The Things We Do To Our Children: Shame and Sex

Q. I don’t know how to say it. It might be considered as not a problem, but I feel really ashamed when I think of it. I am 21 and still a virgin. I’ve had boyfriends and we were practicing petting sometimes, one of them gave me oral sex, but I’ve never had sex, as I think I might be terrible at it and they may be only disappointed. Sometimes I think I really want this, but then something still keeps me from making the step. I don’t know if it’s the fear of unwanted pregnancy, or shame of virginity at age of 21, or the shame of my body. So I feel quite frustrated about all this, and I have no one to talk to about it.

A. The things we do to our children.

I don’t imply your direct lineage and parental units. I mean the ick our family of a society passes on, generation after generation, sometimes consciously, and most often, unconsciously.

David Elkind, professor and child development expert, has this advice for parents:

Modeling the behavior we want is one of the best things we as parents can do. What you do matters a lot more than what you say your child should do.

Of course, Elkind was talking about the ways in which parents can best guide their children in the world. But parenting? Parenting goes beyond father-mother-son-daughter relationships. Parenting is what the world around us does when giving us messages about what or who we should be, what we should feel, and what we should and should not expect as the norm. We are just as much parented by the people around us as we are the people who brought us into this world. So you must understand that when the world parents us, the world passes down its shit.

But another point: I don’t think there really is such a thing as a “virgin,” much like I don’t really believe there is such thing as a “slut.” They’re both emote-y words that are to define a category that is always shifting, never to be pinned down, never to be given an exact definition, which gives it its power. If you don’t know the definition of what something means, then you can use it however you please.

Hell, the word “virgin” itself only exists in feminine terms. In Old French, virgine stems from the root of the Latin word virgo, i.e. virgin-is, which literally translates into”maiden.” It is analogous with a suite of lexemes based on vireo, meaning “to be green, fresh or flourishing” or, when used more broadly, a sexually intact young woman or sexually inexperienced woman. It is a blank slate, a nothingness, that leads to the fantasy of unadulterated purity.

There is no implication of the masculine in virgin.

Virginity also didn’t exist as a concept until the agricultural revolution, when property became a tangible thing. With property came inheritance, and with inheritance came the imposed need to protect the inheritance. So what became property? All that was able to be translated into trade value: land, cattle, crops, and women who could bear children and pass on these things in their husband’s name.

If a head-of-household could be sure that the women under his control were not having sex with anyone outside of his knowledge, he could also be sure of the parentage of resulting offspring. This became institutionalized in the virginity myth. If girls were led to believe that their sexual exploits would become permanently recorded on their vaginas, they’d be less likely to consent to sex outside of approved marriages. Religions of the book, which stem from the patriarchal societies of the ancient world, subsumed this concept and, over time, it became a central tenant of many religious doctrines. Thus the practice was carried throughout the ages to us. Despite its pervasive nature, the virginity myth is based entirely on misinformation and has no correlation to actual fact. – Kjed Lindstedt

So what of this history lesson? Virginity and being a virgin? Frankly it does not mean anything. Especially with this history. Especially because there are other experiences than insert penis into slot A to remove V-card. Especially because it’s usually made to make people feel bad. Much like “slut,” “virgin” is an all-access card that everyone seems to be concerned with without actually being able to name why.

I suppose we do it because shame is heavy, often too heavy for us to carry it all alone. So we do what we do when we feel that we can’t go at it alone? We spread it around, making everyone else who seemed to be having a normal day carry the same amount of shame. We parent those around us by shedding our issues onto them, hoping that by offering up some of that burden to them, it will be lighter on us. Only, the load doesn’t get lighter — someone else is just carrying it.

I wish that I could tell you that there was an exact way to get rid of shame, a formula that includes X + Y, plus time and a dividend interest of Z or something you could bottle and pass around, but there isn’t. I do not know how most people get over their shame. But they do. Some people break it down by lists. Some people see that as not attacking the root cause and have to go deeper, much deeper, to the first time they felt that bitter, churning feeling of shame. Some people never get over it. No matter how hard they try. Those voices always echo in their brain, churning out the same self-insults, delivering them week after week, month after month, and year after year.

I don’t want to tell you not to be that person, because that person is fighting as equal a battle as the person who has found that Post-it notes on the bathroom mirror get rid of the shame. Everyone fights it. Succeeding or not is not a value judgment. I will only say that succeeding against shame? Is the difference between life or death.

Trying — yes, the very least, trying, is choosing life. Succumbing to those thoughts that gnaw away at the very fiber of who you are? It isn’t choosing death, it’s not choosing at all. Death just happens. Life? Life is something you have to choose over and over and over again to want, to need, to just get by. Life means looking at your shame and telling it just to fuck off, even if it is just for one solitary minute. Can you do one solitary minute? If you can, it is one more minute you had than before.

Lastly, I go back and forth on whether or not thoughts are real. Some days, they are just thoughts, brain juice chugging out some of the best and worst things that can be imagined. Other days? Like Stephen Fry once so eloquently said:

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.

You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.

BUT

It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
One day.

It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness —these are as real as the weather — AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.

BUT

They will pass: they really will.

Whether you choose or not choose to become more sexually experienced is of no real concern here. That’s your choice to make and to make alone. It should be something that reflects what you honestly desire, what you want. Not what you should have to do. Not what you feel shamed into doing. Not to catch up with peers or boyfriends who tell you so. You decide what your sexual experience is. No one else: virgin, slut, or all those other made up words to make you feel like shit be damned.

But what is of bigger concern and what I suspect is the root of everything at play here is whether or not you can learn to get past the shame you have internalized. The nagging voice that tells you no matter what, it is never, ever enough and you are not worthy. You are worthy of everything that it is you want. The trick is not just recognizing it. It is choosing to work towards it. This is not easy. It is not even going to be the slightest bit easy. But like walking up a mountain, choosing to try, to choose towards trying, is like taking one step at a time, up the highest place you have ever known. You will slip, fall, stumble. You will get nervous and anxious about the height. You will say a thousand times, “Let’s go back.” Don’t go back. Don’t think of all the distance you need to cover to make it up to the very top. But choose, please choose, to put one foot in front of the other, and walk towards the place where shame is no longer what defines your days.

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2 thoughts on “The Things We Do To Our Children: Shame and Sex”

  1. And letter writer: there is no perfect age. It isn’t a bonus level to unlock. And if you meet someone and he or she becomes a mess because of it, it’s just an easy show-and-tell of his/hers wrong ideas about bodies and sexuality.

    There was a time I felt bad about “being late” as well, but why should I? It’s not like my character didn’t fully develop until I had a penis inside me once.

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