Sexuality and the Parts of Us that Feel Unloved

I was lucky to grow up in a feminist community where books like Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and Taking Charge of Your Fertility were easy to find. I will forever be grateful that I had access to this information — and to the lineage of the women’s health and women’s spirituality movements.

Now, when I work with female clients who want to question and undo the cultural stories they’ve internalized around sexuality, we start with looking at the messages they took in about the female body, their vulvas and vaginas, menstruation, body odor and more. We work on replacing the internalized toxicity with healthier messages that affirm the resilience, beauty and intelligence of the body. Resources like the Large Labia Project, the Health at Every Size movement, and feminist analysis of our culture’s warped beauty standards — what Naomi Wolf called the Beauty Myth — are all helpful to shed light on the water we swim in.

But lately in my client work I have been picking up on another thread that weaves through this: the felt-sense from childhood that messiness, emotion, and being big were Not Okay, and that we were only loved when we behaved, obeyed, and did what we were told. When the conditional experience of feeling loved in childhood hinges on obedience, cleanliness and order — on performing to our parents’ standards and displaying the perfection that they subtly or overtly require — is it any surprise that we grow up to be dissociated from the wildness, messiness and intensity of being human?

I feel like a field guide to the inner world these days, helping clients untangle knots that they didn’t know were there; following the warp and weave of emotional threads back to their beautiful and often surprising origin points. I’m finding that along with the giving the information they need (and were deprived of) to have better sex and healthier relationships, what my clients also need is a companion in facing the parts of themselves that felt deeply unloved and were exiled, repressed and silenced as a result. A sense of dread often accompanies the process of finding and meeting these parts, along with the tendency to intellectualize, analyze, minimize and dissociate: anything to escape going to the Well of Loneliness, the great Unlove, the Pit of Despair. But still, these parts call to us, whisper through our dreams and invite us closer — or else they smack us upside the head with painful life events, major unravellings, and karmic 2×4’s, screaming, “You WILL listen to me, goddamnit!!!”

But oh — the power and mystery of meeting these parts with presence and finding that, as Rilke wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

When these parts of us come out of exile, we feel the great wholeness of ourselves again — a belonging so deep and undeniable, we are made much more resilient. Resting in wholeness, the outside culture has less able to keep us enthralled in the trance of unworthiness. Sexuality becomes less performative, less patrolled and less burdened, because we are no longer using sexuality to prove that we are lovable, worthy, or that we know how to “do it right.”

My clients report that sex is changing for them. It’s becoming a place where deep emotion can released, because they have permission to be all of who they are; where laughter and tears blend in ecstasy, and where they can shapeshift into roles very different than the ones they normally play by the light of day. I smile as I hear the changes in their voices, the emerging depth and confidence, the reverence for pleasure and play as revolutionary medicines, because I know this transformation: it’s an alchemical process that extends far beyond the reaches of our bedrooms, and turns the dross of our human lives to gold.