Guilt and the Single Girl

Sex.

Three little letters, one natural act, and – if you’re a twenty-something – the potential for a lifetime of guilt. Wait. That’s not right, is it? This is sex we’re talking about, the thing that is supposed to be so much fun that it’s all newlyweds, teenagers, and rabbits would do, if they didn’t have to pause for food. Sex is so great we’ve dedicated most of the internet to watching it and most of high school to giggling about it. Yet, if sex is the be-all-end-all pleasure of human existence, why do so many of us have issues with it?

Oh, right, guilt. ALL THE BUCKETS AND BUCKETS OF GUILT. If we’re not worried we’re going to Hell for doing it before marriage, we’re freaking out that our oral sex technique is sub-par, or that sleeping with one more person will make us Head Slut of the Whore Brigade. I’m sure there are perfectly well-adjusted people out there – those who’ve never felt guilty about having sex or worried about being bad at sex. Well, that’s awesome, but I don’t know any of them. Most of the people I’m friends with have, at one time or another, been totally freaked out about sex.

In the South, it’s easy to blame overwhelmingly conservative society values. In my own Texan teenage years, we were bombarded with the message that sex is only for happy, married heterosexual people, because of Sin and Disease and Children Out of Wedlock. How could any teenage girl agree that she’s dishonoring her family and her god by screwing her boyfriend, then happily screw said boyfriend with minimal conscience tugs? The human brain isn’t outfitted with a magic sex lightbulb. You don’t wake up one morning and think “Today, I feel like sex is a-okay and natural. I should discover what I like and not worry that I’m doing something wrong!” All too often, after years of associating sex with negative emotions, I watch friends get married, obtain that blessed circle of gold, and retain their shame. Sex is something their husbands want or that will give them children, but not something they enjoy.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think this is just a southern thing or a Christian thing or even a girl thing. Despite our generation’s supposed sexual freedom and hook-up culture, the American party line on sex remains all too static. Anyone who’s grown up with a sibling of the opposite sex has seen this difference. Girls are encouraged to wait for the “right time,” not be pressured by their boyfriends, and remain ever vigilant against penises. Most guys of my acquaintance? They were told to wear a condom, then patted on the head with a “boys will be boys.” This does such a disservice to both sexes. If a guy’s not ready, does that make him less of a man? If a girl initiates sex, without any male cajoling, is she a slut? I call bullshit on the whole thing. These same damn ideas screw up relationship after relationship.

The idea that guys want one thing and one thing only – raunchy, porny sex – does just as much damage as the idea that girls want the babies and security, not the pleasure. Outside of warning teenage boys to wear condoms, we don’t give them any real guidance. All too many boys are left to learn about sex from their friends or, worse, porn. I think we can all agree neither of these are best case scenarios. Misinformation runs rampant amongst teenagers and porn is not even close to an accurate, healthy portrayal of sex. (I’m not anti-porn, but come on! Two actors worried about camera angles and properly sexy sounds are not even comparable to a real couple.) If guys must rely on porn to form their sexual identities and girls must rely on guys to introduce them to sexual norms, is it any wonder we’re all a little bit messed up?

Guys are worried they can’t give automatic orgasms, like James Deen, and girls are worried they don’t have magical, hairless vaginas like those from that video they’re embarrassed about looking up. We all start off fumbling and awkward and are under the impression we should go from total innocents to porn royalty with one sexual encounter. We shouldn’t have sex until marriage, but if we do, we need to be really good at it. We shouldn’t be prudes about sex, but we shouldn’t have too many lovers either. We should please our partner, but we’re not taught how to do that. They should please us, but if they can’t right away, it’s somehow our fault. We should all eventually feel sexually empowered, whether on our wedding nights or when we decide “it’s the right time,” but no one tells us what exactly that empowerment looks like.

Is sex positive education the way to go? Is it all just a symptom of the human condition, destined to play out over and over throughout time? Have milliennia of ingrained stigma and shame doomed us all? I have no clue. All I know is that I wish it didn’t take most of us so long to feel completely normal about sex. I wish we could all be responsible and well-informed and hurt a minimum number of people on the way to our general empowerment. Maybe I just wish I lived in France?

- Grace

27 thoughts on “Guilt and the Single Girl

  1. I completely agree. Sex education is horrendous where I’m from (Northern California). It’s less conservative but people still don’t really like to talk about it. Interestingly, though, I was kind of given the male treatment that you described: my parents got me on birth control and might as well have patted me on the head and said “go forth!” As a result, I probably am more empowered than most, but I still never had anyone to discuss it with and sex ed at my schools, like I said, was lacking. We really, really need to create a better educational environment for adolescents to learn about these sort of things in a nonjudgmental setting.

  2. This post should be published in Cosmopolitan. I like how you compare a boys upbringing with girls one. On a slightly different note, I don’t think one is a virgin just because they never had sex. I believe it is a state of mind – innocent and pure, almost child-like. Just because you have not been physically pleased does not mean you cannot wear red lipstick, stockings and sexy lingerie if you feel like it. In fact just because you got married at 18 does not mean you miraculously transfer into a woman overnight. I do wonder why is it that sex is considered to be rite of passage. Is it because of the big O that it makes us feel – the feeling above all others? Debatable.

  3. Great post! I agree completely, and I really REALLY wish most guys didn’t learn what sex is supposed to be like from porn. That just ruins it for the woman anyway, mostly because of the way it objectifies them, and also in teaching men that they deserve a woman who will obey every whim and also not really need satisfied herself. “Grinds me gears!” lol.

  4. Wonderful post! I can fully say that I did not get any sort of sexual confidence from school. I learned the most from informed friends and the internet and only just now have I discovered the good feeling of not worrying. Sex is a huge part of people’s lives and yet we weave around it like morons and try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Gay marriage? It isn’t about who you live with, it’s about how you have sex. Abortion? It’s about sex at the core. Yet we focus on bogus moral issues to distract from the real problem. No one wants to talk about sex.

  5. Does sex count towards the idea that too much of anything is bad? Maybe shame and guilt makes it more worth it when it happens. Guilt over not doing it right probably makes people strive to be better…

    I’ll be honest, I’ve turned this into an allegory for my stand-up comedy career.

  6. Thank you Grace for hitting the nail on the proverbial head! Sex is such a jumble of feelings and emotions with an outcome that almost never lives up to the hype and expectations until you have worked your way through what society, media and your friends have pumped into your head! (All lies, half truths and assumptions played out on images and word of mouth) It is truly a travesty the way “we” as a human race cannot openly discuss, teach, and explore sex without feeling as though it is taboo!
    Thank you for such a well written piece that both sexes can pull tidbits from and relate too.
    Betty..

  7. I love your post. I grew up in a very conservative family but somehow it doesn’t stop me from engaging myself with sex before marriage. Maybe because my family is so conservative that it’s like a jinx even talking about it among ourselves or just accidentally watching a kissing scene in the television, or maybe because I was just curious that time and I have no one to talk to about it or ask any opinion from an elder. My point is, if I’d be a mom someday, I want my children to be open about sex with me because I want them to keep in their minds that I’m there for them in case they needed advice so that they won’t be confused as I was before. I want my children to run to me not from anyone else. I want them to get the guidance I never experienced before.

  8. Hello, there,
    very interesting post, thanks a lot! Funnily enough, I read a review on the tv-series “Girls” by Lena Dunham in the New York Review of Books yesterday which dealt with nearly the same topic – what is up with women, sex and relationships today? To me, it was a great and extremely interesting read, even though the opinions displayed there differed quite a bit from the observations you made here – showing just how diverse the attitudes on this topic are, and in how far the pace of individual and social development differ in that regard. Considering these very different ideas, I’d say that both opinions hold a lot of truth, and that, in the end, it comes down to the individual and the experiences and decisions we make about what we want and who we want to be – but we are, of course, very much shaped by our parents’ and our society’s general opinion whenever we try to answer these questions.
    I have no real idea about what it’s like in the US (so again, thank you for the insight), but I dare hope that Germany is, by now, much more relaxed about these things – but I really cannot tell, since it’s not exactly something you talk about with your next-door neighbor. Still, I can say that my sex-ed classes in school were certainly thorough enough, and that I experienced the support of my parents and society, who never told me to wait until marriage or anything like that. By now, I’m a student in a city where one third of the population is made up of students, so I dare say my perception’s not exactly accurate for all of Germany – but I’d think that we’re more liberal about the whole thing by now.
    Still, in the end, I think this is a very personal topic and everybody has to make up their mind on their own about what they want and what they believe in – be it in agreement or rebellion to what society seems to dictate. It’s a long process, and a difficult one while you’re going through it, but in the end, it’s the only thing that’s going to help – to be honest with oneself, and hold oneself to that.
    Until next time

    mylady phoenix

  9. I had ZERO sex-ed classes all throughout middle and high school! We had a few puberty days in health, but god help anyone who might have needed it. We need more of this * http://ohmegan.com/ * in colleges and someone to revamp it to make it appropriate for teens!

  10. I grew up in a Catholic household where I was essentially told in “not so many words” that sex was something I “had to put up with once I was married”. When I started having it, needless to say, i was racked with guilt and VERY uptight about the whole thing – traumatized even. How could something that was “so bad” for me and was something I “had to put up with” be something I wanted to look forward to, yet wouldn’t ALLOW myself to because it “was dirty”.

    Even now, I’m still surprised by instances of guilt when it comes to sex… What the hell.

    On another note – I read this article yesterday and found in interesting: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/05/revolutionizing-sex-education/

  11. I am currently living abroad in Berlin and have been encountering such vast differences in the perception of sexuality here vs in the states. I completely agree with your perception of the negative influence of our societal values. Thanks for the post!
    -the mad hattler

  12. I actually *just* finished writing a post about this myself. Sex seems to be some kind of dirty word here in the states, particularly in my very conservative home in IN.

  13. Pingback: Mixed Signals, Sex, and Guilt « She Flies with her Own Wings

  14. Oh, where to even start… I do think both genders struggle with sex, but for ENTIRELY different reasons. I think women are taught to be fearful about sex because historically it’s women who bear the burdens of sex. Pregnancy, of course, but we’re also more vulnerable to disease and more vulnerable to emotional attachments.

    I’m not saying that makes the double standards okay, but that’s certainly why our Aunts, Mothers, Teachers, etc… warn us against it so much.

  15. I’m afraid I have to agree with the previous comments from Germany – we don’t seem to have a problem with sexuality on the US American level. Sure, it is still a rather private issue but altogether our relationship to our bodies and what we do with them feels to me a lot healthier than what I have experienced in the UK or the US. The mere thought of outlawing breastfeeding in public because “We don’t want our kids to see breasts” (quoted from a conversation I had with a Mississippi State Park Ranger when he encountered me and my sister sunbathing topless on a completely deserted beach) is ludicrous to the majority of Germans, just like the idea that speedos might not be an appropriate attire for the beach (while it is perfectly ok for a girl to wear a teeny-tiny bikini there).

    As long as Americans continue to see the human body as something wrong or sinful you might not have much choice other than to relocate to Europe – be it to France or Germany.

    Love the focus of this post and the quality of writing! Keep up the good work.

  16. Pingback: Releasing Emotional Tension (Fear, Guilt, & Shame) « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  17. Very interesting. I’ve always said Americans are weird about sex. I grew up in the French part of Canada, and, even though we’re inundated by American pop culture, we’ve managed to still retain an European style ease about sex. I’m not saying everything is perfect, but I’m very grateful to have had sex ed in school and parents who were open and educated me as well.

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