Free to choose

Making healthy sexual choices in life can be a confusing task, especially if pop-culture is used as the barometer of what is “normal.” Setting boundaries and knowing what is right for you, however, can help in so many other areas of your life. By Cynthia Hickman

“I don’t know if I can tell you this. I’m so ashamed. Its such a secret.” Heather* was a client in her late twenties who had come to therapy to sort out some relationship issues. We were already a few sessions into the process and she had yet to reveal the worst of what was bothering her. It was obviously causing a lot of pain. “Its about my sexuality. Its just that there is something wrong with me.” Sexual issues can make people feel particularly vulnerable so I waited patiently for Heather to continue.

Finally Heather was able to put her secret into words. “Its just that I can’t have sex without emotion being involved. I can’t just have sex for itself.” There it was – the dreadful secret. It wasn’t about sexual abuse or an illicit affair or some sexual deviancy, although to Heather this actually was a sexual perversion. “Just so I’m clear Heather, you’re concerned because when you have sex you want there to be some affection or some connection. You don’t like it when sex is just a physical act?” “Yes, that’s it”, she confirmed.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this type of ‘secret’. Young women are concerned when they aren’t able to fit the criteria for the sexually liberated modern woman. These criteria can be gleaned from all the media images that surround us. From watching the women who bump and grind on music videos it is apparent that the modern girl is supposed to be unafraid to display herself sexually and offer her body for the delectation of men. She is sexually confident and uninhibited. From movies it is apparent that a modern girl regularly has sex on a first date or just for recreation. From television shows like Sex and the City it is clear that the modern girl tries all sort of different sexual experiences. She is not up to speed sexually unless she has a drawer full of dildos, is competent in a variety of exotic sexual positions, is an oral sex mistress and has dabbled in lesbian sex. So if like Heather a woman finds that she really only likes sex with someone she has affection for then she might understandably think there is something wrong with her.

Sexual standards have changed enormously in the past few decades. In the 1950’s women were supposed to be virgins until marriage. A woman was meant to have sex with only one person her whole life. Orgasms, masturbation, the clitoris and the G-spot were mostly unheard of. Women were chaste and were called whores if they weren’t. Sex wasn’t really about enjoyment, for women anyway. Men had a lot more choices about how they conducted themselves sexually.

It was understandable and necessary that there was a ‘sexual revolution’ in the 1960’s and onwards. Since then women have been able to explore, express and enjoy their own sexual nature. But there has been a one hundred and eighty degree shift with no middle ground.

In the past women were not free because they had to be sexually repressed. But they are still not free because now they are pressured to be sexually promiscuous.

Heather explained that her friends thought that being the same as men equalled being empowered women. She described friends who went to strip clubs and were casual about casual sex. But it is just as damaging to feel pressured to have sex as it is to be prohibited from having sex.

True sexual freedom would mean being free to explore and define your own sexual choices for yourself, free from cultural or peer coercion. There is a sexual smorgasbord available now, but this doesn’t mean you have to stuff your plate high with everything on the table. It should be acceptable to peruse the selection and choose only those tasty morsels that appeal. It can still be acceptable to have as much as you like just as it should be fine to have nothing if you don’t feel hungry.

Sexual choice depends among other things upon your own unique combination of libido level, emotional wiring and life experience. Everyone’s physical, emotional, spiritual and relationship needs are different therefore it follows that this will be reflected in the way an individual expresses their sexuality.

The ‘rules’ for sex should not be based on morality as was the case in the past, implying that some sex is good, virtuous and upright while other sex is shameful and wrong. Threats of hell, judgement and damnation were an unhealthy way to determine sexual behaviour in the past and it is good that such rules got thrown out the window. But this still does not mean that for everyone all sex is necessarily acceptable and ‘good’.

If there were to be any standard governing sexual behaviour it would be that the activity should firstly do no harm to anyone involved and secondly should add to the health and wellbeing of the individuals concerned. While most people are clear that they would not want to hurt another person it is less obvious that you should also not want to hurt yourself through your sexual behaviour. You count as much as the other person. And if your sexual choices are diminishing your wellbeing then they just aren’t ‘right’ for you.

Sexual standards are not written on some stone tablets somewhere. But they are written in your soul. So navigating sexual territory means being true to your deepest self.

The challenge is to find out what is right for you and what enhances your wellbeing instead of diminishing it.

So back to Heather. She was mightily relieved to have someone tell her that it was completely OK to only want sex when there was also some emotional connection. I explained that despite current sexual stereotypes many people wanted this type of sex. Certainly, some people are quite happy having sex for sex’s sake with nothing else to it. That may be how they are ’built’ or how they are ‘wired’. Other people though are more sensitive or they have their genital centre connected to their heart centre so sex and emotions go together.

Some people like frequent sex while others have a lower libido. Some people are happy to ‘screw’ while others like to ‘make love’. It is just that the people with higher libidos who are happy simply to have physical sex fit the current culturally accepted sexual stereotype. They then think its OK to ‘bully’ others into thinking there is something wrong with them if they don’t want the same type of sex.

Amazingly enough, within this culture of promiscuity a double standard still exists for women. You can still be called a slut or a whore if you have sex too easily or frequently. But on the other hand you are considered uptight if you don’t have it enough. That’s a pretty fine line to have to navigate!

Boundary Setting

I talk to so many women who admit that they are not true to themselves in the way they conduct their sex lives. While from the outside it might look as though they are comfortable with sex for sex sake they admit that this is not the case. Women say that they are frequently using sex for other things. Often it will be to get affection; they swap sex for cuddles and close-ness. Others do it to keep a man interested, afraid that he won’t hang around if sex is not on the agenda.

I see many women in their twenties who have frequent sex because this fits with the current sexual culture. As a result they get to feel cool and have a sense of acceptance and belonging. Disturbingly, there can also be even more damaging motives beneath this behaviour. As some women explore their sexual identity during therapy it becomes clear that they have been using it to prop up a poorly formed sense of self or a damaged self esteem.

It can be a painful process to look beneath the surface of sexual behaviour. Some women discover that they may have been using their bodies in an effort to avoid confronting painful personal issues. They say that the feeling of letting a man ‘fuck’ them matches a sense of damage inside themselves. Being treated casually by a man can be a way to trash yourself. And you trash yourself because you feel unworthy or because it matches some painful experiences earlier in life. The sexual behaviour can be like a form of self-punishment.

Usually a woman will not be conscious that she is using sex as self-harm. It happens just below consciousness and all the woman may be aware of is a vague discomfort or a niggling sense that something is not quite right. Frequently these women use alcohol or drugs during sex, which says something in itself. If the sexual act was right for them then alcohol wouldn’t be necessary to get them over the line.

Many women look back after these sexual encounters and cringe about what they did, or what they can remember of it anyway. Even worse, I have had clients tell me stories of ‘friends’ at parties taking pictures, thinking it funny to post the humiliating results on the Internet. The risk of getting into damaging and compromising situations is more extreme these days with the cocktail of alcohol and drugs added to the social scene.

A woman in her thirties, Amanda was a mother of two who had come to see me because she was concerned about her lack of confidence and direction in life. As we worked together she began to dip into a secret well of shame that had been covered over for years. She crumpled into tears as she revealed that in her late teens she had had sex with many men because she simply didn’t have the strength of self to say “no” when sex was requested of her. Amanda had to deal with the pain of having let herself be used in this way.

It is important to remember that you can’t cheat your true self. If you have sex that isn’t right for you then your body knows. Damage is done when the body is used as a commodity and this pain gets stored away. If you begin the process of becoming more attuned to your authentic sexual self the pain will enter consciousness so that it can be healed. This may be an uncomfortable process but it will open the way to a healthier sexuality.

Part of developing a sex life that works for you will be deciding what sort of boundaries are appropriate for you – and then standing by them. Amanda had never developed a healthy boundary. If someone wanted something from her, including sex, then she felt obliged to give it.

Another client, Sharon, in her early twenties also said that she was finding it difficult to set boundaries with men. She had found herself in situations with men where it was ‘expected’ that she would allow and respond to sexual advances that she was not really keen on. But she said that she felt like she would be seen as uncool and too ‘straight’ if she were to deny the advances. “The guys act like it’s just what’s done, that it’s no big deal, that its just party behaviour and that I would be weird to get heavy about it.”

As women enter their late twenties they are more likely to question sexual stereotypes. Rose was a twenty-eight year old designer who was beginning to question her sexual choices: “I am so sick of having sex with men who don’t stick around. I have sex with them because its what’s expected, but what I really want is a relationship. I’m sick of the meaningless sex. I want something more.”

It is completely acceptable, essential actually, to put up a boundary and say what is not right for you. And it is important that you define your standards for yourself. Even if the other person is acting cool, like a particular behaviour is no big deal, like you are super uncool to feel weird about it, don’t let their reality dominate yours. It takes strength to speak up, but each time you do so you develop confidence and self care. If you follow this path you are much more likely to attract people and experiences that are a better match for you true self.

To find out what sort of sex is right for you, take the time to stop and ponder your sex life. Give yourself the chance to be honest. Rose found it useful to do an inventory of all her sexual encounters. She looked at her motivation for each one and whether they were truly satisfying. She was shocked to find that the results were scarily disappointing. It was a confronting process but it gave her the impetus to take charge of her own sexuality. She wasn’t going to leave it up to unconscious motivations and other people’s needs in future.

Heather too began to make conscious choices about her sex life. “I don’t agree that to be an empowered woman you have to have sex like men,” she said. Heather had got to the stage where she had gone to strip clubs with women because it was supposedly free and empowering to do so. “I have absolutely no desire to set foot in a strip club again. I hate them,” she said. Heather had also agreed to an open relationship because it seemed to be a mature and reasonable attitude to cultivate. But sex doesn’t have to be ‘reasonable’ and it isn’t empowering to copy someone else’s version of sexual expression if it isn’t right for you.

Heather’s creeping low-level depression and unexpected outbursts of anger at her partner had been signals that things weren’t right. As she began to make a stand for what was right for her she noticed new levels of confidence and satisfaction. At last she was able to be clear about her direction in life, sexually, relationship-wise and even in her career. All of these areas had been clouded over in the past.

Sharon too, began to practise speaking up when things weren’t right for her. She had lost herself to others in the past but was now beginning to find a more authentic self. Sometimes she couldn’t help smiling. And the changes weren’t just limited to her sex life. She could be more outspoken generally and a new creativity was beginning to arise.

Everyone is built differently, with a unique combination of libido level, sexual style and emotional capacity. It is therefore essential that you decide for yourself how your sex life will reflect your individual character. Don’t be swayed by “I have to keep a man” or “I have to look modern”. Imagine that meeting the right man and being accepted by others is already a given. What sort of sex life would you then choose? What sort of sex life would reflect self-confidence and self-love? What sexual behaviour would reflect the celebration of your body? How would it relate to self-nurturing and sensuality? And what about intimacy and deep relating? Sex can be honouring, playful, raunchy, experimental, loving…the list goes on. It’s a great menu and you get to choose. Don’t let anyone decide for you.

* Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practise in Melbourne, Australia. Tel: 0417 103 018

See her full website at

This article was first published in Wellbeing Magazine


Cynthia Hickman Psychologist

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