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Sex is an incredibly complicated part of life. However natural it may be, it's still easy to associate it with negative emotions, specifically shame. From the days of sex education in school through adulthood sexual encounters, the act is often made to seem embarrassing, taboo, and better left avoided until absolutely necessary. While education regarding sexual health and safety is important for young people (and adults), it has a way of fostering feelings of guilt and sexual shame that can last long into adulthood.
Additionally, double standards perpetuate the common trope that men can and should pursue sexual partners while women should not. Because the conversation around sex and its place in our society is not one that many people are open to having, all of this can contribute to people feeling ashamed to be sexual. But as long as you are comfortable and feel safe, there is nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality—whatever that means to you.
Below, we hear from an expert sex therapist and a professional psychologist about what exactly sexual shame is, where it comes from, how it can influence your sexuality, and what you can do about it.
Basics of Sexual Shame
People experience sexual shame in response to many things, including who they feel sexual desire for, who they want to have sex with, the kind of sex they want to have, their sexual thoughts and fantasies, and the ways that they see themselves as sexual.
Sexual shame refers to all the ways people come to feel that who they are as a sexual being is wrong, broken, or even fundamentally bad.
"Sexual shame is so ubiquitous that when someone or something does not evoke sexual shame and is actually 'sex-positive,' it can be a shock to the system and cause reactivity like discomfort, anxiety or fear, judgment, anger, threats, and sometimes even violence," says Diane Gleim, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist. And it doesn't just come from physical actions. Many people experience sexual shame whether or not they ever act out their thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.
One of the most dangerous parts of sexual shame is how easy it is to believe that the shame originates from within you. For example, someone who likes to watch pornography may feel shame about their desire to do so. They may feel as if that shame is natural, which can steer them away from questioning their feelings and cause them to keep their shame private instead of talking about it with others. However, questioning and talking about the things you may feel ashamed of is the key to working through your feelings and understanding why they're occurring.
Where Does It Come From?
Although having sex is a perfectly natural part of life, feeling shame over your sexual desires and actions is not. However, some people consider shame "nature's way" of telling you what you want or think is wrong. This is a very common way of thinking. In fact, it's an idea that many different traditions (religious and otherwise) encourage people to believe. But there is simply no truth to it.
Shame is considered a 'social emotion' (as opposed to 'basic emotions,' like happy, sad, and mad). It is learned via socialization (all the complexities of interacting with others) and through the transmission of group norms.
Feeling ashamed for wanting sex stems from external factors. It could come from your family, your cultural and religious traditions, your friends, or your community. "Shame is considered a 'social emotion' (as opposed to 'basic emotions,' like happy, sad, and mad). It is learned via socialization (all the complexities of interacting with others) and through the transmission of group norms," explains Gleim.
Some believe that feeling too much pleasure is bad, that some sexual activities are okay but others are wrong, that not wanting sex is unhealthy, or that being too open about sex is a problem. It's often narrowly defined when, in reality, sex is a multi-faceted part of life and there is no one "normal" way to experience it.
Shame could also come from elements of popular culture, like television, movies, books, and social media. In these forms, sex is often portrayed in extremes that can confuse your understanding of your desires. On the one hand, sex may be displayed as fun and passionate, while on the other hand, it can be portrayed as indulgent and wrong. Again, nothing is ever so black and white.
You may also be exposed to other messages regarding sexuality that can affect your viewpoint. If you've been exposed to inappropriate sexual behavior in the form of harassment, assault, or physical and emotional abuse, this may impact how you feel about sex.
The list goes on and on and on. These messages seep into our brains and our bodies, creating a feeling of shame over something that's completely natural.
How Shame Influences Our Sexuality
The impact of feeling ashamed for wanting sex can take a toll on many aspects of life. Most sex therapists and educators will tell you that it's one of the biggest obstacles to maintaining sexual health. "A high level of sexual shame can place an individual at risk for sexual dysfunction, impaired relationships, and sexual acting out," says psychologist Kelifern Pomeranz.
Sexual shame can keep people from letting others get close to them and deter some from feeling comfortable in their own bodies. It's also not uncommon for people with sexual shame to project judgment onto others. This can impact someone's ability to find sexual partners that they want and who accept them for who they are. In this way, sexual shame not only prevents some people from experiencing the possibilities of sexual pleasure, but also the opportunity to feel love, intimacy, and companionship.
One of the biggest ways that shame affects people is by rendering them silent. Typically, when you feel ashamed of something, you don't want to talk about it. Instead, it gets hidden away. This can be viewed as compartmentalizing, showing only the parts you think are acceptable and hiding the others.
Overcoming Sexual Shame
The good news is that, because sexual shame is something we've learned and not something biological, we can unlearn it, though this is no easy undertaking. For starters, it's best to be yourself and try to accept your desires and experiment with your sexuality in a way that's safe and comfortable for both you and your sexual partners.
Pomeranz suggests mindfulness as a helpful practice in breaking down these learned feelings. "Mindfulness-based approaches have been shown to be useful with helping individuals accept themselves for who they are and detach from toxic shame," she says.
There is no reason sex should be feared, thought of as dangerous, judged, or shamed. In fact, your sexual shame is abundant material to explore in therapy. You might learn to move past your judgment and shame and into radical acceptance, experiencing pleasure more fully, and finding inner peace.
Another route to consider is psychotherapy. By exploring your sexual shame with a professional—where it comes from, how it impacts you, and more—together you can work towards understanding and self-acceptance in a way you might not have been able to on your own.
"There is no reason sex should be feared, thought of as dangerous, judged, or shamed," emphasizes Gleim. "In fact, your sexual shame is abundant material to explore in therapy. You might learn to move past your judgment and shame and into radical acceptance, experiencing pleasure more fully, and finding inner peace."