Is My Partner Controlling Me? 9 Ways To Handle Being Sex-Shamed By A Partner
Spoilers ahead for The Bachelorette, season 15, episode 9.
While promos have been gearing us up for weeks to witness Luke P.'s demise on The Bachelorette, finally witnessing the confrontation last night was simultaneously satisfying and incredibly frustrating. What started with him uncomfortably asking about sex, quickly escalated to Luke telling Hannah that if she had sex with any of the other guys, he'd exit the situation. When he finally realized Hannah wasn't on the same page as him, Luke tried to back-pedal his comments, but Hannah called them out for what they were — sexist and unfairly judgmental. Though Hannah's response to Luke P.'s sex-shaming had Bachelor Nation giving her a standing ovation, his misogynistic judgment framed as Christian beliefs was also hard to watch. Did we expect as much from Luke P.? Yes. Was it still cringe-worthy to see him judge Hannah on the basis of her sexuality, holding her to his standard of the "perfect wife" without giving her any autonomy? Extremely.
Luckily, Hannah was having none of it. With her iconic proclamation of "I f*cked in a windmill," Hannah owned her choices as not mere "slip ups" from the righteous path Luke laid out for her, but conscious decisions to explore the physical aspects of her other relationships. As she told him repeatedly, she owed him nothing, especially when he was just trying to control her. To put it mildly, she handled the situation like a boss, and sent Luke home without any hesitation.
For many people, especially those who identify as women, experiencing sex-shaming from a partner is all too common. Sex-shaming often follows a person discovering that their partner has had sex before being with them, even if they themselves have had sex plenty of times. Other people might expect their partner to have a certain level of "experience," and shame them if they haven't. The kind of shaming we saw last night, though, is unfortunately very common, thanks to longstanding cultural notions about sexual "purity." But if you're ever caught in a situation similar to Hannah's, there are a few ways you can go about it.
According to Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, which trains couples and sex therapists around the world, it's important to first recognize sex-shaming when it takes place. "Sex-shaming is used to make someone believe they are flawed and not worthy of acceptance based on their sexual choices or behaviors," Needle tells Bustle. "But our sexual choices and behavior should be ours alone as long as they are safe and among consensual adults."
Needle says that though outdated and often sexist ideas can lead to sex-shaming, there are still ways to confront the situation that can feel both comfortable and liberating. Here are nine ways to do just that, according to experts.
1. If Someone Ask Your "Number," Say What Feels Comfortable For You
Sex-shaming can come in many forms, one of them being putdowns about the number of partners you've had in the past. So if a partner asks you what your "number" is, and you don't want to answer, that's completely OK — you don't owe anyone that information.
"If someone asks your 'number' and you know it and feel comfortable sharing it, then go for it," Needle says. "But if you are taken off guard and either don’t know it or don’t want to share it, you can simply say, 'I don’t like talking about my previous sexual partners in that way.'"
Again, if you think this information will be used to shame you, then it's OK to steer the conversation in a different direction, or leave the conversation altogether.
2. Stop Their Line Of Questioning
If you ever go out with someone, and they try to ask you in a roundabout way whether you've "kept the marriage bed pure" — looking at you Luke — it can feel incredibly uncomfortable, and gross. When you find yourself in a conversation you don't want to be having, you have every right to end it. While a sex-shamer may continue their accusations against you, attempt to manipulate you, or make you feel bad at yourself, there's nothing wrong with walking away.
"If you feel confident in doing so, let the person know you don’t feel comfortable answering their question, [...] or with what they are saying," Needle says. "You can also say, 'It sounds like you have a problem with this, but I’m good with it.'" This way, you end the conversation on your terms, letting that person know that their opinion of your sex life doesn't matter to you.
3. Remind Them That This Conversation Is Only About You
If you do get around to discussing your sexual history with a prospective partner, it's important to remember that their opinions of your choices have no room in the conversation. If they think that's open for debate, there is nothing wrong with letting them know that is not the case.
"[R]espond with, [...] 'It’s clear you have a problem with this. Luckily, we are talking about me and not you. You can choose the decisions you make for yourself and I will choose mine," Needle says. Then from there you can decide whether this person is worth pursuing in light of what they've said.
4. Educate Them, If You Want To
If you feel inclined in the moment, there's nothing wrong with letting the person know how their judgment is misinformed and unwelcome. While there's no guarantee that they will listen to you, it can feel better to stand up for yourself, and let the other person know that their criticisms of your choices are not your concern.
"You can say, 'I am not going to let you sex-shame me,'" Needle says. "You might even want to try to educate the person and to help them understand what they are doing and how it comes across. Remember that this is about them, not you."
5. Recognize That This Could Be Controlling Behavior
Sex-shaming can come from someone's need to control another person's actions, especially in regard to their sexual behaviors. As Luke P. did with Hannah, a sex-shamer may tell you your actions are "wrong," in order to force you to fit into the standards they deem "right."
"While two people can certainly agree together what their values and agreements as a couple are regarding sexual behavior, they can't erase the past and fundamentally change each other's experience and desire," Dr. Carol Queen PhD, Good Vibrations staff sexologist, and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, tells Bustle. "Behavior going forward is a different thing, but people need to be on the road to the kind of relationship where such commitments are appropriate. You don't start out there; you end up there. [...] Being that one-sided in the moment can be a red flag, re: control."
6. If The Conversation Is About Religion, Assert Your Personal Adherence To Your Faith
"To me, the best part of this exchange on The Bachelorette was Hannah setting a boundary that included both her religious sentiment and her personal autonomy," Queen says. "The gendered history of this behavior is extra-intense within conservative religious communities, and religion is often represented as monolithic about moral questions [when it's not]."
If you subscribe to a certain religion, and you are being sex-shamed on the basis of your adherence to this religion, Queen says that Hannah offers a great example of what to do here. Tell the person, if you choose, that your interpretations of your faith allow you more autonomy in your choices.
"My advice here is really to stress, in a religiously-inflected convo of this type, one's own personal connection to spiritual sentiments — just as Hannah did," Queen says. "You can say 'That's not what my spirituality looks like,' 'This is between me and my God', 'I hear that's your belief, but it isn't mine' or 'Please don't try to shame me, it isn't going to change anything.'"
7. Remember, It Likely Has Nothing To Do With You
There are many reasons that someone may choose to shame another person for their sexuality. For some, their own internalized shame surrounding sexuality can lead them to project these ideas onto their partners.
"Many people struggle with feeling substantial shame about their sexual urges, desires and behaviors," Needle says. "And these feelings can be internalized and can negatively impact relationships, communication, and intimacy. [...] If someone has a problem with your behavior, it is almost always about them."
While it can be hard to remember this in the moment, it may give you some peace of mind while processing any emotions that can come up for you later.
8. Leave The Situation Altogether
"When someone seeks to steamroll over your experience and perspective, and judge it, particularly when you have not invited them to do that, they are acting out of a kind of self-righteousness that doesn't [beget] disagreement," Queen says. "These conversations can be painful, frustrating, and angering, but there is one very positive thing they can be, too — a signal that this is not a person you should invite any further into your intimate life."
While this decision is completely up to you, know that leaving the situation and moving on from this person are completely warranted reactions to what they've said.
9. Try Not To Internalize Their Shame
Even if you are prepared to field someone's comments, stand up for yourself, and handle the situation like Hannah the Badass, that doesn't mean it may not still hurt. When you are leaving the conversation (and your metaphorical Luke P. finally gets in the limo) remember that expressing your sexuality and taking pride in it is a thing to celebrate, not be ashamed of.
"Being honest about what you desire and why are great places to start in the fight against sex-shaming," Dr. Miro Gudelsky, practicing sex therapist and coach, tells Bustle. "Being proud of who you are is very important on all fronts. [...] You are the only person living your life. You need to make it the most filling, authentic, honest life for yourself and those around you. Lead by example — not rhetoric."
Feeling judged for your sexuality is not something anyone should be subjected to. But if you ever find yourself in this situation, channel your inner Hannah B. and let that person know that their opinions have no room in your sex life.