When I was twenty-three I attended SEXPO for the first time as a married woman and it was my first experience of seeing sex other than the sin/purity teachings of the Greek Orthodox religion. So attending SEXPO as an author and divorced woman many years later is my way of giving back at a grassroots level, of connecting with women and men who have suffered or are suffering from cultural and/or religious sexual repression.

Sydney SEXPO last week was my second SEXPO as an exhibitor/guest with my poetry book, Love and F**k Poems, a story of a Greek woman fleeing her marriage to find her sexual identity. I was shocked to discover how many men and women could relate to the topic of cultural and religious sexual repression. This was my first time giving a talk (interwoven with poetry) on this theme at SEXPO, but I was also at SEXPO during the entire health and sexuality lifestyle exhibition, signing copies of my book and chatting to people.

I have a chair at my table where people can sit with me and people do sit and chat for some time! I think people are really open with me when they talk about their lives and experiences because I am really open and honest in my performances and in my writing, but SEXPO also provides this environment, because it’s all out there. I like that people are really comfortable with me but this sometimes leads to me feeling helpless in some way that I can’t do more. I always advise people to seek therapy and to be patient with themselves. It takes a long time to heal from the damage of sexual repression and it is a journey, an evolution. Even I myself do not feel that I am completely ‘cured’ from the harmful effects religion and culture had on the psychology of my sexual health.

Unlike Melbourne where more women approached me, in Sydney it was the opposite. I spoke to slightly more men who were confused by the teachings around sex in their religion and culture. The people I spoke to were from a variety of ethnicities, faiths and ages and there was many people from migrant communities which I was pleased about. There were quite a few people who told me they came specifically to hear my talk because they were confused/scared about the role of sex in their life due to the teachings of their upbringing. It was confronting as I was talking to see people staring at me wide-eyed and frightened.

Some interesting stories

One man, in his seventies, approached my table and said that he had recently joined the Catholic faith as a way of connecting to Jesus Christ but he was troubled by the rules preaching that sex was a sin unless in marriage. He said he wanted to follow the rules so he could go to Heaven but that he had ended up in hospital because he had stopped masturbating to follow the faith and had severe pains. He was extremely distressed and asked me if I worry that I will be going to Hell because I have sex outside marriage and I said that I don’t. I used to be very scared that God would punish me for doing anything wrong but when I fled my marriage I also fled my faith and I shed this burden.

I also met a women in her fifties who was extremely distressed and said she found her body disgusting and had been taught sex is wrong by her Catholic religion. She was recently divorced and felt lost because she finally realised what these teachings did to her sexuality and she said she rarely had sex with her husband and didn’t enjoy it. She was extremely frightened and I chatted with her for some time and advised her to seek therapy as it is impossible to go through the journey alone. It gave her comfort that I had had a similar awakening and I got through to the other side after many years.

I also met a man who previously worked as a surrogate partner. Under the guidance of a therapist, he worked with women who have been severely repressed by culture and religion and are physically unable to have sex. He explained that in order to help the women open up, he would have to emotionally connect with them and then when they were able to have sex and the process was over, he would have to disconnect, and he found this challenging as he had fallen in love a few times.

I spoke to two men who had fled the Muslim faith in recent years and were learning how to embrace sex in a more positive way as opposed to negatively as it was in their faith. They were really happy I was at SEXPO and talking about this issue. They seemed very happy but told me it was an ongoing journey, overcoming the damage to find your sexual identity.

I spoke to a young, recently married couple and they had both decided to abandon their religion because they, only after being married, realised that being taught sex is a sin doesn’t change things for you once you get married. One was in the Greek Orthodox faith and the other Catholic from a Chinese migrant background. In fact, this is the one flaw in religion: that it assumes you can flip a switch in your mind once you are married and that sex can go from something bad to something good.