De-program me.
April 16, 2009 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Please help me get rid of some toxic attitudes.

Before I explain, I just want to say that I realize that I am revealing something ugly about myself, and I would really appreciate it if you could keep from attacking me for it. I know it's a problem, and I'm trying to solve it. And, of course, thanks in advance for your time and your help.

Essentially, my problem is that, despite my sincere desire to be an enlightened modern woman, I'm pretty backward when it comes to sex. Intellectually, I believe that there is nothing wrong with experimenting sexually, with having multiple partners, and so on. However, when I actually encounter a woman who has had a lot of partners, I immediately judge her.

This is a serious problem for me, because I believe I am wrong to judge people this way. In addition, I have some friends who have had multiple sexual partners, and it really makes me feel terrible to judge them. I try to never allow them to see or know that their sexual experiences and choices make me uncomfortable, but I definitely worry that they pick up on it. This also impacts my own choices. I'm very aware of how many partners I have had, and tend to be reluctant to "add to my number." And, of course, I project these attitudes on to other people and expect to be judged by them for my trivial dalliances, which is an added layer of discomfort.

This is ridiculous. I don’t want to be this way. My best guess is that this is the result of growing up on Anne of Green Gables and American cultural bullshit generally, because my family isn’t this way at all. I’d really like to change. Are there books I can read that will explain to me why it’s ridiculous to judge women who have multiple sexual partners? Are there simple arguments or ideas I can meditate on or repeat to myself to defuse the judgment? How can I get “purity is stupid” from my brain to my heart?

I can be reached at lamezilla[at]gmail. Thanks again for your advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, great question! And you know, half the battle and all that. My 2¢ here: Remind yourself that sex is natural and fun, and everyone is entitled to enjoy it. Make that your mantra.

On the other hand, you may feel uncomfortable "adding to your number" for many reasons, including some perfectly valid ones–so don't totally reject that part of yourself. Sex is one of the most intimate things to share, and being discriminating about who you share it with is not a bad thing. But, if you are crossing people off your list, as it were, strictly because of their more-or-less typical sexual history, you're missing out. You know that, though. So repeat the mantra and live in the moment! Her sexual history is the past! Be here now!
posted by Mister_A at 6:43 PM on April 16, 2009

What is it about women who have multiple partners that makes you uncomfortable? That they aren't living up to your ideals of how women should behave?

I think you need to do some serious introspection as to what you find so bothersome about it. I find that when I judge others, it is usually an issue of my own poor self-esteem. I have to judge them to make myself feel more superior.

I think the attitudes about women and multiple sexual partners is really just a catalyst for bigger personal issues with self-esteem.
posted by Leezie at 6:44 PM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

The thing that is jumping from these lines is that you are turning your own judgment quite harshly on yourself.

So maybe your "problem" (I would say challenge, since nobody is perfect) is with judgment and obsessive thoughts. Instead of focusing directly on the "purity problem," I'd do some work around acceptance. What kinds of roadblocks do you see as acceptance of others? Are these roadblocks arising from them, or from you? If they are arising from you, can you ceremonially or mentally set them aside, burn them, destroy them, and commit to trying to let each thought go as it comes?

Good for you for working on this, but make sure you don't destroy yourself in the process!
posted by mynameisluka at 6:47 PM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Roadblocks to acceptance of others.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:49 PM on April 16, 2009

Seems to me, right off the bat, that you're a late bloomer. You're looking at these people through a 12 year old's eyes instead of relating to them as people who can and do make choices. The assumption that multiple sexual experiences is a negative is fashioned on the romantic ideal of there is only one Right person for you. As you get older you are supposed to be able to encompass the fact that there are a lot of people out there, more than one of whom would be right for you. You don't give your age but I would suspect that you haven't done much getting out in the world. Take a vacation in some foreign land, learn that there are a lot more people in the world than your small small circle. Good luck. Enjoy.
posted by ptm at 6:50 PM on April 16, 2009

First of all, I do the same thing. I don't mean to, but I come from a pretty conservative country and culture, and despite being educated in the West, married to a person of my ethnicity who grew up in the West (though was sexually conservative when it came to dating due to cultural values), and having friends who have had multiple sexual partners, I can't empathize with the experience of having slept with a ton of people. It's not something I can wrap my mind around.

Are you judging her negatively? That's the only part that's different. Some people are just very different and you shouldn't punish yourself for not understanding their experience. But I think you have to remember that that is all it is--you don't understand their experience. In fact, you don't know anything about it at all. That's how I've always seen it and it's probably what's kept me from judging people on what they do or how many people they have sex with.

Now, when you're convinced of the idea of purity, maybe you want to really question yourself and figure out what your heart thinks purity means. Pure from what? Pure from suffering heartbreak or disillusionment? Disease? What are you really worrying about will happen in your own life when you judge these women? That's the only real reason for judging anything negatively, right? To make sure you yourself don't have to experience it.

So, you're fine and you'll be fine. Don't worry. Just question yourself and how you're thinking, and you'll get there. Perhaps all you're really doing by judging these women is hoping you'll never have to experience what they have because you think it's all depressing and terrible, but you really hope that if you do end up, over your lifetime, having a lot of partners (which might be possible and infinitely preferable than never having had experienced sex at all) then you should hope that you'll be as happy, secure, and vivacious as the women who have the courage to put themselves out there and have fun.
posted by anniecat at 6:52 PM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your attitude toward sex is fine as long as you're recognizing that there are different kinds of healthy sexual expression that work for different people. Sleeping with just a few people works for you, and that's okay- it certainly reduces drama and STD risk for you. Having many partners is a rich life experience for some people, and that's also okay.

The mantra to repeat: any sex is good sex as long as it's consensual, safe, and leaves both parties feeling good about the experience.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:36 PM on April 16, 2009 [6 favorites]

Ditto annieCat - there is noting wrong with "purity," but at the same time most people don't see it as degrading to have had multiple sex partners, be they one night stands or long-term relationships.

At first glance, I would have thought that religious upbringing or background could have played a role into this, though you didn't bring it up. I've seen more talk of "purity" in terms of sexual experiences from Christians than non-Christians (my only real experiences with self-proclaimed religious people), with the notion that something great will come from saving yourself for your one true love. I imagine it'll lead to an awkward wedding night.

It was said before, and I'll say it again - sex can be had for fun, and that doesn't have to be bad or wrong. They aren't sluts (male or female), they aren't nymphomaniacs. Sex can just be a good time for all involved.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:36 PM on April 16, 2009

First of all these feelings are largely genetic, not cultural. I love how people think attitudes towards promiscuity, something as fundamental to evolution as anything, are entirely because of FUCKING PURITANS. People feel differently about sex. So what. Secondly, theres nothing wrong with your attitudes as long as you can like still respect the women as people and whatnot. And as you age you very well may or may not "rack em up" and find your feelings change.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:40 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm really hesitant to agree with the premise of your problem—that a part of being a modern, enlightened person is believing in certain ideas about sex.

Frankly, it's not. You're on the right path, though—that an intrinsic part of being a decent human being is reserving arbitrary standards of sex, life, God, etc for yourself, not every woman you encounter.
posted by trotter at 7:51 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all these feelings are largely genetic, not cultural. I love how people think attitudes towards promiscuity, something as fundamental to evolution as anything, are entirely because of FUCKING PURITANS.

This is, of course, in no way correct, as witnessed by the enormous number of people who think differently about promiscuity than their parents did. If it were genetic, we'd never have changed, instead of the massive cultural shift we've had over the past few decades.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:59 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've developed this theory about sexual mores: I think that the whole purpose of them is to prevent women from having children with men of a lower societal class than their own.

I think it's tangentially supported by something I read recently: in Understanding Early Civilizations by Bruce G. Trigger, a comparison of Shang dynasty China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Aztec, the Maya, the Inca, and the Yoruba civilizations, he says that ruling classes often encourage fecundity and population growth amongst their subjects, to increase the basis of production, while trying to curb the proliferation of nobility and royalty to minimize problems with inheritance and succession.

(Which touches on another theory I have, that the high population density of East Asia is essentially the product of a Bronze Age arms race between kingdoms in the Shang, Chou, and other pre-Han-unification eras of Chinese history.)

But I'd also say that there is a really practical principle behind the reproductive aspect of sexual mores: in this modern first world society where our cups runneth over with wealth and prosperity - which is true even in the middle of a financial crisis - the only way you can really permanently screw up your life is to have kids before you're ready to. (Plus maybe getting addicted to drugs, but I really think that having kids too early is a much more common way people screw up their lives.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:05 PM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and to tack on to that - according to that book and lots of other stuff I've read, "purity" and notions that circumscribe and limit a woman's sexual options, and engender an idea of limited sexual behavior necessary for a woman to be "respectable", are by no means a particularly Christian or Western thing: in fact they're pretty much universal, though certainly in varying degrees with the censure ranging from "stone her!" to "don't frequent her stall at the market, you'll catch cooties."
posted by XMLicious at 8:11 PM on April 16, 2009

I think you're already almost where you want to be. No really. I used to be similar (about a different set of sexual issues) and for a long time suffered from the cognitive dissonance of being pro sex positive while at the same time judging others for actually acting, well, sexually positive. Once I accepted that I was being silly it took a while of catching myself be judgmental, mentally asking myself why I was doing so and if it was appropriate, and admitting I was wrong when called for, for me to stop reflexively judging.

Another thing that helped a lot was fully understanding that, while some things work for some people, they aren't going to work for everyone. Just like I shouldn't feel ashamed for someone being more adventurous about sex than I am doesn't mean I should feel shame for not being adventurous in the same ways, and (and this is important) that I shouldn't feel pity for people who are less adventurous than I am.
posted by aspo at 8:15 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

That last bit, now that I stop and think on it, was actually pretty important. Because part of my judging was a reaction to my feeling jealous that my boundaries weren't as far ranging as I felt the should be, and getting over that helped immensely.
posted by aspo at 8:21 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

However, when I actually encounter a woman who has had a lot of partners, I immediately judge her.

You seem to know that that's inappropriate and unkind, though. That's more than half the battle right there--when you notice those thoughts in yourself, you might think of reminding yourself that those thoughts are inappropriate and unkind, that {Other Woman}'s choices are her own, that things that work for you don't necessarily work for other people, etc., etc.

That's the only way to move past prejudices that you find limiting and inappropriate--keep working on them.

I'm very aware of how many partners I have had, and tend to be reluctant to "add to my number."

This is the part that I would find more worthy of concern. Your sexual choices are yours to make, and you don't need to go around marking notches on your bedpost to be a liberated or well-adjusted person (in fact, that kind of behavior is not the sign of someone who's liberated or well-adjusted, but generally kind of immature acting-out).

But are you refraining from having sex with people you are interested in and attracted to just because you have some arbitrary number in your head of partners you "should" have? That might be holding you back, and it might be something you could think about working on.

Any choices that actually work for you are awesome and great and you go, girl. I'm not sure, from what you say, like this is working for you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:41 PM on April 16, 2009

It doesn't sound to me like you need de-programming in the way you think. You are being intensely hard on yourself simply because you have opinions. Sexuality is an intensely personal thing for everyone -- what works for you and makes sense to you is not going to make sense to everyone else -- and that's okay. It is also human nature to look at another way of doing things and think, "okay, I'm sorry, that's just weird," and it's okay to do that too. The only "judgemental behavior" you need worry about is whether, after finding out someone has a habit you think is really weird, you are able to treat them as a human being with dignity, or whether you recoil and shriek "uncleaaaan!" when you see them.

Something tells me you don't do that though, but you have so convinced yourself that as a "modern woman" you have to think X, Y, and Z that the very fact that you are having these thoughts is somehow wrong. It isn't.

I'm very aware of how many partners I have had, and tend to be reluctant to "add to my number."

That's okay too! Look, it's totally fine to be picky when it comes to letting someone into your intimate life like this. It is totally fine to acknowledge that, for you, sex is just something you have to really, really, really be serious about before you do it. It's not a "purity" thing -- it's a personal thing. It's how you're wired. You're not the only one wired this way -- I know other people, women and men, who are like that. And you know, because it's your life and your brain and your heart and your body, you get to call the shots for your own self, and that's the way it's supposed to work.

I know you're worried about whether other people will pick up on how you feel about them, but I wonder if there isn't a little projecting going on -- that the reason you may be reacting to them is becuase you think somehow that you are being expected to think that you should be doing the same, and the idea of you doing that just doesn't sit right with you. It doesn't have to sit right for you. Try forgiving yourself for not wanting to bone lots of guys, and see if that helps.

What I found is that once I accepted that what I liked was just what I liked and that was that, that helped a lot. Then it downgraded the difference in sexual taste to be something as trivial as the difference in favorite ice cream flavors; "okay, I like mint Oreo cookie and you like Chunky Monkey; I like straight basic sex and you like whipping guys. whatever. We're different. No big." But I couldn't get to that point as long as I thought that I was being expected to like Chunky Monkey. Once I realized that everyone else pretty much thought it was okay for me to not like Chunky Monkey, then I was cooler with the fact that some people did like it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:05 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, since you don't mention judging MEN, I'd advise you to start by figuring out why you're, no mincing words here, being sexist, limiting the freedoms of your OWN gender. Why should women be judging each other like this? What kind of relationship to your womanhood do you have? You say your family isn't like this; is this a rebellion of belief? Or are the other factors, negative experiences, dogmas, at play?

In a word: Therapy.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:28 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

One reason we judge is because it is a tremendously easy way to make us feel better about ourselves, without lifting a finger or admitting our own foibles. Sure, it feels good, but how does it actually help us any? We are exactly the same, self-satisfied people--no, actually worse, because we've become just a little more blind towards ourselves and others, a little more hypocritical, a little more smug.

And something to keep in mind:
I don't know if this is just one of life's little jokes, but those things that you often judge most harshly will usually be the things you end up doing's just a matter of time.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:03 AM on April 17, 2009

Leezie's idea that is tied to self-esteem sound plausible to me. If you think that having many partners is part of being an 'enlightened modern woman,' but you yourself haven't had many partners, then you're in a bind, because you aren't what you want to be. Maybe there's some jealousy involved, too? Maybe you wonder whether these more promiscuous people aren't having more fun than you, and you resent it?

Thinking about this in terms of enlightenment and modernity implies that you are somehow inferior. Jealousy and resentment are positions of weakness. Reframing the issue around purity turns the tables, and makes you the strong and virtuous one.

My point is that judging gives you a psychological hit of something you need -- something purely selfish. If you can gain some insight into how that works, I suspect the hit will be substantially less satisfying and the compulsion to judge will recede.
posted by jon1270 at 4:24 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd acknowledge your feelings of judgment and move on. Just because you "feel" that way doesn't mean you have to let it affect the way you think about things in a broader context. Think of yourself as a person who has occasional judgmental feelings about others.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:26 AM on April 17, 2009

I would encourage you to be gentle with yourself. This attitude isn't surprising. It's found throughout the stories we tell, whether in movies or political discourse or fairy tales or novels. It's not like anyone in this thread is saying "My god, why would you think that?? That's frankly bizarre!" We're all familiar with it.

I have some gay friends who really struggle with internalized homophobia, and part of what helps them is to simply recognize that it's there and when it's being triggered and to make that awareness part of their decision-making process. Some of these things run so deep that we can't expect them to disappear. It's part of the fabric of our culture. I think we'll always either be using those ideas or reacting to them, because they're always around.

So extend yourself some grace here. As long as you're fighting it head-on, you're also triggering it. Try recognizing when you're reacting that way, gently think "Oh yes, there's my culture again!" and let it go. Don't judge yourself for it. Don't give it that power. Simply become familiar with your roadblocks so you can steer around them.

I would also recommend a few books to give you some more positive ideas about women and sex so you have more ideas floating around in the ether:

The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality by Catherine Blackledge
Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier

These two books gave me more of a fascination for the female body and how our sexuality has been interpreted throughout history. They gave me alternative ideas, and a real sense of wonder. It wasn't until I read these books that I began to feel really lucky to be a woman, to have a woman's body and a woman's relationship to sex.
posted by heatherann at 5:53 AM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

You actually sound like you're dealing with it exactly as you should. You believe in a certain standard for yourself, and are uncomfortable with people who use a different standard. However, you don't try to impose your standard on others, you try (emphasis) not to judge them, or are aware at least when you are judging them. The only thing I would add is that if anyone calls you on this, just explain it-- you've never been able to get past your discomfort with what you would perceive as promiscuity in yourself, and you're very sorry if you've appeared judgmental. And as others said upthread, you may simply outgrow this attitude, or stop caring about other people's private behavior. In the meantime, for you, purity isn't stupid, it's just you. You might try, if the subject comes up, making a little bit of a joke-- "oh you know me, I hate it when people talk about sex." I think, too, that your close friends probably have picked up on this and just take it as part of who you are. Other people, it just doesn't matter that much. People who aren't close to you shouldn't be talking to you about how many sexual partners they've had anyway. Don't judge them for their promiscuity, judge them for their rudeness!

I think we all have areas like this where we're privately uncomfortable with our own attitudes and would be mortified if anyone realized we even held that attitude. You sound like a really thoughtful and sensitive person to me.
posted by nax at 6:28 AM on April 17, 2009

Oh, you asked about books. This sounds like an etiquette issue to me. I recommend Miss Manners, who has a very refreshing way of allowing you your minor foibles as long as you remain polite and avoid hypocrisy. This is the Miss Manners bible. This one draws from the first, as well as from various columns and covers every conceivable situation. You'd be amazed how common sense courtesy can help to shape your own and others' attitudes.

For a general education in feminism and destructive attitudes surrounding women's sexuality, Germain Greer The Female Eunuch (polemic, but entertaining), Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex (which actually deals fairly directly with some of your issues, in an academic way), and Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique, which changed America.
posted by nax at 6:40 AM on April 17, 2009

I'm curious as to why this is coming up so frequently. I don't think there are very many people in the world who know my number, because it's not something I discuss with anyone other than those who are participating--and even then, it's not usually a tally discussion. I could probably estimate but don't know an actual number for almost all of my very close girlfriends. If it's something you're uncomfortable knowing about other people, stop having these discussions.

I have a friend who seems very sex-positive, but has always had a number for herself above which she will not go. This means that she winds up justifying certain encounters ("it wasn't really sex", "it doesn't count because we've done it before"). As she gets older and is unmarried, the number is getting closer and it's driving her crazy. I don't understand why she does this to herself.

If I could go back, there are some people I wish I could warn myself away from. But that doesn't mean I need to beat myself up about my choices, and if I'm not judging myself for my choices, I certainly have no right to judge someone else about their choices. And if someone else was judging me for my choices, they would get cut out of my life post-haste.

So I bring it back to my opening point--why are these conversations coming up so often? How is it that you know these women have had many partners, and why should their decisions even be up for your judgment? Maybe if you can resolve some of these questions, the judgment will go away on its own.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:48 AM on April 17, 2009

So I bring it back to my opening point--why are these conversations coming up so often? How is it that you know these women have had many partners, and why should their decisions even be up for your judgment? Maybe if you can resolve some of these questions, the judgment will go away on its own.

This is a good point, actually. Maybe the problem isn't so much that you are being judgemental, it's that the people around you are starting conversations with way too much information in them. It's perfectly fine to ask if you could all just talk about something else instead, because hearing that much detail is just making you uncomfortable. You don't even have to be "prudish" to think that way -- there are some parts of some people's lives you just plain don't want to know about, you know?

One of my ex-boyfriends and I are like this -- we're old friends now, but we dated for a few months, so we each knows DAMN well what the other's proclivities are -- but neither one of us wants to hear anything about what the other is up to these days, and we've had to remind each other thus a couple times. (I was late to a meeting with him and blurted out the...naughty reason, and he winced and asked me not to get into it, and I've also had to take him aside and ask him to ask his somewhat loose-tongued girlfriend to dial it back a notch.) that's perfectly fine to do. Everyone has a comfort level of stuff, and you're allowed to speak up about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on April 17, 2009

Are there simple arguments or ideas I can meditate on or repeat to myself to defuse the judgment?

I mean this in the nicest way possible but if you are unable to avoid the privilege of a friend trusting you with a story from her sex life, here is what you say to yourself: "My opinion on this topic means nothing."

If you don't want to stop hearing these stories altogether, then take the opportunity to listen. When my scientist friends start talking about assays, my eyes either glaze over or I walk away a little more educated than I was before. Ask questions. Be curious. Relearn a way to think about it. You sound like you realize you are risking friendships if your internal judgments become apparent and it's not worth it. It will take work to reprogram, but since you are so aware, I think it can be done.

As for how you feel about your own sex life, I actually think the opposite tack might work. You are in charge, you get to make your choices, you get to own your mistakes and/or your missed opportunities. Forgive yourself. Sex is a huge part of who we all are, and it's got to be different for everyone, and it can be complicated even for the most free-spirited among us. Are you making the best decisions you can for yourself with the information you have available? Then you are doing it right.
posted by juliplease at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2009

why just girls? why does the number of women a man has slept with have no baring on your judgment? start finding the answers to that and i bet you find some answers to your original questions
posted by nadawi at 10:29 AM on April 17, 2009

Maybe you could look at it this way:

You have a very strong reaction that you wish you didn't have. Assume that your reaction is there for a reason, even if it's not a very good reason. You are judging women with many partners because you fear being a woman with many partners. You have already decided that you don't want to fear being a woman with many partners (or, so I infer - this does not mean you've decided to BE a woman with many partners), but you still fear it - why? Can you figure out what purpose that fear is serving? For example, do you feel as though you would be a promiscuous person if you didn't set very strong limits for yourself? Do you feel as though you might hurt people? Are you afraid of what might happen to other women who have many partners? Worried about their families, their health, their emotional lives?

Maybe there's a way to see that your fear is an unsuccessful way of protecting yourself or others. It's an unskillful way to protect, but it's an attempt nevertheless. Maybe once you sort it out, you'll be able to let it go. Give yourself some slack - you're not a bad person for feeling this way.
posted by Cygnet at 3:24 PM on April 17, 2009

There's nothing wrong with you OP. I just think you have a little too much time on your hands. And I don't say that to be snarky. I really believe that you should try to occupy your time more, find a constructive hobby or project to work on. I think you'll find that your mind is occupied with so many other things that others' sexual habits barely registers. Also, getting more busy might help to boost your own social life, which will similarly leave less time to wonder about or judge others. Sooner than later, as your horizons expand, you'll see how miniscule your friends'/ associates sex lives are on the grand hiearchy of your life's priorities. In other words, I think it's time for some "me" time for you. Good luck--and stop beating yourself up!
posted by GeniPalm at 5:38 PM on April 17, 2009

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