Sinful Sunday: sea change

I remember when Wolf took this photo. Japan, in winter. I had been teaching English since the summer and Wolf came to visit me for a couple of months. We had been together for three years before I left on this project. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, I was a few months away from signing up for my very first email account, at a Thai internet cafe.

I remember feeling very uncomfortable when he took this photo; I couldn’t wait to get dressed again. He tells me that when I finally saw the developed photo (which I think wasn’t until I came home again, so 6 or 8 months later), I was still just as uncomfortable with it.

I can tell you how I felt then: self-conscious, vulnerable, and vaguely ashamed. It felt wrong to do a topless photo even from the back. It felt wrong, not exactly to be seen that way, but to be looked at, never mind recorded.

Looking at the photo today, I remember those feelings fairly vividly, but I don’t actively feel them. Now I see what Wolf probably saw all along: a fit body, with strong arms and shoulders and back. Now I like how I looked. Now I see that it’s actually not a bad photo: good pose, direct sunlight, the shadow of the drapes, the warm tones of the tatami. (Though now I would make a point of eliminating the clutter of the kotatsu (table with heater and blanket – the red and grey in front of me) and the foam “couch” (covered with a blue and white sheet, in the background).)

Then I was deeply torn between my authentic self versus what I had been taught. Now I have discarded a lot of that incorrect teaching, and this photo seems to have a clarity and emotional simplicity that I never saw before. But since the photo hasn’t changed, the clarity must be in me. I identify with this photo so much more now than when it was taken, it’s almost like this was a glimpse into my future.

sea-change

I remind myself once again that it’s my body and my choice, and there’s nothing at all wrong with enjoying how my body looks and feels. I was taught the opposite at such a young age that it was never even put into words, but no matter how deeply ingrained that lesson has been, what I was taught was utterly wrong. It is not my truth and I reject it.

(Side note: I only really became aware that I had nice shoulders when someone complimented me on them about 5 or so years ago, and I started noticing my arms and back since I started taking photos for this blog, so within the last 2 years. I’ve been attributing my tone to belly dance, and yet this photo was taken a few years before I started. Huh.)

badge Sinful Sunday

I had an epiphany

Before

My partner1 and I have had an excellent relationship for almost 20 years (we married almost 10 years ago). But not even a year in, the sex declined rapidly and remained minimal. Like once-every-two-months-ish or less.2

Because of me.

I wanted to want to. But — for some reason I couldn’t figure out — I didn’t actually want to. The result: I was on my guard at all times and simultaneously felt guilty that I didn’t want it. Completely torn. I was grateful (and occasionally a little surprised) that my partner stayed with me through it all. Top all of that off with another helping of guilt.

Then

For the last couple of years, my partner has been studying overseas and thus has been away for 2 to 6 months at a time, and home for up to 3 months at a time. I hoped that my anxiety about sex would decline while we were apart, and that my defences would drop on their own. Maybe then I could make some kind of improvement.

About a year ago, I started to have serious challenges with work/family (it’s a family business — so complicated). I started seeing a counsellor occasionally and doing lots of reading on anything remotely relevant to the situation: toxic workplace; body language; passive aggression; my personality and the personalities of others at work; anger; boundaries; sensitivity and the highly sensitive person (HSP).

It took a while, but my sexuality began to thaw this past summer as hoped, and I started doing some reading in that area as well. I had always felt uncomfortable with sexuality generally. I had never experienced anything particularly negative — it just seemed to be an attitude or belief that I couldn’t shake, no matter what sex-positive stuff I read or how I tried to correct my thinking.

Somehow, the phrase ‘sexual shame’ came to mind, and now I had a search term. I was able to confirm that, yes indeed, sexual shame was what I was experiencing. Now, where the hell did it come from?

Suddenly

A throwaway line in a book about HSPs changed everything for me: the sensitivity of HSPs makes it possible for them to be deeply affected by the hurts of others, for instance a sensitive child picking up on the past sexual trauma of a parent.3

Whoa.

My mother was sexually abused by her father.

This is all I know about it. The fact that I know at all is, in itself, highly improbable.

What if my negative attitude about sex is actually hers, not mine?

Sex is shameful and bad. Being married doesn’t make sex OK. Sex is not enjoyable. Always protect yourself — merely saying ‘no’ is probably not sufficient. If sex can’t be avoided, it is to be merely survived. Men are dangerous and can’t be trusted about sex. Sex is absolutely private and should never be discussed with anyone. Displays of affection, sensuality or sexuality are always inappropriate. All of these incorrect beliefs are consistent with an unhealthy attitude created by abuse.

Finally — finally — things started to fall into place for me. I don’t think I spent much time pondering: the realization alone seems to have thrown the door wide open. Perhaps the other personal growth work that I had done (getting to know myself better in general terms, learning about sex positivity) had established the necessary groundwork. I’m not sure. But now I’m off to the races.

So here I am, in a long-term committed and deeply loving relationship, finally enjoying my sex life (thank fuck!) and wanting to express it, but oh god not to anyone I actually know!


1   For the purposes of this blog, he prefers the term ‘partner’ rather than ‘husband’ because the latter has a lot of connotations that he doesn’t care for.

2   I haven’t found any reliable definitions in my brief research on the point, but in accordance with this article, I accept the term ‘sex-starved relationship’ as meaning sex less than 10 times per year. A ‘sexless relationship (marriage)’ would then mean no sex at all.

3   I didn’t make note of the book at the time, but I think it was either The Highly Sensitive Person, or The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, both by Elaine Aron.