Know Your Rites

Sexual Development Women

This morning I opened up my laptop to find an email from a sex educator friend who was looking to recruit young women aged 12-17 years for a Rites of Passage wilderness camp in East Sussex.

One of the aims of the project is to “inspire and help girls collectively celebrate their journey into the next phase of womanhood” through a series of activities and discussions with trained facilitators, mothers and counsellors.

This is clearly a fantastic initiative – and something I would very much like to see more of. Just this week, a study was published on the declining mental health of young people: over a third of teenage girls in England suffer from depression and anxiety.

In my work as a sex therapist, I see many clients who are in some way out of touch with their bodies and with their sexuality. They may feel intensely negative about themselves in a sexual sense, or feel completely detached from their genitals. This can be as a result of a specific event or trauma or, more commonly, it can be linked to a total absence of sex education in childhood and adolescence.

We get our first lessons on love, sex and relationships from our families. Some families do not discuss sexuality openly – or they may actively discourage any positive expression of sexuality in the home. As a result, the children in these families grow up thinking that sexuality is inherently unspeakable and, therefore, bad or shameful. This can become problematic as these children transition into adulthood and begin to struggle with puberty and their emerging sexual feelings.

I have met women of all ages who were never told what a period was and who don’t know where their clitoris is located or what their vulva looks like. My role as a sex therapist often involves getting the client to reacquaint themselves with their bodies in a bid to reconnect with their sensuality and sexuality. We may spend some time discussing what it means for the client to be a woman, a partner, a sexual human being, and I may also suggest some gentle exercises of mindfulness and self-exploration.

In her book, “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood” (1997), the feminist writer Naomi Wolf describes a number of cultures where the transition into womanhood is actively and openly acknowledged and celebrated – through ceremony and ritual, and often in a community setting involving older women who have had the experience of sex, relationships, menstruation, childbirth and the menopause – all, to a greater or lesser extent, taboo subjects in our society.

The girls attending the Rites of Passage camp can look forward to engaging in a number of important and confidence-boosting activities including: connecting with nature; communication skills; mindfulness; singing and dancing; discussions on relationships, sexuality, menstruation, lunar cycles and self-care; and rites of passage ceremony and celebration.

It is never too late to revisit your own sexual coming-of-age story, as it may shed some light on the way you feel now about certain aspects of your sexual or relationship life. You may choose to talk it through with a close friend or partner or, if it feels more complex and difficult, you may wish to see a trained therapist. There are also an increasing number of projects on offer, such as Red Tent and ‘sisterhood’ retreats, offering adult women the opportunity to come together and share stories, experience and skills and to connect on some of the issues which are unique to being female.