The messages you hear about sex while growing up have consequences in adulthood, a study suggests.

By Claire Gillespie
November 18, 2019

For many of us, sex ed doesn’t end in high school. It’s not unusual to have to do some serious work decades after the first mention of the birds and the bees––often to try to repair the harm that was done back then.

That’s the focus of a recent study, published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education, which asked nearly 200 women to share the types of messages they’d received about sex and sexuality when they were growing up. And the vast majority of them had only negative experiences to report.

Think of all the crappy messages you’ve received about sex and your body over the years, and you’ll relate: you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, having sex during your period is disgusting, masturbation is shameful. Those messages may come from direct conversations with parents, educators, or religious leaders, or they may come from the mass media, such as Facebook, YouTube, or chat rooms.

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Wherever they stem from, their impact can be long-lasting. It’s not too much of a leap to connect negative messages about sex to difficulty reaching orgasm, body image issues, a lifeless libido, and less satisfying sex in general.

For the study, participants were asked to share memorable messages they received about reproductive and/or sexual health, and their responses prove just how crucial those early messages about sex are.

One participant said they “...wish that I wouldn’t have been taught about sex as if it were a bad thing, from my school.” Another revealed that her first encounter with shame around sex came when she had chlamydia in her early 20s, and the reaction of a family member made her feel “ashamed and disgusted.”

Several participants shared negative experiences connected to strong religious-based abstinence messaging around sex. “‘Don’t have sex. If you have sex, you’re going to get pregnant and we’re going to kick you out.’ This was my sex talk from my parents,” said one. “This stuck with me for years and still does.”

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But the sole aim of the study wasn’t to remind women of just how much negativity they absorbed about sex. Study authors also share different ways to combat any unfavorable lingering feelings. When the women were asked what helps them develop more positive attitudes to their sex lives, here are the four main takeaways.

Having open dialogues about sex

Many participants said the “main catalyst” for a more positive attitude toward their own sexuality was having honest conversations with friends and family, as well as hearing more discussions about sex in society in general. One participant said she had “lost some of the shame associated with menstruation and sexual health” as a result of “growing older, educating myself, and falling into fairly liberal, well-educated friendship circles.”

Getting more (and better) sex ed

Many interviewees said their perceptions of sex, health, and their bodies improved thanks to further education about sex, menstruation, fertility, and reproductive health. “This education was often initiated by the individual and included conducting independent research, asking questions of friends, family, and medical practitioners, and reading further into topics on websites, blogs, and in books,” the researchers write.

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Becoming body positive

A big part of sexual empowerment for the study participants came from working on developing body comfort and acceptance and autonomy. “This paradigm shift toward empowerment often stemmed from participants educating themselves about their bodily functions,” the researchers write.

“My perspective about menstruation and reproductive health has changed over time,” said one participant. “I now see them as amazing biological functions that are a testament to how impressive the human body is, thanks to friends who have empowered me to embrace my own fertility.”

Ditching gender stereotypes

The women in the study felt more positively about their bodies, sexual health, and sex in general when they questioned traditional beliefs about womanhood and femininity, as well as challenged stereotypical gender roles.

It’s undeniable that young women need positive messages about reproductive and sexual health as part of their upbringing. Perhaps a good starting point would be for every parent, educator and religious institution to get a copy of this study.

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