How To Talk To Your Therapist About Sex When You Don’t Talk About Sex
Growing up, conversation around s-e-x was taboo. Getting comfy with it now can be a challenge, but oh so liberating.
BY IMAN OMAR
I’ve been an oversharer my whole life. My therapist says that this is a common characteristic of people like me who have childhood PTSD. I’m not the best at protecting myself from myself, especially when I’m triggered. So I generally try and be mindful about how much I share. It may be part of my disorder to talk or write about my feelings at any moment, but it's also just part of who I am. Being open and sharing how I feel is definitely one of my healthier coping mechanisms.
All this is to say that I typically don’t have to steel myself before talking to my therapist. I’m very open during our sessions, and I’m often excited to tell her things that are difficult for me to tell the world. So it’s hard for me to understand why after two years of weekly sessions, I’ve never brought up my sex life. It’s hard for me to know why, when I finally did, I ended up spending the whole session feeling like I was crawling out of my skin.
I’m not the most erotic person in the world, but I’m definitely very sex-positive in my heart. I’ve had more than a few sexual partners, and I don’t really have any hang ups about telling people that. I’m currently in a healthy relationship. For almost five years, I’ve felt safe and loved in my sex life with my partner. But when it comes to talking about sex, I find it super cringe-worthy. It’s almost like my body rejects the notion of talking about it, and I regularly feel myself shutting down when I even think about trying to do so in therapy.
I was raised Muslim until I was twelve. My father is Somali and grew up in Mogadishu, and my Armenian American mom converted to Islam when they got married. While my parents were still together, my father very much expected me to be a good Muslim girl. Ever since he left, my mom and I have talked openly about a great many things, but never about S-E-X.
My dad would never have talked about sex to me. I knew from a young age that anything having to do with my sexuality or femininity was something I wanted to hide from him for fear of being shamed. I learned this when I was about nine years-old and I put on my grandma’s nail polish. When he saw it, he flipped out about how no daughter of his was going to go out “looking like a whore.” I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts. I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep overs. I came into this world knowing that my father only saw his daughters as objects that should respect him and clean and cook and marry someone someday of his choosing.
I don’t think my mom ever really cared about my dad’s patriarchal bullshit, but she was in an abusive relationship and didn’t know how to stop it. When my parents split up, the rules changed because my dad disappeared from my life. As my sister, brother, and I grew up away from his control, our mother let us know in her own way that she just wanted us to be strong, happy people who made our own decisions about our bodies and lives. Once my dad was gone, we were able to talk about all sorts of stuff that had only ever been said in hushed tones when he was still around — but still never sex. I’m not sure if my mom raised me to be sex-positive or if I raised myself to be that way.
Despite my lack of shame around sex, I’d still rather not talk to my mother about it. Honestly, I’d rather not talk to anyone about it. But why? My mission to answer this question in therapy meant that I was going to spend the whole session feeling like I’d rather jump out the window. (Don’t worry, this story doesn’t end in defenestration.)
I began my session with the usual weekly catch-up and check-in about how my body was feeling. I carry a lot of my trauma in my body. When I’m triggered, it’s not always easy for me to de-escalate because one can’t really make one’s nervous system listen to reason, and my PTSD is all about my nervous system taking over my body. I started to feel myself escalating as we talked, because I knew I was going to bring “it” up. I’d set myself the challenge though, and I wasn’t about to back down.
So I did it. I started off by stating outright that I was going to talk about sex today. My therapist has great boundaries, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was interested in what was about to happen. I’ve been seeing her for two years straight, and this was “virgin” territory.
Every moment of that session made me want to run far away. I told her everything that I’ve already written here and more. I told her how my sister likes to try and talk about her sex life with me, and how I hate it when she brings it up. I told her how I feel like love is way more intimate and scary than sexual intercourse. I told her how unbelievably uncomfortable I was, and how I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to bring this up again.
Having five older sisters (one full, four half) and a younger brother is a huge part of who I am. As I was talking to my therapist, I realized that there’s no way to have that many siblings and not think about sex. Obviously, my parents had a lot of it. (Full disclosure: Writing that last sentence made me die a little inside.) I also started to understand that my hang up isn’t necessarily “talking about sex” as much as it is talking about sex through the lens of my family and childhood. I think that with a family as complex as mine, it’s been easier for me to not think about the sexual component of it. But easy isn’t how you make progress.
Towards the end of the session, I was so desperate for it to be over that I addressed most of my words to the clock behind my therapist. Just 20 minutes and I’d be done, then 10 more minutes of this self-inflicted torture-sharing. Would I give up and run? Dear Reader, I didn’t. I made it through 45 whole minutes of sex talk.
With five minutes left, I finally slowed the sharing and started to assess how I felt talking about it. Then something wild happened. I felt proud of myself! I felt like I had done something I never thought I could do, and I knew I could do it again if I wanted. I’d proven to myself that I could talk about it. I believe silence is a killer, and yet I’ve spent much of my life being silent about sex. I was always afraid that I didn’t want to talk about it because there was something deeply wrong with me sexually. That’s a scary sentence to write, but it’s an honest one. I really needed to learn that it was my choice to talk about it or not.
Choice. Agency. Consent. I know that these are important parts of a healthy sex life, and it turns out that they’re really important when it comes to talking (or not talking) about sex as well. Who’d have thought?
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