Like fish swimming in the water, we are swimming in sexual shame, to the point where most of the time we are utterly oblivious to it. No one is immune from sexual shame, not even medical and mental health professionals. Sometimes a person’s sexual shame is so ingrained and feels so much a part of their deepest self that they simply cannot imagine themselves without their shame.
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. All of us have seen this before. It's a difficult topic for many. So let’s pause, take a breath, and look at shame more closely.
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. Whereas guilt can be described as “I feel bad because of something I did,” shame can be described as “I feel bad because of who I am,” and examples are “I am unworthy,” or “I feel unlovable.”
Shame originates from morality, and when we are talking about morality, we are talking about what we believe is “good” and "bad” or “right” and “wrong.” Where do we learn good and bad, right and wrong? Things like our family, church, school, storytelling (like movies, TV shows, books), art (like music lyrics and music videos), video games, peers, and the legal system all have an influence on our sexuality and specifically our sexual shame.
Unfortunately, my profession has contributed to our culture’s sexual shame. We have our own shameful history of getting it wrong when it comes to understanding and working with sexual issues. “Treatments” have included shock treatments, castrations, torture, medications, lobotomies, and most recently reparative and conversion therapy.
Dated theories and treatments focused on so-called abnormality and malfunction are based on traditional relationships, assumptions, roles, and beliefs. There has been an inability to see the influence of morality and shame on how we analyze (pathologize?) what sexual behavior is done, how much it is done, with whom it is done, and where it is done.
Even today, my profession marginalizes sex in most education and training environments, and as a result, many clinicians’ own personal sexual shame goes unexamined and unchecked as it relates to its impact on their work with their clients. Therapists are humans swimming in sexual shame too and, just like our clients, are vulnerable to the same complex, contradictory, and confusing sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That is why it is imperative that we collectively proceed with caution on the huge topic of our clients’ sexuality and not continue the traumatic legacy of harming those who have the courage to seek out our help.
Having said that, here are some examples of both the sexual shame a person may have and where it may have come from. I hope these examples are helpful to you in identifying your own sexual shame. We can have sexual shame:
- About bodies and/or genitals — Think back to your sex education class(es) in school (if you had it). Perhaps you watched a video of a baby being born and saw photos of genitals or closeups of acute STI flareups in a co-ed group while understandably immature students acted out, laughed, snickered, or made jokes without containment by the educator. Additional examples are of sexual shame can be: “This body part of mine is too big,” or “This body part of mine is not big enough,” or “That body part and its secretions are gross.”
- About sexual acts and/or positions — Examples include: (1) Thinking or feeling P-V sex is “good,” because it’s procreative/heteronormative; (2) thinking anal sex is “bad,” because it’s dirty/dangerous, “is gay,” less than, or emasculating, and/or does not result in procreation; (3) thinking foreplay/outercourse is less than or not sex; and (4) thinking that performing oral sex is humiliating.
- About pleasure — Examples are: (1) "Pleasure is dangerous"/“What will happen if I experience too much pleasure?” This is a puritanical belief that pleasure is not to be trusted and that we might lose control and go wild if we experience a lot of pleasure. The emphasis and blame are placed on pleasure, not the individual. This can originate from religious or moral attitudes that denying oneself pleasure is virtuous and leads to the achievement of moral or spiritual goals. Another example is (2) “I like X, and I shouldn’t like X,” or “I do X, and I shouldn’t do X.” This is also a morality-based belief that there are acceptable and unacceptable sexual things we should and should not like or do.
- About fantasies and turn-ons — For example, a self-described male feminist has the most powerful orgasms when he fantasizes about sexually degrading/raping a woman he knows and respects, and he feels bad or ashamed about how this fantasy really turns him on.
All of these examples of sexual shame are learned. They came from somewhere. You picked them up along the way. And they can be embarrassing, confusing, or even downright scary to look at in yourself. The good news is that since they were learned, thankfully, they can be unlearned. However, that is no easy task; it doesn’t happen overnight and takes courage to do.
And like our own individual psychologies, sex is full of contradictions and paradoxes! That is what makes it so fascinating and gives it its edges.
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.
© 2019 Diane Gleim