Why does it feel awkward talking about sex (even in a clinical setting!)

Here' is my theory.

Sexuality suffers from the dud end of a usually quite helpful cognitive bias, the  familiarity bias.

This bias offers explanations for why we are more likely to choose Heinz over store brand beans even when it’s the same thing in the tin.

The idea is that the mind is designed to trust what it has had the most positive exposure to. You’ve eaten Heinz beans 20 times and haven’t died. The brain records that as pretty good evidence that this brand is safe and ties the emotions of safety and comfort to the beans.

The mind is designed to keep us alive. We are constantly looking out for information on what is going to keep us safe.

Now unfortunately, it’s likely that at some point in life we’ve all encountered a joke, tv show, advert, friend, religion or family member, who planted the association of enjoying sex for pleasure’s sake alone as something that was bad or shameful. A negative association.

This does not reflect the actual facts about sexual pleasure from a health perspective, but it gets recorded with the brand of ‘bad’ none the less.

So of course it makes complete sense to have an emotional reaction similar to a threat response when it is brought up in conversation, especially with a new person in a formal setting like a doctor’s office.

In my experience the more that I essentially ‘condition’ myself to find conversations about sex very normal, familiar and comfortable I find this has a spillover effect on the person I am speaking with - whether that’s a client or friend (also a few Uber drivers!). They respond to the comfort and positive association, this experience is now recorded as a positive, safe association with sexual pleasure.

And there’s a palpable relief when this happens.

There’s definitely an aspect of conscious re-conditioning we have to acknowledge when it comes to talking openly and helpfully about sex.

My journey of exposing myself to positive associations around sexual communication included immersing myself in a sexuality boutique talking to people about sex products. Then when I taught design students how to interview people about sex, I got the to shout the word ‘clitoris’ over and over again in my lectures until it had lost all awkward connotations.

That’s a bit of a high level commitment though.

If you wanted to begin finding new ideas and positive exposure to sexual communication, you could start with Youtubing some TED talks on sex research right now - I recommend Emily Negoski - or listening to podcasts like Esther Perel’s ‘where shall we begin’ - live sex therapy sessions with real couples.

Side note : The lecture theatre next door to mine at RMIT started to shout ‘penis’ back at us during that lecture. I ran into the lecturer of that class recently in a lift and he asked me: ‘why were we doing that again?’ ‘to have a positive impact on the world’ I replied.

Image by Michael Prewett.

Victoria Cullen