Shame and Sexuality

Photo by Samson Katt

Written by Caitlin Chow-Ise (she/they), Creator of @thes3xtalk

For today’s article, I want to talk about shame and sexuality. Most of the questions I get as an educator are tinged with shame. Many of them contain sentences along the lines of: “what’s wrong with me?” and “I feel bad about what I want.” I think we can all identify an area of our sexuality in which we feel a certain amount of shame, whether that be about engaging in sexual activity, wanting polyamory, experiencing vaginismus, being kinky, not feeling sexual, etc. To illustrate just how big of an impact shame has on our sexuality, here are some quotes from folks about shame and sexuality, which I collected in August of 2020.

“I want to explore forms of pleasure but I can’t get myself to be open about it”

“I have always struggled with shame after masturbation. I thought I was the only one in the world who did it until I was in late high school, and I felt dirty and ashamed after reading articles on Christian sites I used to like that said masturbation was one of the worst sins”

“I constantly am thinking about sex also, often wonder if there’s something wrong with me”

“Have shame around always blushing when sex stuff is mentioned, working through it”

“I have a higher sex drive than my gf and it always makes me self-conscious”

“I grew up Chinese Catholic and still learning how to lose my shame”

“Being involved in religious groups during my most formative years drowned me in purity culture, which made me feel a lot of shame for such a long time. Now separating myself from those communities, I feel so much more free”

“I still feel like my pubic hair is shameful to have with a partner even though I know it’s not because one boy told me he didn’t like my pubic hair in my freshman year”

Clearly, most of us learn about sex as shameful, and feel sexual shame in some form. You’re not alone in feeling this way, I promise.

In fact, according to Psychology Today, there are four categories in which humans feel sexual shame:

Bodies and/or genitals

Sexual acts and/or positions

Pleasure 

Fantasies and turn-ons

Shame comes from a lot of places in our lives, and it especially surrounds sexuality. What’s relieving though, is that we do not naturally experience shame. Rather, it is learned. So, shame can be unlearned (which is good news, but also a really tough thing to work through).

So, how can we feel empowered in our sexual curiosities/experiences/selves? For me, being in the sex positive online space and having open conversations with friends about sex and sexuality has been imperative to my unlearning of shame. It is a lot of unlearning, and relearning of the power of pleasure. But, undoing the work of shame is different for everyone. How do you/can you empower your sexual self?

Please know that it is not a fault of any of us for feeling shame about sex. It is a socialized, deeply ingrained feeling. Feeling liberated 100% of the time is hard.

Here are some reminders and affirmations about sex and bodies. Take what resonates, and leave the rest:

Masturbation is normal

Being curious/wanting to explore is normal

Wanting to have sex is normal

Not wanting to have sex is normal

Having seasons of low sex-drive/libido is normal

Having a high sex drive is normal

Not being synced up with your partner in terms of sex drive is normal

Having body hair is normal

Having insecurities is normal

Liking talking/thinking about sex is normal

Feeling uncomfortable when talking/thinking about sex is normal

There is nothing wrong with you.

Sex is fascinating! And it is something that is largely socially learned. But since sex is kept behind a veil of taboo, a lot of us are left with little correct information about it. And when evidence-based, sex positive information isn’t provided to folks, feelings of shame can come up in asking for some. That’s why the work of sex educators is so important. Because, as it turns out, many of us feel sexual shame in some form. That could be reduced through inclusive, accurate sex education.

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