I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that nearly everyone has experienced sexual shame in their lifetime. Undoubtedly, sex and shame looks different for everyone; but the feeling underneath is one nearly all of us can relate to.
What is sexual shame?
When we think of shame, we are considering morality (i.e. good versus bad or right versus wrong). Shame is considered to be a “social emotion”, meaning that it is something we learn to feel (i.e. we feel ashamed because we are told we have done/thought/felt something that is bad/wrong/sinful). Shame is often deeply ingrained and can be resistant to change. The Shame comes from a place of feeling bad about who we are, as opposed to guilt, which comes from a place of feeling bad about something we’ve done.
Sexual shame, specifically, is a feeling of wrongness in our sexual desires, fantasies, and/or acts. It is important to remember that we are not born feeling ashamed of these things. Rather, we learned somewhere along the way that we should feel ashamed.
Here are some examples of thoughts related to sex and shame:
“I can’t believe I was fantasizing about another person when I was with my partner. I’m an awful person.”
“I shouldn’t want to be slapped during sex. That is not okay!”
“I am so gross for wanting to have anal sex. What is wrong with me?”
“I can only have sex with the lights off. I don’t want my partner to see how weird my genitals look.”
Where does sexual shame come from?
To consider this question fully, one would need to read numerous books on the subject. The social and cultural impact on sexual shame is vast and not something that can be easily condensed. One can begin to imagine the immensity of cultural influence when considering the concept of “virginity”. There are so many mixed cultural messages about virginity that people can feel shame for “being a virgin” while others feel shame for “not being a virgin”. The message is often different based on gender, but there are even different messages within genders. For example, women can be labeled as “promiscuous” or “prudish” depending on the shameful message being touted. This example only scratches the surface of the intertwined nature of culture and sexual shame.
Let’s consider another example: sex education. Sex education, when provided, often sets the tone of secrecy and shame around sexuality. Sex itself is rarely mentioned as a way to give or receive pleasure, and the instructors are often not well-versed in the material or research. (While this has started to shift in recent years, there is still a long way to go.) Sex education often solely focuses on the reproductive nature of sex and includes shameful messages about sexually transmitted infections. Without careful consideration to the lesson, instructors may inadvertently – or even purposefully – instill the idea that only “gross” or “slutty” people get STI’s. Also, reputable sources that disseminate sex education on popular social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok are at risk of having their content banned. Sometimes, these educators will resort to censoring their information in order to remain in operation. This can send the message that sex-related words are dirty or shameful – the opposite message of what these accounts are trying to promote.
One last avenue to sexual shame we’ll consider is parenting. While our parents may have had the best of intentions, it is common to have heard shameful sexual messages growing up. For example, children often masturbate. This is a normal part of development, but it often evokes uncomfortable or even shocking emotions when parents find out their child has engaged in this behavior. Children may be shamed for such behavior and receive messages such as “Touching yourself is bad, and you are bad for doing it”. These messages and their associated feelings of shame can be carried with us into adulthood.
Why is sexual shame so hard to overcome?
I cannot speak for all experiences, but sexual shame – in some cases – can be resistant to shifts in thought due to the presence of the emotion of disgust. Disgust is one of our core emotions. You can evoke the sensation by imagining a smelly cup of milk that has been sitting on the counter for a week or by imagining holding a piece of roadkill with your bare hands. Disgust is a feeling that often helps keep us safe by making sure we avoid things that could make us sick. Since disgust is such a primal emotion, we often don’t think to question it. When disgust shows up, we listen.
Shame and disgust often show up together. We feel “grossed out” by our desires, fantasies, or sexual acts, and that leads to shame. Or we have internalized disgust based on comments others have made about our bodies or genitals, and therefore, feel ashamed of our physical selves. If we take feelings of disgust at face value, we aren’t questioning why we feel ashamed in the first place. When someone suggests that “Maybe that thing you’re ashamed about isn’t so bad after all”, the response can be, “Are you kidding? I feel disgusted when I think about this. It must be wrong!” But what if you stopped and thought about where that feeling of disgust is coming from, instead of accepting it as fact? It may feel counterintuitive at first to question feelings of disgust when they feel so primordially true, but when we recognize that emotions do not equal objective truths, we can begin the work of dismantling some of our feelings of sexual shame.
How to overcome sexual shame
While sexual shame may be deep-rooted, this does not mean it is impossible to overcome. Here are a few ways you can begin to free yourself from shame so you can more fully accept your sexual self.
Say sex-related words out loud. When beginning to dismantle shame, a good place to start is building your comfort in talking about the topic. When alone, or with a trusted friend, practice saying words such as “sex”, “penis”, “vagina”, “genitals”, “turned on”, “horny”, or “sexy” out loud. You can tailor this activity to focus on specific words, sexual acts, or desires that bring up shameful feelings.
Watch ethically-sourced pornography. If you feel shame regarding specific fantasies or desires, watching ethical pornography that plays with these themes can show you a safe way to engage in these desires or fantasies. Pornography can also help normalize your feelings and help you to not feel so isolated in your desires.
Think about sex from a spiritual perspective. Shame can often be tied to religious beliefs. Developing a spiritual view of sex may involve exploring your own attitudes and their origins. When we can view sex as a part of our spiritual beliefs – instead of in opposition to them – shame can be released, and we can live more pleasurable lives.
Talk with a therapist. Talking with a therapist can help you become comfortable discussing the topic of sex, as well as the shame that may accompany it. A therapist can help you unpack your thoughts and beliefs toward sex and arrive at a place that feels more authentic to you.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.