Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Overcome Sexual Shame?

Hey Doc, first off I’m a big fan of your site and really appreciate all the healthy dating advice you give. I’m a 26 year old straight male and I’ve basically had intense shame about my sexuality for my entire adult life. It’s really held me back and makes it extremely difficult/impossible for me to seek out relationships.

Some background, and apologies if this is a bit long. I got my first girlfriend back in college when I was 17. We dated for about 10 months and I didn’t realize it at the time but it was an INCREDIBLY unhealthy relationship (possibly abusive? I’m not sure what qualifies). I’m now fairly sure she had something like borderline personality disorder, but being naive I mostly just took it upon myself to change to make her happy. She was extremely jealous and passive-aggressive, would accuse me of cheating if I so much as talked to another girl, would constantly explode at me over the tiniest things, made me basically cut most of my friends out of my life, etc. She also very early on (within a few months) started to frequently pressure me to agree to marry her, which I was extremely uncomfortable with but eventually gave in to and said I would consider it. But the worst of the problems revolved around sex.

Initially she seemed very interested in sex (she was not a virgin) and would talk about some kinkier stuff she wanted to eventually try. To my surprise, she said that she didn’t want to have sex until 6 months into the relationship, which I fully respected. However, she would somewhat frequently perform oral sex on me (never on my request, it was always her initiating) but would always turn down my offers to reciprocate. After 6 months we did start having sex, though it was very infrequent (I think maybe 4 times total). She always acted into it before/during, but afterward she would immediately call her mom and talk in front of me in Chinese (no idea what she was saying but it was very uncomfortable), and would seem upset/passive-aggressive for a while.

She had some really nasty sex-negative views which we would frequently disagree about. For instance she believed that a woman should only have sex with a man who was willing to marry her, otherwise she would be “devalued”, and that sex was a thing that women did for men to keep them happy. She would also slut-shame girls who dressed in revealing clothes.

Eventually, near the end of our relationship, she revealed that she apparently hated sex, thought kissing me was disgusting, and didn’t even like hugging me. Rather than being flattered/happy that I found her attractive, she basically took it as an insult. I said that we didn’t have to have sex or kiss anymore if she didn’t like it, so we stopped.

I should also note that during this time, my dad dumped my mom after 20 years of marriage for a woman 20 years his junior. It had devastating effects on my family, particularly my mom, and I hated my dad more than anyone in the world. I promised to myself that I would never be anything like him.

Finally after maybe a month or so of no sex, my girlfriend and I broke up, and she said some of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard in my entire life: that I didn’t love her and that I only used her for sex, and that I was “just like my dad”.

Honestly, hearing this was my worst nightmare come true. Here’s why:

  • If a woman says no, I will absolutely 100% stop whatever it is I’m doing, and won’t push it.
  • If a woman seems hesitant but doesn’t say no, I will absolutely 100% stop whatever it is I’m doing and ask her if she wants to continue.
  • If a woman says yes/seems enthusiastic then I can trust that as a great sign to continue, right? … except I can’t.

Apparently for all those months, my ex-girlfriend hated sex and felt used/forced into doing it but said nothing. This is so incredibly horrifying to me. I was basically… forced to rape someone for months without realizing it.

On top of this, what my dad did, and the accusation that I was “just like him”, have caused me an incredible amount of shame over the mere fact that I’m sexually attracted to women in general.

After breaking up with my ex-girlfriend, I didn’t date or have sex or any relationships for over 5 years. I went into a pretty terrible depression and eventually got therapy for over a year.

I finally managed to find a girlfriend via online dating and we dated for a bit over a year and it was a MUCH healthier relationship.

However, it’s been about 9 months since we broke up and this deep-rooted shame is still really holding me back. I occasionally work up the courage to introduce myself to women and I’ve managed to go on a few dates via Tinder, but I’m absolutely incapable of making any sort of romantic/sexual moves, so the dates all just go nowhere.

In my mind, making a move = creepy, sexual assault, unwanted sexual objectification, irremediably insulting. I know it’s not rational or true, but it’s what I’ve been conditioned to believe. (It probably doesn’t really help that in an attempt to learn how approach dating/sex in ways which are respectful toward women, I spent years reading radfem-esque dating “advice” articles which were basically just big lists of all the ways men should stop being horrible, but no actual advice on what is desired/considered okay.)

Honestly at this point I don’t know how to move past this. I know that it’s unhealthy to focus on the worst possible outcome, and besides, as everyone seems to say, what’s the worst that could happen? You try to make a move but get rejected and it’s a bit awkward, right? Nope, the worst is FAR worse, and I know because it was my experience. I take rejection incredibly well. In fact, I almost prefer being rejected because at least I know that “no means no”, which is way better than “yes but secretly I feel violated/used/raped and I won’t tell you until after/possibly ever”. To make a move on someone means risking that they may feel violated, even briefly, and after my experience with my ex-girlfriend, taking this risk just seems completely incompatible with my drive to be a good person.

At the same time, the fact that I feel this way makes me feel like a nasty sexist asshole because it implies that women are fragile flowers who are incapable of handling a moment of discomfort. Obviously I don’t believe this on a rational level, but it’s the logical conclusion of my deep-rooted fear, and this also makes me feel like a bad person, because I do not want to be sexist.

In the words of Andy from The 40-Year-Old Virgin: “You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much I completely stay away from them!”

As I mentioned before, I did therapy for a while and it helped me sort out the reasons why I have all these hang-ups, but ultimately I can’t seem to move past the fact that my worst fears were actually proven true, and could happen again.

Do you have any words of advice to offer?

A Guy With Issues

Before I get too deep into this GWI… I’m so sorry all of this happened to you. You were in an emotionally abusive, toxic relationship. The behaviors you list at the start of your letter – the explosive jealousy, the way she isolated you from your friends, the emotional mood-swings that always left you afraid to set a toe wrong – are all classic signs of an abusive relationship. The fact that she didn’t hit you or physically abuse you doesn’t change the fact that you were abused.

Like I told CoV on Monday: the things your girlfriend did to you are not your fault. Your ex – and thank all the fucking stars that she’s your ex – was hitting you where you were the most vulnerable. She was going out of her way to make you feel as though you were the bad guy in a relationship. Maybe she legitimately believed it. Maybe she was being deliberately manipulative. Doesn’t matter. She was abusing you and this was not your fault.

Maybe she changed her mind about sex. Maybe she had a bad association with sex. Maybe she was sexually active at first because she had to be but later realized she was asexual. Maybe she was dealing with religious or cultural shaming around sex. Still doesn’t matter.

She was abusing you and this was not your fault

You weren’t “forced to rape someone”, GWI. You were dating someone who was at best, dealing with a head full of bad wiring and emotional issues. At worst, you were dating someone who decided to leverage your anxieties against you as a means of control and punishment. You were abused and this was not your fault.

Your father leaving your mother was a tragedy and – again – I’m sorry it happened to you. But what your father did is nothing like what happened with you and your girlfriend. Your feelings around your father were another hammer that your ex used to hit you with. She leveraged the things that you feared and hated most and turned them around on you because this is what abusers do. They gaslight you, they convince you that you’re the bad guy, that you deserve the abuse because of all of your sins and crimes against them. They isolate you from your friends and loved ones so that you don’t have anyone else to turn to, who might have more influence over you than they do. They keep you off balance so that you can never feel comfortable or secure; you have to remain hyperaware of their moods lest they explode at you again. They make sure that they are the only thing you pay attention to or else.

You were abused and this was not your fault

You need to accept that damn near everything your ex told you was a fucking lie. You can’t trust anything she told you to be real because it was all part of the patterns of abuse. It was a way of controlling you and punishing you and keeping you compliant and servile.

I’m not the least bit surprised that you’re carrying around scars and anxieties from this, GWI. You were hurt, badly, by someone who you trusted and cared for. She deliberately inflicted pain on you in the most damaging way that she could. The shame you’re feeling isn’t real and it isn’t deserved, it’s the after-effects of what has been done to you.

But knowing this doesn’t make it easy to shake off. Those scars run deep, and the scars you can’t see – the ones that are inflicted on your mind and soul – are the hardest to overcome. This isn’t the sort of thing you can just will yourself past, nor is it something that can just fade with time. To really start healing from what was done to you is going to take professional assistance, preferably someone who has been trained to deal with these specific issues. It’s good that you went to therapy, but if you didn’t tell your therapist that you were coming from an abusive relationship – especially if you didn’t or haven’t realized it yet – then you weren’t going to get all the help you needed.

You need more than a loudmouth with a blog, GWI. You need someone who’s trained to help victims of emotional abuse and sexual trauma. Fortunately, you can find them. I suggest that you go to the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists website; they have a directory of therapists who specialize in issues surrounding sexuality and sexual shame. Find one in your area who deals with victims of abuse. And don’t forget: you can fire your therapist. A relationship with a therapist is like any relationship; if you two don’t click or get along, then it’s not going to help. If the one you’re working with isn’t helping you or you’re not comfortable with them, then find another one.

Don’t let the fact that you’ve been traumatized by this fool you, GWI. The scars you are carrying don’t mean that you’re weak. Quite the opposite: you’re strong. Stronger that you realize. They’re a sign that you survived. You got out of that relationship and you realize that you need help. That’s an incredible strength. You can heal, you can feel better.

Give yourself permission to take time out from dating. Forgive yourself for what your ex did to you. Forgive yourself for buying into her lies. Recognize that you were abused and this was not your fault.  Find yourself a therapist and focus on your healing for now.

You will be better. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.

All will be well.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

Sorry, this is going to be a long one.

I want to help my best friend of 10 years. Let’s call him S. He’s gay, came out of the closet back when we were in high school (2009/2010), and has a very supportive family. However, S has always had some self-esteem issues and many of his partners have cheated on him. He often uses dating apps to find his partners.

Just over a year ago he started seeing this guy, we’ll call him D. For the record, I haven’t met D, but I’m my S’ confidante and have seen text messages etc. There are a number of reasons I haven’t met D, the primary one being that he is currently cheating on his live-in girlfriend and no one in his life knows about his relationship with S. If that wasn’t bad enough, he also has 3 kids from two other different women. He doesn’t have custody of any of them (yet), but 1 who has some learning disabilities is moving in with him this summer.

There are a number of excuses that D uses for why he can’t be with S but why he continues to see S anyways. They include: the fact that his girlfriend co-owns the house with him, the fact that he doesn’t want to upset his kids because they are close with the girlfriend, and his business related ventures that always make it an inopportune time to break up with the girlfriend. S stays because he is madly in love with D and because D claims that he’s from an older time and can’t possibly come out of the closet (even though he’s had sexual relations with men before S).

I have called bullshit on D, and explained that at the very least he could leave his girlfriend without coming out of the closet but S always makes excuses for his behavior. I get that kids are involved and should come first, so that part of D’s behavior I can forgive, but it still comes down to the fact that S is clearly the lowest on D’s priority list. I’m also worried about S because whenever they fight D preys on S’ insecurities and often will gaslight S telling him that he’s being too demanding or crazy when S questions D’s feelings for him.

How do I get S to see that he’s just wasting his time and is going to eventually have his heart broken again?

Already Tried Intervening

So you know that Percy Sledge song “When A Man Loves a Woman”? It kind of applies here: a person in love is often willing to overlook all kinds of bullshit because love isn’t just blind, it sticks its fingers in its ears and goes “LALALALALALALALALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU”. And that is intensely irritating for everyone around the fool in love because sometimes you’re yelling at them that they’re about to do a Wile E. Coyote off a cliff.

Unfortunately, you can’t force someone out of willful blindness. Because that’s what’s going on here: your boy S is being willfully blind. Maybe it’s dickful thinking, maybe it’s issues about deservedness that lead him to chasing after someone he knows he can’t have. Whatever the root cause may be, S has chosen to pursue this guy and you can’t make him change his mind. S is going to keep walking off that cliff until the day he looks down and gravity kicks in again. Which will happen.

It’s glaringly obvious that D is not going to leave his girlfriend or come out of the closet. This puts S’s relationship with him on a timer that’s going to run out, sooner rather than later. It’s only a question of when it ends – likely messily and all over the place.

You can’t argue S out of wanting to be with him, nor can you stick toothpicks under S’ eyelids to force him to see. He will always point to D’s reasons. But D’s reasonings – whatever they may be – don’t really matter. They’re just excuses. What matters is that D is hurting the people in his life – S, his girlfriends and also his kids. And someone who’s willing to do that to people who love and care for him is someone who has stamped themselves with DO NOT DATE.

The only person who can make S realize that… is S. Pushing harder against this will ultimately run the risk of pushing S away because let’s be real: nothing makes love more appealing than when the world is telling you that you can’t have it. Dick almost always wins in the end. And the last thing you want to do is push S away because when this blows up – and it will – he’s going to need you, more than ever. So have one last conversation with S on the topic. Point to the ways that D is signalling that he will never leave and that the relationship will never be what S wants. And then… drop it. Let him know that this is the last time you’ll discuss it with him, but you love him and support him and you’ll be there when – not if, when – he needs to talk with you over this.

And when it does blow up… don’t tell him “I told you so,” ATI. He’s already going to feel used and humiliated; don’t rub it in. Just be the friend he needs – even if he didn’t listen to you when he should have.

Good luck.

The post Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Overcome Sexual Shame? appeared first on Paging Dr. NerdLove.

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