigma from her upbringing. Whereas mine came more from the church and the culture than from my home life, it’s still a struggle with which I empathize.

As we’ve discussed in this column, the idea that sex is inherently meaningful (sex-negativity) is probably pretty neutral in and of itself.

But posts like this illustrate how this superstition justifies all kinds of beliefs about sex which end up being pernicious. People use the idea that sex is inherently meaningful to justify the belief that certain kinds of sex are morally wrong.

So obviously the first step toward overcoming sexual shame and stigma is to reject the idea that sex is inherently meaningful and necessarily has any moral significance. That doesn’t mean you can’t assign meaning to sex. But it does mean that what sex means varies from person to person.

So if you want to have sex with more than one person, or a person of the same sex, or casual sex, or only monogamous sex, or no sex, those are all personal choices which are not necessarily good or bad in any general or universal sense.

But saying that intellectually and living it out are two different things. So here are some tips for overcoming a sex-negative upbringing and fully embracing sex positivity.

1. Leave and cleave


The fundamentalist, evangelical church is a hotbed of sex-negative teachings. Ironically, we can find in some of its teachings on sex a strategy for overcoming sexual superstition. In Matthew, 19:5, Jesus is quoted as saying “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

The fundamentalist, evangelical takeaways are generally that divorce is bad and you should put your spouse’s needs above your parents’.

But I think another thing to glean is that you should put your sexual needs above your parents’ comfort. And here you can sub parents for teachers, friends, the church you grew up in, whatever groups of people or institutions that you feel like might be uncomfortable or put you down for trying to fulfill your sexual desires. Leave those and cleave to yourself. Really take yourself and your needs seriously, instead of trying to sacrifice for people who really don’t have any need to judge you or be a part of your sexual decision making.

2. Forgive yourself

giphy (1)

One of the reasons I despise sex-negativity is that it puts women in such a double bind. We’re supposed to never want sex or act sexually in the “wrong” situation or with the “wrong” person. But as soon as the “right” person or situation comes along, we’re supposed to turn it on like a light switch and become some sexual goddess. We’re to be “A lady in the street but a freak in the bed,” to quote a great American.

Even worse than that, though, is that sometimes sex-positivity is misunderstood, and used to shame women (and men) who aren’t able to just flip that light switch and get all freaky at the drop of a hat. Sex is good, people say. So you should be into it. In fact, I think men are especially shamed in sex-positive circles when their libidos are damped by years of being told that they shouldn’t feel turned on by this or that.

But sex-positive doesn’t mean sex is good. It means sex is morally neutral. And my sex-positivity recognizes that for some people, sex is really freaking hard. The reasons are myriad, including a sex-negative upbringing that’s hard to shake, sexual assault, depression, a certain orientation or brain chemistry.

Whatever the reason that you’re not enjoying sex like you wish you did, the first step is to refuse to be ashamed about it. Decide whether it’s something you really want, and accept that maybe it isn’t. And that’s okay. Not everyone wants or enjoys sex. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just different.

But if it’s something you want to be able to enjoy more, start to look at it like you look at other problems in your life. This is where sex positivity can be really helpful. Because not enjoying sex isn’t morally any different than not enjoying any other physical activity. Sure, there’s more cultural baggage. But you can choose whether or not to actively accept or reject that baggage. I choose to reject it. Which means instead of feeling bad about yourself for not enjoying sex as much as you’d like to, you can just focus on tactics for enjoying it more.

3. Get excited

giphy (2)

One thing I really struggled with in my journey towards overcoming my sex-negative beliefs is regretting the time I spent being sex-negative. I have to be honest with you, having my early 20’s in my late 20’s has been inconvenient and embarrassing at times. It was tough to not feel like my mini skirt and hangover would look a lot better on a younger girl. But at the same time, I had to admit that having those adventures was important to me. And that I was lucky that I started when I did. The secret is to be grateful that you’ve started your adventure, not regretful that you didn’t do it sooner.

No matter what you decide, the future is going to be better than the past. You have only your shame and stigma to lose. And potentially there’s a lot of learning and experience to gain.


Images: Giphy (3); Micah Esguerra/Flickr

Cathy Reisenwitz is a D.C.-based writer. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications. She has been quoted by the New York Times Magazine and has been a columnist at and Bitcoin Magazine. Her media appearances include Fox News and Al Jazeera America. She serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center for a Stateless Society.

1 Comment

  • Reply October 16, 2015


    I re-read this every once in a while. It makes me happy to know that adventures can still be possible for some people, and the message that it’s never too late is something I want to believe, whether it’s my experience or not.

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