This article originally appeared on VICE US.
One of my all-time favorite Madonna songs is her 1995 single “Human Nature,” a song you may have forgotten was even part of her catalog because it was only a minor hit, peaking at number forty-six on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The lyrics unapologetically argue that sex and sexual desire are just a part of, well, human nature. It’s not just that, though—the line she repeats most often in this song is, “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.” This line perfectly summarizes not just what so many of us are doing wrong in our sex lives, but also what we should be doing instead. Give it a listen—you'll see what I mean.
When people believe that their sexual desires are uncommon, weird, or abnormal, they tend to repress them—they keep these desires to themselves, with perhaps Google being the only other entity that has any clue. That isn’t healthy. When we feel ashamed or guilty about what turns us on, it can potentially lead to sexual performance difficulties. I did a survey of 4,000 people in which I asked them about their sexual fantasies, and the results bear this out. When I asked my participants to rate how they felt about their favorite fantasy of all time, the more negative emotions they reported—things like guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear, anxiety, and disgust—the more sexual problems they had. But that’s not all.
These emotions also have the potential to interfere with our ability to establish and maintain a healthy sexual relationship. This is because sexual repression leaves us with a lot of emotional baggage and frustration that is all too easy to unfairly take out on a partner. Instead of owning up to the fact that most sexual performance problems stem from our own issues, it’s a lot easier to blame a partner for being sexually incompetent. This is a classic ego-protection strategy and something social psychologists refer to as the self-serving bias, the general tendency to blame anyone but yourself when you experience failure.
As you may have found through personal experience, people don’t like it when we incorrectly place the source of blame on them instead of looking inward, another point Madonna epitomises in a line from “Human Nature”: “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.” It’s time for us to start dealing with all of the sexual shit we’ve been repressing. Stop putting it on your partners or drinking until you forget about it and, instead, deal with it once and for all.
So how do you go about confronting your sexual anxieties? Start by realizing that your sexual desires probably aren’t unusual or strange, nor are they necessarily unhealthy. Do you want to experiment with BDSM? Watch your partner have sex with someone else? Do something that’s culturally taboo or forbidden? Have gay sex? Sex in public? If so, you should see now that you’re totally normal and—in all likelihood—perfectly sane.
Odds are, the things you’re fantasizing about are the same things that your neighbors, friends, and—I know it’s an uncomfortable thought—even your parents are fantasizing about, too. You’re not the only one with these desires, so you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Stop running from your fantasies and start accepting them as part of who you are. This means that you need to come to terms with what some psychologists call the shadow self, the part of you that consists of all of the desires and urges (both sexual and nonsexual) that scare you because you think you’re not supposed to have them.
So long as your sexual fantasies remain cordoned off like this, you’ll never feel complete. Instead, you’ll constantly wonder what’s wrong with you and how to fix it. However, to the extent that you can begin to see your fantasies as ones that a lot of other people have, too, you can start down the path of self-acceptance. One of the biggest benefits of accepting the fantasies that make up our shadow selves is that it gives us greater control over whether and how we choose to express those desires.
Repressing our desires is how we lose control of them and how our desires begin to control us. I should also mention that just because you acknowledge a fantasy doesn’t mean you have to act on it—it’s ultimately up to you to live according to your beliefs and values. Recognising that you have that control is empowering and liberating, and it’s a lot better than spending your life governed by fear.