Beyond Sex Ed: The power of celebrating insecurity

Opinion by Lily Zimeng Liu
June 19, 2020, 9:15 p.m.

Each quarter, Brianna Booth, director of positive sexuality, teaches a class where students talk about sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships by telling their own stories. Stories reveal the reality of a hidden culture in which students care, a lot. Students contend with unexpressed feelings, silenced desires, big love, big pain and searing heartache. This series is dedicated to sharing that reality — together, we’ll build a more intimate world. Read the introduction to the series here.

I can hear my own heartbeat tapping on the edge of my headphones.

Kane Zha, my TA, has just commented on my first journal entry for TAPS 21T: Storycraft: Sexuality, Intimacy, and Relationships.  I eagerly click open the Google doc. As I peruse my own words from three days ago, my body shivers at the truth of the emotion I expressed. My heart beats faster as I see Kane’s comments: 

“I felt this in my belly – the weight and frozenness that you’re describing.”

“the breath caught in my chest when I read this.”

I start to tear up. We have only met once — on Zoom. But Kane’s genuine reaction to my truths — even on the sidebar of a Google doc — makes me feel so seen, understood and powerful.

It took me a really long time to share that I felt insecure about my desirability. As someone with small eyes, I have always felt unattractive due to the ubiquitous praise of “big eyes” in traditional Chinese aesthetics. Feeling isolated and misunderstood as a third-culture kid further prevented me from sharing this insecurity openly. Back home in Beijing, I could not discuss sex and relationships without facing judgment. “You should be less intimidating; you don’t want to be a left-over woman,” my relatives kept saying. Whenever they sneered at single women in their thirties, I wondered if I would become their laughingstock someday. 

I thought I would be free to explore my sexuality in the United States, but that has been far from my experience. While peers at my New England boarding school seemed to have figured out everything about hookups, I was still getting used to dancing with loud music in a dark room. I felt drained navigating these confusing expectations around sex. I didn’t know how to start a conversation about hookup culture with my parents when they still disapproved of my sleeping in a boy’s room. At a time when I didn’t feel belonging in this new country, I ignored my confusion. High school was too busy to feel confused. 

Whenever I felt hopeless, I cheered myself up with a manifesto of strength: “I am a strong woman. A strong woman does not need sexual attention to validate her worth.” I focused on what I could control: grades and art. However, glowing letters of recommendation and medals weren’t enough. My insecurity about being undesirable was magnified by sexist narratives that I knew, deep down, were not true, such as, “ambitious women aren’t desirable.” I started worrying, “Am I really unattractive?” “Am I really too intimidating?” 

As much as I feared unwanted sexual attention, I felt humiliated not getting any. I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Sex and relationships, therefore, became a topic that was impossible for me to speak about with anyone — a topic loaded with self-consciousness, conflicting identities and unquenchable curiosity. My frustration burned holes in my heart. It was a spot of shameful vulnerability that I desperately wanted to hide. 

This intense insecurity made me ignore my own standards and desires. Instead of seeking emotional depth in intimacy, which I treasure, I settled for meaningless hookups to feel wanted. I grasped onto any proof of my desirability, even when it came from predatory men, which caused me to fall victim to exploitation. I didn’t feel comfortable seeking help, because I was too afraid to expose my brokenness to others, or even worse, to look at it myself. 

I carried my insecurity of undesirability to Stanford. When I witnessed courage and acceptance from others, however, I finally had the courage to face and validate my own insecurity. During the first retreat with my a cappella group, the Harmonics, we spent the whole night sharing heartfelt stories over a game of hotseat. “What is your biggest fear?” “What is something you wish others knew more about you?” As I heard my peers answer these questions with seriousness and brutal honesty, my impulse to put on a facade of strength dissipated. I told them, for the first time, about my doubts over my appearance, my fear of judgment from my relatives, and my conflicted relationship with my parents. Their love and acceptance made me feel belonging in this country for the first time. 

I was overwhelmed by the joy of finally being seen as myself. As I silently related to their struggles with sexuality, I started to realize that my insecurity is valid too. My classmates, who are some of the most high-achieving young leaders in the world, can also be vulnerable. 

Listening to bold, honest, powerful stories on sexuality from my peers at “Beyond Sex Ed,” similarly, prompted me to take TAPS 21T to explore my own story. In our first session, I was terrified that I had to create a mind map on sexuality with a complete stranger in a breakout room. My partner, though, was astonishingly humble and attentive, making me less scared to share my heart honestly. My instructors’ comments in my journal entries grew into snaps over Zoom from my classmates. Amid all the grief in the world right now, this community made me feel comfortable to look at the tornados in my own heart with compassion and courage. Now, when I venture into difficult topics surrounding sex, I feel safe knowing that there are people rooting for me and accepting me for both my strengths and my vulnerabilities. My insecurity of being undesirable is not pathetic. It is human

I was lucky at Stanford to find this accepting space to finally humanize my insecurity. The absence of spaces to humanize insecurity leads to devastating consequences. In my case, feeling ashamed of myself prevented me from standing up to exploitation, prevented me from exploring my sexuality openly and prevented me from seeking necessary help when I was overwhelmed with fear. There are other individuals like me who feel ashamed to acknowledge their insecurity with matters of intimacy, relationships and sex. While celebrating confidence is great, one has to celebrate the reality of insecurities too, especially when we face so many unrealistic expectations of sex in our world. 

To inspire us in the work of celebrating the reality of insecurity, we need to create opportunities for individuals to explore sexuality, intimacy and relationships honestly. These opportunities need to be in spaces that normalize insecurity about sexuality and cultivate empathy. Sharing one’s insecurity is scary enough. On a “duck-syndrome” ridden campus filled with high achievers, this kind of sharing may be seen even more as a weakness. Humanizing and de-stigmatizing insecurity, on the other hand, inspires compassion toward one another. It empowers individuals to explore sex — a topic so delicate, personal and integral to our well-being — without fear of judgment. The crushing pressure I felt to defy sexist stereotypes discouraged me from acknowledging my insecurity. My friends’ acceptance, on the other hand, helped me acknowledge them as human experiences. I can just imagine the healing that acceptance may bring to others on this campus who face other forms of expectations and discriminations.

I used to think that no one would understand my struggles as a Chinese American third-culture kid because I rarely see any women who look like me sharing their stories about sex. Hearing stories told by individuals who embody my identities made me feel more brave to accept and tell mine. Honest, judgment-free conversations surrounding sex from students with diverse backgrounds are starting points to humanize our vulnerability. To support our diverse student body to feel more understood and empathized with, we need to acknowledge the complexity of sex in different contexts and identities. We need to empower individuals representing all kinds of identities to tell their stories, because their experiences are keys to validate the experiences of those who can relate to them. 

I stopped using my “manifesto of strength.” Instead, I shared my new manifesto with my classmates for the first time over Zoom, four weeks after I opened up to my instructors on a Google doc: “A strong woman doesn’t need sexual attention to validate herself. However, a strong woman can want sexual attention and simultaneously feel insecure about her appearance.

I can hear my own heart beat. The words escaping my lips ring so true.   Being insecure doesn’t make me less of a strong woman. It makes me human.

Contact Lily Zimeng Liu at lilyzliu ‘at’

This is the third in a multi-part series. Read the introduction here.

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