As a clinician who frequently works with sexual problems, I talk about genitals a lot! A lot! As I embark on these conversations with my clients, I have noticed how many people either don’t use the correct words for their genitals, or don’t even say the words at all. One of the most common errors I see is that people commonly say men have a penis and women have a vagina. While this is true, they are not the equivalent of one another.
I see this error in common culture verbiage also, people
referring to the female genitalia only as her vagina. The vagina however is one
part of the female genitals. It is the canal that leads from the vaginal
opening to the cervix. This is an internal part of the female anatomy. I hear
many people use the word “vagina” to refer to a woman’s external genitalia.
This would be somewhat equivalent to calling the male external genitals a vas
deferens (male internal tube) instead of a penis.
What people mean to say is that men have a penis and women
have a vulva. Vulva is the correct term to refer to the external female
genitals. It is made up of the 2 sets of lips called the labia majora and
minora. It protects the internal components of the female reproductive system.
So, next time you say the word vagina, make sure you are
referring to the correct anatomy. If you have never even said the word vulva, I
encourage you to start using it as the appropriate term for female external
Sexuality is a charged topic for both adults and some children. Messages about what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate are woven into the fabric of our cultural traditions, moral codes of conduct, and family systems. Negative messages cause a great deal of harm, mainly when the message contains sexual shaming. Masturbation is one of these topics.
Masturbation is extremely common, yet because it is private, we don’t talk about it with our children or a spouse. According to research, self-stimulation is a normal activity experienced by nearly all people starting at very young ages and can be observed in utero (Yang et al., 2005). Masturbation (like any behavior) can be both healthy and problematic; it is also experienced differently based on age. It well understood that nearly all males and most females will, at some point in their lifetime, masturbate.
When is it Healthy?
Nearly all professionals agree age-appropriate stages of self-stimulation is healthy. For example, exploring one’s body and how it responds sexually is a beneficial aspect of maturation. Men and women can learn what an orgasm is, so they are better equipped to educate their spouse on what types of sexual touch they enjoy. Also, individuals can use masturbation to self-sooth as a coping mechanism for mood regulation. For many people who (for whatever reason) are not in an intimate relationship, masturbation can be a healthy outlet to release sexual tension. Many relationships do not have an equal balance of libido. For some “higher libido” partners, masturbation can offer a method to balance sexual needs.
When is it Not Healthy?
Behaviors become problematic when they negatively impact, work, school, or one’s social life. Like all sexual behaviors, masturbation may conflict with religious values. In a recent study from students at Brigham Young University, researchers reported the perception of pornography (a common corollary with masturbation) is the primary predictor of negative outcomes, not the pornography use itself (Leonhardt, Willoughby, Young-Peterse, 2018). It is important to inventory what our values are and why we have them. It can be helpful to challenge what we believe, while still honoring our values and the values of others. In many situations, individuals with strict religious tenets regarding masturbation find themselves in harmful shame cycles leading to increased rates of depression, compulsivity, or suicidal ideation (Beagan & Hattie, 2015). Researchers don’t diminish the value of traditional moral values. However, they do suggest creating a healthy relationship with our values within the normal range of human experiences.
Myths about Masturbation
We tell stories and create myths to justify attitudes about sexuality. Some common myths include masturbation causes homosexuality, is an addiction, leads to infidelity, will lower sexual desire, create hypersexuality, may cause you to go blind, and causes cancer in men. These things are not true. However, there are things that do occur. For example, a partner may feel betrayed when they learn their spouse masturbates. Couples can contract what cheating is, and what betrayal is. Feelings of betrayal are especially common when erotic material is involved. People engage in negatively impacting habit-forming behaviors with all sorts of things, including masturbation. Also, some coping mechanisms prevent healthy attachment in relationships.
Talking about Masturbation to our Children
It’s helpful for parents to have discussions with their children about masturbation in age-appropriate ways. For example, 5-year-old children don’t typically need to learn about orgasm mechanics, but talking about what “feels good” is more appropriate. Also, shaming a child by saying, “don’t touch that,” could be replaced with useful comments such as “that feels good, maybe you should do that in private.”. Children without parental guidance will learn about masturbation from friends or erotic material. Pornography doesn’t typically represent healthy sexual education. It is also beneficial to create safety for children, so as they begin to explore their sexuality (in person or with others), they feel safe to engage a parent about their experiences. Normalizing sexual desire, response, and anxieties create wellbeing for developing children. Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that not all children have the same sexual interests, levels of desire, or attractions at the same age as other children. It’s important to meet our children where they are at.
Talking about Masturbation to a Partner
An important aspect of contracting between couples includes the topic of masturbation. As a part of healthy sexual practices, discussing what is acceptable (or not) is essential. While there are many options, some couples will incorporate self-pleasuring behaviors into their relationship as a method to balance sex-drive differences. Often one partner may feel betrayal if they learn their spouse masturbates. When couples talk openly with each other about their feelings and attitudes regarding sexuality, it usually removes the stress in these situations. A good place to start is becoming aware of your own sexual biases and perspectives. Some couples find it helpful to discuss these feelings with a competent therapist. It’s important to remember masturbation doesn’t constitute cheating. Marriage isn’t the antidote for fulfilling all sexual needs. Many married people masturbate. Much of the time, masturbation creates better sexual experiences for couples.
Talking about Masturbation to Church Leaders
In many faith traditions, ecclesiastical leaders counsel parishioners regarding sexual behavior. Not all religions have sex-positive perspectives. In many cases, such leaders have no training regarding sexuality, trauma, or psychological situations. A lack of training can be problematic. This doesn’t suggest the support of an ecclesiastical leader cannot be helpful. Individuals seeking counsel from their church leader should remember boundaries are essential. It’s okay to tell a church leader what questions or statements are inappropriate or feel uncomfortable. This is especially true for parents whose children may be questioned regarding their sexual behavior, to communicate what forms of communication are acceptable and what is not.
Leonhardt, N. D., Willoughby, B. J., & Young-Petersen, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 357-368.
Beagan, B. L., & Hattie, B. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and LGBTQ identity integration. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 9(2), 92-117.Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics, 116(6), 1427-1432.
Most people are aware that eating healthy and exercising will result in a smaller waistline. I am not sure, however, that people understand the impact eating healthy and exercising have on your mental health. Think about it: your brain is a body part, right? If poor eating can make your heart suffer and not function properly, why wouldn’t poor eating make your brain suffer as well?
There is a lot of scientific research supporting the fact that eating a whole foods, plant-based diet can improve mood and decrease the occurrence of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. In a study published in the 2012 Nutritional Journal, participants who decreased consumption of meat, fish, and poultry improved several mood scores in just a few weeks. In 2009 Arch Intern Med, Dr. Grant Brinkworth and colleagues found that a high carbohydrate, low fat, and low protein diet (plant-based) resulted in significantly lower rates of depression and anxiety. These are just a few of the many studies showing the mental health benefits of eating a plant-based diet.
Part of the benefit of eating plants is that there are thousands and thousands of chemicals and nutrients that our body uses on a cellular level to rebuild and repair itself. Scientists haven’t even identified all the advantages to these chemicals and nutrients there are so many. We need to trust our body to use nature to be in optimal health. The evidence is clear: our brain needs natural plant food to function the most optimally. Sadly, we are often misinformed on nutrition-related topics because there are a lot of people who make a lot of money if you eat poorly (there isn’t necessarily a lot of money for marketers to make off of you if you follow a plant-based diet).
When it comes to exercise, most people think of endorphins and all that jazz. This is all good and well, but I love exercise for my clients more for its ability to increase distress tolerance. Physical exercise is ALWAYS a mental exercise also. If I can push my body to a point of discomfort for my overall benefit, what else can I do that is hard? If you talk to avid exercisers, none of them say, “Yeah, I have been doing this long enough that it doesn’t hurt anymore. I feel only pleasure in mile 13.” Seasoned athletes still experience discomfort and pain (if not more) but have learned to tolerate it.
Your increased distress tolerance works as a shield against debilitating hardship. I have seen so many clients begin to exercise and all of a sudden, they have increased confidence and start to believe they can do hard things! While going to the gym may not seem like a big deal, it is a huge deal for your brain. The important key to implement this is to find an activity YOU love. If it isn’t running on a treadmill, then don’t do that. Walk your dogs or play frisbee or do something else entirely.
Some clients I have are weary of taking mood-altering pharmaceuticals, but are they bothered enough to get really uncomfortable and change their eating and movement patterns? I am not suggesting that research shows these changes to be a direct cure for mental health problems. Research can’t entirely do that. However, I am suggesting that it is certainly worth adding to the tool box and trying in order to have an overall better mood and mental health.
For more tips and support changing your lifestyle to improve your mental health, schedule an appointment today!
Parents, starting next week we have a Tween group for kids ages 11 – 13. This group will promote healthy relationships and communication between adults and peers as they prepare to enter Jr. High and Middle School. The group will use expressive arts and group activities that help the children to engaged in skills that they will use for the rest of their life.
Yes, we are going there. Though people come to therapy to talk about hard things, or things that take a lot of courage to say, the topic of changing physical attraction seems to be on the forbidden list. Try as I may to create a comfortable and safe environment for couple to discuss this very normal challenge, people won’t talk about it.
The truth is, ALL bodies change! Not one person is going to bed next to the same body that they initially married. We wrinkle, give birth, gain weight, lose weight, lose hair, lose body parts, get cancer, change skin tone and hair color, find stretch marks, get shorter, become less mobile, lose teeth, struggle becoming erect or lubricating, etc. I could go on and on. We are living organisms, and this earth breaks down living organisms over time. In fact, some estimates say that on average a person’s body is growing or developing only until around age 21, after which it is declining, breaking down, aging, and dying. The moral of the story; it is normal and it happens to all of us!
So, then the next question is, how does this impact your sexuality? For most of us, we need to re-evaluate what is physically attractive about our partner, or how much we value what our partner’s body looks like. Sadly, the solution I hear most people using to cope with these changes is to just turn the lights off. I don’t think turning a blind eye is the healthiest of solutions.
Might I suggest instead, changing your insides in tandem with those changing outsides.
Don’t have 1 dimensional sex. If you are hyper focused on your body or your partner’s body, you may be stuck in just the physical dimension of sex. Sex has the potential to be much more than that. According to Dr. Gina Ogden, sex should include body, mind, spirit and heart. Do you fixate on parts of your partner’s body during sex or have you ever thought about how much you love their kindness or nature or humility during sex? What parts of your partner are you currently neglecting to make love with, that may bring more satisfaction?
Within that physical dimension of sex, don’t focus on the parts of your own or your partner’s body that you are dissatisfied with. Rather, focus on the parts of their body you do enjoy. For instance, you could obsess about a fat roll, or you could admire their strong shoulders or beautiful eyes, or the sound of their voice.
Lastly, stop consuming large volumes of media that communicates inaccurate and unrealistic expectations of what bodies “should” look like. Research shows that our inaccurate interpretations of reality are directly related to how much media we consume. If you are going to bed expecting your spouse to look like the media version of a 21-year-old, 34-year-old, or 59-year-old, you will likely be disappointed. Comparing your partner’s body or your own body to anyone else’s body, is not going to serve your sexual relationship.
Work with your spouse to create new sexual expectations. I would guess that as you re-evaluate some of the expectations you have in your sex life, you will likely feel less shame and experience more connection and pleasure from sex.
If you and your spouse would like to create more meaningful and more pleasurable sexual experience, make an appointment today.
If you are a woman, you’ve likely had insecurities about how you look. The topic of women’s issues with body image and their appearance is one that’s been studied by therapists for years. Whether it’s eating disorders, media messaging, puberty, or weight loss, there’s a lot to discuss and think about when it comes to how women and girls think about themselves. What’s more is that Pew Research indicates that even today, women are still valued more for their looks than for their minds. Clearly, we have some work to do.
In 1949, Hank Williams composed the song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The single reached # 4 on the Country charts that year, and many great legends followed to record the song as well; Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley just to name a few.
As you read and ponder the lyrics below; what memories and emotions come to mind?
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill He sounds too blue to fly The midnight train is whining low I’m so lonesome I could cry
I’ve never seen a night so long When time goes crawling by The moon just went behind the clouds To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep When leaves began to die? Like me, he’s lost the will to live I’m so lonesome I could cry
The silence of a falling star Lights up the purple sky And as I wonder where you are I’m so lonesome I could cry.
A recent article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” reports that there is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet the rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. Another article (this one in Psychology Today) expresses it this way: “Even though our need to connect is innate, some of us always go home alone. You could have people around you throughout the day or even be in a lifelong marriage and still experience a deep, pervasive loneliness. Unsurprisingly, isolation can have a serious detrimental effect on one’s mental and physical health.”
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness has been described as a social pain and an unmet longing to connect, physically and emotionally with someone else. It has been linked to depression, anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, sleep problems, tiredness, lack of motivation, cognitive decline, heart disease, and even suicide. People who are lonely often share certain characteristics. These include having experienced trauma and loss during their lifetime and having spent their childhood years being cared for by individuals who have harsh, critical and negative parenting skills. In children, a lack of social connection is directly linked to several forms of antisocial and self-destructive behavior.
How is Loneliness Treated?
Doctors are recommending that individuals who experience loneliness be evaluated for possible symptoms of depression and anxiety; as well as receiving treatment from a mental health professional if warranted. Don’t allow loneliness to impair your physical and emotional health or affect your rate of mortality. Our therapists here at Wasatch Family Therapy are available to treat loneliness and improve your quality of life.
Dr. Tina Sellers, author of Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, defines sexual shame as “a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being, and a belief of being abnormal, inferior, and unworthy.”
Most of us grew up in a culture where parents didn’t often talk openly with their kids about bodies and sex, and a good number of us still don’t really know what to say to our own kids about the topic. In schools, many sex-education courses focuses on abstinence and skirt around topics deemed more appropriate for home discussions. Combined with our distorted, sex-saturated media, it’s no wonder so many individuals grow up with feelings of shame or inadequacy surrounding their bodies and their sexuality.
These feelings interfere with the development of our most important relationships, but they don’t have to.
Dr. Sellers suggests four steps for overcoming sexual shame:
The first step is to Frame. Framing means gaining accurate information on sexuality. Some of my favorite books on bodies, sex, and intimacy are:
For kids: “Sex is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg
For girls: “The Care and Keeping of You” by Valorie Schaefer
For boys: “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy” by Andrew Smiler
For parents of teens: “For Goodness Sex” by Al Vernacchio
On female sexuality: “Come as You Are” by Emily Nagoski
On male sexuality: “The New Male Sexuality, Revised Edition” by Bernie Zilbergeld
For LDS couples: “What Your Parents Didn’t Tell You About Sex” by Anthony Hughs
There are many more great resources out there. Having accurate and open information about your body and what “normal” looks like can help dispel the sexual myths you may have picked up growing up or through media. Education can calm anxiety and help lay out a plan for gaining the approach to sexuality that you’d like to have in your life.
Dr. Sellers’ second step is to Name. This means finding a group you feel safe in, where you can tell your story and feel heard. This could be a therapy group, it could be a book group (using any of the above suggestions!), it could be an online support group. The important thing is to find a place where people can really hear and understand you so that you can name, or verbalize your own story.
The third step is Claim: Where sex is used so commonly to sell products (either by sexualizing our lunch or pointing out our flaws in order to get us to buy the product that will “fix” everything), media and marketing can throw a real punch to our sense of self worth. We need to claim our right to be okay just the way we are. If this is an area you struggle with, reading books and sharing your story can help, but sometimes you might find you need extra help learning to heal internalized shame. Find a therapist to talk to. Practice challenging negative self-talk. Claim the amazing things that make you who you are.
The last step is Aim. Aim means to write a new story for yourself. We all have stories or narratives that we tell ourselves, and if the old one hasn’t been helpful, begin writing a new story. Learning to look at your past in new ways can help open up potential for growth and new discoveries in your future. Let the keyword for your new narrative be “hope.”
If you have struggled with shame in connection with your body or sexuality and it’s holding you back from creating the connection and pleasure you hope for in your relationships, call and schedule an appointment today at 801-944-4555.
So someone in your life is going to be having a baby. How exciting! This can be a very fun time, not only for the expectant parents, but also for friends and family awaiting the arrival of a new little baby into the world. As someone who is currently pregnant and expecting my third child in a few weeks, I can say that while having people be interested and excited about your pregnancy is wonderful, there are also some comments that one could live without. If you are one of the many who is sometimes looking for ways to talk to someone in your life (or even a random stranger) about her pregnancy, here are a few of the “do’s and don’ts”:
“Wow, you’re sure getting big!”
Any variation of this kind of statement is inappropriate. Things such as “Wow! You look like you’re going to pop any day!” or “Yep-you definitely look pregnant!” feel like you may as well be saying, “You look horrible and fat. I’ve definitely noticed your weight gain.” Individuals who make these kind of statements may think it’s okay to do so because a woman is expected to grow during her pregnancy, but it still doesn’t feel good to a vulnerable pregnant woman who already may be feeling uncomfortable and insecure with all the constant body changes that come with carrying a child. If you want to show that you notice or would like to acknowledge someone’s pregnancy, all you simply need to say is “You look great! How are you feeling?” or ask basic questions about the impending arrival, such as the due date, gender, etc.
“You shouldn’t wish for your pregnancy to end. Once it does, you’re not going to get any sleep, and you’ll be drowning in diapers!”
Sometimes, especially towards the end of a pregnancy, an expectant mother is asked about if she’s “ready” for her baby to come. She may reply by expressing just how ready she is, (because she can’t wait for the discomfort of pregnancy to end), people often fire back with this type of response. When a woman becomes pregnant, is she not supposed to want a baby at the end of it? Do you think she got pregnant because she loves morning sickness, aches, pains, heartburn, and low energy and just hopes it lasts forever?! There is enough anxiety and worry about the arrival of a new baby that pregnant women don’t need more negativity-even if it’s meant to be said in jest. If a person is talking about wanting to be done, a nice response might be, “I’m so excited for you! I can’t wait to meet the new addition!” or “When you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, let me know. I’d be happy to watch baby for a couple of hours while you get some extra sleep.”
“Just wait! Adding another kid is going to be so hard! It’s a game changer!”
This is another kind of comment that raises anxiety and fear during pregnancy when there’s already enough there as it is. Most pregnant women are already stressing about how they are going to adjust to adding a new member to their family, or becoming a parent for the first time, and they really need to feel support and empowerment from those around them. If you’re worried about someone you know and their ability to adjust, or if they are expressing concern about it, a helpful way to respond would be, “When your baby comes, how can I help you? I’m confident you’ll adjust just fine, but how can I help to make the transition less stressful for you?”
“Can I touch your belly?”
While it is better to at least ask than simply run up to a pregnant woman and start rubbing their stomach, it’s usually better just not to ask at all. Rule of thumb-if it’s something you wouldn’t do to someone that’s not pregnant, it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily like it even though they are pregnant. Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to personal space, and most women I’ve talked to who have experienced pregnancy (myself included) don’t wish to be touched in this way. However, even by asking, they are placed in the awkward position to either have to tell you “no,: or just go along with it even though they feel uncomfortable. If you’re just dying to touch someone’s pregnant belly, maybe “feel them out” first. Ask them how they’ve felt about this subject, or how they’ve responded to this before in order to get an idea of whether of not they’d be okay with you asking. Otherwise, simply wait for an invitation. If you have the type of relationship with someone where they’d want you to feel their belly, they will likely get excited when they start to feel kicks and ask you if you’d like to feel.
“Can I be in the delivery room when your baby is born?”
This is another situation where you simply need to wait for an invitation. Giving birth can be an incredibly stressful and overwhelming experience (not to mention a personal one). I’ve known of women who ended up allowing people in the room they didn’t want to have in there, simply because they didn’t want to say “no.” They then are deprived of the type of delivery experience they wanted. If you want to be truly supportive of the arrival of a baby, allow the parents of that child to decide what type of experience they want. If they want you in the room, they’ll ask.
I realize that these type of comments aren’t meant to be harmful, and that by in large, people are often just trying to express their excitement about and support of a pregnancy. If you have been guilty of these types of comments, don’t feel bad! None of us is perfect, and we often don’t realize the way something can come across. Hopefully after reading through some of the alternatives, you feel better equipped to connect with the pregnant women in your life.