Sex and Gender Feminist Psychotherapist, Dr. Tina Sellers: The Importance of Sex, Sexuality, and Shameless Parenting
Navigating sex and intimacy talks can often be uncomfortable for parents (honestly, it is even for non-parents). And then throw in gender sexuality and it can become even more of a discomfort . The real question is why? Why are there so many stigmas and taboos that create shame around the topics of sex and sexuality? Well, if you want answers, ask Dr. Tina Sellers, who is a preeminent voice on the impact of sexual shame on sexual health.
Recently publishing her new book, Shameless Sex — Everything You Need to Raise Shame-free, Confident Kids, and Heal Your Shame Too!, Dr, Tina Sellers, a sex and gender feminist psychotherapist and professor emerita, and founder and medical director of the Northwest Institute on Intimacy, highlights the trickiest parts of each stage of parenting (birth to 18) that tend to trigger shame-based reactivity (especially those deriving from patterns from our parents and their parent and their parents).
I had the utmost pleasure of speaking to Dr. Sellers to not only to discuss her book, but also how she came to create such a push for advocating for need for sex and sexuality talks between parent and child. Her responses opened my eyes and enlightened me, and I hope it will for every reader.
Dr. G.:You are so open about so much. Tell me something that would shock people if they knew about you.
Dr. Sellers: Some people are shocked to know that I grew up in a Swedish immigrant home, where sexuality was actually handled in really healthy, open ways. Many people assume it was my own traumatization growing up in a silent/shaming Conservative home that is what roped me into this work. But it was because I had this positive experience, that I could see a stark contrast in folks who grew up in silence and shame around sexuality. I was saddened and burdened by the negative effect I saw in their lives compared to the contrast of what I knew was possible when doors to conversations around sexual health had been open for me. I wanted people to have a different experience…So I’m passionate about teaching the history and science around sexual and relational health/ our bodies in a really easy, encouraging way.
Dr. G.: Your childhood is quite unique. But let’s talk about this specifically:
“I grew up in what I came to call a “sound-bite sex home,” where we learned about sexuality and sensuality gradually over time through bits and pieces of shared, chuckled-over wisdom, rather than all at once in what many people call “The Talk.”
I would have thought seeing open sexuality more effective than speaking about it. Based on your experience, how effective is showing versus talking about it (especially when sex is not really a typically comfortable topic to discuss with children)?
Dr. Sellers: If sexuality in your home is comfortable, then it is comfortable! If you happen to be raised in a home where topics around the body and sexuality are comfortable for your parents and your relatives, then you as a child don’t pick up any discomfort from them. So as a child you don’t know it’s not comfortable for other people until you get to be 10,11,12 and you start to pick up on other experiences, spending more time in your friends’ family homes. That’s when you begin to pick up, their family is different than mine.
But for many, many, many years before that what you’re picking up is “normalcy” in your family’s vibes. So, you’re not picking up that outside discomfort until years later, when you start to become aware of families outside your own — — right before adolescence.
Looking back, I can see it was quite a long time before I personally picked up on this differences in my own development
Dr. G.: You professional growth allowed you to be in spaces of sex and sexuality. Was there every any discomfort in the beginning knowing you had to have conversation with those who did not grow up exposed to intimacy, nor discussed it?
Dr. Sellers: What I was aware of was that I was going to need to talk about intimacy/sex in a way that helped them to become comfortable with it. So, I was aware that I needed to ease into it. I needed to listen to the language they used, ease them into the discussions, I needed to use language that was plain, kind, respectful, and careful. I needed to get to know them and their background, because it wouldn’t be helpful if I shocked people, right? If I jumped straight in to their discomfort, they might begin to shut down and close off. So, I wanted to get to know people ahead of time before I jumped into conversations.
What I often learned is that people really want to become more comfortable with this topic, and theywant to heal from the shame that they have experienced. They want to know more! So, it was trying to build a bridge between where they were, and where I was — to help them walk gently across. To get them to where they want to be in their knowledge aspirations around sexuality, intimacy, and body-awareness/acceptance, etc.
Dr. G.: Let’s talk about your new book. What is it called and what was the inspiration behind writing it?
Dr. Sellers: My upcoming book is called, Shameless Parenting: Everything You Need to Raise Shame-Free, Confident Kids and Heal Your Shame Too! I found inspiration in writing my first book in 2017, Sex, God & The Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy. I looked at how — beginning in 1980, the US became significantly Conservative socio-politically. This shift has resulted in nearly 40 years of a withdrawal of sexual health knowledge from our public schools, which has caused effects to reverberate today.
As I began to look deeper into it, I saw — We as a country had so much religious sexual shame, that bled into a broader culture’s sexual shame across the US for 40 years. But this was not just affecting the public, because our public also includes our practitioners, doctors, psychotherapists, clergy and teachers — This was now a huge problem because we didn’t teach sexual health to any of these people. They did not get sexual health education when they went to grad school, or they would maybe get one class. So, a few years ago, I decided I was going to produce the material that these professionals need, to make it easy for them to access that education and share it with their clients, patients, communities, etc. So, I designed these cheat sheets that professionals could download for their clinics, youth groups, classes, or their practices.
As I was having these pages worked on by illustrators and designers, I was also sharing this info with my colleagues for critique — my queer colleagues, my DEI colleagues and asking them to look it over and make sure that I was looking at my blind-spots adequately. One of my colleagues said “Tina, this needs to be in a book for parents, because you’re laying this out so well. You’re putting it together in these 2 year increments 0–18, and it makes so much sense because it’s so practical — a parent would really love to have this in their hands.” I hadn’t thought of doing it out of fear of being too pragmatic or boring. But They said “I think it would be the parenting manual so many people are wanting because it would help parents see exactly what they need to know right at this stage. It lays out the emotional tasks, the behavioral tasks, the sexual curiosities of the child at each age. It then shows the shame triggers for the parent, how to calm and heal, the resources they’ll need for their child and for themselves in books & websites listed. It will be right there at their fingertips, they can get this info just in bite-sized delivery, and then the next stage is right next to it. They can get the whole thing in a half hour. Then they can put the book away and pull it off the shelf six months later and look at the next section… I just think it would be so helpful.”
So, I decided, Ok- I’m going to look into putting it together. I sat down and followed a really great book template and interlaced 170 pictures and put it in 14 font. When it all laid out, it was so usable and user friendly. So, I have cheat sheets for professionals, a book for parents, and I’ll have an online community (website/ membership space) for parents to join, where we’ll add new information all the time. We’ll do live Q&A’s for parents and have specific content available for members to join in community to continue to learn and share our experiences.
Dr. G.: Why is the message in your book so important for both parents and children?
Dr. Sellers: Because we know when kids receive comprehensive sex education, they get involved in sex later, they make safer sexual choices, they pick partners that are better suited for them. When parents are involved in their comprehensive sex education, they describe themselves as closer to their parents overall, when they are adults they describe that they have more frequent, varied, satisfying sexual lives. They tend to be happier adults and more confident adults, because they feel more in charge of their lives and bodies, they have more body confidence. They are able to tell when someone is exploiting them. They are critical thinkers raised with media literacy, which is incredibly important in the age of social media. So, it’s just an important thing for children’s overall confidence along with their developmental sexual health and relational health. At the core of our life, it’s important to nurture our ability to give and receive love, and so this information is really an anchor.
Dr. G.: What is next for you?
Dr. Sellers: The reason I wrote this current book, is so that you can have in your hands everything that you need so that you can look back on your own life and ask, “What did I get in each of these stages?” Seeing where we got what we needed emotionally/sexually, or if we didn’t — what do I need to reparent myself? If you have kids in your life, it shows you what you can give them.
What I want to do is continue to stay engaged, with people and parents in the parenting community set up on my website. So, we can continue to move forward as our culture and continue to face the challenges unfold on social media and beyond — things we haven’t even thought of. Our kids are going to have to face more challenges, and so I want to be there for parents and in my role as a Grandmother with my kids and grandkids- doing this work on the front lines. I’m going to keep writing and talking and updating the book in time.
So that’s what I hope to be doing- staying engaged so we raise a generation of kids/parents who are sexual health resources and experts of their own lives.
Dr. G.: I love all that you are doing and it is so needed. How can people stay engaged and informed with everything you have going on?
Dr. Sellers: People can connect with me on my website at www.tinaschermersellers.com and on IG @drtinashameless.