There are enough mixed messages in the world to make sex a frightening subject for many of us. In Christiane Amanpour’s latest documentary series, Sex and Love Around the World (Netflix), she takes us from city to city, hoping to discover the practices of each culture. How we think about and act out love and sex varies so greatly from place to place, but the series inspired me to think more about what it really means to feel confidence, and comfortable, with our own sex lives. The stand out quality I came away with upon watching the series was this: we all want to feel loved, and (those of us who are not asexual) tend to want good sex, regardless of where in the world we’ve grown up.
What isn’t mentioned in the following is the process of working through trauma and non-consensual experiences. If you are dealing with those types of experiences, you should absolutely seek specific, one to one help — you don’t have to let them determine your sexual future. I’m not saying there’s a clear way through dealing with these types of issues, but you do owe it to yourself to enjoy a happier sexual life. Just know that you are worthwhile, and you deserve happiness.
My own journey to sexual liberation and confidence is ongoing. Several bad experiences as a younger person definitely blunted my confidence for a long time, so the process of thinking about this subject more has been about exploring and experimenting to feel better and work through my own concerns. Here’s what I have learned so far:
Get to know yourself first
One of the big issues with female health and sexuality in particular comes from the much more taboo nature of female masturbation. Men know about and are assumed to masturbate from a fairly younger age. But whatever the gender, you need to understand your own body first. This means literally taking a look — where is everything placed?What does your anatomy look like? What feels good when you touch it? What doesn’t? Exploring your own body is really important for ever being able to understand what pleasure is for you. The same applies to your partner — you will have to explore these things, and they vary person to person.
Get educated and practice awareness
Understanding your own sexual anatomy is rather important here. But it’s also about general sex education — knowing what is consent, what is safe sex, and understanding what’s out there. Porn becomes the way in for a lot of people to learn about sex, but I can’t possibly say that’s a great thing. A lot of mainstream pornography features violence and degradation as standard. These are not necessarily good depictions of sex. Investigate some more equitable depictions of sex if you are curious, like the films of Erika Lust.
Sexual confidence is a lot about awareness, of yourself and your partner. And that does mean being confident in your ability to observe and listen to a partner, and observe and articulate your own needs. Understand consent — this is really vital, before engaging in sex with anyone, anywhere. If you aren’t sure, it’s time to do your research. Here is a good starting point on consent as a topic.
Deal with the past
Whether you’ve had good or bad experiences, I think it helps to take stock and figure out just where in your journey you are. What experiences were good? What were bad? Why? Working through the past gets complicated, but honestly taking stock is always worthwhile, to figure out where confidence breaks lie.
Practice with patience
It’s hard to become more confident without practice, and much of this is about finding someone with whom you can become comfortable enough to try things, and learn. I personally think this is hard for me in a one night stand, which is why I was never interested in them — I require the established trust in order to feel ‘free’ with someone. But others might find freedom in the relative anonymity quite important — a ‘no-strings’ partner might mean it’s less emotionally confusing or tense, allowing you to experiment and practice more freely. Each to their own. But give yourself the opportunity to learn and grow.
Don’t focus on the number
Here’s a tip for life: if you have to say “I’ve slept with sooo many people” to prove your sexual prowess, chances are, you’re overcompensating for something. It’s the same as people who boast about their IQ. Nobody cares, and it’s not really indicative of much, other than you have located value in a shallow statistic. The number of people you have slept with is not relevant to your prowess and confidence. Spending a lot of time understanding one person can be a much better education in sex, it really just depends. So please don’t let a number be the driving force of your confidence — whether it’s large or small.
Understand your own cultural influences
What was sex and love about when you were growing up? What did your parents, teachers and other adults say about these subjects, if anything? In many cultural settings, these topics are not really discussed in any detail. Concepts of sex may relate intrinsically to marriage. Religion is a factor. But taking note of these and understanding what your own context is, is a very important starting point.
I went to an all-girls Catholic school, for instance. I am aware that that ensured certain limitations in what I know and feel about sex and love. We never ever discussed sexual pleasure, or LGBTQ+ sexualities, for instance. Sex was a very limited and clearly defined thing, which related primarily to reproduction. With age and experience, I’ve learned how much bigger this subject gets.
Deal with your own limitations and taboos — what are they? You can usually figure this out by investigating what other people believe and comparing that to your own beliefs — in this way, Amanpour’s Netflix series is extremely enlightening, offering up the chance to really hear more about how other cultures talk and think on this subject.
Maintain curiosity and openness
Without a desire to learn, learning gets pretty difficult. So approaching sex with genuine curiosity and interest can be the foundation for greater understanding, and therefore confidence. In much that I have read, there is the stereotype that when a couple have been together for a while, the sex becomes routine, diminishes, and in some cases, stops altogether. A clear counter to that is the couple that continues in a spirit of discovery and exploration. This doesn’t mean pushing your limits necessarily, but rather finding new and inventive ways to feel and think about your partner through sex.
Reject shame and fear
It’s not as easy as snapping your fingers. But learning to love yourself and your body is going to be pretty essential to feeling sexy and sexual. Embrace yourself — and your partner. This means communication, it means vulnerability, and it means facing some demons. But learning to love yourself and your partner as they are will only help with feeling more confident and comfortable.
I don’t think that self love is simply looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, “I’m perfect.” It’s not about justifying your flaws as non-flaws. I think real self love is about looking at who you are honestly and writing down, “What do I like about myself as I am” and “What don’t I like about myself as I am”. Next to the things that you don’t like about yourself, it’s worth then noting: is this in my control to change? Or not? The things you can’t control, are not worth hating. It takes time to accept them, of course, but they naturally are not things you can usefully stress over. So set those aside for a bit. The things you can control? Well, if they are reasonable, why not make small steps to change them? The kind of thing I imagine here might be if you wish you were more in shape, or cut your hair a different way — these are doable things, and there’s no shame in wanting to feel better about yourself by making those changes. It’s a false pride that looks at something that does make you unhappy and says, “Just tell yourself this is fine.” It’s applying a layer of delusion to something that intrinsically bothers you — so don’t pretend it’s not there. But think compassionately about what ‘change’ really means. Do you have to sign up to an exercise programme? Do you have the time/money? Break these down and give yourself reasonable, achievable changes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.
And if it’s physical stuff, you might think surgery or whatever is the only way to ‘change’ things… but this is not necessarily equivalent to ‘change’, and can be quite extreme. So if it’s your nose that you don’t like, for instance, it’s worth also thinking: if I rethink my nose, will I become happy with it? Or will my attention just shift to something else that’s ‘imperfect’? Chances are you could be happy just realising that the flaw isn’t as bad as you think. But if it really does bother you, if there are things about you that you’d consider taking larger steps to change, all power to you. I think everyone has to do what feels right for them. I’ve personally never liked my teeth, for instance, so I am taking measures to fix them. It doesn’t currently impact my everyday life that severely, but I know it will aid my confidence to change it. So I am. I don’t then beat myself up everyday for this thing that hasn’t yet been fixed. I have parked the self-hate on that one, because self-affirmation and feeling as though I am doing what I can reasonably do, is enough.
Determine your own boundaries
Limitations on what you enjoy, don’t enjoy, want to experience and don’t want to experience are important to define. This comes back to consent, but also to pleasure — why do things you know you don’t like? I personally think it’s important to try sexual experiences out first before you rule on this, but that’s my approach to sex. You might know instinctively that a particular practice is not of interest to you, and all power to you. As long as you have been able to reflect on and set those boundaries for yourself, that’s the main thing. The next step is about articulating these boundaries, and that’s where everyone’s favourite c-word comes in: communication.
If you don’t feel you can communicate your boundaries (as well as your ideals or fantasies) to your partner, that’s worth a double-take: why can’t you talk honestly to them? Is it a fear you have, or an impression or reaction they’ve given? If it is your fear, you have to question it — what’s the cost of never communicating my needs or desires? Chances are, it’s a lack of satisfaction, comfort or confidence. Is that the price you want to pay? And if it is them, it’s worth addressing this directly by asking, “Hey, why can’t we talk about this?” and asserting its importance to you. If they’re unable to be flexible, that is worth questioning. But for many, talking sex is just scary, and requires a gentle entry into the subject to get more comfortable, with time.
Some of us might also have clear physical boundaries. That means understanding our bodies, and our options, is really important. You might need a good doctor or specialist to help here; this might not just be about self talk and preconceptions. But taking the leap towards getting help, getting informed and working with your circumstances is important and can help a lot. Understanding your boundaries sets the foundation against the vagueness which undermines confidence. It’s no less confident to assert, “X type of sex is not for me.” or “I cannot do x or y,” or “I’m just not interested in pursuing x”. Those are all important things to build confidence in yourself, too.
Create your own rituals
You might have rituals that help you to ‘get into a mood’. It’s worth experimenting and discovering those rituals. Finding your own ways of feeling sexual, sexy, etc, is important. This is about experimentation and will require reflection. Build your self awareness, and think about what liberation means for you. Read more about that here:
Do you know that it’s not wrong to seek out pleasure? How deeply do you know that? Again, this comes back to cultural awareness and upbringing and many other factors. But confidence is something that comes from knowing that you aren’t wrong, bad, dirty, whatever, for wanting to enjoy yourself and experiencing enjoyment, connection and intimacy with someone else. So choose pleasure, because you deserve it.
Some good resources:
Wild Flower — Amy Boyajian’s videos are so incredibly good. She tackles safety, kink, anatomy, and so much more. Her videos are approachable, interesting and informative. Take a look!
This list from Bustle — a whole list of great resources to help you explore this topic in more detail.
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If you’re struggling for confidence, take heart: I know what that’s like and I do genuinely think we can all find our way towards making this subject easier to tackle. Working through our squeamishness, our prudishness, our misconceptions, misinformation and taboos, we can achieve greater confidence in future.