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Toxic Cultural Messages to a Woman's Libido

Ward off toxic messages to claim your true sexual self.

Source: Ales_Utovko/iStock; used with permission
Source: Ales_Utovko/iStock; used with permission

Most of us are probably aware that women face negative messages in our culture. But you may not realize that negative messages received throughout a woman’s formative years can have a profound impact on how she sees herself sexually and how she feels about having sex. By rejecting and transcending these messages, a woman can develop a strong erotic core, allowing her to get in touch with her desire, ask for what she wants, refuse what she doesn’t want, and feel joy in her body.

Here are some common harmful messages that women receive about their sexuality:

A woman’s body is an object. Throughout her life and particularly in the formative teenage years, a woman may get unwanted sexual attention. Whether it is cat-calls from construction workers or too-long stares from men, this unwanted sexual attention takes a woman out of her body. She can feel like just an object to be lusted after–and having weaker physical capability than most men increases her vulnerability. Rather than enjoying her maturing sexual body, her development can feel dangerous.

A woman who wants sex is a slut. This message is pervasive from pre-teen years throughout adulthood. One man I worked with, whose wife had low libido, completely denied his teenage daughter’s claim that she had been the sexual initiator with her boyfriend. He refused to see his daughter as having desire because somehow that sullied his vision of her purity or her femininity. The modern incarnation of this message is the prevalence of ‘slut shaming.’ This background message is in sharp contrast to the message about men who are interested in sex: sexual interest is almost synonymous with being male.

For a woman, giving herself permission to feel sexual and to want sex is the first step in developing a healthy erotic core. Exploring her own body to know which touches feel good and arouse her means her body is an instrument of pleasure, which she can then share as she pleases.

A woman’s body doesn’t belong to her. The media’s superficial focus on women’s appearance and dress can leave a woman feeling like her body doesn’t belong to her. Media messages, from the “you won’t believe what she looks like now” headlines about actresses from the past to news segments discussing a female politician’s clothes, suggest that a woman’s value is in her appearance and that she is a commodity for public consumption. The focus is rarely on a woman’s character, wisdom, intellect, contribution, or any other internal quality. All too easily a woman can join in this objectification of her body by critical observation. Suddenly she is outside her body observing it instead of being an embodied person.

If these types of cultural messages have influenced the way you see yourself, here are a few ways to lessen the effects:

  • To recover the sense that your body is integrated and whole, acknowledge to yourself that your actions and experiences matter more than just your physical appearance. When you feel your agency in the world, you’ll feel freer to express your sexual desire.
  • If you find yourself on the outside looking in, gently return to the physical sensations of taste, touch, and sensation.
  • Speak kindly about your body. Research proves that self-acceptance is the fastest route to change.
  • And, if you have daughters, reinforce to them that it’s good and natural to be interested in sexuality.