Come As You Are; Learning Disgust

We can see how the process of learning disgust can unfold, moment by moment, in a person’s life if we imagine, for argument’s sake, a pair of identical twin girls separated at birth. Let’s call them Jessica and Theresa.

Imagine that both Jessica and Theresa, when they’re maybe five or six years old, have a habit of masturbating in their rooms at naptime. (If you noticed a disgustwithdrawal response in yourself at the idea of a young girl masturbating, you’ve just experienced what I’m about to describe!)

So one day, Jessica is masturbating in her room at naptime, when her adult caregiver walks in and sees her with her hand down her pants. The parent recoils in an involuntary disgust response, and says, “Stop that!”

On that same day, in a different home, Theresa is also masturbating, and her adult caregiver also walks in and sees her with her hand down her pants. But that parent says calmly, “We’re leaving for your aunt’s house in a few minutes. Get your shoes on.”

Jessica’s brain learns to associate the shame and distress (brakes) communicated by her parent with whatever sexual arousal (accelerator) she was feeling at the moment her parent scolded her.

Theresa’s brain, by contrast, learns no such association. She was interrupted but not shut down—her accelerator deactivated, but without necessarily hitting the brake.This one incident may not have any lasting impact. If there are no other incidents to reinforce this one, the association in Jessica’s brain will be decoupled.

Now twenty years have passed, and Jessica and Theresa’s life experiences have routinely reinforced these patterns. Jessica’s brain has learned to associate sexual arousal with stress, shame, disgust, and guilt. Theresa’s has learned to associate sexual arousal with pleasure, confidence, joy, and satisfaction.

Which of them has a better sex life?

Jessica will feel conflicted about her sexual sensations—they’re pleasurable . . . and they’re not, at the same time. And she won’t have a clear idea why she feels guilty, ashamed, depressed, or even physical pain when she’s sexually aroused.

If a girl has a particularly sensitive brake system, one incident might be enough to create a tangled knot in her arousal process. For many women, though, it takes consistent reinforcement of a negative message in order for it to be embedded in sexual response, and consistent reinforcement takes a sex-negative culture.

In other words, it happens all the time.

Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life – Emily Nagoski
Ch 5 Cultural Context: A Sex-Positive Life In a Sex Negative World — When Somebody “Yucks” Your ” Yum”; pg 239

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