Sexual Boundaries: What Happens When There’s No One To Give You Guidance

This is a tricky topic to navigate. There are a lot of people with very strong beliefs on what is right/wrong and there are even more people unwilling to talk about the topic at all. Neither, from my experience, are very helpful when it comes to figuring out what are healthy boundaries to maintain. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I have been around some pretty unhealthy environments pertaining to sexuality.

I’d like to talk about some of my experiences and what I’ve learned from them while trying to sort through these situations and my emotions surrounding them. It isn’t easy, and it is definitely strange at times, but it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety. In fact, sex is something that can be fun, and if handled with respect, something that adds to our quality of life.

Unhealthy Lessons From The Past

In the environment I was raised in, there were very few boundaries around sex. However the one boundary we did keep was, that no one should ever talk about it. This was confusing to sort out as a child. Especially when the number one message being sent to me was, your self worth is mostly determined by how attractive you look. And being attractive was directly correlated to sex appeal in this environment and under these rules I was raised under.

There were a mind blowing amount of critical judgements being made about our appearances as well. It seemed to be the only thing that had any value. But what was even more confusing was, being surrounded by sex, via the act itself, pornography, sexual devices and contraceptives, and without any explanation as to the role these things have in our lives.

I was just left to figure it out on my own, with ample unspoken and unhealthy messages to guide me. And it took me a long time to begin to understand how these messages would manifest in my life through my actions, and what healthier versions of these lessons are. The following are just a few areas that manifested in my life where I was left to fend for myself when trying to make sense of this new sexuality I was coming to understand.

Pornography

This was something that had entered my life at a very early age. It was also something that I was surrounded by and that was endorsed by my caregivers from the start. For whatever reason, people back in the eighties and nineties had huge collections of pornography laying around their houses. I remember vividly that it was a staple in one of my caregivers bathrooms as a child.

The first, and one of the only times my caregivers ever spoke about the subject, was to tell me not to make the pages stick together. I couldn’t have been more than 8 at the time and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just excited about this new discovery. But what young boy wouldn’t be?

From then on, there was a pretty consistent stream of being surrounded by pornography in one shape or form. As I’ve said above, there were large collections of all sorts. From devices and magazines, computer files full of paraphernalia… The list goes on. And since nobody was talking about this massively unhealthy relationship we all had developed to sex, I was left to navigate this terrane all my own with exception of the examples I had modeled for me.

I remember vividly, one of my caregivers, upon me walking downstairs in the mornings, covering himself with his robe with a guilty expedience in front of the computer and then turning it off. Not to mention the giant collections of digital and physical pornography they had. This happened for years. The poor role modeling and everybody being too embarrassed to talk about it left me wondering, “what am I doing wrong?” Not realizing how unhealthy the environment I was in, was.

So when I was old enough and on my own, I was mildly surprised to find out that I had picked up right where my caregivers had left off. I was embodying the ways in which my caregivers were living, mostly because I was looking for someone to tell me why I didn’t feel as though I was loved and belonged even though I was doing the same things they were.

Love & Sex Are Not The Same

The more I thought about it, the more this made sense to me. If the only thing that ever really mattered to my caregivers was looking attractive, and the only things I knew about their emotional lives were from the large caches of riske materials they had squirreled away, than the way to feel loved and belonging, according to this dynamic anyways, was to be obsessed with pleasure seeking behaviors. So that’s what I did until something inside of me changed.

I hadn’t realized that love and sex weren’t the same thing. From my previous lessons, I thought the more attractive you were, the more loved you would be. At the time, and for a long period of my life, my role model was Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club. I wanted to look like he looked, act like he acted and pretty much, be him. I thought that this was the way to be accepted and loved. Looking good naked was what I thought the foundation of a “healthy” relationship was built on because it was the measure against which I was judged.

When Things Change

But this all changed for me one day when I found someone who I felt accepted me as I was, and where I truly felt a sense of belonging. Not because I looked good naked, not because I met some unreasonable standard, but for simply being me.

This was earth shattering. I had no idea what to do with these new emotions I was experiencing. I was scared of feeling accepted because every sense of belonging I had in the past was hinged on me fitting a certain criteria. But I also wanted to cling on to this newly found sense of unconditional acceptance for fear that I would never experience something like it again.

My newly found sense of belonging was the catalyst for what drove me and my now ex-wife apart. When I told her what was happening with me, the weight of her feeling betrayed was too much for the relationship to bear as it was. I can understand where she was coming from because we both had similar outlooks on acceptance at the time. But the change that was taking place in me hadn’t fully actualized yet. I was willing to work through what I was experiencing but unfortunately, she wasn’t willing to do the same.

Left on My Own Again

After I attempted to communicate what was happening with me, and falling short of feeling understood, I was left on my own again. I jumped into a relationship almost immediately with a person who was more of a match with the former ways I had been living, but not for the new ways of being I was cultivating. So this relationship ended, but it was for the best.

I was still coming to understand the relationships I had with my emotional self and how I was cultivating a sense of belonging to and with the other people in my life. Only this time I was learning to leave behind the old lessons from my past.

Wanting to be Fit, Not Look Good Naked

This was a huge stumbling block for me. As I’ve said, so much emphasis was placed on how good I looked by my caregivers that I thought as though looking sexually attractive was the only way to feel loved and belonging. So I became vegan because I read that eating a plant based diet would help me maintain a low body fat percentage.

It took a long time for me to even admit that that was why I had made such a drastic change in my life style. I was telling myself I was doing it for the animals mostly. But when it came down to it, the messages from my past were too strong for me to just let go and be free and clear.

Now I have a different outlook on my eating habits. I eat vegetarian when I’m out due to it being difficult to eat vegan most places, but cook mostly vegan for myself. I’m doing it for a combination of reasons that I feel is more honest to me. The reasons now are: for the environment, for my health and for animal well-fair.

The environment is in dire need of our love and attention, and the less we support big agriculture, the better off our planet will be. This article from the BBC explains that a 5th of the worlds total carbon emissions are created by the meat and dairy industry. That’s a big piece of our planet’s health.

And my health is just as important as the planets health, as is all individuals. Before I made the change in my diet, I weight 240lbs and was drinking more than half of my daily calories. I now weigh about 180lbs and feel much better overall. I have more stamina and am able to exercise with greater ease leaving me feeling healthier. It also helps that I quit smoking cigarettes in my mid-twenties and drinking large amounts of alcohol in my early thirties.

And finally, yes I am concerned about the well-being of the animals on this planet. I have a hard time stepping on insects, let alone knowing that animals are literally being slaughtered for my meals. But also knowing that not eating meat and dairy naturally leads to lower levels of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, as well as being healthier for the planets carbon emissions is reason enough for me to make the change from wanting to look good naked to being a part of the solution to the health problems of our selves and our planet.

Stronger Alone Means Stronger Together

And all this work that I’m doing for myself is something that ultimately will make me a stronger person. I’m learning to accept myself where I am, so I can make changes towards a healthier, stronger version of myself. Because when my belonging hinged on how attractive somebody else found me to be, I was putting all of my self worth in the hands of the beholder. This is why I felt as though I had no agency in my life, and didn’t feel a sense of belonging. Because my worth was not something I had a say in.

Instead, I had to find a person that found me sexually attractive, then do whatever it was that they wanted of me in order to hope to feel a sense of being loved and feeling belonging. This, as Melba would say, was no bueno.

Now that I’m feeling and looking healthier, and for healthier reasons than to get laid or to feel loved, I’m stronger for it. And it’s the practice of this mindset that is helping me to stay grounded in what matters most. And that is to feel strong in my self-worth by taking the best care I’m able, of myself, to lead the healthiest and happiest version of myself. Aka, living my best life.

And it’s once I’ve learned to live from this place of intrinsic self-worth, that I’ll be able to be in a healthy relationship with another. As my boss likes to say, “I need to be a better one before I can be a two”. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s a practice and that it isn’t always going to be an easy one.

There are definitely times where I just don’t feel strong enough to carry the load I have. But it’s in these times that we need to be gentle with ourselves. I know from my experience that my self worth was attached to somebody else’s perception of me for so long, that I forgot I even had a say in how I felt about myself. But once I started practicing the self-care and giving myself the love I needed, it became easier and easier to feel into these states and the load was easier to carry. But I had to ease my way in, little by little.

As I’ve said above, it isn’t always easy sorting out how we feel about ourselves from how others project onto us their expectations. But with some practice, we can begin to sort out what is ours, from what is expected of us. And along the way we may even pick up the tools to find those who will accept us for who we are, instead of who they want us to be. So don’t give up! You are much stronger than you give yourself credit for 🙂 Peace, and thanks for reading 🙂

Image Credits: “Melissa Adret, Model” by Melissa A. N. (Model) is licensed under CC BY 2.0.Copy text

Addiction: It’s Not Only to Substances

I’d like to talk about something that is a little close to home. It has to do with addiction. While I was growing up, there were a lot of vices at my disposal. Alcohol was a big one, and I partook in my fair share. Marijuana was around, too. Though I never really indulged in weed as I did in alcohol. But there were also others that were even more prevalent. And some that may make a few people a little squeamish. And FYI, this article will be dealing with more adult themes, so if you have a little one around or you are at work, you may want to save this for later.

Addiction to Pornography

The addiction I’m referring to is what was my addiction to pornography. I was introduced to porn at a very early age. By the time I was eight, I found the world of sex in a way that was unhealthy to say the least. This also happened to coincide with a time in my life that I experienced a good portion of the trauma I endured. So what made an already confusing experience, being introduced to material five to six years early, I also had no one to talk to about what I was experiencing.

I think what made the situation so strange was, asides from how young I was introduced to pornography, was that it was something my caregivers valued. One of the ways I know this is because when I found the magazine they said, “don’t make the pages stick together”. I also grew up surrounded by role models who consistently objectified women (even the women!) while having their own pornography collection.

But Whatever You Do, Don’t Talk About Pornography

But it was also something that was never spoken about after that comment. Not in any way that could be seen as healthy guidance. Except once to tell me that pornography wasn’t real. I imagine they were talking about the content or story line. But that’s what made it so confusing, they never really said. So I was left to figure it out on my own.

But the main issue with this was, I was already isolating from others due to my trauma and the only direction I was able to glean was from my caregivers habits and the internet. And if you didn’t already know, the internet is filled with pornography for those who are looking. So there I was, isolated from those closest to me and repeating the cycles of my trauma by constantly looking at pornography.

Bad Experiences With Sex

I mostly self-soothed by drinking alcohol and looking at pornography. Two things I learned that my caregivers valued most while bringing pleasure. There were also times where I would go to strip clubs with my friends. Looking back now, it was an awful experience. I remember one trip, sitting at the end of the stage where the dancer was preforming. She had a tattoo of Whiney the Pooh on her ankle. I asked what the tattoo was for, and she responded with, “it’s for my dead daughter.” And that’s not to say that the dancer is a bad person. Or to pass judgement on her in any way. But the entire experience was something that was sad, a little depressing and uncomfortable to think back on.

It’s also worth noting that the clubs I went to were not like the ones you see in videos. How they are usually glorified. They may be different in other parts of the country. But here in New England, they are seedy, dirty and not a place that provokes a sense of revelry. But regardless of where they are, I believe there are better places to connect with people where sex isn’t the focal point of the experience.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships to Sex & Pornography

And again, that’s not to say that we aren’t able to have healthy relationships with sex. And I’m not here to tell people not to go to strip clubs if that’s their thing. I’m not proselytizing abstinence either. I believe that people can connect in healthy ways that involve sex. And it isn’t something that should be feared or used to make a person feel shamed or less than for any reason. This is what I’m advocating for. Not to keep sex a secret, but to talk about it open and honestly, and early on.

But when you are introduced to this world at such a young age, without boundaries and without any sort of guidance from caregivers, it can be a confusing place to try to navigate on your own.

I hadn’t realized how unhealthy my relationship to sex and pornography had become. After all I had been doing it for about two decades. It was something that had become an addiction. Part of my normal routine and was supported by all my caregivers.

Avoiding Responsibility By Using Pornography & Feeling Isolated

While I was looking at porn, I was ignoring almost all of the other aspects of my life. I wasn’t connecting with my friends and family. I was spending large sums of time by myself. And I was avoiding living my life and all the responsibilities that came with it. Either playing video games or looking at pornography during the day. This was what I did, while consuming lots of coffee in the morning and drinking lots of alcohol during the evening to avoid feeling the fear of being disconnected from my family and friends.

All of this isolation directly affected all of my relationships. But the one that it affected the most was with my then wife. I had spent so much of my time and resources insulating myself from my relationships, including my ex-wife, that I had allowed them to devolve into polite cohabitation. My ex-wife, while we were married, even came to me once and told me that she felt as though we seemed more like roommates to her than husband and wife. This should have been a wake up call. But I kept on using pornography to avoid feeling connection in our relationship. Not because I didn’t love her, but because I was scared to love her. I didn’t feel safe loving her.

Looking at Pornography Compulsively to Feel Safe

And to add even more confusion to what I was going through, the more often I looked at pornography, the more varied the types I was looking at became. I won’t go into detail, but I was looking at things that were by no means what I was interested in. And it makes me uncomfortable to think about it now. I’ve heard that when someone is addicted to something, they will take their addiction to the furthest possible extent. And that’s what it felt like for sure.

And when I stopped looking at pornography, my desire to look at the types I was also stopped. But what was left was a large amount of guilt, shame and confusion. I was asking myself, “why did I look at so much?” And feeling tremendous amounts of shame about it. From what I’m able to tell, it was a way of pleasure seeking. The only way I had to feel good about wanting to feel connection. It wasn’t safe for me to connect in person with people, so porn was the next best thing. But I also left a lot of my relationships to whither and die in the process.

Rebuilding in the Aftermath

And this is where I found myself. After I left my wife, I had almost no one I could call support. And this wasn’t all due to my porn addiction. But it was one of the main and many ways that I chose to disconnect from my relationships. I was left to rebuild my life almost from scratch. This was a painful place to be.

But I did it. I had to give up my unhealthy ways of living first. I had to start out fresh. Rebuild. It was also comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. According to The Recovery Village, about 40 million Americans visit pornographic websites on a regular basis. That’s about 13% of the population! And about a 1/3 of all internet downloads are related to pornography in some way. Those are some pretty big numbers. So if this is happening so often with so many people, why aren’t more people talking about it?

Let’s Talk About Sex & Values

From my understanding, there is a lot of shame around the topic of sex at large. Between sex being glorified in the media and ignored at home, no wonder so many people are looking for ways to better understand a world we seldom talk about. Or should be with those closest to us. The more we are open and honest about our relationship to sex, the easier it will be to find comfort and ease in them as we mature.

If we’re more open about sex as a topic in general, it will also have the added benefit of teaching people from an early age that people aren’t to be objectified. We aren’t “things” to be treated differently, depending on how they look or the value we give them in a sexual way. Because once you adopt a specific set of values, based on looks or appearances, you then judge just about every other person you meet by that criteria. Then it becomes easy to write someone off as not having value or not worth your time because they don’t measure up to your values.

Finding Your Own Beauty in Yourself & Others

Because there is so much more to life than being attractive to someone else’s standard. And as it’s been said for ages, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Just because someone doesn’t look the part to a popular standard, doesn’t mean that that person is incapable of finding love or even feeling attractive to their own standards or someone else’s idea of what it means to be attractive.

When we don’t talk about sex and pornography, we leave the difficult conversation of what it means to find out who we are and what we’re attracted to, to be dictated by an industry designed to devalue people as individuals. And especially if we’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with pornography, we are then consuming a lifestyle that is being dictated to us by an industry that is objectifying and therefore, devaluing people at large. Our thoughts immediately judge the people we meet on how attractive they may be. Instead of who they are as a human being.

Using Judgements to Devalue the Other

I know this to be true for myself. I couldn’t go anywhere without looking to see which woman was the most attractive. It could be somewhere as mundane as a train station and that part of me would kick in. Scanning my surroundings to find the most attractive person there.

This was something I had learned from my caregivers, but it is also something that is valued by most people. Most of what my caregivers spoke about in regards to others was how someone looked. How overweight they were or some aspect about their appearance. Usually it was in a negative refrain. So it was only natural that I picked up right where they left off. This is something I’ve worked very hard to change. This way of being left me feeling as though nobody would ever add up to my standards. Which left me feeling even more isolated from others. More so than I already was thanks largely to the trauma I experienced.

Giving Up the Ghost

I’ve spoken a lot about the unhealthy relationship I had with pornography and the adverse effects it has had on my relationships. I’d like to talk about how I stopped being so judgmental of others, while giving up the ghost of my old habits.

As I said above, I gave up looking at pornography about ten years ago. I had fallen in love with a woman at the time and from that point on I had started living my life more fully. I had used porn to disconnect from people. So it was only natural that once I felt connected again, I no longer needed the safety net of an artificial relationship.

It was difficult at first. Learning how to navigate relationships again after being so secluded from others. And as I said above, it wasn’t only the porn I was using to isolate. But reconnecting with others without constantly bringing up my and my caregivers checklists of standards, was something I needed to get used to. Because being in healthy relationship with others is really the ultimate desired outcome of giving up all the ghosts that were keeping me disconnected. What I found helped the most was, my meditation practice and being surrounded by supportive people.

Meditation & Support

With my meditation, I was able to see the thoughts for what they were without reacting to them in a judgmental way. Just thoughts. After all the basic teachings of meditation is separating judgements from your thoughts. Also that you are not the contents of your thoughts. This is a difficult lesson for sure because we take our thoughts so personally.

Your Thoughts

I wouldn’t do or act on most of the thoughts I have throughout the day. And if I could choose the thoughts I have, I wouldn’t choose to have most of the ones I do have. And as Tara Brach says our thoughts have no shame. This is useful in realizing that your thoughts are not personal, they do not make you who you are as a person.

So when something comes up from your past that you may feel shame about, it’s useful to know that it is only a thought. The feelings that come with the thoughts may be a little more overwhelming. But allowing the feelings to be, while being kind to yourself and acknowledging that the thoughts are really happening but not true, not who you are, should help to make the shift from shame to acceptance.

The more I was able to label my judgmental thoughts, the easier it was to let go of them. They still come up, after all we don’t control our thoughts. But they are easier to handle knowing that they aren’t personal and that they are fleeting.

Feeling Support

The second was being connected in supportive relationships. Feeling a sense of connection with people who cared about me and whom I cared about helped me to feel part of something larger. I no longer felt the need to isolate from those who were closest to me and who care about me.

This is a difficult process. And if you’ve dealt with trauma, this is not something to go alone. The feelings of reconnecting again to emotions that can be overwhelming is a terrifying experience. Tara Brach speaks about the importance of taking medication as a necessary step to establishing safety inside the body. It isn’t always wise to dive right in to the raw emotions of the trauma without using some sort of buffer. I had a lot of help from a professional therapist and the relationships I had established were much healthier than those of my past.

Having healthy relationships as a resource definitely helped me to navigate the raw emotional life I was avoiding by previously using pleasure seeking habits. Knowing that I have a group of people I am able to rely on gave me the confidence I needed to feel through the raw emotional life that was growing unchecked.

Other Resources

I also have other resources to count on as well. Knowing that I am able to take care of myself now. In ways that I wasn’t taught to or was even able to when I needed in the past is one. The healthy ways I’m choosing to connect with my emotions instead of disconnecting from myself. From my yoga practice to my running routine, I’m finally understanding what it means to take care of my physical and emotional body. In ways that help me to navigate the difficult emotions that come up in relationships.

For instance, if I’m having a difficulty with a relationship at work, I can remember a particularly difficult run I’ve had. Or a tough time on the mat, but still found the strength and courage to finish. This courage leads to more awareness and courage in relationship. And also helps me to stay more present while navigating the current circumstances.

This, paired with staying present in the emotions as they come up and being kind to myself, especially when they are difficult, has had a huge impact on my emotional resilience. Knowing and trusting that we can weather the storms of our emotions is crucial to making the changes towards healthier choices.

You Are Not Alone

If you’re having difficulty with a similar situation it’s important to know you’re not alone. By nature sex is difficult to talk about and pornography is seldom if ever discussed. The link above is to an evidence based research group that deals specifically with addictions. It can just be helpful knowing that you are not alone and there are people out there willing to help if you need it.

Here is a link to Tara Brach’s website and her acronym R.A.I.N., recognize, allow, investigate and nurture. Some of the steps above I speak about are a rendition of this practice and have helped me countless times while dealing with difficult emotions.

And if you have any comments, I’d love to hear them. This is a difficult subject to talk about but it’s one that pretty much everybody deals with. If we could have more open and honest discussions about sex, pornography and even gender roles there would most likely be a lot less prejudice.

Having a healthy relationship with sex and even pornography is possible. But it takes communication and skill to talk about it in a nonjudgmental way. Hopefully by bringing up this subject, we can shed a light on a corner of our lives that have spent too much time in the dark. I hope you’ve found this article to be useful in some way. And maybe if we all bring this topic a little more to the forefront, there will be less stigma attached to it. Peace, and thanks for reading 🙂

Image Credits: “xXx” by Suki♥! is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Updated: 9/29/22

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