Where do our ideas about sex come from? Viennese psychologist Alfred Adler proposed that personality was shaped initially by our familial experience, later by extended family and friends, and ultimately by the outside world. Today, were he still alive, Adler would surely propose that global influences and especially the Internet brings new ideas, experiences, and customs that challenge our suppositions, shape who we are, and help us think about sex.
Adler proposed that humans have a compulsory drive for personal value. From the time of infancy, we are small and fragile in a world of big and strong adults. To be effective and have a sense of both identity and self-importance, we seek respect. All of this requires a belief system that we are, at various times, adopting and adapting to best fit our sense of personality and identity. Originally, we take cues from our parents about the world. How they address and speak of the body in a very real sense provides us with a physical and, later, sexual identity. As children, we compare our bodies to our parents (if and when we see them naked, say in a shared bath) and other children (during an exploratory period in early childhood). As we grow out of infancy and toddlerhood into childhood, we are modeling the identities around us, the behaviors and actions we see embodied. We begin to form a sense of embodied autonomy together with beliefs of right and wrong. It is okay to touch another child’s hand but not put out hands under their shirts or down their pants. We are also modeling the affection and emotion we see expressed around us – warmth, forgiveness, communication. If, like me, you observed your parents arguing loudly at night only to see them go to the bedroom and reappear the next morning happy and slightly disheveled, you begin to interpret sex as a reaffirming practice within a relationship. Sex is not just “something observed in nature” but now also something that alleviates tensions and secures relational bonds.
At some point, our parents or guardians recognize that we are mimicking their behavior and perhaps even beginning to explore our own bodies. Having begun to recognize ourselves as embodied humans, and humans who have genitalia, genitalia that causes us to feel very good all over when we touch them in certain ways, our parents must sit us down and address the social appropriateness of what we are doing. They give it a name. Sex. Birds and the bees. Cookies and dingdongs. What they say and how they describe our genitals and behavior(s), we are now beginning to form very important concepts of our own sexual identity and experience. And, as Adler would put forward, all of this is beginning to coalesce into a sense of our place in the sexual cosmos and, locally, our personality.
Studies consistently show that parents who are open about sex, discussing it honestly and using age-appropriate (but still correct) language create an environment where children grow up to feel reasonably comfortable in their own bodies, with sex and sexual discussions, and are informed when sexual situations present themselves. The more a parent talks about sex, the older that child will likely be when they begin experimenting with their own partners, the more likely they will be to use contraception, and the less likely they will be to conceive babies while they are still themselves “babies.” The logic is knowing about sex allows us to feel secure, patient, and confident about our sexual behavior.
Conversely, if sex is never discussed or is observed between adults as a chore, shameful, a source of friction and tension in the home, young adults will grow up to believe that sex can be “complicated” or full of problems. This does not necessarily mean a young adult avoids sex. To the contrary, they may seek to “prove their parents wrong” or “show them” by participating in dangerous sexual behavior. Believing sex is complicated and problematic may mean that the young adult knows less about reproduction, less about the anatomy and how to please their partner, and may take comfort in a highly developed fantasy world apart from reality because the fantasy is preferable to navigating bodies and relationships. Said another way, in the absence of information where there is a tense atmosphere concerning sex, we “fill in the blanks” and make up facts for ourselves – you can’t get pregnant the first time. You only have sex with people you love and intend to marry. If it’s not “right” the first time, you must not love each other. What we imagine to be true very often causes us more stress than the truth itself, once it is revealed. As Myisha Battle writes,
Sex is paradoxically all around us but never discussed, at least not in the ways that would make sex better for people. We can talk for hours about celebrities’ sex lives, which dating apps are the best or worst for hook-ups and who is and isn’t deserving of sexual attention. But these are all external conversations. We have become skilled at these kinds of conversations because our culture allows them. However, most of us were never encouraged or taught to talk about ourselves as sexual beings. This fact presents itself to me as a sex coach when I see clients who are stumped by how to overcome a sexual issue and who believe that talking about sex just isn’t that sexy.
Today, young adults have more readily available access to information about sex than they did when I was younger. And I had more than my parents, thanks to the popularity of sexual advice in media and the encouragement of breaking down inhibitions about discussing important life experiences between parents and children. Still, many individuals have “fallen through the cracks” or grew up in a culture where sex was talked about in dysfunctional or uninformed ways. For example, when I was young and attended church services regularly, the True Love Waits campaign was very popular in religious youth groups. True Love Waits essentially convinced teenagers that denying their sexuality until after marriage was “godly” and “biblical.” I felt at the time that the entire effort was misinformed, misguided, and would create long-term problems for a religious understanding of sex and sexuality. Sadly, I was right. I have watched many friends rush into marriage just so they could have sex. Without a foundation of emotional support, or even awareness of what good sex looked and felt like, they have either gotten divorced or are currently enduring a loveless, sexless marriage with frustration, resentment, and overwhelming disappointment. Some may not even realize they were lied to by well-intentioned religious workers and from where they developed their sexual beliefs.
In my family, one of my parents associated sex with problems for most of their life. A sibling was sexually abused and, later, became pregnant through an affair. Their parents shamed and ridiculed the sibling and, for my parent, sex was something that “brought shame and abandonment.” Knowing that they could not talk about sex or sexuality with their parents, this parent made a point of talking about sex regularly with me – though, as I got older, I realized some of the information they tried to pass on to me was a bit skewed. Instead of talking to their parents, they learned about sex from their peers. My dad learned in the Navy, my mother in high school and from talking with friends in her twenties. Learning from peers has the benefit of receiving and developing information in a relatable way, but that information may be faulty or biased in ways that are uncomfortable or emotionally harmful without the perspective of experience and resolution.
We take on all kinds of messages and concepts from parents, teachers and textbooks, peers and friends. And that’s great! But let’s face it, the penis and clitoris compel us to dance horizontally, to explore, to use primate instincts and rub against one another, to figure it out… and keep trying. Naturally, we pursue those experiences which are pleasurable to us and few things compare to the physically, emotionally, and mentally complex encounter found with another body. This, Charles Darwin proposed, is evolution. Darwin proposed two ideas relevant to understanding sexual drive: natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection, he reasoned, provided evidence that humans who did not have a compulsion for sex were soon enough extinct. Of those who remained, it was a battle of wills and determination. Humans who survived long enough to make more babies were superior in ways that inclined them toward creating new life. The second component of evolution, sexual selection, Darwin proposed were those elements of culture, relatability, and communication of the individual. It does not simply refer to the desirability of a partner, their form, but also some form of encoded mating patterns or substance, offering explanation for why some partnerships are more secure despite physical incompatibility, why some partnerships are open and include more than one partner, and how we tell stories and impress our partners. A good example of this theory is the peacock. In nature, highly colorful plumage or fur is considered a challenge to survival. Predators or rivals can more easily identify the peacock, especially then the feathers are spread out. A peacock spread himself to show his desirability, struts as it were, and is at the highest risk when he is doing this. However, he assumes this risk because his colorful display also attracts sexual mates who are impressed with his colorful display. Since peacocks have not become extinct, we can assume that there is some advantage to be derived from such over the top, exotic decoration. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico proposes that the peacock’s large, colorful tail developed over millennia because peahens liked and favored their display over the (perhaps) larger but more dull, ordinary males with little or none. It is why some people prefer moody musicians over athletes, the attentive and humorous nerd over the “safe” professional. All of this is what Darwin described as “sexual selection through mate choice.” For Miller it goes further than choice; he proposes sexual evolution explains why we evolved from primates and how the human brain enlarged and developed so massively in such a short period of time, distinguishing humans from other species and ultimately creating the complexity and variety of language and meaning that humans are known for. Miller claims, “Before language evolved, our ancestors could not easily perceive another’s thoughts, but once language had arrived, thought itself became the subject of sexual selection.” This view is challenged, of course, but evolutionary biologists like Steven and Hilary Rose, who posit that Miller’s claims are too broad and don’t take into account the long, arduous journey that evolution of a species takes. The cycles of life, of choice and selection and chance. But Miller rebuts that early hominids continued for thousands of years without evolving the highest sophisticated and intricate brain humans possess. Human brains only tripled in size roughly two and a half million and a hundred thousand years ago. If natural selection were the only force contributing to evolution, we wouldn’t have needed anything extra. Miller writes, “Sexual selection through mate choice is a fickle, unpredictable, diversifying process. It takes species that make their livings in nearly identical ways and gives them radically different sexual ornaments. It never happens the same way twice. It drives divergent rather than convergent evolution.”
While sexual evolution is wonderfully interesting, the development of language and thought also makes the “simple” process of mating into a heightened, complex, vulnerable experience. Bonds are formed. Partners recognize their desire can become invested and located. Friendships can form. Sexual exclusivity becomes occasional at first and then more frequent. Communities and friendships begin to form for social reasons more than protection and survival. Relatively recently, some hundred thousand years after the brain began to enlarge to its current size, civilizations and communities began to pop up and then become more regular. These arrangements with their feelings and affections, just now beginning to shake off the danger and quest of survival, still need to be protected though. “Family” and “us” needed to be protected from rivals – rivals for our partner’s attention and accessibility. Sex becomes complex at the same rate that relationships solidify – creating dichotomies of “us” and “them.” The dangers, once primal and natural, begin to reappear from trusted humans who look at act like us but contain threats to the ways of life we are establishing. This presents challenges to how humans understand one another. We begin to codify behaviors of permissible and impermissible behaviors, seek to establish customs and laws around sexual behaviors and preferences.
Where physical evolution proposes at a very fundamental level that “life will find a way” and sex will occur for the promotion of a species, sexual evolution ties into how we should and why we should have sex, even reaching to formalize certain positions or rooms where we can engage in sex, whether with or without clothes, distinguish when we are modest or lascivious. Since our beliefs may be responsible for undermining our instincts about sex, it’s worth talking about them because “I just had this idea,” is a bit evasive.
For me, I learned a great deal about sex from my parents. From friends. From church, school, and other centers of social formation. I also learned from books and movies. The first pornographic “film” I watched alarmed me tremendously – I was aghast at what adult bodies looked like when they “comingled.” But this was shaken off rather quickly. I learned from experience – what I liked and what I didn’t. I spent a great deal of time thinking about sex, as teenagers and young adults do. I read. I studied. And each one of these helped me develop a belief system about sex.
If I were to do an inventory of where I learned about sex, the sources of my sexual beliefs might look like this:
- Articles on the Internet
- Chat rooms
- Scientific textbooks
- Psychological textbooks
- Relationship manuals
- Informational guides
The list could take up an entire page – I’ve always been very curious about relationships and what happens in bedrooms (or in the woods in the back of a truck). That interest has made me keenly aware of not only where I got information (whether it was informative, conjecture, or accurate) but what it meant and why. Even today, when I think of sex I try to stay mindful of whether new information challenges previously held thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs, and integrate new information as a part of sexual awareness and also sexual evolution. Perhaps this is why I feel porn could be such a helpful tool for understanding and improving sexual behaviors and experiences. I am “pro porn” in theory, but sadly notice the exaggerated “educates” us in ways that are changing how we evolve. To be candid, while I think masturbation is a great part of the human experience, I often wonder whether it hurts a relationship. Going a step further, in my mind at least, I wonder about the impact of porn on masturbation, which in turn makes me wonder about masturbation and relationships, exclusivity and open relationships, how we raise children and normalize our life choices, and whether those choices are causing humans to evolve in beneficial ways or not. Granted, in the big picture, these changes are small and adaptable. But a bad idea which is also a popular idea can alter the course of a culture, even a generation or two, and bring about social changes which lend themselves to larger changes.
In other words, a small change can be fixed or adapted. But 10,000 “small” changes taking place among 7 billion humans creates immediate and intense instability in a shorter amount of time. Especially if an idea or experience is pushed heavily as “normal” and begins to solidify in a community, culture, or country. This can create a fixed belief system of what is “normal.” Carol Dweck of Stanford University explains.
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
Individuals who possess a growth mindset, or an open belief system, tend to be more adaptable to changes while staying “fixed” to a set of core beliefs. They are willing to broadly experiment, but tend to return to their centrally held identity – what Adler believed we spend a great part of our lives shaping and cultivating.
Individuals with fixed mindsets, on the other hand, are more rigid and less experimental. Because their core remains underdeveloped or limited, every new thing and every challenge to their perception of the “right” way to live life or, for the purposes of this article, have sex is a threat to their identity. Not just their “way of life,” but their personal identity. I try to keep this in mind whenever I discuss sexual topics with someone. Are they coming from a fixed or growth mindset? Those with more fixed belief systems tend to be (and I really hesitate to say this) intellectually lazy when it comes to the topic of confrontation. They parked at a certain belief and, having become angrier with each new challenge, are defensive and dogmatic. They are still, I feel, overwhelming good people. Lovely, well-intentioned, and kind hearted. Very open to other experiences. But on the topic of dispute, they have heard enough and closed down, even atrophied. For their part, those who exhibit a growth mindset are not necessarily right. I’ve met hundreds of individuals who possess a growth mindset to sexuality but, in my experience, it’s very superficial and scattered. They’re open to “whatever, however,” and sometimes possess no identifiable sexual belief system at all. Like those with the fixed mindset, they are prone to generalizations and misunderstandings but very often, when addressed directly, are more willing to learn from criticism rather than ignore it. To incorporate new experiences when they see the importance of the issue at hand, and willing to challenge themselves to grow rather than argue about right or wrong or – worse – personalize their convictions and fall into caustic attacks. They find inspiration in the success of others rather than feel threatened themselves.
I would challenge you to work backwards here. Examine yourself and, without judgement, determine whether your sexual beliefs (whether vague or specific) are part of a fixed or growth mindset. Then do an inventory of where you learned about sex – the sources and voices. Ask yourself some questions and take time with them.
- Was what you learned helpful or problematic?
- What role does (or should) sex have in an individuals life?
- Is sex for procreation or recreation?
- Why do you feel that way?
- Having come this far, what do you think your sexual belief system says about you?
- Your personality and identity?
- How has your concept of sex and your beliefs about it affected your relationships?
- Is this where you want to be, or would you prefer to go somewhere else?
- What are some of the messages you have internalized about sex?
Start there and, by all means, let me know how it’s going. I always love to hear your stories and how things are going for you.
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- The Silent Treatment, by Myisha Battle
- Fixed vs Growth, by Maria Popova
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