Shame is a very isolating emotion, which is ironic when it comes to sex – because SO MANY of us feel all alone in our shame. It is an overwhelming sense of shame that keeps many of us from being honest, open and authentic with the people we care for most. For some, their most intimate relationships actually become the places they feel least “real.” Because there is so much at stake in a marriage or long-term relationship, the fear of loss or judgment from one’s closest companion can overtake their desires to connect.
Why Does Shame Affect Sex So Much?
Sex is vulnerable! Most of us want to make a good impression and give our partner a great experience, whether its our first time or our 500th encounter together. We also want to feel pleasure ourselves and cultivate a sense of connection and intimacy. The clothes come off, and the bare bodies we rarely show are now on full display. Questions can flood the mind: “Am I attractive enough?” “Are they judging that birthmark on my thigh?” “Can they tell I’ve gained 20lbs these last few months?” Our genitals add an even more personal level, as relatively few people tend to see these parts of our bodies throughout our lifespan. We may worry about how our genitals look (“Are my labia too long?”), smell (“I got sweaty on my drive home, is my partner grossed out?”), or function (“Is my penis erect enough for penetration?”).
Not to mention, we are emotionally vulnerable when we share our fantasies and desires, never 100% certain whether our partner will respond with “HELL YES!” or “WTF is wrong with you?!” And of course, most sex acts involve physical vulnerability as well. Especially anything involving penetration, whether with fingers, toys or a penis, being on the receiving end can be anxiety provoking. The “giver,” however, may equally be concerned that they are “performing” well, whether or not they are actually making their partner feel good, or hold worries about the size and strength of their erection.
With all of these concerns, and many more, no wonder shame is so endemic to human sexuality!
What is Toxic Shame?
Much shame people feel about sexuality is toxic. That means it exists inside of us, makes us feel terrible about ourselves and thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are, in fact, perfectly healthy and within the range of “normal” (for lack of a better term!). Many people, for instance, are wracked by shame about masturbation, even though it is a widespread practice that is actually healthy for the physical body!
Toxic shame is completely unhelpful, makes us feel terrible and has a big impact on our relationships. It comes from many cultures, religions, family values, and the media. Toxic shame also affects our self esteem and sense of confidence that we take with us into our families, workplace and free time. Its called TOXIC for a reason!
When is Shame Warranted?
Some shame, however, is helpful. It is normal – and healthy! – to feel shame when you have crossed another person’s boundaries and caused them pain. Shame in these instances is part of how we learn healthier behaviors. Many boundary crossings are accidental, and its normal to feel bad after. Apologize, talk with your partner and try to make things right for the future.
Those who cross boundaries on purpose are not likely reading this blog, but people can change their ways with effort (and typically therapy). Shame is wholly warranted when we wrong another person on purpose. These situations are VERY different, however, from the toxic shame that interferes with many people’s perfectly healthy sexual experiences.
What is Your “Shame History”?
Understanding where your personal sense of shame came from can help you identify better how you are feeling and why. Think about the following:
- What messages did you hear about sex and the body growing up? Were you told sex is only for marriage, or that women who have sex are sluts?
- What negative experiences did you have throughout your childhood and adolescence? Were you caught masturbating or shamed in the locker room for your body?
- What “mp3” plays on repeat in your mind regarding sex and your body? Do you tell yourself “I’m unattractive,” “I don’t deserve that,” or “Sex is dirty”?
- What did your religion or culture teach you about sex? Were you taught that sex or masturbation were a sin? That “good girls” don’t have sex?
All of the early messages we receive from the world around us can shape our sexual experiences years later, especially if they remain unexamined and unexplored. Cultivating awareness of your struggles is the first step. And realize, if there’s a first step, that means there are more to come!
What Can Help You Move Through Shame?
So what can you do? Here are a few options for your journey to sexual wholeness:
- Take a holistic approach. As Dr. Patti Britton asserts, sexuality affects many aspects of our lives, including the mind, body, emotions, energy and spirit. While many practitioners, like doctors or therapists, may work on one aspect – we are whole beings, not parts! Each of these pieces together makes up the realm of our sexuality. Dysfunction in one area can affect others, yet healing in one area can also positively affect others.
- Learn and practice self-forgiveness. Dr. Britton says that too often, “self-blame goes with self-shame.” Toxic shame is not our fault, even though the effects feel so personal. It will not happen overnight, but learning to forgive yourself and find the good in your experiences can go a long way.
- Educate yourself. Even though you may FEEL shame, and that feeling may be very intense, that does not mean it is based on correct information. Masturbation, fetishes and fantasies, desires for domination and submission are, in fact, much more statistically “normal” (as in, common!) than you might think. Most sexual behaviors are perfectly healthy when done in a safe environment with a trusted partner, and/or with yourself. Learning about the range that makes up “healthy” may help you reframe your perspective on your own feelings.
- Talk with a sex therapist or coach. Contrary to what you might expect, most doctors and typical psychotherapists are poorly trained in sexuality. Speaking to someone with a background in sexology who has specifically studied the range of healthy sexuality can help you disentangle toxic shame from otherwise “normal” and healthy feelings and behaviors.
Finally, remember: you are NOT alone! As you walk down the street or down the hall at work, imagine for a moment that you can see inside other people’s heads. If you could, you would witness many of the same anxieties, fears and worries you struggle with yourself! Because sexuality is typically very private, we don’t often share these feelings with others. Take comfort in knowing that you are far from the only reader of this article, which not only means that your struggles are very human, it also means they can be overcome!
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in the Los Angeles area. She works with various individuals to understand and improve their sexuality. Dr. Moali conducts personal consultation sessions in her Torrance and Hermosa Beach offices, or via a secure, online video-counseling platform.