For many people, even the mention of the word “sex” can trigger embarrassment or shame. Perhaps even anger. Helping individuals and couples overcome issues related to sexual shame is a passion of mine. Sex and sexuality are God-given gifts is to be embraced. Unfortunately for many, their backgrounds and upbringings result in a skewed perception of sex and pleasure, and wreaks havoc in how they see themselves and in their relationships.
People who experience sexual shame in this way are termed, sexually repressed. I prefer to use the term sexual shame, as I find that saying someone is sexually repressed in our modern world is often taken as meaning that it is someone not who doesn’t want to engage in specific behaviours that others think could be fun (BDSM, oral sex etc.). That is not what it is to be sexually repressed.
Where Does Sexual Shame Come From?
Maybe growing up you learned that sex was unpleasant, or taboo, or just for marriage. You may have been taught that masturbating or thinking about sex were sinful. That the soul is pure but your body and its desires are not to be trusted (not true). As a result, you forced yourself to squash your (perfectly natural) desires in order to protect yourself from these “sinful” thoughts. If your fear of the perceived consequences of these thoughts led you to ignore them entirely, as an adult, you might find it difficult to express yourself sexually. When you do masturbate or have sex (even within marriage), you might feel bad or guilty afterward even though you logically know that it is a natural expression of intimacy..
Not All About Religion
There is a tendency to associate sexual shame with religious upbringings, but traditional ideas about sexual behaviour can stem from a variety of other sources, too. You may have been warned about the dangers of sex, such as sexually transmitted infections (sub-saharan Africa is inundated with HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns), teen pregnancy, or the risk of sexual trauma.
If you have experienced sexual trauma yourself, this can also factor into sexual shame. Rape and sexual abuse can cause significant, long lasting emotional pain, and thoughts of sex might trigger unwanted memories, making it difficult to enjoy or want sex.
If your parents didn’t talk about sex, your friends and the media may have provided plenty of conflicting information that didn’t do much to normalise healthy sexual expression. You might not have absorbed expressly negative ideas about sex, but some of what you heard from others might make sex seem weird and uncomfortable. Many young people today that think that “rimming” and how sex is seen in porn is what is to be expected in even the most “vanilla” of relationships. None of that is true. Porn should never be used as a model of what is “normal” because it is not reality.
If your parents didn’t speak about sex when you were growing up, you may find that sexual thoughts and arousal can cause confusion, even disgust.
Sexual orientation can, understandably also play into sexual shame. If your sexual orientation doesn’t align with what you were taught was “right” or “normal”, you might feel shame when it comes to your feelings, and shut them down in order to avoid rejection.
Sexual Shame Is Not:
- asexuality, or lack of sexual attraction
- Low libido or sex drive
- disinterest in sexual experimentation or casual sex
- limited sexual experience
- Not wanting to try things like oral sex, anal sex, BDSM, or sex with multiple partners
- Not wanting to have sex until you’re in a committed, long-term relationship.
Sexual Shame Is:
- deep-seated negative feelings around the very idea of sex.
- shame and distress associated with sexual fantasies
- guilt and other negative feelings after sex or masturbation
- difficulty enjoying healthy, consensual sex
- negative self-talk after sexual thoughts or activity
- believing your body is unattractive or unworthy of sex
The consequences of living with sexual shame are physical, emotional, and psychological (trouble sleeping, body tension, guilt or fear around your identity, difficulty in relationships, pain or discomfort during sex etc.) and affect almost every area of our lives and how we relate to others. In short, you are a sexual being that is ashamed of your sexuality. It is an internal conflict that you cannot live with forever. As a result, something eventually breaks.
What To Do About It
- First, know that what you are feeling is real, not all in your head. Second, know it isn’t your fault.
- Practice mindfully accepting sexual thoughts
- Read up on sex positivity and sexual health
- Get comfortable with your body
- Talk to your partner
- talk with your children about sex honestly, in an age-appropriate way
- teach consent from an early age
- find support
Working with a sex therapist is a great way to begin addressing sexual shame. Some sex therapists might specialise in religious-based repression (I often do due to my background in Christian Ministry) while others focus on helping LGBTQ+ people accept their sexuality. A quick internet search can help you find a sex therapist in your area. For such an intimate, personal topic, it’s essential to find a therapist you can open up to.
Religious or social expectations around sexual behaviour can lead to sexual guilt and shame, but this is something you can absolutely overcome.
Reaching out to a trained sex therapist is often a helpful first step.
Got a question about sex? Send your questions and I’ll answer them! What’s your question?