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Having sex with our protectors – unburdening sexual systems

Human connection is fundamental to our existence, and the desire to be close to others drives and motivates much of our behaviour. If we are lucky, the different kinds of relationships we experience in our lives are exhilarating and joyful, yet, it can be excruciatingly painful when bonds with others break down. Loss, grief, rejection and loneliness are often profoundly felt by the youngest, most wounded parts of us. Because of this, connecting deeply to others can be rewarding yet also sometimes terrifying. 

It is unsurprising then that sex can feel nerve-wracking and vulnerable at times. Not only does it involve intimate connection with others, but Parts of us absorb cultural burdens, which weigh us down with pressures and expectations about what we should give, be, do and expect. 

It makes sense that we might enlist the help of hard-working protective Parts to manage this tender aspect of our lives. In this article, I map out some of the primary sexual protectors, explore their motivations and examine how we can work with them to let go of their burdens and take on more fulfilling roles.

In a relatively unburdened sexual system, protective Parts initiate and maintain social and sexual relationships, to meet adult wants and needs, whilst setting healthy boundaries and prioritising communication, compassion and respect. Negotiating sex might include embracing new experiences, saying no to what does not feel right, and responding sensitively to others. However, when protective and exiled Parts are burdened with fear and shame, this can impact how one navigates and expresses their sexuality.

In a sexual system, sexual protectors often fall into two categories; those who seek sex and intimacy and those who avoid it

We all have protectors who seek connection to meet our needs for respect, belonging, play and care. Humans evolved to exist in tribes, and community and companionship help us thrive. We long to feel seen and are hard-wired to seek external validation. In addition, if young Parts of us have absorbed feelings of inadequacy, our protective Parts will likely look to the outside world and the people in it to prove that we are acceptable. Furthermore, if we do not know how to tend directly to our child Parts when they feel alone and scared, they are likely to turn to other adults to feel safe. 

Conversely, if there is shame within our system, protective Parts might avoid situations they think could risk rejection or failure for fear of proving their worthlessness and revealing it to others. They might turn away from people and shut down potential experiences of connection. 

These patterns can play out when the needs of young exiles are at the heart of sexual dynamics. Sexual relations can be simultaneously alluring and terrifying for our young Parts. Receiving care, attention, and physical comfort can allow them to feel safe and seen, yet, if they carry shame, they may fear deep intimacy risks exposing their unworthiness.

Sometimes, within one person’s system, some protectors seek out sex and intimacy to meet the connection needs of younger Parts, whilst other protectors avoid it for fear of hurt or rejection. 

Many people express longing and desire through amorous, flirty, erotic, loving and raunchy Parts of themselves; through these aspects, they embody and celebrate their sexuality. A valuable line of inquiry for people who are experiencing challenges around sexuality is to examine which protective Parts oversee sexual decision-making and their needs and motivations.

Are the protectors seeking sexual stimulation, fun, distraction, or validation? Do they want to impress, please or stay safe? Perhaps they long to escape loneliness or feel seen, or maybe they are exploring ways to deepen human or even spiritual connections. Crucially, do these needs, wants, and desires belong to adult or child Parts?

 Below I name and examine some common sexual protectors. 

Compulsive Parts use drugs, alcohol, dating apps, flirting, hook-ups and porn to escape pain and find validation. Their behaviour often triggers self-shaming Parts, creating internal polarisation.

People-pleasing protectors discount one’s needs and boundaries to avoid disappointing, hurting or angering others. They may never have been taught to recognise their needs as valid and might believe it is unsafe to express them. They often seek to protect young exiles who fear abandonment. 

Inner critics, self-shaming and perfectionist Parts pop up across various aspects of our lives and often show up sexually, as sex can feel so vulnerable. Furthermore, we receive multiple messages about what sex should be like, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations. The more one doubts their worth, the louder these Parts become; the louder they become, the more worthless one can feel.

It is hard to prioritise pleasure when pleasing and self-critical Parts run the show. In addition, many people take on burdens that it is not ok to ask for what they want, that people of certain genders should not expect pleasure, or that certain types of sexual desire are shameful. Discussions about arousal and enjoyment tend to be absent from fear-based sex education and protective Parts that believe seeking pleasure is dangerous, greedy, or shameful might stop people questioning what they want and are getting from sex.

Additionally, we are rarely taught how to talk about sex, and some protectors avoid conversations about it, believing they are embarrassing, inappropriate or offensive. 

Often, the most significant challenge with psychosexual concerns, such as erection difficulties or reduced libido, is the way different protective Parts make meaning and respond. Avoiding or not knowing how to have open conversations, express feelings, or challenge assumptions about what is ‘normal’ can cause people to shut down, leaving their inner critics perpetuating shame, self-blame, and feelings of failure and rejection.

Sometimes people’s protective Parts avoid sexual contact altogether because it feels too confronting, frightening, pressured or shame-inducing. One might carry heavy burdens regarding sexual expectations and self-worth or have absorbed the belief that intimacy is unsafe during attachment, sexual or other trauma. 

If one tries to have sex when it does not feel safe for the whole of their system, this can activate Parts which panic, disconnect or dissociate. These Parts might want to mentally escape or desperately communicate their fear to the rest of the system.

Often the well-meaning actions of our protective Parts cause more problems than they fix; they get the opposite of what they want and appear to prove our deepest fears true.

An example of this within sexual contexts is when protective Parts who wish to maintain connections with other people inadvertently destroy them. 

For examplewhen pleasing Parts cannot assert boundaries, and sex does not feel safe, panicking or dissociating Parts might come online. The pleasing Parts aim to maintain connection yet panic and dissociation result in feeling disconnected.

Similarly, Parts that shut down intimacy often want to protect exiles who fear abandonment if their believed inadequacy is discovered. Yet through their avoidance, these Parts destroy connections with others, leaving the exiles feeling more alone, without the care they need to tolerate their fears and update their painful self-beliefs. 

Self-critical and self-shaming Parts want to motivate us to ‘do better’ or be ‘good enough’ so that we avoid rejection and remain in connection. Yet when we are preoccupied with being (or not being) good enough, we struggle to be present or authentic with others and might even push them away.

Furthermore, protective Parts which are critical, self-shaming and self-conscious about sex can hinder open, curious conversations about wants, needs, desires, and fears, resulting in sex that feels less safe and fulfilling. Someone who has taken on the burden that their needs are unimportant might never state them, meaning they remain unmet and seemingly insignificant. 

Sexual protectors can also trigger each other. For example, if one protector pulls back because they need space to feel safe, this can be anxiety-provoking for another who uses intimacy as reassurance they have not been abandoned. If the latter Part expresses their desire for closeness with panic or fear, this can be overwhelming for the Part needing space. The more overwhelmed the protector who wants space feels, the more they pull back, and then the more anxious and demanding their counterpart becomes.

When this plays out between partners, it can spark protectors who feel anxious, angry, predatory, self-critical or rejected. These push-pull dynamics can also occur within one person’s system, where some parts desperately want to be close to others, and others react to this with terror. This can feel disorientating and confusing for the system.

When seeking to understand your sexual system, it is helpful to map out the key protective Parts with questions such as: 

  • How are they trying to keep you safe? What are they afraid would happen if they stepped back?
  • Are they geared towards seeking out or avoiding intimacy and connection?
  • What burdens do they hold? What do they believe about you or the world? 
  • Which exiles are they protecting?
  • Do other parts backlash or become polarised with them? 
  • Do their actions lead to them getting the opposite of what they want? Do they ever appear to prove their fears, false beliefs and stories true? 

To unburden any sexual system, we must examine the messages that have been internalised regarding what sex “should” be like. These come from different sources and cause us to adopt unrealistic expectations, judgements and fears. Facilitate self-critical protectors to unpack their belief systems and question the “facts” they have taken on. You might also explore how they learnt to speak so harshly. What would it be like for them to motivate with self-compassion rather than self-criticism?

Similar work is helpful with protectors who avoid conversations about sex. Who told them not to talk about sex and what they are worried would happen if they did? Practice makes perfect; gently learning to have honest discussions can help people update false beliefs they have absorbed about sex, clarify misassumptions, and deepen intimacy. 

Protectors who have learnt that sexual pleasure is shameful may also benefit from this approach. If these Parts can be updated and unburdened, they might like to experiment with sensual bodily pleasures, or to practice asking for what they want in non-sexual contexts to build their confidence.

Pleasing Parts should be facilitated to examine how and why they learnt to prioritise other people, and what the impact of this has been. If, within their current situation, it is safe to express their needs, they can be updated, facilitated to tune into, listen to, and value what they want. Self-Energy can support them to tolerate the initial discomfort of voicing these things to others.

In a sexual context, slowing down can facilitate different Parts to tune into how they feel. Sometimes doing this allows people to discover that some Parts require things to go much slower than they realised. 

This understanding can help people who panic or dissociate during sex. It can feel like panicking and dissociating Parts come online out of the blue; however, sometimes pleasing Parts, or Parts wanting sexoverride Parts that do not feel comfortable without the person realising it. Fear can quickly escalate; panicking or dissociating Parts come online when the danger suddenly feels too much. Slowing physical intimacy right down can help the whole system stay within the window of tolerance and learn to feel safe.

Similarly, one should never bypass Parts that want to avoid intimacy; they should be honoured and helped to express their fears. Unblending and speaking for these Parts in relationships can help people maintain connections with others whilst slowly building closeness. 

Lastly, if working with compulsive Parts, one might take a similar approach to working with other addictions. Explore with protectors what they are getting that feels difficult to give up, as well as the seemingly unbearable feelings they want to escape. Unpicking polarisations between compulsive Parts and self-shaming Parts, is also useful.

At the heart of a burdened sexual system are often young exiles who have taken on painful burdens about safety and worth. The more exiles can be met with Self-Energy and slowly unburdened, the more sexual and romantic relationships can be driven by adult desire. When one’s system becomes unburdened, it will be easier for protective Parts to validate their needs and let go of unhelpful conditioning around sex. Parts can then more readily find the courage to tackle difficult conversations and be open to profound experiences of intimacy. 

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  • Victoria Kirby

    Victoria Kirby (she/her) is an integrative psychotherapist and IFS therapist, who specialises in sex and relationship therapy. www.victoriajanepsychotherapy.net

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