To create and sustain healthy intimate relationships, we often need to go back to the original building blocks of our sexual socialization and see how our patterns of sexual behavior took shape.
We need to look at how we were modeled - or, in other words, what we learned and internalized about sex and relationships throughout our childhood and adolescence, and how those experiences affected the ways we “mate and relate” today. I often ask people to think about the following statements and whether they are true or false:
1. From what I know and remember of my earliest childhood years, physical affection was a regular source of comfort and love. (For example, do you remember your mother or father tucking you in with a kiss at night? Do you have early memories of being picked up and hugged by one or both parents?)
2. My parents had different approaches to providing affection to my siblings and me. (For instance, in many cases, fathers are more comfortable rough-housing with boys than with girls.)
3. Growing up, my parents were always affectionate with each other. (Do you remember your parents hugging or kissing? Did they seem physically comfortable and connected? Or were they cold and distant?)
4. My parents employed physical means of discipline. (Did your parents ever reprimand you with a hand or belt? Was the method routine? Was it specific to only one parent? Was physicality something you associated more with punishment than affection in your childhood?)
5. As I grew older, my parents were less comfortable showing affection. (Were your parents more standoffish as you matured through puberty and adolescence? Were you aware of any differences in how your mother and father physically interacted with you?)
Whether these statements are “true” or “false” for you can offer valuable insight into your current views of sexuality. In her book "Sex Smart," Dr. Aline Zoldbrod examines how childhood shapes one's adult sexual life, and she divides home environments into the seven following types based on how sexual topics are handled. Can you identify your own childhood environment with any of these broad types?*
1. The ideal environment. In this happy home, sexual curiosity is encouraged, questions about sex are answered with age-appropriate information and privacy and independence are respected and actively cultivated.
2. The predominantly nurturing environment. This environment is similar to the ideal environment, albeit with some glaring gaps. For instance, a parent or sibling suffers from intermittent periods of depression or illness, or a divorce and remarriage cause a break in the seamless functioning of the ideal environment.
3. The evasive environment. In this scenario, parents generally avoid the subject of sex and foster an environment where asking about sexual matters is uncomfortable. This is often consistent with a family where the parents are not openly affectionate with each other, even if they are affectionate to their children.
4. The permissive environment. At the other end of the spectrum is the home where sex is discussed too openly, with parents providing too much information too soon. In such a home, parents generally share intimate information with their children about their own sex lives and actively encourage their children to experiment sexually at too young an age to appreciate the emotional and psychological consequences.
5. The negative environment. In such a home, nonmarital sex is not merely avoided but treated as immoral, providing a fertile nesting ground for homophobia, misogyny and sexual problems in later life, including fear of masturbation, inability to achieve orgasm in women and premature ejaculation in men.
6. The seductive environment. In this scenario, relationships between parents and children or siblings are not overtly sexual, but are tinged with an inappropriate level of sexuality, including the routine discussion of age-inappropriate sexual matters.
7. The overtly sexual environment (or what I would term the abusive environment). This home is characterized by inappropriate sexual contact between a parent and child. Just to be absolutely clear, this inappropriate contact does constitute sexual abuse, even if the child often doesn't recognize it as such or blocks it out. Whether the abuse happens just once or occurs over an extended period of time or is inflicted by a member of the immediate family or extended family of friends and relatives, growing up in an overtly sexual home can inflict long-term damage that impedes the ability to engage in healthy adult sexual relationships. From fear of intimacy to anger to lack of desire to promiscuity, overcoming the legacy of growing up in an overtly sexual environment requires time, work and professional counseling.
We can't change where we came from, but we can affect the environment we create for our kids. As the Beatles wrote, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”