Reducing Sexual Shame - An Interview with Authority Magazine

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“All of us as humans want to be seen, accepted, and loved as we are in all of our beauty and imperfections, but the rejection of ourselves through societal and personal shame erects walls that limit genuine intimacy with ourselves and our partners.” - Dr. Jennifer Gunsaullus

In this interview article in Authority Magazine through Medium, I respond to questions about how I started in my field, my biggest passions, what I wish someone had told when I started, and who my girl crush is! The first part of the article is below; click the link here or at the bottom to read the entire article.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your ‘backstory’?

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania and internalized the “good girl” messaging of our society but was also confident and opinionated.

As an undergraduate at Lehigh University, I joined the Sexual Health Peer Educators to gain public speaking skills. I became fascinated with people’s sexual decision-making and gender power dynamics (and learned that I could love public speaking!). I started understanding how the “good girl” ideology was harmful to women’s sexual expression.

I then studied sociology in graduate school, and worked training sexual health peer educators. I also got involved in local community theater and with sexual activism through performing in The Vagina Monologues. I went on to be involved with ten productions over the years, as an actor or director. At the end of 2003, I moved to San Diego to escape the cold and snow of the Northeast and finished my dissertation and PhD from the beauty of Pacific Beach.

In San Diego, I immediately jumped into learning about and experiencing holistic health and spirituality, from meditation and mindfulness, to yoga and personal transformation classes. Realizing the very practical applications of these methods, I started integrating this mind, body, and spirit approach into my work as a sex educator, public speaker, and sex and intimacy coach.

From that point on, I quickly discovered that if folks don’t love themselves and know that they are innately worthy, they won’t take care of themselves. This acknowledgement of self-worth, explored and developed through the lens of mindfulness and compassion, is at the core of my work.

I’ve been in San Diego for over fifteen years now, and despite crafting a thriving coaching practice, I’m shifting my focus to my deepest passion — big picture sex education through writing, media, and public speaking.

I love traveling around the country and creating spaces for groups of people, both large and small, to challenge how they think about topics like sex, intimacy, and consent, and teaching them mindfulness and compassion skills to be healthier, happier, and more communicative.

Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?

Since my focus is sexual wellbeing and specifically women’s sexual empowerment, my tweaks are related to what is helpful on this journey for women:

  1. Mindfulness bell app — Download this app so that a mindfulness bells rings at random times during the day. When it rings, pause and close your eyes for a few moments, take a few deep breaths, and notice where and how you’re carrying stress or tension. When you reopen your eyes, ask yourself where and how you can retrain your focus or energy to reduce that stress.

  2. Give yourself permission — If you were raised with the “good girl” ideology as well or were taught that you need to put the needs of others first or that it’s selfish to take time for self-nurturing, make up a list of at least three places in your life that you want to integrate self-care. Then for each area write, “I give myself permission to take care of myself in this area by…” and fill in ideas of how to do this. Make sure you also choose aspects of your sexual wellbeing, such as taking time for masturbation or body pleasure exploration, enjoying sensual treats like massage, or trying something new in the bedroom.

  3. Sexual archetype — If you’re struggling with aspects of your sexual expression, think about who inspires you with their sexual and body confidence. Then “try on” their energy and ways of carrying themselves day-to-day and in your sexual encounters. This isn’t the same as role playing; it’s channelling a set of personality characteristics that you aspire to and giving yourself permission to positively embody them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Since I’m in the sex field, I have lots of interesting client stories from coaching folks around topics like BDSM, cuckolding, and sexual fantasies! But in terms of my personal experiences, the two times I gave TEDx Talks around female sexuality stand out as exhilarating.

There is so much prep leading up to an carefully curated eighteen-minute talk like that, and then so much excitement the day of the event. I love the comradery between the speakers and the interactions and questions from the audience afterwards.

My second TEDx Talk was in Phoenixville, PA, and I took the risk of breaking the fourth wall and guiding the audience through a mindfulness visualization on sexual shame. They were so quiet and still and engaged — it was a powerful energy. Afterward I received feedback about the number of folks who were moved to tears by the exercise.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I find it hard to view any choices I’ve made as “mistakes,” because I was always just doing the best that I could with who I was at the time and with the information I had. I’ve learned from everything I’ve tried, even when it doesn’t work out like I hoped and I felt the emotional sting of disappointment.

But then I reflected on what I could have done differently and what approach would be better in the future (or whether I should shift gears and go in another direction). Mindful adaptability is key!

When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I am dedicated to reducing sexual shame in our society. Sex is such a natural part of being a human yet in American society we have so much shame, embarrassment, and misinformation around this topic.

Shame is a terrible feeling to carry within us, and because we’re so afraid of being judged by others around this topic, we tend to keep it buried. But shame festers in silence, so we continue to feel worse about ourselves and put up more emotional armor.

All of us as humans want to be seen, accepted, and loved as we are in all of our beauty and imperfections, but the rejection of ourselves through societal and personal shame erects walls that limit genuine intimacy with ourselves and our partners. I want to help people — individuals, couples, small groups, large audiences, and readers at home — know that they are not alone and they can start dismantling that armor.

This leads to healthier and happier sex lives, and healthier and happier citizens in our society. My first book, From Madness to Mindfulness: Reinventing Sex for Women, will be published in August 2019 from Cleis Press and tackles overcoming sexual shame for women.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have always felt unconditional love from my parents, who are still together after fifty-one years of marriage, in the same house that I grew up in. I had a very stable and happy childhood and I feel very lucky.

It took me a long time to finish my dissertation and complete my PhD. Friends and family would frequently ask when I would finish graduate school, sometimes with a judgemental tone. At one point toward the end of my dissertation writing, my mom sent me a care package with homemade cookies, clipped newspaper articles, and a framed sign with a music box attached to the back.

It played “Sunrise, Sunset” and it read “Sometimes the importance of a dream isn’t what you thought you went looking for, but what you find along the way.” I still feel tears welling when I think about opening that package and feeling her unconditional love and acceptance from 3,000 miles away. Her support helped me push through and complete my dissertation.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’ve been working on creating a new narrative around sexual consent and communication….

Read the rest of the article on Dr. Jenn and Reducing Sexual Shame.

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego Sexologist, Keynote Speaker, & Sociologist