How Modern Culture Condemns Women’s Sexuality

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does modern culture condemn female sexuality? How do cultural messages around sex affect women’s sexual well-being?

According to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, whether we’re aware of it or not, culture dictates our beliefs and ideals, including how we feel about sex. Nagoski tells us that women, in particular, grow up hearing a lot of negative messages about sex, which creates deep-seated feelings of shame and fear that can be detrimental to their sexual experience and well-being.

In this article, we’ll explore the specific messages regarding women’s sexuality that our culture perpetuates and how they negatively impact women.

1. Women Are Morally Impure

The first line of messaging that Nagoski identifies, and perhaps the most deep-rooted, comes from the moral ideals that our culture has developed surrounding sex, and women’s sexuality in particular. For hundreds of years, society has made women feel as if their sexuality makes them morally impure. Specifically, Nagoski says that society teaches us ideas like:

Virginity is women’s most valuable asset, and to lose it makes them impure. (Shortform note: Where did this cultural concept come from? The idolization of virginity arguably rose in popularity with the Roman Catholics’ worship of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Catholics’ devotion to Mary elevated the status of women from source of evil to maiden of purity. Before long, worship of Mary evolved into worship of virginity itself, which placed women’s value almost exclusively on the status of this socially constructed concept.)

If women embrace their sexuality by desiring sex or having multiple partners, they’re shameful. (Shortform note: This treatment of women is notably different from that of men, who are often praised, rather than shamed, for the same behavior. Research suggests that there are both evolutionary and socio-cultural reasons for the development of this double standard.)

Being desired and being loved are mutually exclusive—if women are sexually desirable, they’re automatically unlovable. (Shortform note: One way in which culture communicates this messaging is through the concept of “marriage material”—in other words, a woman must behave according to certain standards to prove she’s worthy of being a wife. For example, relationship gurus often advise women to wait to have sex with a man until at least the third date to gain her partner’s respect.)

Nagoski argues that this messaging teaches women that their sexuality is something awful to repress. And repressing a part of who you are is damaging not only to your sexual experience but also to your overall well-being.

(Shortform note: One major aspect of repressing a part of yourself is repressing your emotions. Research shows that there are physical, psychological, and social consequences of emotional repression. These include a lowered immune system, chronic pain, lack of motivation and sleep, disordered eating, anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and a reduced ability to ask for help and connect with others.)

2. Women Are Abnormal

In addition to these harmful moral ideals, Nagoski tells us that women receive medical messaging that disregards their sexual experience. In particular, they’re told that sex is for reproduction—not pleasure—and any sexual functioning that differs from men, such as her level of desire, is problematic. More specifically, the medical field warns women that:

They should strongly consider functional elements of sex such as the risk of disease and unwanted pregnancy before having it, above any thoughts of pleasure or enjoyment. (Shortform note: Messaging painting sex as a high-risk, functional-only activity often starts in sex education programs. According to an article published by the Center for American Progress, many states require that programs stress abstinence, and when issues of sex are discussed, they focus on pregnancy and STI prevention. What’s more, few states cover topics addressing relational aspects of sex, such as consent and healthy relationships.)

If they do engage in sex, there’s a medically correct way for it to happen, namely desire, then arousal, and then orgasm with their partner. If women’s sexual experience differs in any way from this, they must be medically treated. (Shortform note: Fortunately, it seems as if these ideas may be changing. For example, the Mayo Clinic explicitly states that sexual dysfunction is only a problem if you feel it’s negatively affecting you and your relationship. They also suggest non-medical treatment to deal with sexual issues within your relationship, like talking with your partner, using lubricant and sex toys, and practicing mood-boosting healthy lifestyle habits.) 

3. Women Are Lacking

Nagoski says that a third type of messaging, which has become especially prevalent since the mid-20th century, comes from the media, and it specifically targets women’s sexual confidence. Daily traditional and social media tells women:

They’re boring and prudish if they’re not sexually explorative (for instance, willing to use sex toys or try a variety of different positions). (Shortform note: These expectations aren’t necessarily limited to women. For example, there’s an overall cultural stigma against “vanilla sex,” which is a term we use to refer to boring and conventional sex. Although it was originally intended to refer only to sex practices outside of BDSM and the mainstream media, it now acts as a label used to shame those who are less sexually adventurous.)

Their bodies aren’t good enough, and if they don’t try to change, they’re lazy and full of themselves. 

Nagoski believes that on their own, these messages set impossibly high standards for women, making them unlikely to ever feel adequate in terms of their sexuality. (Shortform note: What’s more, in combination with the other core messages, these ideals create contradictions that obscure what’s right in the eyes of society—should women rein in their sexuality to become purer or be wildly adventurous to avoid others labeling them as dull?)

The Effects of Cultural Context

Nagoski says the negative feelings caused by cultural context can have long-term, damaging effects on women’s sexuality and overall well-being. She focuses on two of these interrelated effects in particular: self-criticism and sexual disgust.

Self-Criticism

The first negative effect of cultural context that Nagoski identifies is self-criticism, which usually takes the form of criticism toward the body. Research shows that there’s a direct connection between this type of self-criticism and harm to a woman’s sexual well-being. This is because self-criticism creates stress, which as we know, inhibits sexual response.

(Shortform note: While research suggests that women are more severely impacted by negative body image, men are far from immune. One study, for example, found that over 90% of men struggle with body dissatisfaction. What’s more, men may face different effects than women. Specifically, research shows they’re more prone to substance abuse and atypical eating disorders and also seek treatment for body image issues less frequently than women.)

Unfortunately, despite the harm caused by self-criticism, Nagoski argues that it’s difficult for women to abandon because our culture encourages it. She says that two ways in which this is accomplished are by distorting self-criticism into something positive and convincing women that fat is something to avoid at all costs. Let’s look at each in detail.

Sexual Disgust

Nagoski tells us that another negative effect of cultural context is sexual disgust. To define what this is and why it’s harmful, we must first understand general disgust and why we experience it.

In basic terms, disgust is a withdrawal response we have toward things that we consider gross. What each of us perceives as gross isn’t innate but learned through experience. Nagoski explains that according to one theory, disgust developed as an evolutionary strategy to avoid dangerous contaminants, such as vomit: When we encounter a contaminant, we experience an immediate reaction that draws us away. Over time, humans have learned to generalize this withdrawal response to conceptual contaminants as well, meaning that we’re disgusted by not only the sight of vomit but also the mere thought of it.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski’s discussion of disgust centers on one single theory, in reality, experts have proposed many theories to explain our inherent withdrawal response. Some of the alternatives include the taste-toxicity theory, which frames disgust as protection against ingesting unhealthy substances, the animal-heritage theory, which explains disgust as humans’ natural withdrawal from things that remind us of our animal origins, and the death theory, which links disgust to a fear of death.)

So if disgust is the experience of withdrawing from things we’ve learned to find repulsive, sexual disgust is the same experience but specifically in response to sex-related stimuli. How do we come to find such things revolting? Nagoski claims that our culture—heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions—has taught us to feel disgusted by many natural aspects of sex (for example, the sound of a queef, which is a release of air from the vagina). (Shortform note: Here, Nagoski presents disgust as a negative reaction that disrupts our sexual enjoyment. However, in other cases, our sexual disgust response becomes incredibly important. For example, we’re largely repulsed by things such as incest, rape, and pedophilia, which are destructive sexual behaviors.)

What’s more, Nagoski adds, research shows that women are more sensitive to learned disgust than men, especially in terms of sex-related triggers. And depending on the woman, it can take as little as one instance of a negatively portrayed sex-related stimulus for her brain to classify it as disgusting. (Shortform note: While it’s true that women are more sensitive to learned disgust, research has yet to provide a conclusive answer for why this is the case—though there are some theories. One potential explanation is that women are better able to reproduce when they avoid things that could infect them or their children with disease.)

According to Nagoski, the reason sexual disgust harms our sexual experience is that, much like stress, disgust also inhibits sexual response. Therefore, the more aspects of sex that repulse us, the lower our desire. (Shortform note: Though Nagoski points out the negative impact that disgust can have on sexual response, she doesn’t speak to its potential to negatively affect our relationship if our partner doesn’t share the same disgust triggers. For example, if you’re repulsed by anal sex but your partner isn’t, you may feel confused or even disgusted by your partner for taking an interest in something you find revolting.)

Strategies to Combat the Negative Effects of Cultural Context

Nagoski says that there are three strategies we can use to combat self-criticism and sexual disgust’s impact on our sexual experience and overall well-being:

Strategy #1: Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is the unconditional love we have for ourselves. Citing research by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Nagoski tells us it has three components: treating ourselves with kindness, viewing our suffering as a point of connection with others, and being nonjudgmental about what’s happening in the present moment. Nagoski also clarifies that, despite the stigma self-compassion carries in society, it isn’t about self-esteem or self-indulgence.

(Shortform note: In addition to the cultural misconceptions about self-compassion that Nagoski mentions, Kristin Neff identifies several other myths that prevent us from fully embracing the practice, including the ideas that self-compassion is selfish, a kind of self-pity, a sign of weakness, and a practice that makes us complacent about self-improvement. In reality, practicing self-kindness, connection, and nonjudgmental thinking makes us more motivated, capable of loving others, able to cope with life’s difficulties, and positive about negative experiences.)

By being kind to ourselves and foregoing judgment, we can not only counter our culturally-ingrained self-criticism but also begin to build awareness of, and resistance to, our sexual disgust triggers.

(Shortform note: Another reason why self-compassion is beneficial is that it makes us more caring and supportive of our partner. Research shows that when we’re self-critical, we’re more detached, aggressive, and controlling in our relationship with our partner. In contrast, when we treat ourselves with compassion, we’re more gentle, accepting, and supportive of our partner’s autonomy.)

Strategy #2: Confront Cognitive Dissonance

(Shortform note: While Nagoski suggests that we confront cognitive dissonance, she doesn’t explain what it actually is and how it manifests in terms of cultural context. Cognitive dissonance is when we have inconsistent thoughts or beliefs. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is our tendency to judge ourselves by harsher standards than we would other people. In particular, we readily judge our bodies with criticisms—criticisms passed to us by cultural context—that would never cross our minds when thinking of others.)

To combat cognitive dissonance, Nagoski suggests a daily practice of examining your naked body in the mirror and listing everything you like. When self-critical thoughts arise, let them go by reconnecting with your younger, non-judgmental self. In other words, remember the perspective you had of your body before society taught you to internalize self-criticism. 

By doing this every day, Nagoski assures you that you can gradually unlearn the cultural tendency of self-judgment, as well as the self-disgust your body may trigger.

Strategy #3: Ignore Negative Media

According to Nagoski, exposing ourselves to media that reinforces self-criticism harms our self-esteem and encourages self-criticism. She suggests that the solution to these issues is to stop consuming media that makes us feel bad about ourselves and instead fill our feeds with media that makes us feel comfortable with who we are.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski’s recommendation to ignore negative media can be an effective self-esteem booster, research shows that women who fill their feeds with body-positive images still end up objectifying themselves. In other words, they focus their attention more heavily on their appearance than other qualities. One solution to this problem could be to fill your feed with non-body-related content, such as content about your favorite hobbies.)

How Modern Culture Condemns Women’s Sexuality

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Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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