Category Archives: Why I Used To Hate Sex

A Farewell to Chalkboards.

Ever paid attention to the end of the dictionary entry where it gives the word’s origin? One of my all-time favorites is courage. The root of courage is cor, Latin for “heart.” Your courage is in the light emanating from your most honest, unedited self: your heart. If you have courage – and you do, by the way – then you live from that raw heart place, everything else be damned. Courage tells you to persevere when others think it’s a wash, to say the true thing that’s begging to be said, to fight for the people who profoundly matter to you. Courage is the beautiful wildness thundering inside your chest. In my 30th year on Earth (yikes), I’ve finally started to trust it. A little.

Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I did, there was danger. My courage, my living-from-the-heart, demanded the curtain call of my public school career. French is lovely and important and necessary, and my study of it has shaped me in ways I’d refuse to give back even if I could. Teaching in the public school, also, has carved its initials in my heart. It is a magnificent mess of success and failure, healing and hope, that has changed me forever. However, teaching French is no longer home – a scary fact because it’s all I’m trained to do. But when I brought all this up to my counselor last summer, he said, “Amie, if you don’t love what you do, then you’re doing someone else’s job.” Ouch. True.

Then in June my husband accepted a new job, and we had to drastically alter our life. We prayed for hours and days and weeks about our individual callings. My feeling of being professionally ill fitted was growing, and I desperately needed the Lord’s direction. He took me on a journey that called deeply on my courage, through my wildness and heartbreak, straight to the profession I never thought I was “together” enough for: counseling. I’d flirted with counseling for years, but always pushed it away, believing I was queen of the non-ideal counselor candidates. I am full of wonderful advice I don’t take, a propensity toward depression, and a history riddled with mistakes. In my journal, I explained to Jesus I couldn’t serve him this way, but he was welcome to suggest something else, and I would take it under advisement.

In the way that he does, he wouldn’t give it a rest. So this, too, I mentioned to my counselor. He told me the only counselors doing helpful work are the ones who recognize their brokenness. If they don’t, he claimed, then they’re doing much more harm than good. Then, he said something that must have come straight from God’s heart to me because it seared me that powerfully. My counselor said if I became a therapist, I’d be a highly effective one because I have “the power of ‘me too’” – the power of “I understand,” and “it really will get better.” Most importantly: the power of “you aren’t alone.” I have always said I know there’s a reason for everything I’ve been through. It cast me into a person with intimate knowledge of God’s grace. That is reason enough. But it also allows me to empathize with so many people, having experienced an uncommon amount of pain myself in the condensed space of a decade. And now I firmly believe the words of the popular We As Human song: “We think we’re invincible, completely unbreakable, and maybe we are.”

That is, in fact, my testimony distilled into a sentence. So, following my own God-given story, I’ll be starting a master’s degree in January in marriage and family therapy with a concentration in sex therapy. I want to study female sexual dysfunction and learn how to bring hope to women who are mired in its pain like I was for so long. I want to study it from all angles – spiritual, emotional, and medical trauma; effects on the marriage; effects on fertility; connections to shame; etc. I want to help couples transform their emotional and physical intimacy into the unique, joyful gift of closeness God meant it to be.

And I’m just crazy enough to believe this will all come full circle, and God will have continued use for my French and my time in the classroom. It’s part of my adventure, a word whose Latin root venire means “to come.” Part of my coming to the world has been through the adventure of French, and teaching French. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, including a straight path leading from college directly into the field of psychology without the “detour” of language instruction (which is of course no detour at all). Still, living from the heart for me means I have to step away from the success I’ve known as a teacher and the complacency of well-known territory. I am not afraid: God created my heart with all the courage it would ever need, and for such a time as this. I have to adventure, to come, into an unknown world and believe God will be there, is already there, to guide me through.

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Dragon-Slaying

My official diagnosis was vaginismus, or severe tightening of the vagina that makes sex incredibly painful or even impossible. For me it was a chicken-and-egg question: there was no way to know whether it was already happening before my surgery or whether the surgery indirectly caused it. Dr. C believed the latter, saying the surgery likely gave me a subconscious fear of sex; my physical therapist said it was a moot point. Women with vaginismus often go years without getting treatment because so few doctors know how to remedy it. Many in the medical community feel that vaginismus is strictly emotional and write it off with a “prescription” for sex therapy. I was lucky enough to have a doctor who believed in a holistic approach: Dr. C made me an appointment with a physical therapist who works exclusively with women’s health, listed home remedies and simple exercises that are proven to help, and suggested I see a university psychologist. She encouraged me to think realistically but hopefully: “Physical therapy will take longer than a pill,” she cautioned. “But if we can train your muscles, we can completely eradicate the problem.”

The idea of physical therapy was odd to me. What was the therapist going to do, massage my lady parts into submission? Mini nightmares (cue Jaws theme music) edged into my mind at random times of yet another medical professional getting involved with my uncooperative body. But in October 2010 I entered the physical therapist’s office half an hour before my appointment and filled out the obligatory paperwork. When Penny came out to greet me, I knew I’d made the right decision. She was a leftover hippie, sporting chunky jewelry and au naturel brown and gray hair. Penny is originally from San Francisco but had found a home in our own Virginian hippie oasis. She took me back to her therapy room, closed the door, and said, “What am I going to help you with?” And with that, she stole my heart. She was so confident, so compassionate, and so ready to help.

I told my story…again…rather dispassionately by now. My optimism had waned over the years, and I was starting to believe that, as Dr. B had warned me in the counseling room, “Some women just don’t care for sex, and it’s possible you are one of them.” Penny listened patiently, nodded, and said, “I can help. We’re going to get your insurance to cover this, and we’re going to train your muscles to relax. When you relax, the pain will subside. You might have some vestibular vulvodynia, especially since you still have scar tissue, but if the muscles stay calm, you probably won’t notice it.” So once more, I crawled up into the stirrups. Penny explained every move she made, locating tense and less tense areas, making a sort of map for treatment. The next appointment, she hooked me up to a biofeedback machine that used color-coded graphs to show us exactly which muscles succumbed to spasms, when, and how intense. Because of the information the machine provided, I began to differentiate my pelvic floor muscles, feel when they tensed, and learn how to release them. Tensing had become such a habit that I realized I was holding them tight even when it didn’t make sense—while studying, for example, or while driving.

Penny also taught me generalized relaxation techniques. As you might imagine, going through a master’s program away from my family-and-friends support system while dealing with sexual dysfunction and increasing marital difficulties was pretty stressful. We found that as I employed Penny’s global relaxation techniques, I was better able to manage the tensing of my pelvic floor due to stress. Over the next few months I spent hours and hours in Penny’s therapy room, practicing deep breathing, intentional muscle relaxing, and pelvic floor strengthening exercises. For her own part, Penny used the biofeedback machine, manual manipulation—the weirdest-feeling pelvic exam you can imagine, and strain-counterstrain techniques on my lower back (which is connected to pelvic floor muscles). Strain-counterstrain was my favorite. It’s a muscle-relaxing method in which you find a tender and/or ticklish muscle—in either case, it’s tensed—and apply pressure for 60-90 seconds until the muscle melts like butter. Although I had never had back pain, I felt so good after strain-counterstrain sessions.

I saw small successes every step of the way. After just a few sessions with Penny, I started noticing when the spasms happened, and I was able, gradually, to mitigate them and then stop them altogether. Next, I was able to start using tampons, which had never been possible. Then, I made it through an entire exam with Dr. C with absolutely no pain whatsoever. Finally, when Penny had to use certain instruments during manual manipulation, I stopped having spasms. Granted, I had to be present in the moment, focusing on my pelvic floor muscles and their movements…but for the first time, I wasn’t having any spasms at all. That was the first moment of my life that I felt true confidence in my body. Maybe—maybe—there would come a day when it didn’t feel broken. Maybe there would come a day that sex would be enjoyable. Maybe I would one day feel womanly and feminine and even…did I dare say it?…alluring. For the first time, all of this seemed possible. At this point, no sex of any kind had been a part of my life for several months, but with the possibilities there, I started feeling a sense of pride in my body and decided it was time to lose weight. And that is exactly what I did.

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The Dreaded Stirrups

There are a number of reasons I consider my time at the University of Virginia a gift, but near the top is Dr. C, even though she represents hours and hours of having my feet in the stirrups. Not only did Dr. C extensively research the symptoms I described, but she also called doctor friends and colleagues who are specialists in the field of female sexual issues. After spending hours on my case, she took time to explain to me in precise, comprehensible terms what my body might be doing and gave me a choice of treatment options without pushing me in any particular direction. Two diagnoses were possible, and we had to decide which it was before we could design a viable treatment plan.

The first possibility—the one we were both hoping it wasn’t—was vulvodynia. Vulvodynia is chronic vulvar pain, and there’s no cure. The pangs can be anywhere from dull to crippling, and they attack you as you drive, swim, run after your children, wash clothes, and everything in between. Naturally, while sex intensifies the pain, it’s more or less always there when vulvodynia is the culprit. The “treatments” are pain management programs, not cures, and many of them are, quite frankly, creepy. One commonly invoked method is a topical ointment featuring capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers. Chili peppers. That’s right: we’re talking feeding puréed chili peppers to my lady parts. Like, literally spicing up my sex life. The idea behind capsaicin—which, by the way, is every bit as much of a skin irritant as you’re imagining—is that you shock the nerves. Eventually, the nerves will calm themselves when they get over the pain spike. It seemed like thinly veiled, sarcastic masochism to me. “You think you’ve got pain right now? Wait’ll you feel this, dollface.” Cue the chili peppers.

Another treatment possibility is a vestibulectomy. I will explain as gently as possible. A vestibulectom-ist (that is not a real word) excises the really egregiously painful tissue in the vaginal vestibule, scooping out all the skin and tissue with the overactive nerves. To re-cover the excised area, a vaginal extension is performed, pulling vaginal skin forward over the area and securing it. Women, are you crossing your legs yet? The short version is that the surgery pulls out painful skin and covers it back up by using your lady parts like a rubber band sewn in place. The problem with this treatment—I say that as though there’s only one—is the formidably low success rate. As in, 50-60% according to most doctors. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to stretch my lady business, I’m going to need a higher chance of success than eh, maybe.

Other less invasive options are practiced. Dr. C offered me tricyclic antidepressants, for example. They are meant to affect the mental patterns of pain your brain creates. Despite how desperately I wanted to be cured, the idea of using antidepressants to alter receptors in my brain just so I could enjoy getting frisky seemed like regret waiting to happen. I did use Lidocaine, a topical numbing agent, for a while. But you might imagine the (viable) complaints my husband had about numbing ointment. Plus, it worked about as well as I imagine the chili peppers would. So Dr. C and I decided to rule out vulvodynia and assume my pain was vaginismus instead.

Unlike vulvodynia, vaginismus is not chronic. It is vaginal pain triggered by certain activities or movements. Also unlike vulvodynia, the pain is muscular rather than nervous. While vaginismus is certainly the root of much dysfunction and emotional and physical pain, the splendidly good news is that muscles can be trained in a way that nerves cannot. So if vaginismus is the problem, it is possible to be completely cured by working on the muscles.

I am happy to report that my problem was in fact vaginismus, correctly diagnosed for the first time by Dr. C in October of 2010. We were finally, after two and a half years, on the right track. As I left her office, I could feel it—hope.

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Killer Ovaries

In August 2009 we moved out of state for me to go to school. Part of my scholarship was 100% coverage for any services provided by the health clinic, so within a month of our arrival, I made an appointment with the university gynecologist. I wanted answers and figured that starting all over with a new doctor might occasion them.

Words cannot express how grateful I am for the incredible health insurance the university provided me and the amazing doctors who helped me. Dr. A was my first doctor at the university, and he listened patiently to my story. He promised me we’d find an answer. When I’d finished giving him all the pertinent details, he began asking me some questions—how much energy did I have, what were my eating habits, what was my typical menstruation cycle. Answer by answer, we elucidated the constellation of symptoms and their probable cause: polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). It explained so many of my body’s abnormalities. In order to verify the diagnosis, we checked my thyroid, blood sugar, and hormone levels. Just as Dr. A suspected, the culprit was PCOS. He referred me to Dr. C, a specialist at the university in female reproductive disorders.

Dr. C gave me tons of information on PCOS. She explained that the catalyst for my sugar cravings and low energy was insulin resistance, which often accompanies PCOS. Additionally, my hormones were imbalanced, causing irregular periods and other embarrassing problems. Gone untreated, Dr. C told me that PCOS would likely lead to diabetes and perhaps eventual death from it. Despite the enormity of my frustration with my body and the severity of the issue, I still struggled with the decision to start Metformin. For one, a family member of mine had experienced serious problems as a result of taking it. But also, I didn’t like the thought of being on a medication for the rest of my life, especially at the age of 24. After a few weeks of serious thought and prayer, I filled the prescription.

The first six weeks I was on the drug weren’t my favorite days. Metformin causes nausea, painful cramps, and trapped gas, to name a few. I started on the lowest dosage possible and still felt awful. Every time I had to increase the dosage, the symptoms redoubled. But after I’d paid my dues—about ten weeks in—I started seeing a genuine difference in the way I felt. I dropped 10 pounds almost instantly and found it much easier to lose weight even after that, having regulated my insulin imbalance. I had more energy. My menstruation cycle regulated. I felt better than ever, truly. I felt well, healthy. It seemed, honestly, like everything had improved. Except my sex life.

Oddly, the one thing I’d gone in for answers about went unaided. It wasn’t Dr. A’s fault or Dr. C’s fault. It was simply that hormones and insulin and cysts were apparently not causing my dysfunction. When I mentioned this to Dr. C, she said, “It’s so odd…Normally, women with PCOS have a higher sex drive and lower occurrence of dysfunction, due to elevated testosterone levels. We’ll figure it out, Amie. I promise.”

She meant it.

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Exposed!

As time went on, sex became somewhat easier: the shock of the pain ebbed because I knew what I was in for each time. But I wasn’t satisfied with that—I had more in mind for my sexuality—so I began reading voraciously. I read The Gift of Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner, a book Dr. B called “a good starting place.” And it certainly would’ve been, had I been normal. I read Sheet Music by Kevin Leman, a recommendation from a friend that turned out to be really interesting, if not especially helpful in my then-current state. I read Cosmo articles. I read excerpts of The Celebration of Sex by Douglas Rosenau. I read The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye (skip it). I read excerpts of Intended for Pleasure by Ed Wheat. I read articles from several websites. I even read a book about kissing. The problem with all that material was that nowhere did it describe anyone like me. Advice for avoiding awkward wedding nights, rekindling the passion for older couples, adjusting to babies in the house, and breaking sexual inhibitions abounded…but there was nothing for me. When I used indices to reread portions that supposedly addressed lack of sex drive and/or painful sex, the most I found was “Try some relaxation techniques,” or “See a doctor.” Once more I felt alone in my struggle and frustrated that I couldn’t seem to help myself. These books were designed for people whose biggest problem was ignorance or a stressful schedule. Mine was all-out dysfunction.

I seemed to be hitting the same wall with Dr. B by that point. I’d tried all the sexy music, sensual massage, glasses of wine, and non-intercourse intimacy I could handle. I’d lit candles, I’d watched romantic movies, I’d read and written some erotica. And don’t get me wrong: Dr. B’s influence was absolutely crucial in my battle for healthy sexuality, and with his help I made some very important strides. But my sometimes-impatient self was irked when the speed of my progress cooled. Even though there were occasional days and nights on which I truly wanted to have sex, it still wasn’t “making love.” It was fulfilling an uncomfortable, frustrating duty. I was nearing the end of my rapidly fraying rope, and unfortunately, that is where the story pauses for the next year and a half of my marriage. Sex was possible but excruciating, and my enthusiasm for satisfying sex was evaporating by the minute. I threw up my hands in frustration with God for not erasing the problem.

The night I ran completely out of patience, two years into marriage, is still as vivid a memory as the chili I ate tonight. My husband and I had another couple over for dinner, and after dessert we decided to play a game (as often happens if you are my dinner guest—fair warning). Although we knew we were at a disadvantage—they’d weathered several more years of marriage than we had—we were up for the challenge of the Newlywed Game. One question the two husbands were asked was, “When was your hottest night of lovemaking in the past year?” They both recorded answers with seemingly little difficulty. However, when my husband revealed his response, his friend said, “For us, pretty much every time is awesome. You must not have had a lot of sex if you can remember a specific night.” Usually I have a great poker face, but that night I sat there stunned, staring at my husband’s friend, with whom it didn’t seem to register that he’d said something deeply insulting. All the feelings of being exposed, of fighting an embarrassing battle of inadequacy, washed over me. Burning, crimson shame appeared on my face. Everybody knows, the sickening voice in my head whispered. Everybody knows.

For me, the problem with all this sexual strife is that it’s the one thing we’re supposed to figure out entirely on our own. All any person or book ever said was, “It hurts in the beginning,” and “Figuring it all out with your partner is so much fun!” Well…what about those of us for whom it was still painful after two years? What about those of us who couldn’t figure anything out, even with a manual like Sheet Music, because it was impossible to make even the “easy” stuff work? Who are we supposed to turn to? Try to talk about sex in your Bible study, and you’ll likely make the room fidget and drop eye contact faster than you can say “scented massage oil” unless you have an unusually open group. I found that very few people, even my closest friends, were able to give me real, honest information, their words being veiled by a sense of propriety. (Not that there’s anything wrong with propriety; it’s just frustrating to hear about it over and over when you truly need answers.)

After my husband’s friend made his comment, it was literally weeks before I was able to face my bedroom frustration again. Everything had simply begun to feel insurmountable.

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Sex-Free Honeymoon

The more I talked to Dr. B about sex, the more layers of ugliness we peeled back. We spent the first few sessions primarily on my anger and disappointment over the way things had turned out and how my brain linked those negative emotions with sexuality. And then we spent hours and hours working through all of the religious, churchy oppression I’d been subjected to. You can imagine, then, that “shame” wasn’t a foreign word in our meetings. But gradually, shame over having sex dissipated and left something unexpected in its place: shame over not having sex.

My husband and I got married on a gorgeous June day in Colorado in 2007. Our ceremony was a perfect, a family-only celebration at his parents’ house. The honeymoon, however, wasn’t scheduled until October—we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to settle into married life before going on vacation. But as I sat in Dr. B’s office less than 48 hours prior to leaving for the Canary Islands, I was stressed and frustrated that after months of trying, sex still wasn’t possible. And we were getting ready to leave for our honeymoon. “I always imagined my honeymoon as a week of walking on the beach, making love, and drinking champagne!” I exclaimed. “All I’m thinking right now is how angry I am that this once-in-a-lifetime experience is going to be nothing like what I pictured. I won’t have a honeymoon like everyone else’s.” Every attempt at sex had ended in disappointment, shame, and sadness for me, and the thought of an entire week of nothing but that was too much to bear.

“Amie, you have to decide right now that you will not have sex on your honeymoon. It simply will not happen. Your honeymoon will not involve sex. Will you admit that for me?” Dr. B was sterner that I’d seen him. My eyes welled, and I nodded. That moment was a breaking point for me. Certainly I’d felt sexually angry and helpless before, but sitting in a strange man’s office declaring that my much-anticipated honeymoon would be sexless just seemed so unfair. My marriage had not begun at all like I’d expected. Everyone, including the minister who performed our ceremony, told us how steamy the first year would be, given that we were in our twenties without having been sexually active. We’d be fighting a lot and having lots of makeup sex, we’d be missing each other terribly while at work, and we’d have the novelty of romance still intact. Married couple after married couple prepared us for that. Not experiencing anything like it, I felt shortchanged in so many ways.

Dr. B let my tears roll in silence for a few moments before pressing on. “Sex is not the only way to enjoy each other, you know,” he suggested. I returned his eye contact but inwardly rolled my eyes. “Try not to focus on what isn’t yet possible. Instead, explore each other’s bodies in ways that are.” He explained that he believes many couples lose their sense of wonder over their partners’ bodies because they stop doing this. “Take some time to really look at each other, take in the delicious physical gifts you have to offer. Just because you can’t have sex doesn’t mean you aren’t sexual, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sexual pleasure. If on your honeymoon the intent is to be close and exult in the physical gifts you can give each other, you’ll have a very satisfying week. Sex is an expression, not just an act.” I wasn’t convinced, but I did leave encouraged.

I was still mentally working through all of this when the alarm went off Saturday morning. While my husband and I are both seasoned travelers and light packers, we are notorious for arriving late to the airport. That October morning was no exception, and we fairly flew around the house, trying to get last-minute issues resolved and decisions made. The whole time, my mind was also working with the sex-free-honeymoon situation I was facing and the utter frustration of it. The longer I turned the thoughts over in my head, the more I became embroiled in a maelstrom of negativity. Looking back, I realize that this was entirely my fault for not taking control of my thoughts, and every time we “expressed ourselves” over the course of the week I felt a backlash of anger and hopelessness. By the time we returned home, I felt an intensely deep shame over not being able to perform wifely responsibilities. It was time for another discussion with Dr. B. Even though I had been going every two weeks, I called and scheduled an additional appointment when we got back in town.

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Size Matters.

I mean my size matters. To me.

In the last eleven months I have lost almost 80 pounds, which I’m pretty sure is the equivalent of an Olson twin. My pants are four sizes smaller, my tops two. Kohl’s saw me an awful lot this summer: I shrunk out of most of my wardrobe and had to replenish. A number of coworkers congratulated me on the loss when I showed up at in-service earlier this month, and three former students at the ball game on Friday night said, “I almost walked right by without recognizing you!” Just a couple of days ago, a former student visited the high school and said, “You’re so tiny!” That might be a stretch, but it does bear witness to the size I was versus the size I am now. And I’m still shrinking.

Why bring that up on the sex blog? As one of my favorite babysitting charges used to say, “Well, you see…it’s involved.”

First of all, I’m sitting here writing this in a dress I never would’ve tried on, much less bought, when I was larger. But as soon as I slip it on with my high-heeled sandals, I feel very sexy and catch myself looking in the same mirrors and windows I loathed before. Honestly, I never knew what “sexy” felt like until this summer. That has a definite effect on your bedroom life—when you feel unsexy all the time, you want nighttime, lights-off, under-the-covers sex. You don’t want to see your shape if it’s at all avoidable. It’s difficult to be willing to share your body when you can’t stand the sight of it yourself.

Second, I catch myself dancing all the time. I love the way it feels to be in this body now. I love the way it feels to move. Lest you be misled, trust me, I harbor no illusions of grandeur when it comes to graceful gliding across a dance floor. But these days it’s a challenge to make it all the way through a sinkful of dishes or a ten-minute shower without shaking my groove thang. It just feels so good to be in a smaller body.

Third, I have a brand-new idea of what “sexy” means. I used to think I wasn’t sexy because I didn’t have Kim Kardashian’s legs or Jennifer Aniston’s knockers. But the thing is, sexy has almost nothing to do with measurements and everything to do with perspective. My legs will never give Kim’s a run for their money. But I feel every bit as sexy as she does when she’s on that red carpet…and probably more. After all, there are no paparazzi scrutinizing every inch of my skin. Sexy is how comfortable you are in your own skin, behind your own face, stretched into your own height. Sexy is looking in the mirror and thinking, “I don’t want to trade with anyone else today. I like what I’ve got.”

When I was a teenager, my insecurity about my body caused me to become hypersensitive and even a little arrogant about other areas, such as my grades and my music. I figured if I didn’t have looks on my side, I was going to have to do something else to get people’s attention. I’m a perfectionist anyway, so it comes as no surprise that I took great pride in my 3.95 GPA (stupid calculus) and position as accompanist to the choirs. While I was never exactly obnoxious about either of these things, I certainly didn’t pass up an opportunity to mention them if they were at all relevant to the conversation at hand. But as I grew up and even more as I’ve lost weight, I’ve noticed a much-diminished need of validation by others. I feel confident and happy with who I am and how I look, and it’s caused so much of that old insecurity to evaporate. I won’t lie: it feels absolutely wonderful to get a compliment on my physical appearance. For the longest time, that was one aspect of myself that I felt didn’t deserve any positive recognition at all. However, I’m no longer constantly looking toward others to assure me that I’m at least passably attractive. I am finally inching my way toward a healthier body image and, consequently, a healthier self-concept all around. And at least for me, that has proven an extremely important component in the battle for healthy sexuality.

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