intention is to get you thinking about a lot of questions without imposing
judgments, either on yourself or on the women who so generously contributed
their histories to this project. A stance of acceptance without judging
is not always easy to maintain, particularly with those we are closest
to and love the most. For many of us it is easiest with strangers, more
difficult with intimate others or our children, and most difficult of
all with ourselves.
you experience what is happening in the moment, right now, without being
distracted by regret or resentments about the past or worries and catastrophic
expectations about what might happen or not happen in the future. In sex,
self-acceptance might mean that you enjoy what happens in the moment,
without being distracted by thoughts about the argument with your partner
in the morning or concern that you might not reach orgasm.
to our sexuality, and, for that matter, anything else we do in our lives,
we do the best we can given what we know and what the situation is at
self is a lifelong work-in-progress. We constantly change because we constantly
have new experiences and continue to mature. I call the entire process
in which words, images, ideas and experiences lead each of us, step by
step, to a clearer understanding of how our sexuality fits into who we
are and to fuller acceptance of our sexual selves finding our way.
our lives we find our way. Over and over we make choices and live out
the consequences. And, with changes in our cultural values, our age, and
our state in life, the rules keep changing. If today you are a young woman
deciding when, where, and with whom to engage in your first sexual intercourse,
or whether to have your first intimate encounter with another woman, you
will experience your sexuality quite differently than if you are forty-five
and contemplating an extra relationship affair. But in each instance, you
will be finding your way.
our age, and whatever decisions we are making, we do the best we can.
If no one has shown us or told us what we need to know for it to be otherwise,
our process is likely to be primarily one of trial and error. Part of
finding our way to sexual self-acceptance is learning not to be too hard
on our younger self, who did the best she could, given what she knew.
We can all say: If I knew then what I know now
But we didn't.
We had to find our way.
our way, we can learn from others who have found their way and walked
the path before us. Women's Sexualities is an inter-generational
dialogue. It is filled with examples of how women of all ages have, over
time, found their way. It contains statements that illuminate the wisdom
these women have gleaned from their experiences.
will find what your mother and big sister or your daughter didn't, or
couldn't, tell you. You will hear from women who had positive experiences
and those who did not. Because so many women are represented here, you
will begin to see that certain conditions seem to support women feeling
good about themselves, in general, and about various aspects of their
sexuality and sexual experiences. Patterns emerge and by paying attention
to those patterns you can learn from these womens collective experiences
how to enhance your own sexuality and accept your sexual self more completely
directions invited women to write their comments directly on the questionnaire
or on a separate page and told them: If a question doesn't accurately
describe your experience, please tell us so. We want to know how you experience
your sexuality. And did these women write comments thousands of them!
Some wrote only a few words and some attached several pages of thoughtful
Sexualities is brimming with quotations from the interviews and
the comments the survey respondents added to their questionnaires. As
a rule, I present these quotes chronologically, beginning with the oldest
woman. (The year each woman was born is in parentheses beside her name.)
Sometimes, you will find the comments clustered to include women born
over a several-year span; these are still in chronological order. I have
protected the identities of the women I interviewed by giving each one
(and anyone she talks about) new names.
What are your
earliest memories of body awareness and self-stimulation for pleasure?
For some girls, the first awareness of pleasurable sensations down thereof
having wonderful, magical, special genital feelings involved totally innocent
discovery uncolored by any parental or social prohibitions. Even if this
was not your experience, take a moment now to imagine what it might have
been like for you if it had been.
this have affected your life?
said: "My first experience of myself as sexual was feeling turned on by
my bicycle seat and sitting on fences when I was about six or seven. I
remember the feeling and thinking, 'Ooooo, this feels good'".
said: "The first crush I ever had on a man was on Moe of the Three Stooges.
I saw him on TV and was just in love with him and his long hair with the
bangs. I had this big teddy bear, almost as big as me, and I remember
humping this teddy bear at night thinking it was Moe. I remember rubbing
my genitals against it. I don't recall if I had orgasms, but it felt great.
That's a very clear memory. I couldn't have been more than three years
to label the experience, there is no judgment, only curiosity and acceptance.
The typical girl, however, develops a sense of privacy around sensuality/sexuality
at an early age.
For example, Joan (1944) recalls:
"I used to always like to play with myself. I think the first sexual experience
I had was with my dog, a little beagle. I allowed my dog to lick me. I
would lock my door. So, that was my first masturbation. Or actually sex
with something else. I can guess I was five or six."
of prohibitions alters experience. When a child becomes aware through
the words, facial expressions, and body language of adults that grown-ups
aren't always comfortable with the child's explorations of pleasure, doors
are closed, and sometimes impulses are inhibited. This move toward privacy
is developmental. It is a normal aspect of a child developing a separate
self who can act independently, that is, a normal aspect of individuation.
Our Way Through Shame and Guilt
you remember of feeling shame, embarrassment, and guilt in your early
childhood? It is likely that these feelings were important in the
formation and emergence of your sexual self. Emotions are body reactions
that we perceive and label with meaning. Our emotions prepare us to act,
or keep us from acting, and they provide us with vital information for
our survival and development. None of the emotions, e.g., anger, fear,
joy, grief, shameis inherently bad. We need access to all of them
guilt are social emotions. They provide us with awareness of social limits
and generate the reluctance or reticence to act outside of those limits.
As we are growing up, feelings of shame and of embarrassment (a related
feeling) play a significant role in our socialization.
when we experience shame or guilt, we can understand that these emotions
mean that we are breaking some internalized rule. As adults we can consider:
Whose rule is it? Where did I get it? Does it make sense for me to follow
it? The young child is too limited in experience to have such a vantage
point. Consider how Roberta (1943) changed her view over time: When I
was real young I think we were between four and seven my brother and some
neighborhood kids played doctor and stuff. I remember we explored each
others bodies. At the time that I did it, it was just exploratory, but,
over time, I was ashamed of it. Now, I think its just part of growing
In this very
brief description, Roberta leads us through the critically important process
of finding ones way to self-acceptance. From the young girls perspective,
she engaged in innocent exploration. Later, she became aware of social
prohibitions and felt shame. Still later, she understood that body exploration
is just part of growing up and she felt okay about what had occurred.
That's just how it was.
Many of us
grow up with a sense of shame about our curiosity-driven early experiences
of sexual exploration and experimentation, because we have no way of knowing
that so many others are having these experiences, too. The many, many
examples in this chapter demonstrate how typical how normal most of these