Discovering Your Sexual Personality In a New Era of HIV
Circus trainers know that chaining up an elephant is easy as long as they start when it’s a baby. A young elephant calf will struggle at first, but it will eventually give up and accept its tether. As the elephant grows into a 10,000-pound adult, it could easily break free, but it never tries. It grew up believing that the chain is too strong. The power of a mental chain can shackle the strongest land mammal on the planet.
Our sexuality can be like that tethered elephant. Mental chains formed in our youth can stay with us into adulthood. If we don’t free ourselves, we may never discover our sexual personality—all the deeply personal ways we can use sex to bring us joy, connect us to others, and express the core of who we are.
I’m a psychotherapist who talks to all kinds of people about sex, love and intimacy. Many of my clients had their sexual personalities tethered at an early age—something I can certainly relate to. From as far back as I can remember, shame and fear shackled my sexual personality by focusing all my attention on whether I was “safe.”
As a boy, I hid my sexuality because being gay was unsafe. My sexuality put me at risk of shame, rejection and physical violence. Even after coming out, I gravitated toward spaces and people I thought were queer friendly and stayed away from those I thought might be unsafe.
Once I started having sex, safety wielded even more power over me. I grew up flooded by messages that certain kinds of sex meant suffering and death. I was terrified of HIV, and my only protection was to be sexually “safe.” For most of my life, my preoccupation with safety bound my sexual personality.
There was a time when this preoccupation with safety kept us alive. That’s no longer true today. With treatment, HIV-positive men can stay healthy and have an extremely low likelihood of ever infecting anyone else. Negative men can take PrEP every day and possibly eliminate their risk of infection. We’ve entered a new era in which the definition of “safe” has changed. But, just like the adult elephant, many of us are still holding ourselves captive.
I worry that we are preventing ourselves from discovering who we are as sexual beings and cutting off a vital source of expression and nourishment. For the first time in generations, we have a chance to reclaim our sexual personality. For so long, sex brought death; now, sex can bring us to life again. Bur first, we have to re-teach our emotional brains. We have to break free from our chains and re-imagine our sexuality. How can we do this?
Condom worship holds us back
Condom worship happens when our emotional brains attach moral value to the sexual rules that once helped us survive. Condoms are useful when used properly, but condom worship says using condoms is “good” and maximizing pleasure is “bad.” Accepting this simplistic idea without question inhibits sexual empowerment and prevents us from embracing our sexual personality.
All pleasure has possible consequences. You can pull a muscle playing sports, damage your hearing at a concert, and get a sexually transmitted infection from sex. Although some infections can be difficult or expensive to treat, sex isn’t nearly as risky as it used to be if you’re on PrEP or have an undetectable viral load. A condom-worshiping mentality tells us that sexual consequences are shameful and that someone with an STI isn’t “clean.” This way of thinking is damaging and at odds with a well-informed, sex-positive approach to sexual health. An STI should be no more shameful than a case of tennis elbow.
How do we let go of our preoccupation with the old rules? The solution isn’t to be reckless, it’s to become empowered. We need to be empowered to let go of obsolete fears and prejudices so we can discover our own rules without shame. We need to be empowered to proclaim that pleasure is our birthright. We don’t need to earn our pleasure by being “good boys and girls” who blindly follow someone else’s definition of morality. We run into problems when our love of pleasure becomes an addiction, but we can’t learn how to balance pleasure with responsibility unless we give ourselves permission to get it wrong and receive wisdom from our mistakes.
Compulsive sexual rebellion holds us back, too
We might be restricting our sexual personality even after we think we’ve broken free of old chains. Determined to never again experience the shackles of shame and fear, our emotional brains might compulsively rebel against all sexual limitations.
Proudly indulging our sexuality can help liberate us from decades of prudish shame and oppression. I fully support reclaiming our sexual power. However, compulsively rebelling against all sexual inhibition actually limits our ability to explore our sexual personality.
Our sexual personality has a celibate side that we can’t explore if we compulsively rebel against limitations. We’re used to understanding celibacy as moralistic repression or abstinence—no wonder we resist it. I think it’s more helpful to imagine celibacy as the part of our sexual personality that channels and transforms our raw sexual energy.
Raw sexual energy is powerful and primal. If our only outlet for that energy is to have sex, it can overwhelm us. It might cause us to define our worth by our attractiveness or sexual prowess. It might cause us to treat others as objects for our pleasure. It might cause us to compulsively scramble to find one release after another and never be satisfied. It might cause us to lose our sexual joy.
Our celibate side expands our erotic potential by providing more outlets for our raw sexual energy. It empowers us to experience intimacy, sensual pleasure, and even orgasm in ways that are not literally sexual.
The solution to compulsive sexual rebellion isn’t abstinence. Celibacy isn’t all-or-nothing—it’s a state of mind that we can weave into our lives moment by moment. We engage our celibate side when we savor the sensual flavors and textures of a meal or throw ourselves passionately into our work. We exercise celibacy when we learn how to enjoy time alone instead of focusing on our fear of missing out. We bring celibacy to social gatherings when we don’t let sexual attractions control who we talk to or ignore. Exploring how our celibate side can enhance our sexuality requires us to befriend healthy inhibitions.
Exploration is the answer
I don’t know what your sexual personality looks like or what a healthy sexuality means for you. As a psychotherapist, I’m more interested in helping you explore your own answers. Think about your sex life. Do you to cling to notions of “safe” versus “unsafe” or judge people whose sexual personality doesn’t match your own? On the flip side, does even the notion of inhibiting your raw sexual energy sound offensive? If so, chains from the past might be binding you. Step out of your comfort zone and explore what you’ve been resisting. You’ll know you’ve found the right balance when you stop worrying about the kinds of sex other people are having and your own sex life brings you joy.
Justin Natoli is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA (LMFT #88839). He works with a wide variety of clients and issues, but his primary area of expertise is in sex, love, and intimacy. For more information, go to JustinNatoli.com or contact him at JNatoli.LMFT@gmail.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of BETA or of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. BETA serves as a resource on new developments in HIV prevention, evolving approaches to HIV treatment, and strategies for living well with HIV. Our goal is to inform, empower, and inspire conversation.