Sexuality Project: Romantic Relationships, Q. 3

This is an installment of the Religious Fundamentalism and Sexuality Project. You can read the full list of questions here and the posting plan hereThe first six participants whose stories I’ll be posting are Melissa and Haley, Lina and V, Latebloomer and Katy-Anne.

Romantic Relationships

3. How did your fundamentalist upbringing or training impact your own sexual identity and/or experience of sex? (See, for example, Libby Anne’s post about her beliefs about sexual compatibility changing after marriage.)

Melissa and Haley

Melissa:

I came into marriage under the impression that sex was this magic cure-all. Having trouble relating to your spouse? Have sex. Is your husband abusive? Have sex with him. Is your husband cheating on your monogomous relationship? Have more sex with him to get him back. Never deny your husband sex, because that would be risking his sexual needs leading him into pornography or to another woman. I even promised myself that I would never say no to a sexual advance from my husband, no matter how I was feeling and regardless of whether I wanted sex or not. Sexual fulfillment wasn’t important for women, and the more sex you had the more your odds went up of having better sex anyway.

In reality, I experienced sex as a very nice thing, but it was not a magic cure-all. When my spouse wasn’t really interested in sex, I worried that there was something wrong with us, or that maybe I wasn’t attractive enough. When my spouse was interested in sex, it was sometimes frustrating to try and force myself to get into it if I was not feeling up to it at all. We both tried very hard to love each other, but we were restricted by the gender perceptions and roles, as well as the religious sexual rules we believed in. Once my spouse came out and we began wrestling with all of the questions about gender and sex, we began to experience a much more connective relationship in the bedroom. Talking about what we enjoyed and what we liked for the first time instead of adhering to pre-determined rules in the bedroom, made a HUGE difference.

Haley:

It made sex very difficult. My natural sexual interest and relationship with my body were all condemned. I mistakenly thought I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t to be acceptable to God and to others. It is so funny that fundamenalists call LGBT people unnatural, acting like a straight male felt completely unnatural to me.

Lina and V

Lina:

I just have to laugh at this question. Imagine two girls, one who’s never dated and one who’s only dated (and made out with) boys. They have a rudimentary knowledge of traditional intercourse. Yet now they want each other. Kissing we figured out quickly, but anything after that involved lots of laughter and/or awkwardness. We named ourselves “above the waist” lesbians for the first few months, because vaginas were scary. So yes, there was definitely some sexual dysfunction due to upbringing!

The other big experience is actually a lack of doing. Nobody ever, ever told me that I might regret NOT doing something physically, and yet I very much do. A good friend as well as perpetual crush and I were saying goodbye before we each left for our respective colleges, and we came so very close to kissing. But we didn’t. We’ve talked about that in the years since, and both to a degree wish we had. Obviously, this isn’t focusing on the fact that having a first kiss right before leaving would have been thoroughly confusing for both of us; it’s just that looking back, we were the perfect relationship and the perfect moment.

V:

I had no idea I was gay until I fell in love with my best friend when I was 20.  Being raised fundamentalist, it was never an option.  Unlike so many LGBT folk who knew at a young age and remained tormented by the closet, I was just slightly baffled, but accepting.  Of course I was straight, that’s what the bible tells me.  I wasn’t baffled by my straightness, but by the questions that it caused.  Why wasn’t I attracted to all the hot guys my friends were?  Why did I feel awkward in the bra section of the department store where there were pictures of women in bras?  Why were all the guys I was attracted to kind-hearted, emotional, and devoid of any muscle tone?  And for that matter, why did most of the guys I had crushes on turn out to be gay?  I was led astray by fundamentalism and oblivious to my deepest desires.

Latebloomer:

Spending my whole life focused on modesty caused me to dislike being naked or being looked at, and I had to fight to overcome that feeling for my own husband.  Even though we made sexual progress during our dating relationship, I still felt residual self-consciousness about my body for a long time after getting married.

Katy-Anne:

After being sexually abused and being blamed or blown off, which seemed to be the only two responses I got, I tried hard not to have a sexual identity. Sex to me meant that a man was in control of me. So telling me that I had to submit to my husband about anything in marriage was very damaging to me because my brain has always connected submission with sex, and I’ve always viewed sex as somewhat of a power play. Which is why being a lesbian was somewhat appealing, because I felt that I was at least on an even playing field with a woman. On my honeymoon, sex hurt. Sex still hurts for me, and I think a lot of the hurt has to do with the fact that deep down, I believe sex has to hurt. I’ve never seen sex as intimacy; I’ve seen it as a power play where I must be subdued and ravaged.

Fundamentalism taught me that sex was not supposed to be enjoyable for a woman. Apparently I was supposed to feel “ravaged” or it wasn’t done right. I was taught that it was a wonderful plan that God had that a woman would only have children by properly submitting to her husband for sex. I was also taught that I was not to use birth control to prevent children, because that would be selfish. I was also taught that I was supposed to submit and give of myself to my husband but that I ought to be ashamed of myself if I found a way to enjoy it because good Christian women who know their place wouldn’t find being forced to submit enjoyable. I do want to say though that my husband has never raped me, even though we were both taught some crazy things, my husband always had the decency to take no for an answer on those times where I really didn’t feel like it.

 

  • http://gravatar.com/omorka omorka

    Re: Katy-Anne – that’s the third or fourth time I’ve seen that specific word “ravaged” with respect to women in patriarchal-fundamentalist sex roles recently. I am beginning to wonder if someone in the movement back in the ’80s or ’90s misheard the word “ravished” with respect to some women’s fantasies and has propagated that venomous misunderstanding to its younger women ever since.

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.wordpress.com Amethyst
    • http://gravatar.com/omorka omorka

      @amethyst – Well, in that they both descend from the same root as “rape,” no, they’re both pretty sexist and problematic. But “ravage” only has negative/destructive connotations, while “ravish” at least also has the “overcome with emotion (whether positive or negative)” connotation, thus the standard “ravishment fantasy” in the romance genre. I can see someone who just watched “Gone With The Wind” too many times using “ravish” to describe what their own sexual fantasy is, whereas “ravage” puts one in BDSM territory at best.

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.wordpress.com Amethyst

      Re: omorka’s reply: Actually, either could get into BDSM territory, but in that context, it would be a fantasy played out with the full consent of the person it was being done to. If one partner is saying, “Take me, ravish me, force me,” the other partner isn’t literally doing any of those things by playing along. The dominating partner is acting out a role for the other’s pleasure. The word “ravish” has a possible positive connotation only because of this fantasy context.

      What Katy-Anne is addressing is something that is genuinely being taught in Christian patriarchy, exactly the way she’s explaining it. Sex is for the husband’s pleasure. The wife is for the husband’s pleasure. The husband has a right over his wife’s body, and it’s a sin for the wife to refuse him. This is being taught as a Biblical relationship dynamic. Whether the wife (or the husband) considers it a turn-on is beside the point.

  • http://americannaussie.katyannewilson.com Katy-Anne

    I don’t think that anyone “misheard” anything. Fundamentalist men just wanted to be able to rape their wives and so they made it “Biblical” and therefore changed the word to “ravage” to pretend the Bible taught it even though us women know it means “rape”.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Katy Anne, I don’t often discuss this in my real life, nor would I talk about except anonymously but too much of what you said sounded familiar to not say anything. Sex used to hurt for me too. It turned out to be because I had a condition called “vaginismus” (my apologies if you’ve heard all this discussed before), which is basically a conditioned reflex in which your vaginal muscles tense up in anticipation of pain, therefore making penetration very painful. (You can easily see how this becomes a feedback loop.) It is quite common among survivors of sexual abuse and it also seems to be very common among women who were raised in very sexually conservative societies and/or religions and who have probably absorbed much of the same toxic teachings about women and sex as you had to endure. (This was my experience when I joined an on-line support group for women who were treating it–lots of evangelical Christian women, a few conservative Muslim women and a couple Orthodox Jewish women, lots of women from very conservative countries. No way it’s a coincidence.) Could this be what you have? From your description, it seems like a possibility.

    It is very treatable. In fact, for most women, it is self-treatable and inexpensively so. The problem is it is extremely under-diagnosed, partly because there IS so much of an expectation, even outside of fundamentalism, that sex is supposed to hurt for women, especially if they are just starting out. Women basically get told to dismiss their pain–which is, you know, an evolved biological response to let you know that something is WRONG–and “keep trying,” which of course makes the whole thing worse. This is certainly what happened to me. I didn’t get diagnosed for 3 years after I first brought up my pain (dismissed as a wimpy teenage virgin). It only happened at last because I moved and changed doctors, and my new one noticed that I was fighting tears during my pelvic exam (I had learned to silently bear the excruciating pain because I didn’t want to be humiliated anymore by my healthcare provider…) and that just didn’t seem right to her. (Brilliance!) She’s the one who diagnosed me. I learned about treatment, started it promptly, and have had no problems with pain for 5 years. Treating it didn’t even take very long. 3 years of suffering and fearing that I wasn’t “normal,” and all because of ignorance, harmful ideas about sex that people buy into, and an inability of a lot of healthcare providers to take women’s pain seriously. And many women go far longer than that without getting help. It still gets me steamed.

    The standard treatment is called dilation which, as I said, you can do by yourself. There are other more involved treatments too, but dilation works for the majority of women. Unfortunately, the website that I used as a guide seems to be down now but it looks like there are more websites up about it now than there used to be. If it is what you have, definitely pursue treatment! A really common problem among women who have dealt with some kind of trauma that makes sex fraught is that they think that the pain is “all in their heads” and that if they only find a supportive, loving relationship in which they feel safe, it will all go away. (This certainly happened to me, boy was I confused…) And of course, the root cause of it is often psychological (although not always; some women have it as a result of other chronic pain conditions) but, in the case of vaginismus, the psychological aspect has created a problem that is very physical and that needs to be dealt with separately. Basically, you need to teach your muscles what your brain already knows–intercourse is safe, it’s supposed to feel good, not bad.

    I’m sorry for writing a novel, but some of what you wrote just seemed so familiar, to me personally, and from other women I’ve known with the same problem. If there’s even a chance that you have the same condition I did, I want you to know that it can be overcome. You don’t need to deal with this forever just because our society sucks at dealing with women’s experience of sex! I would look into it. Good luck. I am so sorry for everything you’ve been through.

    • Anonymous

      Going anonymous for this comment:

      I second this. When I tried masturbating with objects as an evangelical teen, I thought I was committing an awful sin. But, even though the object that I thought was penis-sized just didn’t fit, I liked the sensation. So I experimented until I found an object that was small enough to be comfortable, and gradually worked my way up. What I didn’t realize until years later was that I was self-treating my own vaginismus.

      I still have a tiny bit of vaginismus, but it mostly just affects me when I’m not fully interested in the sex I’m having. I can basically have normal sex now. I didn’t realize, as an evangelical teen, that far from committing a terrible sin, my experimentation with objects was actually making it possible for me to have penis-in-vagina sex as an adult. I know now that if I had obeyed the evangelical strictures against masturbation, I would have been unable to have sex on my (hypothetical–I’m not yet married) wedding night, and that my “sin” is what made it possible for me to have normal penis-in-vagina sex.

      This part of my history really brings home to me just how screwed up evangelical ideas about sex are–because if I had followed one part of the rules (don’t masturbate), I wouldn’t have been able to follow another part (have lots of sex with your husband).

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yes, the process you are describing is dilation. (Sexual stimulation doesn’t have to be involved although I think being a little aroused helps, but you CAN just do it while watching Iron Chef if you want! lol) They actually sell dilation kits that have sets of phallic objects of gradually increasing size on the internet and in some high-end female-oriented sex shops. In the UK, I hear they are actually a treatment subsidized by the NHS. Not in this ridiculous country, of course, but even so, dilator sets are a hell of a lot cheaper than a LOT of treatments for a lot of things.

      As to your other points, I’m sure evangelical culture turns the shame up to 11 but, the sad truth is, it’s not just evangelical culture that stigmatizes masturbation. In “mainstream” culture, I find that male masturbation is generally accepted as normal, if embarassing, and worthy of being the central joke of entire movie franchises but female masturbation is something nobody wants to talk about. And female masturbation involving experimenation with penetration? Forget it! We’re talking about a culture that until very recently (and still some places) told young girls that they shouldn’t use tampons because it would compromise their precious virginity. Your first experience with vaginal penetration is supposed to be sexual intercourse with a man, and that’s that. Got that girls? Your vagina is a mysterious, enchanted, uninhabited island on which you must never set foot, lest you deprive your first male partner of the privilege of exploring it first!

      And when that happens for the first time, it’s supposed to be awful, it’s supposed to hurt, things are supposed to break and bleed. Everyone says this. No wonder some women develop vaginismus from the fear of all this doom-saying alone! (Yes, this happens.) And the truth is, IT’S NOT NECESSARY. If you have been gradually experimenting with your fingers or with toys all along (or your partner’s fingers etc.) then your vagina (and the revered hymen which does not need to break but is capable of stretching) will gradually acclimate to penetration. Vaginal penetration involves the stretching of muscles and, generally, when muscles are stretched in a way that they have never stretched before, all at once, without warming up or working up to it in anyway, it hurts! We understand this with exercise which is why good technique is accepted as involving working up and warming up with stretches gradually. But not with sex. We accept that that HAS to hurt. In fact, we’re attached to the idea of it hurting because intercourse is constructed as conquest of the woman’s body by the man and isn’t conquest supposed to hurt?

      So as a result, we have girls and young women ashamed to sexually experiment by themselves in whatever ways the want, because they think that experimenting with penetration is off-limits, that it’s some how usurping a right over their own bodies that actually belongs to a man. And this sometimes has really persistently painful consequences that not enough people pay any attention to because it’s “supposed” to be that way. Ugh.

      So diddle yourselves, girls. Diddle yourselves all the live long day, however you want. Vive la Resistance! lol

      (btw, I really do apologize if my often-remarked-upon candidness is embarrassing to anybody. Working around teenagers will do this to you. And we ARE talking about sex here. lol)

      • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

        You are the best, you know that? :)

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Aw shucks, YOU are the best! :-)


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