During my last year of college, I learned my suspected virginity had become a topic of conversation among some of my friends. And it was true: I was still a virgin at 22. While I’d had opportunities to have sex before, a combination of shame (thanks to growing up Catholic and a woman) and fear of the unknown held me back.
Even though I ended up having sex before I graduated, the fact that I’d lost my virginity about five years later than the average American woman still loomed in the back of my mind. I even went through a few-month period where I ditched dating altogether because I was terrified of embarrassing myself if I were to find myself in a sexual relationship with someone.
Eventually, I talked to a good friend who felt similarly to me, which made me realize there were likely others going through the same thing. A lack of experience shouldn’t keep me or anyone else out of the game, so I talked to sex educator Dirty Lola as well as therapist and sexuality empowerment coach Christie Federico about what to do in the bedroom when you feel like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
Getting Past the Shame Is a Process
When it comes down to it, the strongest feeling I associate with my lack of experience is shame. Besides being emotionally taxing, shame can also lead to risks such as saying “yes” to sex acts you might not be totally into or ready to try as a means of overcompensation or to try to get practice. It can also lead to unsafe sex based on a lack of knowledge.
"I think those are the biggest things, saying yes when you probably shouldn’t because you think you have to, or that you should, and not knowing safer sex protocol around different things," Dirty Lola says.
She recommends looking into websites like Scarleteen to educate yourself on the basics of sex education and safety. "It is aimed towards teenagers, but I find that it’s super great for adults who aren’t super versed in sex stuff," she tells Allure. "You’re gonna get a nice, straightforward answer to some of your questions that you might feel silly asking. I love it for that." Scarleteen offers advice on everything from communicating sexual boundaries, to leaving an abusive relationship, to using condoms. But when it comes down to it, no matter where you get your advice about having safe sex — from a trusted website to a trusted source you know in real life — the main point is that you ask the questions at all. That way, you’ll feel more confident trying things with new partners, which will also, hopefully, give you the confidence to say “no” to things you don’t want to try.
Education is also an excellent way to explore your sexuality on your own terms. Federico recommends following sex-positive accounts like those run by Luna Matatas and Stevie Boebi, as well as reading books such as Girl Boner by August McLaughlin and Girl Sex 101 by Allison Moon. "Just emphasize on your own exploration and feel confident in that, that will guide your experiences with other people," she says.
If You Have Anxiety Around Sex, You're Not Alone
It’s easy to feel alone in our experiences, especially those that our culture has a tendency to tell us we should have shame or anxiety around, like sex. Feeling inexperienced can create a lot of anxiety. A great way to work through some of this is by searching out blogs, articles, or books written by people who have gone through similar things. When we find out that others feel the same way we do, it can help us navigate our own situations a little bit better, lessen the shame, and remind us that we’re only human.
"I always tell people to look for the blogs. Look for people talking about this stuff because it’ll give you the experience from another person, and not just like a broad spectrum," says Dirty Lola. "I love blogs because people tend to write from their own experience, and you can make your way through and find somebody who maybe whose experience is mirroring something you’re going through."
Dirty Lola recommends checking out The Redhead Bedhead. Its creator, Joellen Notte, discusses the intersection between mental health, trauma, and sex, and it’s an excellent resource for those who are walking a similar path. Podcasts like Shameless Sex, Girl Boner, and Sex With Dr. Jess are also great listens.
It’s also important to remember that anxiety around sex is totally normal. After all, it’s an incredibly intimate thing. Luckily, there are a number of ways to work through it. What’s helpful is understanding where the anxiety is stemming from.
"Often, someone's beliefs around sex and their body need to be worked through in order to feel fully comfortable and confident being themselves in the bedroom, and this is typically best done with the guidance of a professional," says Federico. "Some common beliefs that stop people from being present and enjoying sex and instead cause extreme anxiety are that one must orgasm in order to be a good sexual partner, or that one must have the 'perfect' body in order to be sexy."
Working with a therapist to reroute unhelpful thought patterns and beliefs can help. Furthermore, if you have sexual trauma, this can also cause anxiety around sex. Federico recommends working with a somatic sexologist for trauma resolution work.
Setting Boundaries Around Sex
Boundaries are essential for everything in life, perhaps particularly when it comes to sex. They can be difficult and uncomfortable to set, but they are vital for the health, safety, and wellness of both us and our partners. Talking about what we do and do not feel comfortable doing is crucial before sexually engaging with a new partner.
You don’t have to reveal the fact that you may not totally be into getting choked before the appetizers come out on your first date, but it is important to know that for yourself and discuss your boundaries eventually, ideally before you first have sex with your new partner. It might feel awkward at first, but the more times you have this important conversation, the less daunting it will feel. It just takes a little practice.
Timing does matter, of course, and Dirty Lola recommends feeling out the vibe and also gauging where you’re at with a particular person. Not every person we date is going to become a sexual partner, and that’s totally fine.
"You may not even get to that moment," explains Dirty Lola. "You might just be having a drink, having a good time, but is it clicking in a romantic way?" She emphasizes the importance of going with your gut to see if the person you’re spending time with is someone you can share your boundaries and vulnerabilities with. After all, sex is intimate. It’s perfectly okay to decide that, after all, you actually don’t want to sleep with someone you thought you did.
She continues: "Whenever you feel like this is it, that’s when it’s a good time to pause and be like, 'Hey, so I just wanna talk about a couple of things.'"
It’s in that conversation you can share your likes and dislikes, your experience level, and what you expect to use, barrier-wise. Also, it’s completely fine to let them share first. This can help direct you in sharing your own experiences and help make communicating easier and more open.
"If they’re broaching the conversion, kind of see the things that they’re sharing," suggests Dirty Lola.
How to Pick the Right Sex Partner
Besides establishing what we’re willing to do sexually, boundaries also outline how we want our sexual partners to treat us and what we will accept behaviorally from them. Finding the right partner or partners, long-term or casual, is vital to creating the sex lives we want to lead. Federico recommends taking some time for self-reflection and asking ourselves important questions, like what we want our sex life to look like and how the person we’re with makes us feel both inside and outside the bedroom.
"The standard of the person that we’re looking for should be the same all-around, and that is someone who is respectful of our bodies and ourselves as human beings, and someone who can help us feel emotionally safe. People we just feel comfortable with, who we don’t feel judged by, who we can be honest with about our experience and about what we like and dislikes," she says.
The Importance of Putting Yourself First
Part of becoming more comfortable with sex is knowing what you like. So yeah, we’re talking about masturbating.
"We can also just focus on our own sexuality and our bodies, and one of the best ways we can do that is to have a regular self-pleasure, masturbation practice," says Federico. "So even if you’re not confident with other people or have much experience, you can still get comfortable with your body, learn your likes and dislikes, how you respond to certain stimulation."
And while you’re shopping for a sex toy, many sex shops also offer classes for those who are looking to up their game.
"Most sex shops do some kind of education," says Dirty Lola. Some examples include Pleasurechest and Smitten Kitten which offer courses, resources, and more to help customers feel more confident exploring their sexuality with both themselves and others.
The most important thing to remember when you’re looking to become more confident in your sex life is that your lack of experience in no way defines your future or present — or yourself, for that matter. Dismantling current beliefs and restructuring the way we feel about ourselves, and sex, is vital to making this happen. After all, when we find ways to increase our self-esteem and confidence in general, it often translates to how we feel about ourselves in our most intimate moments
"Any sort of work we can do to become confident in just who we are and raise our self-worth as a person in general, is going to translate to sex and our encounters while we’re dating," says Federico. "Just by not having sexual experience, we’re still going to believe at our core that we still have plenty to bring to the table, that our sex lives aren’t doomed."
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Originally Appeared on Allure