Sex. Shagging. Coitus. Intercourse. Whatever you want to call it, it’s everywhere. It’s in music, film, television and advertisements. Your favourite couple in your favourite sitcom’s doing it. A film star of yesteryear tries to seduce you into buying overpriced perfume using it. You may have accidentally heard your parents doing it, traumatising you for life. Sex is all around us, and so many of us are doing it – so why does it make me feel so guilty?
I’ve had a strange relationship with sex my entire life. I grew up in suburban Florida, then later suburban Hertfordshire, where virginity is virtue – so naturally, I rebelled. I never had 'the chat' with my parents – the subject alone was enough to make my father spit out his drink, which only added to my (mostly teenage) defiance. For as long as I can remember, I’ve equated sex with dissent, correlating each shag with some skewed form of empowerment. But it was anything but empowering. I went from person to person, bonk to bonk, in the hope of reaching some kind of sex-positive feminist utopia where women are free from societal oppression and taboo, yet ended up crying on the floor of my windowless room in Peckham over Andy from Bumble’s (disappointing) shag, dash and subsequent ghosting.
It all kind of started when I was 17, the age I discovered and started to read about feminist theories. For me, being sexually promiscuous meant that I was being a good feminist, rejecting the oppressive doctrines of previous generations. I searched for potential sexual partners in aim of repossessing my body and narrative as a woman, hoping that each encounter would liberate me from societal restraints and stick it to The Man. This was around the same time that sex-positive tropes began to permeate mainstream media and online communities, a time when sexually liberated women on Cherry Emoji Twitter thrived. Many of these women seemed so cool and carefree to me – in an Effy from Skins kind of way – and I, being 17, wanted to be just like them. I’m not sure I actually craved sex or pleasure most of the time, I just did it because I felt I should be doing it. All of the "yasss girl" tweets I was seeing on my timeline only encouraged me further.
But after the deed was done, there were no Cherry Emoji Twitter girls on the sidelines to cheer me on. I mean, that would have been pretty epic, but no, they weren’t there. No one was. That’s the thing about sex, it’s deeply personal, and typically only involves one other person. And what happens if that other person couldn’t care less about you? It’s just sex, I’d think to myself. On to the next one.
After a spell of essentially expending myself in pursuit of sexual sovereignty, I began to feel negative emotions after sex. I felt guilty, messy, ashamed and embarrassed. Did everyone feel like this? Everyone else is doing it, and they’re all enjoying it, right? Instead of investigating these feelings, I was quick to dismiss them. I thought I must’ve been overthinking, and should count my blessings that I was getting any at all. But the feelings stuck around. They stuck around hard, growing and thriving after each sexual encounter like a parasite feeding on my self-worth. I began to look inwards. I wondered if I was expecting too much from partners. I worried that I was the problem and, after a while, I became overpowered by an unshakeable, gut-wrenching feeling of shame – all at my own expense.
For a while I felt completely alone in my experiences but I’ve come to realise that I’m not the only woman who feels this way. Maz, a 20-year-old student from London, tells me that she often feels negative emotions towards sex, too. "When I was 18, I met a guy who I knew did not care about me. He showed no signs of respecting my boundaries but I put myself in a position where I was like, 'It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t care about me because at the end of the day, I’m getting what I want!' Or at least what I thought I wanted, and what people, and the internet, told me that I wanted. In the end I got used. I felt bad, I felt guilty," says Maz.
Twenty-one-year-old Rosie* who works in advertising feels the same, telling me: "I often feel ashamed of my sexuality as a woman. I feel like women are either meant to be liberated and carefree, or wholesome virgins. Anything in the middle of that isn’t really portrayed anywhere, and that’s where I fall."
Not to sound all schadenfreude, but it’s comforting to me to know that I’m not the only person who feels like this. Yet I’m slightly worried that there are many other young women who feel the same as I do, with no access to help.
Kim Loliya, a sex educator at The Pleasure Institute and founder of sex-positive zine sex+, tells me that it’s not uncommon for women to experience negative emotions surrounding sex, and that it’s all to do with how it’s presented to us at an early age. "This relates to where we first learn the messaging around sex, which is at school or talking to other kids, inherited shame from parents and also from the media, often from a very young age."
"We have huge progress to make in terms of how we educate children, how we talk to children about sex, and how we talk to them about their bodies and supporting consent and bodily autonomy. These early failings are the reason why there’s trauma later in life," she continues.
Kim believes that children should be educated about pleasure, consent and inclusivity as early as 3 years old. She says that the age at which sex education is currently taught in British schools (age 10-11) is almost too late, and that we need to "catch these things much sooner".
Future generations may reach that sex-positive feminist utopia I once dreamed of, but what the ruddy hell are women like me meant to do to rid ourselves of these negative emotions? Kim states that it’s important to acknowledge these emotions and practise self-care. "It’s important to go into a space of gentleness and softness and move away from self-blame, judgement and expectation. These emotions come up for a reason and they’re part of the process, and it’s best to acknowledge them as opposed to suppressing them, because that never really works. They’re here to teach us something, so trusting the body and emotions as part of the growing process is crucial."
I’m sure it’s easier said than done, but I for one will definitely be taking that advice. See you soon, sex-posi feminist utopia.