Content note: reference to rape & PTSD
Welcome back to G4RL’s collaborative posts with ‘Sexual Confidence & Messy Minds’. Allow me to introduce Abigail, relationship development manager and commander of pub conversations on sexuality.
At G4RL, we want what your grandmother always wanted for you: a right, royal rogering. Regrettably, it’s come to our attention that some of you are having bang average sex. We need to open up a conversation about sexual confidence and your precious, chaotic minds.
Sex is natural. Unfortunately, we politicised and complicated this beautiful and messy act. It’s a minefield navigating the landscape of sexual politics while trying to retain robust self-esteem. It’s even harder with a backdrop of mental illness. You might use sex as an escape from distressing feelings, a form of self-harm or avoid it altogether. Your mental health can make it harder to orgasm or to feel connected to your partner.
As women, we also have to contend with being repeatedly shamed for our sexual desires. Our patriarchal society offers women two character choices: slut or prude. There’s no winning if you choose to play the game. It’s an uphill battle of continually challenging society’s impossible expectations. Gaining sexual confidence can lighten the burdens of mental illness and sexism weighing on your shoulders.
We are sharing our personal journeys to sexual confidence and the struggles we faced along the way. Here we are in conversation about what “good sex” means to us, how our mental health has affected our sex lives and our biggest turn-offs.
What does sexual confidence mean to you?
Abi: Sexual confidence rests on accepting that sex is not taboo. Being a woman who enjoys sex doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy being monogamous or being in a long term relationship. For me, sexual confidence relies on me feeling confident in myself generally, not just when I’m having sex. It means feeling comfortable in my own skin. Being able to talk about sex openly has helped me recognise what I enjoy sexually and look for in a partner. Before I can feel confident, I also have to feel totally protected with my partner and safe in my sexual health.
Has your mental health affected your sex life?
A: Through my experience of a long-term relationship, I learned that you have to consider the mental health of both partners. Everything from depression to exhaustion can impact your sex life. Problems tend to arise when you’re afraid to start a conversation with your partner. You’re just going to hurt your partner if they can’t access what’s going on inside your head and blame themselves.
When I broke up with my ex-partner, I found myself depressed and lacking in confidence. It negatively affected my relationships with everybody. I was really surprised to find that sex felt nerve-wracking with a new partner. Having a conversation about my fears helped me to adjust to these new feelings. I used sex as a deliberate means to boost my confidence. I don’t know if that was a bad move, but it allowed me to remember that I was attractive and in control of my own body.
Using apps like Bumble and Tinder had a massive effect on my mental health. If I used those apps when I was feeling low, it never helped. I realised that I should only use those apps when I’m feeling confident, secure and stable in my mental health.
Nikki: Sex has been really linked to my experiences of mental illness and recovery. I was raped when I was a teenager and naturally, it had a huge impact on my sex life. It’s often overlooked, but a common psychological response to sexual assault is to become hypersexualised. When I was really struggling with PTSD, I had sex as a form of self-harm. Through abuse, I had been led to believe that my worth was linked to sex and my desirability. I felt worthless and had told myself that I was only good for sex.
I experienced periods of depression at that time. While I still wanted to have sex, my body could not respond sexually. Antidepressants often have the side effect of preventing orgasm. It was extremely distressing to be fruitlessly chasing feelings of pleasure. That only fed into feelings of numbness and it took a lot of work to break that vicious cycle.
As I recovered, I gained a better understanding of myself and gained confidence unrelated to sex. I learned how to trust again. I worked out what I deserve and what I need. Coming to terms with my relationship to sex was a fundamental part of my recovery. I rebalanced my view on sex and now choose to only have sex in ways which feel healthy and fulfilling.
What’s your biggest turn on?
N: Vocal appreciation. I love it when my partner is comfortable expressing themselves in bed. I’m speaking as a heterosexual woman who sleeps with men: I think men have been conditioned not to vocalise their enjoyment of sex during sex itself. I find it really hot when a man is able to moan, talk dirty or express that he’s enjoying himself. Vocal appreciation also means my partner being encouraging and complimentary towards me, like “You’re really hot, or I like the way you do this to me”. Another turn-on is vulnerability, meaning my partner being open and giving themselves fully to the moment.
What’s your biggest turn off?
N: Arrogance. It’s so importance to distinguish arrogance from sexual confidence. Sexual confidence isn’t going into a sexual encounter and thinking: “They’re going to orgasm six times, I’m going to give them the best sex they’ve ever had. I’m going to make them feel like this or like that”. Sexual confidence, like all genuine confidence, is peaceful, unassuming and secure. Arrogance is masking insecurity. I hate it when somebody acts like they’re amazing in bed.
Men will often say things like, “I know I’m really good at oral sex”. Every person is different. You don’t know what a new partner will enjoy or how to please them. Adaptability is at the heart of sexual confidence: it’s a willingness to learn and a willingness to listen. People who are arrogant in bed move through the same motions every time and deliver a set piece, without caring about your pleasure. It’s just a narcissistic act rather than a mutual experience.
What does good sex look like?
A: It’s important to remember that when you start having sex with someone, you’re not going to have great sex from the start. It’s fundamental to have an honest conversation about why that might have been: maybe it was in the morning and you weren’t feeling at your most sexy, maybe it hurt or maybe they were trying something new and you didn’t like it.
Good sex is fun; if you’re having good sex, you’ll be having a laugh together. It’s also fundamental to have a conversation about sexual health and previous partners. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of everyone they’ve dated, but it’s important to know if they’ve had a STI check. You need to know what they’re using to keep themselves safe so you can have fun without worrying about your health.
What advice would you give your younger self about sex?
A: Talk to your friends. Finding out about other people’s experiences has been so revealing for me. It showed me that nothing is “normal” or “right”. Everyone has a different libido; everyone’s a different shape and a different size. You have nothing to be ashamed about and talking to your friends is a massive part of that.
Use a mirror! It’s so important that every girl has seen herself; health-wise, you need to know what’s going on with your body. It’s easy for men to see what their genitals look like, but for women, so much is concealed. Similarly, there’s nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to masturbation. It’s really important to get to know your body, what feels good and what doesn’t. If you know what feels good for you, you can help your partner to discover that too.
N: I would tell myself to slow down. I would tell myself to take the time to work out who am I, what I need and what I deserve. I would tell myself to prioritise my relationship with myself above seeking a sexual partner. I would forgive myself sooner. I would tell myself to talk to my partners about what I was going through and how my mental health was affecting my sexual desire. I would be more discerning about sharing myself with those who aren’t truly worthy of my affections. I would tell myself to have fun and relish my sexuality as a gift!
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