The origins of sexual shame might be as varied as the individuals who are experiencing it. Feeling shame about one’s sexuality can negatively impact the experience, pleasure, and satisfaction and inhibit your ability to be present and connect with yourself and others in meaningful ways. It may or may not intervene with your sexual ‘function’ (getting an erection, lubricating, etcetera), desire, and frequency of sexual encounters. Experiencing shame interferes with being able to embody erotism and exploring your sexual potential, it can also be quite draining to fight back intrusive thoughts and feelings that arise from shame.
Sexual shame emerges from negative evaluations of one’s sexual identity, behaviors, attractions, thoughts, or feelings. It can have its roots in painful experiences and behaviors and the response of others in relation to our sexual expression. Imagine a child innocently playing with their genitals, as kids do discover every part of their body, being encountered by a caregiver with “Stop that!”. That simple sentence can have life-long effects on how we perceive self-touch. For many, the seeds of shame came from implicit messages we received throughout our lifespan.
You might encounter many painful experiences when it comes to sexuality at any point in your life and many individuals experience sexual assault at some point in their life; such situations may result in internalization of sexual shame, as well as difficulty setting, and being flexible with, boundaries for yourself and others. Additionally, societal messages in relation to gender identity, roles, stereotypes, sexual orientation, and other social prescriptions on how things "should be" when it comes to sexuality and its expression can be internalized by individuals and that dialogue of something being ‘wrong’ with the way you are or like things can be very hurtful and may even become intrusive when you are trying to get it on.
Furthermore, sexual shame thrives on secrecy! While we have sensual and sexually explicit images all over the media, we also don’t talk much about it in an open and honest way. For many people, sex was never discussed at home, and school mostly taught about reproduction and sexually transmitted infections or diseases. We are making choices, even when we don’t actively do or say something. Keeping things quiet when it comes to sex instead of demonstrating an open-door policy for children and teens to ask questions and getting honest and informative, age-appropriate, responses when it comes to this topic sends a message: “We don’t talk about sex.”. That sense of sex being taboo may result in internalized sexual shame, even if we aren’t aware of it, we might be feeling like: “I shouldn’t be doing this.”. Sexual shame can affect us at a very deep level, especially when its messages target parts that are ingrained in our sexual identity (such as who we are attracted to, gender expression, fetishes, etcetera). Interestingly, sexual shame might be felt not only because we are ‘doing it’ or when sexual thoughts, feelings, or sensations, arise but it may also intrude when we are not feeling desire or are unable to "perform".
Firstly, we may have bought into the idea that everyone wants sex and that we are (or should be) always up and ready for it- in which case we might think there must be something wrong when someone is not, negating the reality of many individuals (binary and non-binary, estimated at about 1% of the population by some studies) that identify as asexual as well as many other circumstances (biological, psychological, relational, emotional…) that might influence our sexuality and its expression. Men fall often into the stereotype of always wanting and might feel great pressure when they don't "perform" as they hope. Stereotypically, women's sexuality has a dual rule. On one side, they must be pure and innocent and keep their legs crossed... On the other, women are also often hypersexualized and presented often as objects of desire; sometimes with the duty of pleasing their men, otherwise they'll go looking somewhere else ('cause men only want one thing). These conflicting messages about what masculinity and femininity should be expressed, and how we ought to feel and act, can create deep feelings of shame. We often forget we are not machines and feel our “failure to perform”, "lack of desire", and even "too much" desire or sexual encounters, as a messenger of being broken, of something being wrong with us, of not being “normal”. When we internalize these ideas, it can hurt how we perceive ourselves as sexual beings and our relationship with others.
Secondly, there is an underlying assumption that sex means the same thing, looks the same way and follows the same sequence of events for all. If there is a common thread when it comes to sexuality it is that our sexuality is as varied and individualized as we are. Sexuality, and sex, can take many forms, shapes, colors, tones… It is vital energy through which we can express ourselves in a very unique way. We are sexual beings throughout our lifespans; thus, we give it multiple meanings and experience it in varied ways as we develop and rediscover our Self in each context.
Thirdly, rigid norms and scripts of what is sex, how it should look like, who wants it (largely including only able-body and young individuals), who you should want it with, the number of people involved, and its sequence of events, limits our sexual potential and we might not feel safe when expressing our sexuality and exploring eroticism, and our felt sense of shame might take roots when we do not fit society’s neat categories and boxes.
Sometimes, sex is just sex; a way to release pressure and explore sensations, like scratching an itch (whether you are by yourself or with others). At other times, we give meaning to it helping and hope it helps us reach deep levels of connections with our bodies and, when partnered, with others’ bodies and inner worlds. Whatever meaning you give it at each moment, however it looks for you, and whomever you choose to do it with (between freely consenting adults), I invite you to embrace your sexuality as life’s vitalizer. Take ownership, pride, and embrace your sexual expression and willingness (or lack thereof) to explore your erotic self.
Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life and relationships. Click here to request an appointment.
Litam, S. A., & Speciale, M. (2021). Deconstructing Sexual Shame: Implications for Clinical Counselors and Counselor Educators. Journal of Counseling Sexology & Sexual Wellness: Research, Practice, and Education, 3 (1), 14-24. https://doi.org/10.34296/03011045