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Sexual Repression

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

Finger Puppets, Sexual Repression

Sexual Inhibitions

Sex is an integral part of life. It gives us pleasure and vigor and expresses physical love beautifully. Sex and biological procedures that produce children are the only way for our species to survive. For many of us, it is a means to achieve immortality by living beyond our death through our children.

While sex may be fun and necessary, it is often restricted by a complex set of morals, social customs, and taboos. It is a strong, physical, mental, and emotional drive that is so often shamefully controlled and prohibited, generating stressful, ambivalent, confusing feelings.

Much of the confusion about sex comes from religion. It may come as no surprise to you to know that for centuries, until the 1800s, mainstream church founders thought and taught that women were over-sexed and had poor impulse control (were easily seduced and prone to act out). Sadly, this is still taught in some religious atmospheres today.

The conflict is that we are all sexual beings; there is no escaping it. Infant boys and girls become physically aroused. Little boys and girls like to rub themselves 'down there.' One of the great mysteries for most of us as a small child is the age-old question of "How are babies made?" and "What do girls/boys look like?"

If you ask a college class to write down a secret anonymously, something they are ashamed of, the response is frequently about sex. Things like, "I had an abortion," "I masturbate," "I went out with a married man/woman," "I had sex with someone I didn't love," "I had oral sex with my boyfriend," "I'm attracted to my own sex," "I've had sex with a person of another ethnicity," "I'm attracted to large penises/breasts" and so on. For a culture that thinks of itself as sexually liberal, we sure have a lot of sexual hang-ups and a great deal of sexual guilt.


On the other hand, since 1960, there has been an explosion of sexual activity and some issues, such as many teenagers getting pregnant. Some studies find that 60% to 90% do not use a contraceptive during intercourse the first time. Other reports say 60% of teens use contraceptives the first time, but only 17% use condoms all the time, while many college women forget to take their pill 3 or 4 times a month.

In any case, more than one-third of all sexually active teenage women become pregnant before they are nineteen (Maier, 1984). In the late 1980s, college students became more sexually active but used contraceptives less. This helps explain the large number of abortions in this country. It seems that guilt and personal shame about sex don't prevent intercourse but prevent the advanced planning necessary for pregnancy prevention. Also, our general emotional discomfort with sex may reduce condoms and increase STDs (Sexually Transmitted Disease).

See related articles: Sex Toys & Pregnancy and Safe Lubricants For Pregnancy.

Sex Education & Kids

In our society, sex is taboo from birth to the mid-teens with messages such as: don't play with yourself, don't use "dirty" (sexual) words, don't read "filthy" (sexual) books or see sexual films, don't have sex until you are older and married. But when you decide to have sex, you are supposed to immediately function perfectly, i.e., the virginal male is supposed to instantly be an excellent, considerate lover, and the chaste female is supposed to be immediately aware of what to do and how to be orgasmic all on their wedding night.

These are unreasonable expectations under these conditions. Logic dictates that it can't work that way if young people aren't taught about sex or that sex is wrong. Yet, starting with infants, hands are removed from the genitalia rather than teaching that there is a proper time for that. At age 4 or 5, we are still being told not to touch ourselves "down there." Weinrich (1987) gives a delightful example of this prolonged early sex training:

  • Mother sees her 4-year-old rubbing his penis through his pants and asks, "What are you doing?" (She knows what he is doing but, yet, she asks.)

  • The boy replies, "Nothing." (He knows what he was doing, but even at four, he knows to deny his actions.)

  • Mother ignores his lie and denial, saying with disgust, "Well, stop it!"

  • The boy indirectly admits the truth by responding, "Okay," and, with little apparent reaction, goes back to his play.

This interaction might occur in any home, but notice the lack of frank communication here. The boy has already learned and is over-learning that rubbing his penis in front of mom is so awful, at least in mom's eyes, that it is unspeakable. They avoid discussing why he is touching his penis or how good it feels.

Mom doesn't admit she has done it privately or clarifies that other people, including her, might be upset by his openly pleasuring himself in front of them and, thus, he shouldn't do it publicly, but it is acceptable to do it alone. Instead, this little 4-year-old boy is forced to figure out on his own these subtle, confused, or mixed messages from mom (or dad).

Even though he stops rubbing himself, we can't be sure what his interpretation of the interaction really will be. Perhaps he will think: rubbing my penis is a bad thing to do. Or he may say to himself: it's okay if I don't let anyone see me. Or, perhaps: mom (and other women) think my penis is disgusting. Perhaps even: I'm bad and do nasty, weird things that other boys don't do. Taboos and silence create secrets, sometimes delightful mysteries, sometimes disturbing secrets. A little honest talk would be helpful and could make sexuality much more acceptable to ourselves so that we, in turn, can embrace every aspect of ourselves.

It is easy to see how silence becomes a powerful but unguided form of sex education. Consider how we deal with little girls. They have a vagina and a clitoris, producing sexual stimulation and feelings. Yet, many women are never told anything about their vagina, not its location or functions. Many parents are even more secretive about the clitoris. Since it is so tied to sexual pleasure, parents seem to be especially careful to say nothing about it. Are we afraid, ashamed, or unsure of what to say? By saying nothing, we only add confusion and fears. See Talking To Kids About Sex for more information.

Our Confused History

For centuries the Catholic church has condemned masturbation as sinful; the church still calls it a "seriously disordered act." About 50% of Americans said "masturbation is always wrong" (Levitt & Klassen, 1973). But that may not be so different even today. In 1994, Surgeon-General Joyce Elders was fired, in part, because she advocated including information about masturbation in sex education courses.

We must remember that our society still has myths about the medical "science" of the mid-1800s, namely, that masturbation caused insanity, mental retardation, apathy, fatigue, poor memory, blindness, headaches, etc. This negative attitude towards a beautiful human body is a significant problem. An innocent, harmless act that relieves sexual tension helps control sexual impulses, increases sexual self-confidence, and provides great pleasure somehow becomes seen as negative or bad by 57% of female adolescents and 45% of male adolescents (Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, 1985). We are doing something wrong.


People who enjoy masturbating are more likely to have climaxes later in life (Kinsey et al., 1953) while having sex. Men usually ejaculate easily, but women frequently have trouble climaxing. One reason is that men masturbate by grasping and stroking the penis with one hand. This is similar to the movements and sensations during intercourse, so masturbation is good training for intercourse. Women often masturbate in ways that are unlike intercourse: light strokes on or near the clitoris (48%), vibrator on or near clitoris (26%), squeezing the legs together (4%), running water on the genitals (4%), stroking the breasts, having sexual fantasies, and so on (Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, 1985). They rarely masturbate in ways similar to intercourse, i.e., inserting something in and out the vagina.

If one learns to have a climax in only one way and if that way is incompatible with intercourse, e.g., by squeezing the legs together, it may be challenging to achieve an orgasm when having intercourse with a partner. Thus, many women have to deal with two problems: 1) having little or no experience with climaxing via masturbation and/or 2) having masturbatory experiences that doesn't transfer well to intercourse. Thus, we are left with many couples lost in the bedroom and feeling too nervous to ask how to improve things.

The values of our society clearly show how afraid we are of healthy sex. We often see that people in our sexually dysfunctional society make even violence more acceptable than sex. It is inappropriate to make a movie rated R for sexual content, but another rated PG when people are killing each other in it. It seems our values are a bit off when we see sex, which is natural, beautiful, and pleasurable, as something we should hide or have shame about and entertainment with war and murder as perfectly acceptable. Why aren't we teaching both men and women about their bodies, their sexuality, and how to embrace it as something healthy and enjoyable truly?

No matter what sexual norms you are accustomed to, my best suggestion is to take a step back and look at the messages that you were given growing up. Do they still suit you, or are you holding back your sexual self? The key to sexual health is embracing yourself for all you are, including your sexual desires.

See our guide: Is Masturbation Healthy?

Struggling With Sexuality

We are still sorting out sexual myths from reality, and it can be seen by well-known politicians' ignorant statements still made today. We need to work on our sexual intelligence, and we can only do that when we speak from a place of science and factual education. Unfortunately, many people still do not want to discuss sexual matters rationally. They have poisoned our culture with sexual myths, taboos, and shaming. In turn, this leads to censorship, restrictions, repression, and laws that violate civil liberties.

When people fear sexuality and do not have the emotional intelligence to deal with this, they often begin projecting that fear onto others. They cast their anxiety about sexuality by repressing others to eliminate those fears. They believe that keeping others from participating in specific sexual behavior or seeing sexual materials will extinguish their sexual fears and solve those sexual 'problems.' This type of thinking lacks insight and demonstrates poor judgment. This is further reinforced by those who have the power to use social institutions, governmental influence, religious organizations, and the media to project these irrational fears further. It, in turn, makes those who have a healthy and balanced relationship with their sexuality become victims of someone's dysfunctional relationship with their sexuality.

Emotional Pain

The number one most common sexual problem that people have when it comes to sex is that they simply wish to overcome their emotional pain around their sexual issues. Many people are in emotional distress regarding their sexuality, impacting their everyday lives, from shame, guilt, abuse, and more. When people fear their sexuality and are unable to work through that fear, you will often see them teaching others to fear their sexuality and, again, attempting to control and censor it in any way they can.

Unfortunately, we tend to use sexual abuse to attack things like mainstream pornography and erotica between consenting adults in our society. Those in favor of condemning these things often say that they sexually objectify people who are ultimately victims themselves, according to those that make these accusations. The problem in making this analogy is that the actors in the adult films are being paid to exude their sexuality and are choosing to be objectified. A victim of sexual abuse or rape did not consent to be used for sexual gratification, which is fueled by an underlying need for power and control over them, and therefore are not similar.

The real reasons for sexual abuse stem from sexual repression, power dynamics, alcoholism, drug use, and poor anger management. When one interviews a child molester, you will never hear them discuss their healthy upbringing or the relaxed way their parents taught them about masturbation and how to embrace their sexuality and be educated about it. That is where the core of this problem comes from, and to attack sexual entertainment does nothing but ignore the real problems.

Lack of Critical Thinking

When we debate sexual issues and are dealing with people who are simply projecting their fears of sexuality onto others, it is essential that we not just address statistics and civil liberties but also address their fear. If they cannot effectively deal with their anxiety, no amount of fact-based information will change their minds. People just want to have the pain they are feeling to be relieved, and it is only through addressing that pain that we can open their eyes to how they can make it go away without them feeling the need to infringe the rights of others.

We must begin addressing the fear because attacks on sexual entertainment, sexual education, and freedoms in what we do in the privacy of our own homes and the rights we have to our bodies are making us afraid of who we are. The cycle of fear makes us all victims. Those who understand that we should not fear our sexuality must make every attempt to help those who do, or else their fear will control the societal norms and laws that govern our lives.

See our guide: Fear-based Sex Toy Marketing Hype

Women & Sexual Empowerment

For centuries women have primarily been taught to repress their sexuality. Even today, we still have people using derogatory terms for a woman who embraces her sexuality and her sensual nature. People still believe that women are not meant to enjoy sex and focus on a male partner's pleasure.

We are slowly coming around, yet it seems rather superficial. Most of the focus of a woman's sexuality today is her appearance. This is far from a woman's most powerful part of her sexual nature, yet we see the pendulum swing between the repression of our sexuality to a superficial focus on it.

All women have a beautiful, sensual goddess that longs to feel the psychological freedom of being a sexually potent female. Yet, this is often minimized by focusing on our physical features and little more. In our society, women are frequently conditioned to focus on their physical appearance.

An underlying reason is controlling others through sexual attraction and intimidation, landing a partner, and outshining our competition. This is a primitive approach to sexuality and often confuses the actual underlying emotional, mental, and spiritual needs and those she encounters.

Evolved and healthy sexuality is not about having power over others; it is about feeling empowered about ourselves. There is a big difference here, and it is unmistakable to those who have experienced it. There is the emancipation of one's spirit and a sense of waking up and realizing that many women are simply acting like sheep in a herd, buying one type of thing after another in the hopes of looking overtly sexual for the sake of impressing others rather than presenting ourselves as our most evolved sexual self.

This is not to say that taking care of oneself is not healthy or wonderful. It is imperative and makes us feel our best. However, what we do for ourselves should be done out of self-love, not low self-esteem. Focusing on the need to be better than others, having power over someone by being physically attractive, is a waste of our time. What do we achieve? It would be hopeful if women would focus on being more fulfilled and less preoccupied with seeking love and acceptance in self-deprecating ways.

Anyone can screw someone; it takes a sexually confident woman to unleash her sexuality in a way that empowers herself and others:

  • Imagine a woman who can enjoy her sexuality and share that enjoyment with her partner. That is a woman who knows wondrous joy and lives life to the fullest.

  • Imagine a woman who embraces her sensuality; who isn't acting like she is on the red carpet posing for cameras, but is fully involved in sharing herself in conversation with a smile that fills the room. You know the type of person... when they walk in the room, you can't help but feel their presence? The one who has a strong sense of life and is truly present with where they are in that moment.

  • Imagine a woman who loves herself, her sexuality, her sensual nature is a woman who is embracing such a vital part of herself. It should be encouraged for women to feel empowered sexually in our society as it makes us more whole.

Understand that when a woman represses that part of herself, is suppressed by others, or becomes fixated on how she looks... there is a sense that a critical component is missing in her life. Yet, because most women are so conditioned to focus on repression or superficial aspects, they often don't even know why they feel dissatisfied.

See guide: Responsible Feminism

Being A Sexually Empowered Woman

What makes one woman feel sexually empowered can be different from one to the next. However, it begins with asking what makes her feel good about herself when she is not focused on what others think of her.

Letting go of messages that it is wrong to masturbate is also an excellent place to start. There is nothing to feel shame about; it is beautiful to please yourself, and there is no wrong way to do it. I have often said that it is crucial to learn what pleases us through masturbation first so that we can, in turn, tell our partners what makes us feel good later. Masturbation allows us to focus on what our partner is doing or thinking and turn our attention to essential. It is a beautiful place to begin learning about what moves us, what makes us feel good, not only physically but mentally and emotionally.

Also, doing things that pamper ourselves, such as hot bubble baths, meditation, wearing clothes that feel good to the touch, and other pleasing behaviors, are all ways to open ourselves to our creativity, self-love, and a healthy sense of our sexuality and life.

It is time to see a new revolution of sexuality in women, not one of defensiveness, repression, or superficial focus, but a revolution that leads us to a more evolved place, self-empowered sexuality that exudes the best of who we can be.

Sex Before Marriage

People who insist on saying what is wrong or right for everyone seems arrogant. According to whom? No one should dictate someone's sex life between two consenting adults.

Whose Opinion Counts More?

The opinion that counts the most is your own. The most important thing you can ever do for yourself is to trust your judgment and listen to your heart and logic. Don't give your power away, and do what is right for you.

The Argument Against Sex Before Marriage

Some say that prevention of education and STD is unnecessary because abstinence before marriage is the answer. This doesn't even cover same-sex marriage concerns. The bottom line is that education is always a good idea and does nothing to harm your decision-making process on this matter. You cannot healthily repress people's sexual natures by keeping them ignorant or telling them to numb themselves to their feelings.

What is quite ironic is that studies have proven that cultures such as fundamentalist Christians that promote abstinence have a higher STD and pregnancy rate than those who are sexually active before marriage. Therefore, this denial of education is not working.

Think about why the least educated people always seem to be the ones that most often believe that they don't need sex education? Could it be that they are the most susceptible to fear-based propaganda?

Education is empowerment, and our choices based on education are our choices; refraining from sharing factual information is simply an attempt to control and create fear and have power over others.

When Is Abstinence Good?

Abstinence can be very good when you require solitude and centering, not because you've been lied to and told that sex is inherently wrong or dirty, but because sometimes it can distract us from what needs focus in our lives. There are times for abstinence whether we are married, not married, young, or old. Sometimes we need to take a break or put off sex, much like we need a break or time before committing to anything. Not because it is terrible, but because we need to replenish ourselves, make sure it is suitable for us, or simply focus on something that requires all of our attention. Abstinence can also be good when we are not ready for something. If we are not prepared for a committed relationship, sex, children, going to college, etc.

Does Abstinence Before Marriage Make You A Better Person?

No, it is just a choice you have made for yourself and does not make you better or worse than someone who has chosen to have sex before marriage. It is not contingent on whether you were abstinent before marriage. It is contingent on what kind of partner you are to your spouse and whether you have the fundamental components to a good marriage- love, respect, compassion, communication, and loyalty. What you want to avoid before marriage is going into it with the wrong attitudes, and what are those?

Five Major Attitude Pitfalls of Newlyweds

  1. My family does it this way, so we have to. There is no compromise.

  2. Marriage will make me happy.

  3. My partner will change once we're married.

  4. Talking about issues like his rowdy friends, her credit card debt, when to have kids, and who should clean the toilet will take the magic out of romance, so we should avoid such topics.

  5. We should avoid conflict at all costs and not deal with heated issues.

Double Standards

Singer Jessica Simpson was well known for saving her virginity until marriage. Why was her example made to be so unique and talked about? Probably because she is downright beautiful. If she were unattractive, people would most likely assume she did not have the opportunity to lose it. Yet you never hear about her mutually famous husband Nick Lachey, who was not a virgin before marriage. Double standards are often the case when discussing this issue, not to mention they are now divorced, so what was the point exactly?

What is the Best Choice?

There is no best choice for all people. There is only the best choice for you as an individual. Go with what feels suitable for you no matter what you face in life. Be empowered through education and never belittle yourself as less of a person for choosing either path. You are always worthy of self-esteem respect from yourself and others. Because no matter your decision, both options have opportunities from which you can learn and grow.

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Sex

When most people think of society today, they typically consider that we are more open about healthy sexuality than ever before. But are we?

Extreme Superficial Sexuality

While we are more daring with nudity and bold through sexual display, it is superficial sexuality. It is more often than not coming from a place of ego, insecurity, and rebellion when it is displayed.

Through reality shows, music videos, commercials, movies, and even the news, you see extremely superficial aspects of sexuality. Women, as well as men, are sex objects. Women, in particular, have long been shown this way. While I am not against nudity or displays of sexuality, I am not impressed with women running around dressing like hookers, waving their asses in the faces of anyone who will look, and then calling any other woman who does this a whore.

There is a big difference between a woman who is confident in herself, who dresses sensually, and a woman who is insecure and is desperately trying to get the attention of anyone who will notice her. This kind of approach to sexuality sends the message that sex is all about having power and control over others. It is fear-based, from insecurity, and is not beautiful to those who know the difference.

People who see the world in black and white make the mistake of thinking that sexuality can be viewed in two ways... cheap and superficial or uptight and conservative. This is a dangerous way to view the world and can lead to all sorts of problems.

Women In A Sexually Superficial Society

It often sets the stage for women to feel that they must dress and act in a manner that focuses entirely on their appearance to compete for attention. Wearing revealing clothes to bragging about sexual prowess are ways this is accomplished. A big trend now is for young girls to claim they are bisexual, even if they are not, to seem sexually edgy to attract men.

When you see women making extremely overt sexual behaviors, the message that can be interpreted is that they are a piece of meat to be screwed and discarded. I am not saying you can't be sexually overt because sometimes that is fun and done from a place of confidence and playfulness. The real question is why is one is doing it?

We need to move forward to experience sexuality from confidence, not insecurity. Where we express our sensual natures from a more empowered place within us. We are more than our behinds, breasts, and vaginas.

Showing our sexuality in a way that commands respect while honoring our integrity is a much more powerful thing to do anyway. We can exhibit our sensual beauty through our speech, dress, and body language in an empowered way and make that the norm, rather than focusing only on our skin.

Whether you are into one-night stands, open relationships or monogamous relationships, you deserve respect from yourself and others. A woman who knows and believes this will ensure that she receives it by putting out signals to the world that she is a sexual goddess with a mind and soul.

Men in a Sexually Superficial Society

Men in our society are often encouraged (especially by peers) to seek out any kind of sexual activity no matter what woman it is with or the health risks involved. They are often encouraged to manipulate others to get sex and talk about getting it. They are erroneously taught that they are valued for their performance, penis size, physique, and ability to get laid.

Like women, they are taught to be ashamed of masturbation. Men are not made aware of prostate massage, the health benefits, or pleasure due to fears of homosexuality. There is no emphasis on embracing their satisfaction as a whole: pleasuring themselves beyond just their penis or how to develop healthy sexual self-esteem with respect for their bodies or their sexual partner(s).

Arousal Non-concordance

Arousal non-concordance is when there is a misalignment with sexual psychological, and physical responses. This means that someone can be highly mentally and emotionally aroused but unable to be physically aroused.

Causes of arousal non-concordance can be physical or psychological. Common physical causes are hormonal imbalances, cardiovascular factors, diabetes, cancer, disabilities, recovery from surgery, medications, aging, and more.

Psychologically, there can also be differences in sexual preferences and practices with partners that make it challenging to be sexually aroused. This can include sexual repression around things like sexual orientation and specific sexual needs.

Ruling out physical causes is always a good place to start, but exploring these challenges with a therapist specializing in sexuality can also be helpful

Coming Out of the Confusion

The following are a few things that should occur in the future as we evolve and better understand healthy sexuality:

  • Embrace masturbation as a healthy part of our sexuality. Begin in the early years by teaching children that it is all right for them to do it in private and that there is no shame in being a sexual human being.

  • Dress and act in a manner that makes us feel good about ourselves and invokes our creativity and sensuality. Resist dressing and working to gain power over others and instead in a way that empowers us.

  • Treat others as we know we should be treating ourselves. Show ourselves, and others love, compassion and respect. Accept that diversity is a beautiful part of life; it is how we learn from one another and evolve.

  • Understand that people have different sexual orientations and that we should respect that not everyone should be married, have children, live monogamously, or be heterosexual. We must understand that our view of the world is simply our perspective, and what is comfortable for us is not necessarily what is comfortable for others. Except for preventing physical, emotional, or mental harm to others, we should not force a fixed agenda of sexual correctness on others.

  • We must better study pedophiles and provide counseling to prevent child abuse. We must become more aware of the alarming rate of sexual assault on children. The government needs to work with the adult industry, not against them, to help prevent child abuse. We must also teach our children about standing up for their sexual rights and the importance of them keeping people from violating them.

  • We should refrain from degrading name-calling of others regarding sexuality. Calling people sluts, whores, bitches, pimps, etc., encourages a superficial sexual environment and black and white thinking.

  • We must encourage people to explore their sexuality through masturbation, meditation, and sometimes counseling. Learning what pleases, nurtures, and heals us first, will help us communicate to our sexual partner(s) what we need mentally, emotionally, and physically to be sexually fulfilled.

  • We need to have a frank discussion about sexual health with teenagers. We need sex education on STDs, prevention, and birth control. Using factual medical information will not cause harm to them. It can prevent harm. If moral concerns are present, it is up to the parents to encourage a child to do what is right for them based on facts, not fear tactics.

  • We should not be prohibited from exploring sexuality through sexual aids such as lubricants and sex toys. Being creative in the bedroom allows us to examine ourselves and our pleasure. It is a gift that we have been given at birth to enjoy our sexuality and live in a world where we fear our sexuality denies us a fundamental human right.

  • Consumers should be taught about sex toys and product health risks, including information about toxic materials used in sex toys. See our Body Safe Sex Toys Guide.

  • Sexual fetishes and BDSM should not be treated as unhealthy behavior when it is done between consenting adults who can clearly and safely communicate. See article on our BDSM & Role Play Sex Toys Guide.

  • Porn is acceptable if it follows the following criteria: It is between consenting adults with no restrictions on ethnicity, number of people involved, or sexual orientation and is created, distributed, and packaged in a way that follows not only state and federal guidelines, but also with the intent that only adults will view it. It provides safety to its actors or actresses regarding VD and general safety and encourages viewers to do the same.

  • We need to better address through accessibility the sexual education and resources for those who are disabled or have chronic diseases. Make sure to also see our Disability, Sex & Discrimination Guide, Sex Toys For Disabilities Guide, Communication: Sex & Disabilities, and Paraplegia: Sex Toys For Spinal Cord Injuries Guide for more information.

  • We need to live in a society that creates laws based on freedom of religion and from religion when it comes to our sex lives.
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