'I'm 24, a virgin, and full of fear about sex'
Each week, sex therapist Emily Power Smith answers your sex-related queries
Q I'm 24 and I've never had sex. I've never had a boyfriend for more than a few months because either I end it when I think he's going to want sex, or he ends it because he wants sex and I can't do it. I feel like I'll never be normal and will never have a relationship or family. I'm full of terror about the pain of sex or anything going inside me. I feel like a freak.
A I'm so sorry to hear you're suffering and feeling hopeless. It sounds like you feel very alone and different because of your fear - but you're not alone.
I've spoken to many women who live with a similar fear of experiencing penetration. Everyone has their unique reason for being afraid, and there isn't one simple solution that fits all.
In the email you sent (I'm afraid I can't always print the full text due to word limitations), you mentioned that you were taught from an early age to be afraid of sex, that you had to be a "good" and "pure" girl and that sex was for marriage. You were told sex hurts and that "nice" girls don't use tampons or allow themselves to be used by boys. You took these messages to heart and lived accordingly, missing opportunities to experiment and to discover your sexual identity.
Knowing all of this, it's really not surprising that you've avoided all types of penetration. You've been taught to expect and fear pain, and to feel morally obliged to protect yourself from sexual experiences. But the information you've been given is partly incorrect, and completely unhelpful, with the proof of that manifesting in how you're feeling today.
Life isn't the same now as it was when your mum was a young woman. We have wonderful resources available today to teach us the facts about being sexual and the positive benefits it brings. Being sexually active outside marriage is socially acceptable, and there's no reason to expect penetration to hurt, once you know what you're doing.
I'm not suggesting you change your beliefs or values if they're important to you. But you'll need to be realistic about how much you can improve your fear of penetration within that framework. For example, if you think that once you get married, the fear will disappear, you may be disappointed. Pain expectation and fearful thoughts become habits and they need to be actively broken down and replaced with expectations of success and supportive thoughts.
In my experience, it's not possible to make those changes by thinking about sex - it's important to start having positive experiences, so that you have factual evidence to back up your new thought habits.
I hope you decide to step out of the shadow your mum has created for you, and to find your own way forward in a society that won't judge you as harshly as you've been taught.
I would recommend some therapy to help you unpack all the confusing, unhelpful and incorrect thoughts you might have, as well as to feel support and acceptance while you find your way. There are lots of things you can do to develop confidence if you decide you want change. I wish you the very best.
Q I have a teenage girl of 13 and I know she and her friends have started playing around with boys their age. I recognise all the signs and overhear snippets of giggly conversations. That's all fine and normal, and I know my daughter isn't having sex yet.
I saw you on Tommy Tiernan saying that the first time doesn't have to hurt and I'd so love to share that with my daughter and help her to know how to have a lovely first time. But I don't want to encourage her to have sex, and I don't know what I'd tell her anyway. My first time was a nightmare! Help!
A In countries where sexuality is discussed from an early age, and correct and non-moralistic information is available, young people tend to wait until they're really ready before having sex, and they tend to enjoy their first time more. This seems to be based on their comfort with the topic and confidence to hold boundaries and to expect and give respect. Girls who masturbate to orgasm tend to discern between the pleasure they give themselves and anything that doesn't feel good or safe with a partner.
If young people have to hide their interest in sexuality, and have to guess what it's all about, they tend to go for the act quicker to get answers. Their curiosity is normal and healthy, but there are other ways for them to learn, and I hope that Ireland is going to start providing the information and support for kids and their parents and teachers before long.
In order for your daughter to enjoy her first time, she'll need to understand her own body, genitals and arousal. The best way for her to do that is through masturbation, or "self love' as I prefer to call it. Loving oneself is an attitude, and a very positive one for all people.
I suggest you take a look at www.scarleteen.com/. It's a wonderful, sex positive site for teens and provides correct and reliable information on pretty much every topic you can think of. You can look first and see what you think. It's a great resource for parents who want to learn how to talk to their teens about sex, but lack the confidence to do so. You can practice before talking to your teen or you can look at the site together and discuss what you see. Either way, you'll be empowering your daughter to make better choices.
If appropriate, I think it might be really helpful for her to know about your first experience if you explain that you want better for her and that she can expect better. She's lucky to have a mum who's willing to push herself out of her comfort zone in order to help her have a better experience and I'm sure that will come across as you provide her with some genuinely useful education.
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