My Religious Guilt Is Getting in the Way of My Sex Life

Sex should be fun, but it can also be complicated. Welcome to Sexual Resolution, a biweekly column by sex therapist Vanessa Marin answering your most confidential questions to help you achieve a healthy, joyful sex life. Here, she answers a question about how to get over religious guilt related to sex.

DEAR VANESSA: My religious upbringing is getting in the way of me having a healthy sex life. I hear this little voice in the back of my head telling me things like, “Sex is bad,” “You shouldn’t masturbate,” and “You’re going to go to hell.” Even though I am not religious anymore, those negative thoughts about sex pop up whenever I am trying to do something sexual. How can I get over this and start enjoying sex? – Jesus, Let Me Take The Wheel Back, 31

DEAR JLMTTWB: First of all, I hope you know that you’re definitely not alone in this. So many people who were raised religious struggle with their relationships with sex, even if they’re no longer religious. Those kinds of teachings get in early and deep. (To be fair, we all get negative socialization about sex from a very young age, so most of us have to deal with this challenge in some way or another, though dealing with it in relation to religion has its own difficulties.)

I recommend that you take a closer look at what, exactly, you were taught to believe about sex, intimacy, and your body. A lot of us try to simply ignore the negative messages that were instilled in us, but that’s just not an effective strategy. Instead, I think we need to take a deeper look at our beliefs and fully understand them in order to move past them. I’ll give you a heads-up that this can be a painful experience, so go slow here. (It may also help to work with a therapist.) Write down all of the specific beliefs that you were taught about sex, and where you learned each of those beliefs from. For example, did your mom or your pastor directly tell you that you shouldn’t masturbate, or was it something you subconsciously picked up on along the way?

Next, I recommend doing some research. I’m not a religious scholar, but I do know that most religious texts have vague or conflicting teachings about sexuality. There are also a lot of different interpretations of the same messages. I suggest that you look up alternative views about sexuality from other people who are of the same religion in which you were raised. There are tons of different websites, books, and podcasts about this very topic. While I don’t want to recommend specific resources since I don’t want to imply that they align with my own beliefs, a simple Google search should pull up a lot for you. It can be powerful to realize that people who grew up in the same religion have developed different views about sexuality.

I would also take a look at each of the beliefs you were taught, and ask yourself, “What do I want to believe about this specific topic?” You’re an adult now, and you get to decide what you want to believe when it comes to your own sex life. I suggest working through your beliefs individually. For some of them, you may know right away that you want to believe the exact opposite of what you were taught. For example, maybe you want to have a sex life where you believe you’re allowed to touch your own body and bring it pleasure. But there may be certain things you were taught that have a nugget of truth for you in them. So for example, maybe you don’t truly believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin, but you do want to have a committed relationship before you sleep with someone.

Phrase your new beliefs as something specific that you want to believe, rather than something that you don’t want to believe. For example “I don’t want to think that sex is bad” is not going to be as impactful as, “I want to believe that sex is a healthy, normal, and joyful part of my life.” Asking yourself why you want to adopt a specific belief may help it feel more powerful for you, too. For example, just saying, “I want to allow myself to masturbate” may not be super meaningful. So ask yourself, why, exactly, you want to adopt that new belief. If you give yourself some time to really dig into it, maybe you’ll realize that you want to believe your creator made your body exactly how it was meant to be and that celebrating all of the sensations and pleasure your body is capable of feeling is a way of honoring your maker.

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