One of the most important things to know about how your mind thinks about sex is that the brain and the mind are different. Most people assume (like I did) that they are synonymous, but they are not. The best analogy I can think of to explain the difference is the relationship between your computer and the software it runs.
Think of your brain as your computer. It is the structure that houses the software that makes it operate. Your mind is like your computer’s software. Just like your computer has several different software programs, (word processing, video, internet, etc.) so does your mind. Your mind’s “programs” are your thoughts, feelings, personal scripts (also known as self-talk), and mental images.
What are personal scripts and mental images?
While you’re familiar with thoughts and feelings, let me take a moment to define what personal scripts and mental images are. A good way to understand this is to use a movie analogy. Movies are made up of several scenes that are shot individually and edited into a whole. Each scene in a movie has dialogue and moving pictures associated with it. Personal scripts could be compared to the dialogue in scenes. What you tell yourself about these scenes is your self-talk.
You have personal scripts about every aspect of your sexuality going all the way back to your earliest recollections and use of language. As soon as your mind could attach words to sexual scenes, it created personal scripts and self-talk about them. Mental images are the pictures you see when you think about the personal scripts you’ve attached to the different scenes. They are the footage of the scenes that go along with the dialogue.
Your mind thinks about sex
Your mind has several different “movies” filed away that make up the story of your life. Your personal sex movie is comprised of all of the sex scenes that have occurred in your life with the accompanying thoughts, feelings, personal scripts /self-talk, and mental images that go along with them.
Your mind has the ability to bring any of the old scenes (with the accompanying thoughts, feelings, etc.) into the present moment and project them forward when confronted with a current, similar situation. I call this “going past, present, future.” In other words, the way you react to a current sexual situation is influenced by your mind’s ability to take information from older scenes, bring it into the present moment, and then project it forward and ruminate about all of the possible ways it could play out.
Your mind’s ability to go past, present, and future, can either help or hinder you from managing current sexual situations. It can be helpful when the mental images and self-talk about how things might play out reflect the reality of the current situation and you as a sexual person in the present moment. It can be unhelpful when the mental images and self-talk your mind brings up are outdated and does not accurately reflect the reality of the current situation and who you are as a sexual person.
We all carry around outdated mental baggage related to past failed relationships, inadequate sexual performance, body image issues, and a host of other things related to our personal sexual history. A key to managing this is understanding that your mind will dredge these things up in an attempt to protect you from additional pain and suffering by steering you away from new sexual situations if they resemble past painful ones.
Example of a Personal Sex Movie
To illustrate this let’s look at Sharon, one of my former students and clients. Sharon was a recently divorced woman of 36, who was returning to college to finish her degree when I spoke with her. Sharon came to see me because she was concerned about her ability to enjoy sex again after her recent divorce and lack of sexual activity for the past year. She said she was beginning to “feel like that 15-year-old freshman again.” I asked her to explain what that meant.
She told me that she was a 15-year-old freshman in high school the first time she had sexual intercourse and the experience was not very pleasurable. Her partner James was an 18-year-old senior in the same school. Sharon recalled that she matured early and looked more like an 18-year-old senior than a 15-year-old freshman.
James and Sharon started dating towards the end of her freshman year and things progressed from making out to heavy petting and oral sex pretty rapidly. Although Sharon had never had sexual intercourse before, she had given and received oral sex a few times in Middle School and was eager to “do the deed”, to use her words. By the July 4th weekend that summer they had sexual intercourse for the first time.
Sharon remembers that she was the one who initiated sexual intercourse. She really wanted to do it and told James to come over after school because she had a special treat for him. When he showed up at her door, she had a skimpy halter top and tight shorts on that left very little to the imagination. When James arrived and saw Sharon’s outfit and the look on her face he became instantly aroused and before he could even put his stuff down Sharon started kissing him and grinding against his groin.
After a few minutes of this, she literally dragged him into her bedroom and onto her bed where she proceeded to take off her own and his clothes. By the time she got James’ shirt and pants off and started pulling down his underwear, she noticed that he had lost his erection and had a very sheepish look on his face. She didn’t realize what had happened until she looked at his underwear and realized he had prematurely ejaculated before even getting his clothes off.
She recalls feeling “really weird” like she had done something wrong and caused James to feel embarrassed. She remembers that he wanted to leave but she told him it was ok, maybe if they just made out a little more, he would get another erection and she could finally lose her virginity. James agreed and they tried again.
Sharon recalled, “James didn’t take too long to get another erection but it turned out that he really didn’t know what to do with it. He had a real hard time putting a condom on and it took him a long time to find my vaginal opening and put his penis in it. By that time, I had lost some of my lubrication and the whole experience wasn’t really that much fun. It actually hurt a little but I was determined to lose my virginity so we kept going. Actually, we didn’t keep going for too long because once again, James came too soon.”
“After the second time, I have to admit that I was kind of glad to see him leave. I couldn’t wait to jump in the shower and wash his scent off of me and then call my best friend Maria and tell her all about it. All in all, I was happy to lose my virginity but the experience was not that great. It kind of made me not want to have intercourse for a while. James and I eventually split up before the summer’s end and he wound up going away to college and never returned to our town. I didn’t have intercourse again for another year and a half.“
I explained to her that her experience with James was the first sexual intercourse scene in her personal sex movie. The memory of that experience was tucked away in the recesses of her brain and could be recalled at a moment’s notice. Even though she was “feeling like a 15-year-old freshman again,” she didn’t have to be held hostage by these old, outdated thoughts, emotions, self-talk, and mental images.
As with Sharon, your past frames of sexual scenes are embedded in your brain with your mind just waiting to bring them to the surface when a new or similar sexual experience presents itself. This happens because your mind wants to protect you from harm. It wants to remind you about what happened in the past and prevent you from hurting yourself again.
A key part of understanding this and working with your mind instead of against it is realizing that all learning, sexual and otherwise, takes place within a certain context; it is contextual in nature. The context includes external factors (the time, place, and environment), as well as personal factors (age, experience, etc.). Painful events from the past are just that; in the past. They occurred in a different context.
When you are exposed to a new similar sexual situation, it is in a different context. You are different, the time and place are different, and the situation itself is different. You are free to create new sexual learning contexts and don’t have to be a prisoner of your past. You can assess the accuracy of what your mind is telling you about a current sexual situation and ignore any outdated, unhelpful self-talk and mental images conjured up from your past.
Instead, you can choose to focus on taking action to create new helpful sexual personal scripts that your mind will reflect on in the future. Understanding how your mind works and learning how to shift your focus off of outdated, unhelpful personal scripts and onto taking positive action is the central focus of my sexual self-help books, audios, and courses.