Shame… ugh… we’ve all felt it. It’s one of the grossest feelings, and yet for many of us shame is deeply intertwined with our sexuality. Unfortunately, shame often gets in the way of the very reasons we’re having sex – intimacy, connection, pleasure and orgasm.
Why Do We Feel Shame? Where Does it Come From?
There are many reasons we might feel shame around our sexuality. Here are just a few:
– Growing up in a religion with strict rules or guidelines around sex – Even if one has moved on from their childhood religion or developed other spiritual perspectives, early lessons still “stick” with us.
– False ideas about sex from the media – Mainstream media tends to depict sex as penetration, with a common narrative depicting passionate embraces leading to instantaneous arousal and simultaneous orgasm… far from the reality of what’s actually erotic to many people, females especially.
– Actual prior experiences of being shamed – Getting caught masturbating, being “slut shamed,” hearing tall tales like ‘masturbation makes you go blind,’ acquiring an STD or unplanned pregnancy and dealing with others’ reactions.
– Trauma, especially sexual or genital-related – This can include abuse, medical procedures (even from common occurrences like IUD insertion or removal, D&C, STD treatment and other “typical” gynecological procedures), accidents or even unintentional pain caused by “unskilled” lovers. Even non-sexual traumas can affect sexuality as well.
– Sexual fantasies that call on very different parts of ourselves than our ‘everyday’ personalities – Fantasies often reflect ‘hidden’ aspects of ourselves we deny or have learned are socially unacceptable, so when we encounter these fantasies it can sometimes make us feel as though something is “wrong.”
– Having a body that doesn’t fit mainstream ideas of what is beautiful – Many of us feel we’re “too much” of something, or “not enough” of something else. Maybe its your weight, your breast shape or your penis size – feeling insecure about our bodies can make us uncomfortable living inside of them, especially doing things that make them feel really good!
How Does Shame Affect Pleasure and Orgasms?
As an emotion, shame makes us want to withdraw and hide. We don’t want to show our faces (or perhaps other parts of our bodies!). Shame can eat away at our sense of self, kills our confidence and generally makes us feel terrible. With all of that going on inside, OF COURSE your sense of pleasure and orgasm can be affected!
Shame can manifest in your sexuality in a variety of ways, including but not limited to:
– Difficulty reaching orgasm
– Erectile dysfunction
– Premature ejaculation
– Difficulty communicating your sexual wants and needs
– Compulsive or unsafe sexual behaviors
– Cutting off your sexuality altogether, shutting down your sense of desire and/or pleasure
While uncomfortable, it may be helpful to think of shame as a way our psyche is trying to protect us. Some part of us believes we “shouldn’t” be sexual in the way we want, so our minds, bodies and emotions conspire to keep us safe from something that seems potentially dangerous. Even if your brain cognitively knows there’s nothing wrong with sex, your mind-body system may not be so sure.
What Can We Do About Sexual Shame?
How you address your shame depends in part on how it is manifesting, though many of these tips can help a wide variety of issues:
– Educate yourself – Learn about what’s ACTUALLY normal and healthy, rather than just what our social norms TELL US is normal and healthy. Normal and healthy include a really broad range of behaviors, fantasies and sensations that people enjoy every day without any harm to themselves or others.
– Learn to “be” with your shame – We often remain “stuck” emotionally because as a culture, most of us have never learned how to actually process our feelings. Instead, we habitually avoid or suppress our feelings, often with food, binge watching, endless scrolling on social media or even sex! Emotions like shame can be very uncomfortable and even scary. And, its important to know – all emotions are temporary. Feelings flow like waves, and instead of cutting off the wave at its first sign, you can slowly learn to tolerate the discomfort and get through to the other side. The more we are able to feel our feelings, their power over us often diminishes.
– Work toward healing sexual and other traumas – With trauma, that old saying “time heals all wounds” is simply untrue. Traumatic experiences active our body’s natural defense systems, which often stay “on” long after the event is over. Think about it this way – if you were being chased by a tiger, sex would be the last thing on your mind! Even if you’ve only seen a tiger in a zoo, if you’ve experienced trauma chances are your body is still reacting as if there’s one lurking around the corner. This is especially true for sexual trauma and abuse. A trauma-informed therapist can help do wonders – somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy are two modalities that can help.
– Seek therapy – Even if you haven’t experienced significant trauma, most of us could use SOME kind of therapeutic help if we are open minded (and have the financial resources!). While it may feel awkward or uncomfortable to open up to a stranger at first, good therapists are trained to be non-judgmental and supportive. Check out your therapist’s website, social media and/or see if they will do a quick call to make sure its a good fit. Many therapists are poorly trained in the area of sex, and while some are well-meaning they may not actually have the knowledge or skills to help. Others may unintentionally make things worse! So make sure the therapist you choose has experience, training and an attitude that makes you feel comfortable.
You CAN Do This
While shame can feel like the darkest of nights, recognize that MANY of us feel it – so you’re never alone. There is a way (actually, many ways!) through, and by reading this article you’ve already taken a step toward your own personal healing. The path will look different for everyone! However you get there, you will likely be pleasantly surprised by what lies on the other side. Not ONLY can you experience more pleasure and orgasms (which is AWESOME) but you’ll also a more confident, secure sense of self.
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. Click here to download the 101 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Hot checklist.