We are pleased to have Aline with us today as she gives as insight on how non-sexual family of origin issues form a persons sexuality.
Irene: Aline, your book “Sex Smart” is a book like none other. Please tell our audience what your book is about.
Aline: “SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It” explodes the myth that sexual development is simple and Straight forward. SexSmart’s central message is that healthy sexual development actually is quite varied and complicated. We each come to our adult sexuality having walked down our own special path. And many families in which there was no specific, sexual abuse actually do cause profound damage to childrens’ developing sexuality.
SexSmart explains how the way you were raised in your family– whether you were touched nicely or cruelly or not at all, whether you could depend on your parents to take care of you, whether you got empathy, whether you trusted your parents and your siblings, what the power relationships were, and even whether you were encouraged to have friends–all deeply affect whether you will be able to enjoy sexual pleasure, and also whether you will feel safe being sexual with someone to whom you are emotionally attached. In SexSmart I describe fourteen “Milestones of Sexual Development.”
Irene: How does whether or not you got empathy from your parents have any bearing on sexuality?
Aline: Good parents are empathetic. They let themselves feel what their child is feeling, and then they respond to what the child needs. The more that the child sees that parents will respond to her needs, the more the child trusts that the energy expended to communicate is worth the effort. And so trust, and communication skills, build.
People who did not receive empathy from their parents have many problems with sexual(and emotional) relationships as adults. For instance, if you didn’t get empathy, you might be deeply afraid of getting hurt, so you may avoid getting into relationships altogether. You may be lacking in practice in communicating, or believe that it is pointless to talk about what you want (since you believe no one cares about how you feel.) So if you then do get into a sexual relationship, it is difficult for you to talk about your sexual likes and dislikes, or even to talk about it when a particular sexual activity is causing you anxiety, discomfort or pain.
If an unempathic parent was neglectful or abusive, there is a good chance that you will be chronically tense. If you can’t let yourself relax and be soothed, by definition, you will not be able to enjoy sexual pleasure in the context of a tender, steady relationship.
(You may still be able to enjoy the excitement of a new, lust-filled one, though.)
Irene: What inspired you to write this book?
Aline: Being able to have a sexual bond with a beloved partner is one of the great joys of life. It’s a spiritual, deep, health-giving experience. Sex shouldn’t be a source of anxiety, doubt, shame, or pain. It saddens me that so many people haven’t experienced their sexuality as a force for good in their life. I believe that reading and working through SexSmart can be a path to sexual enlightenment and sexual freedom for many people. As a sex therapist, I have met and helped hundreds and hundreds of men and women who are unhappy with their sexual selves. But as an author, I can help people I never even met.
There are so many women and men in America and in the world who do not enjoy being sexual. They don’t enjoy feeling sexual as a solo activity, and they don’t feel safe and comfortable being sexual with a partner. Some of them feel guilty. Some of them experience sex as needing to be a perfect performance each time, which spoils it. Some of them have sexual dysfunctions caused by anxiety and lack of education. And some had childhoods that were flawed in such a way that they literally do not know what it feels like to experience sexual tinglings and urgings in their own body.
You would be surprised to know how many people think that in reality, sexuality isn’t that great, that sexual pleasure is nothing much, and that all the emphasis on sex is a big media hoax! I hope that readers will use SexSmart as a map, guiding them to un-do the damage suffered by growing up in a dysfunctional family.
Irene: Why would some people think that sex is a big media hoax?
Aline: Each of us only knows the experience we have in our own body. People who have never experienced sexual pleasure in their own bodies have no reason to believe other people who insist that sex feels great.
There are large numbers of people who never learned that any kind of touch feels good. Many people grew up in “good” families with parents who were responsible, but unaffectionate. So they don’t unconsciously or consciously link touch and love. Others grew up with parents who were unbelievably anxious, and they absorbed so much anxiety from their parents’ touch that they associate touch with anxiety.
Far too many people grew up in families where they witnessed or experienced violence, which is devastating to sexuality. Witnessing or experiencing violence alters one’s feelings about being safe in one’s own body. I believe it can be as negative an experience, sexually, as some kinds of sexual abuse. Witnessing or being the direct victim of violence in your family teaches you that it’s not safe to love or trust. It teaches you that it’s not a good idea to ever let down your guard emotionally. It literally changes people’s “BodyMaps” so that it becomes impossible to relax, let go of control, and allow another person to pleasure you. The body remembers! If you were slapped in the face, for instance, you might flinch when someone you love tries to caress your face. If you came from a physically violent family, you can learn to experience sexual pleasure. But to do so, you have to process what happened to you, not minimize it.
Think of your associations to touch and trust as the first step in a
cascade of good physical and emotional associations you must feel first in your body before you can feel the building up of sexual arousal:
love=> touch => trust=> love=> safety=> drift=> float
love=> touch => trust=> love=> safety=> drift=> float => AROUSAL
Consistent, good experience with loving touch helps you to make
crucial links which you need. You need to be able to link love with touch, and touch with safety. If you can’t make these associations, you need to re-learn touch. Otherwise, you may never experience sex as pleasurable.
Irene: You claim that “sexual abuse” can happen in families in where there was not, literally, sex abuse. Please explain what that means.
Aline: Most people have an inadequate, shallow sense of what the building blocks of healthy sexuality are. Healthy sexuality is not based just in what you were told about sex, or in your appropriate or inappropriate sexual experiences in your family. It’s about what you witnessed and learned in your family about trust, safety, touch, gender relationships, anxiety, power, self worth, your body, and friendship. One basic motivation to be sexual comes from what you learned about being in relationship to another person. Was it worth getting close to another human being emotionally, let alone sexually?
People completely underestimate the effects of neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or having an alcoholic or drug addicted parent on their sexuality. I have begun to call these other kinds of abuse “non sexual abuse.”
Sexual abuse is a horrible thing. However, I am certain that in terms of numbers of people affected, more people in America have sexual issues caused by growing up in families in which there was NON-SEXUAL abuse–such as lack of loving touch, alcoholism or drug abuse, physical violence, emotional abuse, or neglect–than were hurt by actual sexual abuse.
Irene: What would be some sexual issues that are caused by, what you say, “non-sexual abuse”?
Aline: Well, as an example, let me just pick the Milestone of Touch, and show you two lists from SexSmart. Readers should ask themselves what are their associations to touch.
You can’t enjoy sex if you don’t like touch. I like to say that touch is the “Ground Zero” of sexuality. People who had a good experience with touch have wonderful associations to touch.
Here are some good associations from my patients. Touch equals: pleasure, relaxation, fun, softness, good memories, comfort, normal, help, connection, I’m worth touching, calming, indulgence, massage, deep breathing, good mother, good father, sensuality, a worthwhile activity, good sexual memories.
good sexual memories
Contrast this to the associations to touch that people have when there was lack of affection, neglect, or violence. Touch equals: fear, controlling, out of control, awkward, pain, numb, tense/anxiety, guilt, startle response, bad memories, discomfort, weird, danger, confusion, what does this mean?, jumpy, is this proper? Uptight, holding breath, no mother, bad mother, no father, bad father, boring, a waste of time, no sexual memories.
Irene: Your hope is that people who read “Sex Smart” will see themselves in the book, or that some of the information will speak to them. What particular areas do you feel are the most important for the readers to relate to.
Aline: It’s funny. I have to say that every person reading SexSmart responds to different pieces of it. SexSmart discusses sexual development sequentially, beginning with birth and going through my fourteen Milestones of Sexual Development. (For instance, touch, empathy, trust, body image, gender identity, and so on.) Different readers’ families created problems at each Milestone. Readers absorb the book and highlight the parts that speak to them, personally, along with the workbook questions that challenge them the most.
Irene: In your practice, do you see more of one particular issue, than others? If so, what is it, and please explain why this particular issue is more prevalent?
Aline: Well, Irene, coming from a dysfunctional family can lead to just about every sexual dysfunction in the world, but I’ll comment on a few which I see frequently. The first is probably longstanding low sexual desire. People who grow up in families where there is very little tenderness, touch, caring, empathy, or safety have a hard time trusting in an emotional sense, and they also have an almost impossible time relaxing in their body. So it is common to meet people from difficult families who have never experienced sexual desire in their entire lives, because they have never allowed themselves to relax, breathe deeply, and allow sexual feelings and impulses to emerge and percolate through their bodies. They literally don’t know, can’t identify, and can’t even tolerate sexual feelings. So they don’t believe they can have sexual feelings.
Another typical effect of growing up with “non-sexual sexual abuse” is sexual addiction, especially in men. It is common for boys who grow up in unaffectionate, neglectful, emotionally abusive, or violent homes to discover masturbation as a way to self-soothe. When they were sad or scared, they masturbated. Having an orgasm is like a drug; it changes body chemistry and temporarily dulls painful feelings. It creates a habit of using sex as a crutch, a pattern where men feel that sex is their most important need or that sex is THE cure to unhappy feelings.
Irene: Your book is of importance for parents who want their children to grow up and have positive views of their sexuality. In what ways do you believe parents can affirm to their children that their bodies and their sexuality be accepted in a positive manner?
Aline: I think parents’ biggest obligation to their children is to address their own sexuality. How can you create a child with healthy sexuality if you aren’t comfortable using touch to soothe, or if you don’t feel happy in your own body, or if you think sex is dirty or scary, or if you believe all people of the opposite gender are evil or cruel? If your sexuality was damaged in your own family of origin, fix that first.
Abuse of all kinds goes down the generations. When you take the steps to stop denying what went wrong in your own family, when you have the courage to say “ouch!,” to get into therapy to change things, the buck stops with you. The brave person who goes into therapy and admits the pain he or she suffered can stop the cycle of abuse (of whatever kind) for all the generations which come after him or her.
Irene: I understand you saying that parents need to address their own sexual issues first. However, I would imagine some people don’t feel they have issues because they actually believe their beliefs about sex are correct. Some may even be influenced by religious beliefs. How do you propose to address these parents and have them be aware of the damage they are causing their children?
Aline: I think that most parents want their children to be able to grow up and enjoy being sexual once they are married. Conservative parents do want to make sure that children are celibate BEFORE marriage. I hope that SexSmart can get the word out to all parents about how important affectionate touch, empathy, and trust, and good power relationships are to children. If children are allowed to explore their own bodies, which is important, and if they also have these basic Milestones of Sexual Development, they will grow into sexually healthy adults. If you want to raise your child conservatively, I think you’ll find a lot of useful information about how to insure that your child turns out to be both responsive and responsible sexually as an adult.
Irene: Taking self-responsibility is the most important aspect of creating a healthy view of one’s own sexuality and what one does with it. Why do you believe that others often influence unhealthy views? What are some of the most common unhealthy views that our society has imposed upon us?
Aline: It is normal to be influenced by the people around us. It’s a fact of life. I wish that there were more normal looking people on TV and in the magazines. With all these thin, perfect, surgically enhanced, never-aging bodies around us, it’s hard for many women and men to feel that their own natural looking body is sexy enough. Sadly, a lot of people, women especially, seem to feel that only beautiful, thin women “deserve” to enjoy sex. Actually, as they say, the biggest sex organ is between your ears. How you feel about sexuality and being sexual is the most important determinant of whether you will feel sexual. Normal people have imperfect bodies. And imperfect bodies are perfectly able to feel sexual pleasure!
Irene: Yes, TV and magazines do portray a specific stature that our society seems to think is “normal.” So do books. A lot of the romance novels portray “sexy” women and men and readers escape by becoming the character. Why do you believe that people create their own reality through what they see or read?
Aline: Well, as far as we know, fantasizing seems to be a uniquely human trait. As long as it’s in balance, as long as people aren’t avoiding dealing constructively with issues in their own lives, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing. Sometimes, our fantasies help us see what our goals and dreams for ourselves are, in a way that can be constructive.
Irene: You want to reach specific populations with “Sex Smart.” Who do you think would benefit most by reading this book?
Aline: I would recommend SexSmart to anyone who is baffled about why you are who you are sexually, or for anyone who feels confused, unhappy, or ashamed of your sexuality.
I do think that SexSmart might hold a special key to understanding for certain kinds of readers: First, if you are someone who is terribly frightened of getting both sexually and emotionally close to another person, you can use SexSmart to understand your own fears.
Secondly, I hope to reach people affected by physical violence. SexSmart talks in detail about the changes violence caused in your Body Map, in your sense of trust, in your beliefs about gender relationships, and in creating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Family violence may be common, unfortunately, but it is NOT normal, and it shuts down the ability to feel sexual pleasure in close relationships for many people.
Thirdly, if you feel you were destined NOT to have sexual feelings, SexSmart may help you understand why you feel that way. If your sense of being asexual is partly because of your family of origin, SexSmart can help you discover how to become more comfortable with feeling sexual stirrings in your body and toward others.Ironically, on the other hand, many people who have sexual compulsions, who feel insatiable sexual feelings, also find answers in SexSmart. Lastly, I want to reach people who grew up in homes where they suffered emotional abuse or neglect.
Irene: “Sex Smart” is not only a book to read, but also a workbook. Please give us a little insight about the workbook aspect of it.
Aline: As a therapist, I assign homework between sessions. Writing down feelings is an important part of processing them. I find that my patients make more progress in changing when they are active participants. They get more insights, and they move through pain faster. SexSmart is so full of information that unless readers highlight the text and choose and complete some of the exercises which fit them, they won’t get the full benefit. In the homework, I always make the reader write down what the positives are that they need to focus on–what they wished they had said or done, or what they need to do now to fix the problem. The homework can help the reader transform some sad memories and realizations into targeted plans for change.
I plead with you, readers, do the workbook! It’s kind of like when you have a vivid, detailed dream at night, and you want to get up and write it down, but you’re too lazy. And so you rationalize it and tell yourself, “Wow, that dream was so amazing, so unusual, so wild. I’ll be sure to remember it when I am up.’ And then, at 7:00AM, when the alarm goes off, you wake up and say, “Man, that was a wild dream I had last night. Something about a cake. Hmmm. Blue cake?? Hmm.”