When I was 12 or 13, my mother gave me and my sisters a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. It was a revelation: a whole chapter on having sex with other women! Diagrams of vulvas! Frank discussions of birth control! My favorite chapter was the one on masturbation. It was any hormonal, nerdy bisexual teen’s dream: an instruction manual on giving yourself pleasure? Don’t mind if I do!
Our Bodies, Ourselves didn’t associate masturbation with shame. And neither did I—overtly. But as much as I considered myself a feminist, a vague steam of guilt swathed those early experiments in self-touch. I too had internalized the silences around women’s orgasms, the mechanical depictions of sex in movies, the blanks about women’s bodies that health class didn’t quite fill. Somewhere, deep down, orgasm came with a vague nausea that felt a little like guilt.
Dr. Lexx Brown-James can relate. Today, she’s a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified sex educator who believes that shame-free pleasure should be accessible to all. But as an adolescent, she says, she used to pray to overcome temptation each time she masturbated. “It was this never-ending cycle of shame,” she says. “I felt like I was being a bad person.”
Now, Brown-James works with others to help them unpack that same shame in their own intimate lives. She uses therapist and public speaker Brené Brown’s definition of shame—“guilt is ‘I did something bad’; shame is ‘I am bad’”—to describe how we internalize negative messages about sex and ultimately judge ourselves. And she encourages clients to unpack the ways racism, ableism, sexism, queer and transphobia, and other forms of systemic injustice negatively impact their intimate lives.
Read more at Swell. Featured image: Malvestida Magazine