By Amanda E.K.
Even in today’s more sexually liberated culture, sexual shame and fear remain a common and pervasive issue for people of all ages, in all communities, and of all sexual and gender identities. You might experience shame about your body, identity, desire, or kinks and fetishes. Or maybe you’re confident in yourself but are afraid to be outed for your specific sexual interests and relationships because it could mean losing your job, friends, or family members. Maybe for some of you, even seeing the title of this article made your heart race or your cheeks flush.
Shame and fear can stem from many places, but they are never your fault.
“We pick up sexual shame from the world around us, beginning with the messages we receive as children from our parents, communities, churches, society, and culture,” says Erica Smith, sex educator and founder of the Purity Culture Dropout Program. A lot of the messaging may not even be overt or direct, though. “Most of us have internalized shame just from growing up in a culture that believes deeply that sex, our bodies, and our sex parts are bad,” says relationship and sex therapist Andrew Aaron, LICSW. (WellandGood)
Maybe, like me, you grew up in a religion that fixated on the idea of your sexuality belonging to God. The Church is notorious for linking sexual purity with salvation, and for putting the literal fear of God in you if you masturbate or even so much as have a sexual thought. For half my life I was immersed in Purity Culture—a fundamentalist belief system that teaches young people that sex and masturbation are sins against God’s plans for your future marriage and that they ruin your sexual enjoyment with your spouse (assuming that everyone will get married one day, and to the “opposite” gender). When I was a teen, a church leader gave me a book called Every Young Woman’s Battle, where inside you can find such gems as, “Self-gratification can lead to shame, low self-esteem, and fear of what others may think or that something is wrong with you,” and “Masturbation can enslave you and bring you into bondage.” That second part might sound fun now, but at the time it brought me to a state of tearful panic and self-hatred simply for having a very natural and healthy desire.
But it doesn’t just take religion to believe our desires and bodies are inherently bad. Because ultimately, sexual shame isn’t a religious or even a political problem, it’s a psychological one. As stated in this Healthline article, “Typically, sexual repression happens in response to restrictive ideas or attitudes about sex. Parents or other caregivers may teach these ideas directly, but you might also simply absorb them from watching other people as you grow up. At first, you might knowingly stifle sexual thoughts, but over time, this repression often becomes automatic.”
This can start as young as toddlerhood, when a parent slaps your hand for exploring your own genitalia, or tells you the topic of sex is only for grownups when you show innocent curiosity about where babies come from. Most of us don’t stop the behavior after the hand-slap, but we internalize that it’s not something we can openly do or discuss.
If you decide that your sexual urges or fantasies are unusual, gross, or perverted, you might bury those thoughts in order to protect yourself. Then when you masturbate or have sex you might feel guilty afterward, or have a hard time finding a positive sexual relationship with yourself or others.
The School of Life offers a list of sexual thoughts & desires that most everybody has but thinks are shameful. A couple of them are:
– to flog, hurt and humiliate a sexual partner; or be on the receiving end of very rough treatment.
– to have bisexual and incestuous fantasies – and to want to explore extreme taboos involving illegal, violent, hurtful and unsanitary scenarios.
These aren’t just points of mild curiosity. They are fundamentals of human personality that stand in shocking contrast to everything that society suggests is true.
Shame and fear may also set in if you had misinformed sex education like in this clip from the movie Mean Girls.
A history of sexual trauma can also factor into repression of sexual desire. Sexual abuse can cause long-lasting emotional pain, and thoughts of sex might trigger memories, making it difficult to enjoy or want sex. Oftentimes, abuse instills in victims a core belief of worthlessness, making connection with our own bodies all the more difficult when we view them as bad.
What you were taught about gender roles can also affect beliefs about sex. For example, girls might absorb the message that trading sex for protection or affection is okay, but expressing enjoyment is not, unless they risk being labeled a “slut.” For boys, they might get the message that they have a right to sex and that it’s okay if women don’t enjoy it.
Sexual orientation can also play into repression when we learn at a young age, either directly or indirectly, that only men and women should have sex with each other. For those of us who feel attraction to our same gender, or a variety of other genders, we might’ve internalized from an early age that we need to repress our feelings in order to avoid rejection. For transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folks, this can be even more difficult and complicated.
In a survey run by Playlove, we found that many people in our own sex-positive community are still living with some level of shame and/or fear.
Over 58% agreed or strongly agreed they feel they have to lead a “double life” at times, hiding their sexuality or relationship interests in certain circles.
Even more people felt that they could lose their job, career, family or friends if people knew about parts of their sexuality or relationship interests.
This fear could look like being afraid to start a conversation with your partner about exploring a threesome, your furry fetish or wanting to try rope play while wearing a gimp mask and a kitten tail butt plug. Fear could also set in when you’re leaving the club in full regalia, worried you might be spotted by a coworker who will take this information about you to your conservative management team. Many sexually confident people are still in the closet because they’re afraid to lose face with their family or social circles, due to age-old societal stigmas that they have to live within.
If you’re unsure whether your relationship to sex comes from a place of shame and/or fear, check in with yourself about these 6 signs that are commonly expressed by those experiencing sexual shame or suppression:
- Insecurity with oneself
- A slouched physical stature or diminished voice (especially at the workplace)
- Sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction
- Trouble with intimacy and relationships
- Viewing sex as bad or experiencing frustration from feeling suppressed
- Discomfort talking about sex
The good news is, though we can’t change society as a whole, there are ways to overcome sexual shame and fear within yourself. Simply having an awareness of the signs of shame and how it affects you is a great place to start and can help you take steps toward countering it.
The following tips can help too:
- Mindfulness. Notice when sexual thoughts come up for you, remind yourself that they’re normal and accept them without criticizing yourself. Feel free to explore the thoughts and see where they lead. Is there a kink you’re interested in but have never tried? It’s okay to go there. Mindfulness during sex is also helpful. Recognize when you enjoy something and focus on the experience. This can lead to better expressing your enjoyment. For the self-confident closeted folks, pay attention to when fear comes up for you. You may not be ready or able to out yourself to coworkers or loved ones, but it can help to know that others’ judgements also come from a place of fear and societal messaging. You being you alone in your room is already a huge step forward in normalizing sex positivity.
- Sex Positivity. Get comfortable with the idea of sex and all its varieties as a healthy activity. This could include reading essays or books about sexual repression, or familiarizing yourself with sexual expression in books, films, porn, and art (e.g. The Kama Sutra). Even a subtly erotic sex scene in a fiction novel can go a long way in normalizing sexual expression. Even if you can’t express your sex positive views with everyone in your life, there are many communities across the globe that would be happy to welcome you into their shame-free safety nets.
- Body Acceptance. Maybe you have a tendency to hide or desexualize your body by wearing loose clothes or avoiding nakedness. To increase your comfort with your own body, you might try looking at yourself in the mirror naked, listing five things you like about your body, or sleeping naked. And if you want a sexy way to love your body in public without anyone being the wiser, try wearing bondage gear, a butt plug, or even a chastity belt under your workplace attire.
- Conversation. Talking about shame and fear is a great way to lessen its power. You can open up discussion with an understanding partner or a trusted friend by saying something like, “I’ve never felt comfortable talking about or acknowledging what I like in bed. I want to improve, but it will take time.” As reinforced by this video by The School of Life, “Being able to share that you find sex difficult is the beginning of the better sex life we all long for — and deserve.” And when you speak, you might find that your partner or friend was too shy to breach the topic themselves and are grateful you brought it up.
- Sex Therapy. Seeing a sex therapist is increasingly common for singles and couples alike. A simple google search will help you find a sex therapist near you.
Above all, be patient with yourself. There is no set timeline for overcoming sexual shame and fear, and everyone heals and grows at their own pace.
Look for part two of this article next month with specific examples from members of our community and actions you can take to put sexual shame and fear behind you where it belongs and start living the sex life of your dreams!