Why Pushing Past Body Shame Can Challenge Your Relationship To Sex

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Meet Florence (she/her). If you follow Flo on Instagram, you’ll know that she is all about championing body positivity and posts fearless stories about her ED recovery. I’ve known Florence for about 6 months, and one evening on a bus in Hackney, we had a conversation about sex that made us both realise how the way we saw our bodies affected how we thought about sex. Having both had eating disorders, and now both advocates for womxn to be more mindful of how they treat their bodies, we realised that how we felt about sex was fundamentally not the place we wanted to be in. So, we decided to talk about it in my living room and share it with the Ferly community.

CAT: What was your upbringing around sex?

FLORENCE: I remember my parents being very open about sex - I never felt like it was a really big deal. They were comfortable talking about sex. My mum would say to me, ‘I don’t care if you’re having sex, I just want you to be safe’. She would have rather me be there in the house having sex because then at least she would know that we were safe, than to make me feel like I couldn’t do that . I remember her giving me condoms and her saying, ‘you know, I think you might have sex soon’; and even though I said that I wasn’t there yet, I never felt any shame around the topic. It was always: be sensible, do what you want, it’s fine, but be safe.

My first boyfriend (who I first had sex with) - his parents made such a big deal out of us having sex, that it made me feel really ashamed and embarrassed. When they found out that we were first having sex, and it became this huge thing - they called my parents, and my parents told them that they knew and that we were using condoms. I think they were maybe just terrified that I was going to get pregnant. We were so young - I was 15 when I first had sex, and thinking about that now makes me realise how young that is.

C: Did you mentally prepare for the first time you had sex? How did you feel?

F: I knew it was going to happen; my then boyfriend really wanted to have sex, but when it actually happened, I didn’t necessarily want to. I felt quite manipulated and that I had to do it to prove that I loved him. I loved him (or I thought I did) so much, so I felt like I had to have sex with him. I wasn’t doing it for myself, I was doing it for him.

C: Was there any social pressure?

F: No, not really. I was the first person out of my group of friends to have sex; I had sex about 2 years before everyone else. And I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so there wasn’t really any of that. Our sex education at school was like Mean Girls. They were just telling us that we’ll get pregnant if we had sex - there was no talk of birth control, and it was all focussed around pregnancy and STIs. And that doesn’t make people not have sex - it makes them have unsafe sex.

C: How do you think your sex education has informed how you feel about sex?

F: It’s something that I am now only just becoming aware of, the amount of shame that I feel around sex. It’s something I don’t feel like I used to have. It was only after I started having sex, that I felt really ashamed about sex and all sexual relationships.

C: Your work focuses on body positivity and ED recovery. Do you see a connection between how you used to look at your body and sex + shame?

F: 100%. This is something I worked through a lot in therapy. Three years ago, I had quite a bad eating disorder and I lost a lot of weight. It was so linked to sex, how I felt about myself having sex and being sexual. I didn’t realise the correlation at the time, but when I was 18, I was sexually assaulted and I never really spoke about it. I never thought it was a big deal. I kept thinking, ‘it’s not like I was raped, so it’s not that serious, it’s just normal - I know so many womxn who it’s happened to’. I didn’t give myself credit for how much it had affected me, and I think that had a lot to do with my eating disorder, and now I realise that it had a very profound impact on me.

It got to the point where I couldn’t have sex. I didn’t have sex for nearly 2 years, because I felt zero interest in it and didn’t feel at all sexual; I actually was very repulsed by the idea of sex. And this was all happening at exactly the same time that I was going through this eating disorder.

It took a really long time to feel that I could have sex again. It was really hard. I remember meeting this guy when I was working through all of this in therapy, and I had to just be very honest with him and say, ‘I haven’t had sex in 2 years and I don’t really know if I want to, but I really like you’. He gave me permission to do that - and I know now I don’t ‘need’ permission - but at the time it did feel like that. From there it made me think about so many things. I never really thought that I had any control in having sex, and then I suddenly realised that I did. That changed the way I felt about sex and the way that I had sex.

C: And now, is your relationship to sex something you want to learn more about?

F: Definitely. I realise that I went through all of that stuff with sex and worked through so much, and then felt like I was fine and fixed; but there’s so much more that I want to look at. I still definitely have this discomfort around sex, and I don’t fully know what that is.

C: Do you talk quite openly about sex with your partner?

We speak about our sex life, but we don’t really speak about sex as a general topic that much. I guess the conversation is usually, ‘do you want to have sex?’, and then it’s either a yes or a no and maybe a bit of a debrief afterwards; but that’s pretty much it. It is something I would like to do, but I think the reluctance to do that comes from me.

I guess I’ve never really considered myself within sex. Up until now, it’s always been about the man; I’ve always thought I had to satisfy him, or I have to do this because men want to have sex. I never really thought about whether I wanted to have sex or not. It was almost as if I was always the secondary part to that.

I used to use sex as a tool to get intimacy. I didn’t know how to ask for love and intimacy without doing it through the lens of sex, because asking for it through sex is much easier. You’re probably not going to get rejected. If you ask, ‘hey do you want to have sex with me?’, 9 times out of 10 a guy’s going to say yes. But if you say, ‘hey do you want to be intimate with me and love me?’ - that’s so much harder.

C: So maybe do you feel like because you previously used sex to gain intimacy, that you’re concentrating more on the intimacy and less on sex?

Yeah - I feel really satisfied in that sense of intimacy. But weirdly, now that I have that emotional intimacy with my partner, I feel like sex can be too intimate. It feels overwhelming to me sometimes. We’ve had sex and I’ve cried afterwards because it’s almost too much. For that reason, I think I’ve shied away from it a bit since I’ve been in a loving, intimate relationship, because it feels too vulnerable. Sex when there are those feelings, it’s a whole other thing - it’s so intense. I’ve never experienced it before and this is the first relationship where I have. It’s partly because of the person I’m with, but it’s partly because of the person I am now. I’m just different and so much more aware of how I feel and what I want. It’s huge and it’s this completely new thing for me, and I’m trying to navigate it now and it’s a lot.

C: How would you describe mindful sex?

F: I used to dissociate when I had sex, and so it was very mindless, and that was a real issue, and it was traumatic - I felt like I wasn’t even there and I was waiting for it to be over. Now it’s not like that anymore. Now when I’m having sex with my partner, I am more aware of everything that’s going on and know my partner so well now, that I’m looking for feedback and use that to know what to do and what he likes or what I like and don’t like. I think being present and aware when I’m actually having sex is being mindful to me.

You can follow Flo on Instagram @swift_eats where she posts real, raw, honest stories about herself, her body and also the cutest matcha videos.