by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
What is a Sexual Timeline?
When I was in graduate school taking Human Sexuality we were asked to create timelines of our sexual experiences. Sexual experiences included any kind of experience that we have had in our life that involved sexuality: something we saw, heard, experienced, read, etc. The memories didn’t have to be sexually explicit in any way, simply things that we remembered that could have impacted our understanding of sexuality and sexual identity. We created three separate timelines to encompass childhood (up until 12 years), adolescence (13-18 years), and adulthood (18-current). For the assignment, we were asked to identify roughly the age that we were, the experience that we remembered, and lastly the message that we took away from the experience. The theory behind the exercise is that each of us are strongly impacted by our early experiences and memories, often not so much because of the actual experiences themselves, but more so by the messages that we
“Each of us are strongly impacted by our early experiences and memories, often not so much because of the actual experiences themselves, but more so by the messages that we take away from the experiences.”
take away from the experiences. Often, those messages are similar in theme, and therefore each subsequent experience reiterates or amplifies the beliefs that we acquired from our first experiences.
Example of a Timeline
A timeline is a map of events that occur over time. To do a sexual timeline, include all events, memories, and messages along with when they occurred. Look for a recurring theme or message.
Exploring Sexual Messages: Example
Interestingly, when I started to do the assignment, I didn’t immediately recall any early childhood experiences that I thought impacted me. I certainly didn’t have any explicit memories of anything sexual in nature. I was not one of those children that accidentally walked in on my parents at an inopportune time. I was born in the late 70’s, so the internet wasn’t really commonplace and I wasn’t exposed to graphic material online. However, in order to get a good grade on the assignment, I started trying to think more about relational messages that I may have received. I started thinking about my parents and their relationship. My dad has always been very indiscreet when it came to physical interaction with my mother. Not only that, but he was pretty verbal in making observations about women in real life or on television. As a child, I was privy to many conversations about my parents’ marriage and relationship. At an early age, I well-understood that their marriage was one of sexual obligation and emotional dysfunction.
My mother was raised by a conservative Christian mother and non-Christian, alcoholic father. Despite her father’s infidelities and cruel emotional and verbal abuse, her mother held firmly to the belief that her subdued responses, dedication to the marriage and family, and vigilant prayer were what was required of her by her faith and God. Because of this, my mother was given the message that pleasing husbands, sexually and otherwise, and turning a blind eye or the other cheek to emotional and verbal abuse, were our roles as women. My mother undeniably stepped into this belief system when she married my father at sixteen years of age.
Although I never experienced many things of a direct sexual nature when I was young, I did witness the behavior of my mother and my grandmother. I had overheard countless conversations about my grandmother’s emotional suffering and abuse at my grandfather’s hands, and I had watched her silently bake homemade pies and serve him incessantly. Likewise, I had watched my mother cry over the state of her marriage, yet allow my father to grope her and tease her as if everything was just fine. I had heard my mother’s tales of their sexual discord and the duty to please regardless of her own feelings. I had heard her stories of my father’s comments about women and the body parts that he enjoyed looking at. I knew all of this at a very young age.
As I recounted all of this and began spelling it out, I started seeing the messages come into clear view. I had watched time after time, the female role-models in my life hushed and silent, but all the while writing those messages in the steam on the bathroom mirrors: “Women are for men. Sexuality is a woman’s superpower. The only way to get what you want from men is through sexuality.” This message was clear throughout my childhood and adolescent years, though I couldn’t have told you at the time. It wasn’t until much, much later in life, when I recounted all of my sexual experiences and connected them to my repeated failures to obtain what I really wanted most from a man: intimacy and care, nurture and sensitivity – real connection.
Physically speaking, I bent every rule that I had about appropriate touch and appropriate pre-marriage, opposite sex interaction as an adolescent and up, given my conservative upbringing. I would continue to give to a male, physically, long after I felt that the relationship wasn’t meeting my needs, because the dread that I had about rejecting or hurting a man was infinitely stronger than the drive to pursue my own desires. This was a message that I held near and dear, though it was far from my conscious awareness: My identity, primarily, was female and sexual, and intended for serving men. Before my feelings, before my needs, before my desires, before my ambitions and dreams, was my identity of need-meeter for men. It would be easy to blame men for these experiences, but the reality is that I had to own this misunderstanding of my identity and make different choices in order to have different experiences. I am happy to say that I have since met many, many men who respect and value women. They also long for authenticity and intimacy, and have their own sexual messages.
This is what the sexual timeline is all about: those ingrained messages that we aren’t even aware of, that continue to influence our behavior well into adulthood. Core beliefs become the foundation of our identity, at the core of every other thing that we believe to be true of ourselves. Many times, based on those core beliefs, our behaviors perpetuate and invite new experiences that then subsequently confirm the very things that we are seeking to be rid of. In my heart, I longed to be more than a sexual object, more than a submissive and hurt woman stuffing my feelings and needs for the sake of male approval. Yet, my behavior invited recurring experiences that confirmed that was all that I was destined to be. That is, until I became aware of myself and my messages and chose to stop inviting experiences that would speak those messages to me again.
The Benefit of a Sexual Timeline
I wonder what messages you have internalized from your experiences. A sexual timeline may be something that helps you to hone in on the beliefs that you may be subconsciously holding, that may be driving your behavior down roads that won’t get you where you wish to go. Perhaps, this is an exercise that might benefit you. At the end of the day, we are the only ones who can do the work needed to see inside ourselves to our most vulnerable needs and desires. We can continue to function out of our default settings, driven by messages devoid of inspiration and value, or we can take back the power in our lives and discover what it means to choose for ourselves what identity we aspire to and what relationships will satisfy our longings for connection and intimacy.
To read more about the way our persistent beliefs impact our future behavior, read Cognitive Consistency and Schema.
To read more about the way enmeshment may be impacting your ability to stand up for your needs and what you long for, see Enmeshment and Boundaries.