So, did sex happen? my friend asks over the phone. I relay a memory involving an old boyfriend from high school. Frozen, I have no idea what to say.
Um, well. I breathe into the phone. We didn’t, actually, go all the way.
What do you mean? she asks. I trust my friend. We share vulnerable stories back and forth.
Well, I – He – . I cannot go there. In fact, I have trouble with the memory itself. I cannot recall exactly what happened. And I don’t want to.
Ah, I see, she says. This is sexual repression.
She’s right. And I’ve been doing this my entire life. Or at least since the age of five.
It was a warm, spring day. I laid on my back in a playpen meant for my baby brother, on a wide veranda, at the side of our rental mansion. The antebellum house belonged to David Lipscomb College – a Church of Christ college in Nashville, where my father taught music. We shared the two-story structure with another faculty family that lived upstairs.
I wore a Tweety Bird costume that day, soft from many wearings and washings since Halloween, and nestled myself between twenty stuffed animals and a rubber duck that stood upright and squawked when you squeezed him. A “blowout,” as my Baptist grandmother called it, in the seat of my costume, provided a small hole at the crotch, which revealed to me, my soft little private parts, under a layer of lacy, nylon underpants.
(I pretend not to know the word vagina. My usual language suggests I do not possess such a thing. Private parts. Even at the age of forty-seven, with psychology degrees and volumes of feminist literature in my repertoire, I cannot bear to use the word vagina.).
In the playpen, it felt like my legs were tucked under me, like the legs of a desiccated spider. My fingers found their way to my crotch as I hummed and sang to myself and luxuriated in a moment of pure curiosity and joy.
(Can we skip this part? Who named the clitoris? I hate it. The word sounds like something from Star Trek. Yes, that’s the whole point. I don’t want anyone to think I have one of those.)
I remember the surprise at how nice it felt. Maybe three seconds or five or ten. But then a shout.
Debbie! What are you doing?
My right arm retracted like a spring. I said nothing. Mother’s face darkened at the door but I kept my kindergarten eyes to the porch ceiling. I felt her horror in the scorch at the base of my neck. She disappeared. Nothing else was said. I laid there drenched in shame for several minutes before skulking into the house, kept to the shadowy corners for hours, until I felt it was clear for me to be seen again.
The moment stayed with me. Not that it prevented further self-fondlings, but it did curtail them. I could count the number of times I touched myself “down there,” as a child, after that moment on the porch. Maybe five or six. Less than ten. And always with my mother’s face hovering like a storm cloud over me, her expression saying, You are a complete embarrassment.
Mother’s voice and disapproving face are still there to keep me in check. In fact, even as I write this essay, I fight myself for the truth, and which truth I will allow to form words and stick to the page. Is it the truth of my body? Or is it the proper truth of my inner censor, made muscular by forty-seven years of forgetting that I have a clitoris? Even with my husband, as we start to ease into an intimate space with each other, that feeling, those images, grab at me with cold fingers and snuff out those first sparks of desire – like someone who pinches a candle’s flame and leaves behind a thin trail of smoke.
After that day in Nashville, I grew up and studied psychology. And among the many bits I learned was the idea of “repression.” The word sounds to me like folding jeans and blouses, between sheets of tissue, into an old Samsonite suitcase that you close and lock. You still know they’re there, but you could easily forget when you reach your destination if you packed that orange top with the zig-zag stripes.
In Christian College, I married a boy my parents liked, but for whom I felt very little attraction. He was nice, though. We stayed together five years.
Wikipedia says repression is the psychological attempt to repel one’s own desires and impulses. It may involve the inhibition of memory. Freud was the first in our field to discuss the possibility of some force preventing our conscious awareness of certain things and to push them out of view. I love that image: pushing things out of view, like when you wrap the synthetic Christmas tree in blankets, swivel it into the closet for another year.
I think repression means all of that, and more:
To forget it happened.
To forget entire geographical locations that correspond to sexual experience.
To forget the feeling of desire.
To get unwanted thoughts and feelings when I’m trying to have sex.
To feel too old for sex. To feel my body is unattractive, unless prepped to be seen.
To vanish, mentally, during sex.
To have little-to-no sensation “down there,” or to have pain during sex.
To tell my love stories with such exacto-precision, I can no longer recall feeling sexual in them – much less the precise details of what happened.
To experience panic or mysterious pain if I happen to remember a sexual experience.
To encapsulate my sexual feelings into some guarded place, called, “don’t go there,” “keep out,” or, “make sure Mother never finds out.”
To believe that being highly regarded is superior to acting on one’s urges, even if those urges occur inside my marriage.
To feel as if I’ve succumbed to some low part of myself if I notice want or pleasure.
To get diarrhea at the notion of a romantic weekend getaway with my sweet husband.
To forget about this essay. To file an unfinished draft in the never-used “My Documents,” so that when my friend reminds me about finishing it, I have only a vague memory of starting it. To lose track of this file four times.
I left my first marriage because I found, unexpectedly, that I had profound feelings of desire for someone else. I created a huge scandal. Then I married my illicit lover. I divorced the church of my childhood and found salvation in the relationship of my dreams.
As a graduate student in Texas, I studied women’s anger. My colleagues and I interviewed lots of women on the subject of their disagreement, hurt, outrage, disappointment, and fury. Women sat with us in group circles and shared stories about anger. How they held back, felt guilty, hated themselves for exploding with pent-up rage, felt ugly and unlovable. They blamed themselves for feeling angry at spouses. They said it did no good to talk about it. Some said they never even felt mad anymore – they disliked people who did. Anger was unnecessary, a wasted state of being, ill-advised, and meant for the discard pile.
Anger got deformed. It turned into fat. It turned into alcoholism. It turned into depression.
My illicit lover husband and I moved to Missouri. I continued to study anger diversion as a new assistant professor. We had a baby boy who became the center of our world.
And then one day, poof! It was gone. Blah, blah, blah. I lost all interest in anger.
At about this time, my marriage became largely celibate. We rarely had the right circumstances or time. I blamed myself. I felt fat, pushy, needy, and ashamed. I wanted to do the deed but my husband was too tired. I yearned for closeness, but had no vehicle for igniting passionate moments with him. Instead, I showed disappointment on my face when he stayed up late to watch TV. I could not say the words: I want you.
No words. No method. No signal. All the signals I’d seen other women use on TV seemed slutty and immoral, even though I had long-since dumped my fundamentalist religious life. Pretty underwear lived in the back of a drawer. I wore giant, grey sweatpants to bed, over giant maternity panties. Our three-year-old sometimes wandered in during the night and slept between us. I stopped making eye contact with my illicit lover husband. On Sunday afternoons he said, hey, let’s get naked, but the phrase turned me off. I faked a smile but felt like a frozen pond inside. I wrote volumes of journal pages about disappointment. But I could no longer kiss him with my mouth open. His breath smelled like salami. He joked at all the wrong moments. He gained forty pounds. I was so pissed.
Years passed. My sweet baby grew to be a boy of ten, who no longer wanted to sit in my lap and let me sniff his hair.
And then I got diagnosed with breast cancer.
Stress? Diet? Eleven years of birth control? Who knows. The experience was shattering and surreal. And it changed my life, in a good way. A double mastectomy and reconstruction and hysterectomy later, I was a new person. I felt blessed to be alive. My marriage became more deeply connected and more physical. I had more energy, more creativity. And all (or most of) those woman parts were gone.
Which forced me to ask myself, why are you so glad to be rid of them? Why are you content to trade your D cups for numb little pancakes? Why do you feel so much more comfortable in your skin, now that you’ve been neutered? Being relieved of my breasts and reproductive organs let me re-enter a sexual realm. I enjoyed myself more since being relieved of some scary body parts.
I think repression disfigured parts of my self, made those parts unsavory, unsavored, like a suit jacket stuffed in an overhead airplane compartment, smooshed between people’s bags. My pristine child sexuality got battered over the years, as I tried to shove it under the bed.
Could it be that I obeyed the lesson to fear my sexual self, so thoroughly, that I sought out mates who would help me repress it? First, I marry someone who doesn’t turn me on. Then I marry someone who most definitely does – but I enlist him in the campaign to silence my sexual urges. And could my stellar repressive abilities have contributed to my cancer?
Sex makes me nervous. Sex takes energy. The rev-up to it gives me stomach cramps. I know women who have lots of sex, but I sort of secretly despise them for it, and I think they’re immature and shallow, and in fact, I think those women waste a lot of time that could be used in pursuit of organic gardening (geez, I almost said orgasmic gardening) or the arts. Can’t they grow up?
My mother’s face appears in the doorframe now. She is pleased with my sobriety.
Or is she?
The fact is, my parents had sex less than ten times during the course of their 23-year marriage. For procreative purposes only. And I remember Mother’s tears and longing. Her parents also had trouble in the lovemaking department. My grandmother was probably an incest survivor – but we’ll never know for sure. She hated sex. She once told me boys were dirty and vile – they couldn’t control themselves. She was Baptist, her husband, Church of Christ. Virginity before vows. My mother fell hard for my father, had a big Church of Christ wedding, and then, on her honeymoon, discovered she’d married a man who hated sex. What a surprise! What an astonishment! Who could’ve known?
Who started this, anyway? Who can I blame?
And how do we turn this ship around?
Women with low sexual desire seem to have more negative cognitions around sex than their counterparts who have normal levels of desire. These negative beliefs include things like: Old people shouldn’t do this; Sex should be used for reproduction. And the general beliefs link to negative self statements like: I’m too old; I’m not attractive enough to do this. According to a group of French researchers, led by Marie Geonet, who combed through the literature on women’s cognitions and sexual disorders, automatic thoughts like these become activated during intimate contact. What’s more, they trigger a distraction process that blocks the woman from pleasurable sensations she could be feeling.
In a 2011 study, Jedidiah Siev, Lee Baer, and William Minichiello, of Harvard Medical School asked seventy-two people about their religiosity and their degree of scrupulosity. Scrupulosity refers to a characteristic often seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that includes religious or moral fears. Christians with high scrupulosity often fear “sinning” or even having thoughts that might offend God. Siev and his colleagues found that people with scrupulous OCD were more religious than those with non-scrupulous OCD. However, those higher in religiosity were not necessarily affiliated with a religion. One possible meaning of this twist, according to the authors, is that these sufferers of obsessive scrupulosity who were more “religious” had been raised in a religion that they abandoned as adults. In other words, they excommunicated themselves but the dogma stayed in their blood.
Once saved, Always saved, we used to say, mocking the flawed Baptist theology from our stricter Church of Christ perspective when I was growing up. It comes to mind today as I think about how hard it is to purge myself of the old worldview – the one that viewed the body as vile – the old ways of relating to my body and to others’ bodies. How do I get rid of my indoctrination? Once screwed, Always screwed. I may leave my childhood religion behind, but I still flinch when somebody says clitoris.
When it comes to anger, I advise my clients to practice. Practice knowing you’re pissed off, feeling the resistance and heat in your body. Write it on the page. Say it in the mirror. Practice knowing your anger is human and real. Practice speaking your anger to a trusted human. Practice swinging a bat against a vinyl punching bag. Practice growling as you throw ice cubes against the back of your house. Know that you’re safe and no one has to get hurt by your anger. No property destroyed. No one goes to hell. No one gets kicked out of school. No one bursts into flames or has a stroke.
But it’s so uncomfortable for me! I’m not that kind of person! they say.
I know, I say. But do it anyway.
But my preacher says anger’s a sin.
Just practice, I say. Just feel what you feel and let it come out, here (I point to the bag).
But what if someone hears me?
It’s okay, I say. You’re safe.
Then they hit the bag with the bat. It does feel good, they say. Maybe I can talk about this, they say.
Yes. So keep breathing and do some more, I say. And they do and it gets easier and pretty soon they start to reclaim things they’d lost. They treat their bodies better. They argue. They remember things. They say no to people. They stop enabling alcoholic partners. They wake up. They question their preachers. They go back to school. It’s not a straight trajectory. There are tears and arguments and gloomy days. But mindful anger practice does seem to make people more aware. More hopeful. More creative.
So, I wonder. Could sexual repression be reversed in a similar way? And could sexual mindfulness be as healing as anger mindfulness seems to be? As in, keep practicing and someday you might know yourself better? As in, just breathe and notice all the feelings and it will lead you somewhere you need to go?
I’m starting to think so.
Marie Geonet and her colleagues say mindfulness training could help women move from distraction to desire. To focus on the touch, closeness, breath, heartbeats, and skin contact, we practice moving our awareness from shame to the sensations of the moment. We move out of the past and into the present. We gently guide our wandering minds away from thoughts that paralyze and restrict – back to the safety and possibility of this grown up moment right here.
Deborah Cox, Ph.D., ABPP, is co-author of The Anger Advantage, and the forthcoming Wife Material, a work of autobiographical fiction. More about her writing and her psychology practice can be found at DeborahLCox.com and FamilyPsychologySpringField.com.