Women's Sexualities
  Dr. Carol Rinkleib Ellison

Generations of Women Share Intimate Secrets of Sexual Self-Acceptance
Photo by Cynthia Sheffer, 2000 Sacramento, California
Excerpt from Introduction

My intention is to get you thinking about a lot of questions without imposing judgments, either on yourself or on the women who so generously contributed their histories to this project. A stance of acceptance without judging is not always easy to maintain, particularly with those we are closest to and love the most. For many of us it is easiest with strangers, more difficult with intimate others or our children, and most difficult of all with ourselves.


With self-acceptance, you experience what is happening in the moment, right now, without being distracted by regret or resentments about the past or worries and catastrophic expectations about what might happen or not happen in the future. In sex, self-acceptance might mean that you enjoy what happens in the moment, without being distracted by thoughts about the argument with your partner in the morning or concern that you might not reach orgasm.

With respect to our sexuality, and, for that matter, anything else we do in our lives, we do the best we can given what we know and what the situation is at the time

Finding Our Way

Each sexual self is a lifelong work-in-progress. We constantly change because we constantly have new experiences and continue to mature. I call the entire process in which words, images, ideas and experiences lead each of us, step by step, to a clearer understanding of how our sexuality fits into who we are and to fuller acceptance of our sexual selves finding our way.

Throughout our lives we find our way. Over and over we make choices and live out the consequences. And, with changes in our cultural values, our age, and our state in life, the rules keep changing. If today you are a young woman deciding when, where, and with whom to engage in your first sexual intercourse, or whether to have your first intimate encounter with another woman, you will experience your sexuality quite differently than if you are forty-five and contemplating an extra relationship affair. But in each instance, you will be finding your way.

Whatever our age, and whatever decisions we are making, we do the best we can. If no one has shown us or told us what we need to know for it to be otherwise, our process is likely to be primarily one of trial and error. Part of finding our way to sexual self-acceptance is learning not to be too hard on our younger self, who did the best she could, given what she knew. We can all say: If I knew then what I know now

But we didn't. We had to find our way.

Inter-generational Dialogue

In finding our way, we can learn from others who have found their way and walked the path before us. Women's Sexualities is an inter-generational dialogue. It is filled with examples of how women of all ages have, over time, found their way. It contains statements that illuminate the wisdom these women have gleaned from their experiences.

Here you will find what your mother and big sister or your daughter didn't, or couldn't, tell you. You will hear from women who had positive experiences and those who did not. Because so many women are represented here, you will begin to see that certain conditions seem to support women feeling good about themselves, in general, and about various aspects of their sexuality and sexual experiences. Patterns emerge and by paying attention to those patterns you can learn from these womens collective experiences how to enhance your own sexuality and accept your sexual self more completely


Women's Narratives

The Survey directions invited women to write their comments directly on the questionnaire or on a separate page and told them: If a question doesn't accurately describe your experience, please tell us so. We want to know how you experience your sexuality. And did these women write comments thousands of them! Some wrote only a few words and some attached several pages of thoughtful musings.

Women's Sexualities is brimming with quotations from the interviews and the comments the survey respondents added to their questionnaires. As a rule, I present these quotes chronologically, beginning with the oldest woman. (The year each woman was born is in parentheses beside her name.) Sometimes, you will find the comments clustered to include women born over a several-year span; these are still in chronological order. I have protected the identities of the women I interviewed by giving each one (and anyone she talks about) new names.

Self-Discovery in Childhood

What are your earliest memories of body awareness and self-stimulation for pleasure? For some girls, the first awareness of pleasurable sensations down thereof having wonderful, magical, special genital feelings involved totally innocent discovery uncolored by any parental or social prohibitions. Even if this was not your experience, take a moment now to imagine what it might have been like for you if it had been.

How would this have affected your life?

Carole (1930) said: "My first experience of myself as sexual was feeling turned on by my bicycle seat and sitting on fences when I was about six or seven. I remember the feeling and thinking, 'Ooooo, this feels good'".

Connie (1956) said: "The first crush I ever had on a man was on Moe of the Three Stooges. I saw him on TV and was just in love with him and his long hair with the bangs. I had this big teddy bear, almost as big as me, and I remember humping this teddy bear at night thinking it was Moe. I remember rubbing my genitals against it. I don't recall if I had orgasms, but it felt great. That's a very clear memory. I couldn't have been more than three years old."

Without words to label the experience, there is no judgment, only curiosity and acceptance. The typical girl, however, develops a sense of privacy around sensuality/sexuality at an early age.

For example, Joan (1944) recalls:
"I used to always like to play with myself. I think the first sexual experience I had was with my dog, a little beagle. I allowed my dog to lick me. I would lock my door. So, that was my first masturbation. Or actually sex with something else. I can guess I was five or six."

Awareness of prohibitions alters experience. When a child becomes aware through the words, facial expressions, and body language of adults that grown-ups aren't always comfortable with the child's explorations of pleasure, doors are closed, and sometimes impulses are inhibited. This move toward privacy is developmental. It is a normal aspect of a child developing a separate self who can act independently, that is, a normal aspect of individuation.

Finding Our Way Through Shame and Guilt

What do you remember of feeling shame, embarrassment, and guilt in your early childhood? It is likely that these feelings were important in the formation and emergence of your sexual self. Emotions are body reactions that we perceive and label with meaning. Our emotions prepare us to act, or keep us from acting, and they provide us with vital information for our survival and development. None of the emotions, e.g., anger, fear, joy, grief, shameis inherently bad. We need access to all of them

Shame and guilt are social emotions. They provide us with awareness of social limits and generate the reluctance or reticence to act outside of those limits. As we are growing up, feelings of shame and of embarrassment (a related feeling) play a significant role in our socialization.



As adults, when we experience shame or guilt, we can understand that these emotions mean that we are breaking some internalized rule. As adults we can consider: Whose rule is it? Where did I get it? Does it make sense for me to follow it? The young child is too limited in experience to have such a vantage point. Consider how Roberta (1943) changed her view over time: When I was real young I think we were between four and seven my brother and some neighborhood kids played doctor and stuff. I remember we explored each others bodies. At the time that I did it, it was just exploratory, but, over time, I was ashamed of it. Now, I think its just part of growing up.

In this very brief description, Roberta leads us through the critically important process of finding ones way to self-acceptance. From the young girls perspective, she engaged in innocent exploration. Later, she became aware of social prohibitions and felt shame. Still later, she understood that body exploration is just part of growing up and she felt okay about what had occurred. That's just how it was.

Many of us grow up with a sense of shame about our curiosity-driven early experiences of sexual exploration and experimentation, because we have no way of knowing that so many others are having these experiences, too. The many, many examples in this chapter demonstrate how typical how normal most of these experiences are.