When you hear the word “sex,” how does this make you feel?
Uncomfortable? Disgusted? Embarrassed?
Many of us who grew up with families and communities ascribing to a religious tradition (and even those of us who didn’t) may have only been taught “sex before marriage is a sin” or “sex is wrong and bad” – but received little to no information about the spiritual blessings of sex during a marriage, for example, or how to learn about abstinence in an empowered way.
Furthermore, cultural influences may have linked premarital sex to impacting family and individual reputation. Sexual health education about our bodies may have been limited or not present; we may have been hesitant or scared to ask questions about our body; and what we did learn about our bodies and sex came from society and mass media, not from accurate and holistic sources.
These factors can all lead to a concept called sexual shame (i.e. shame with sex).
What is Sexual Shame Exactly?
Sexual shame is a deep feeling of humiliation and disgust towards one’s own body and identity as a sexual being and a belief in being abnormal. Shame can be felt within us and can also show up in our relationships with others, having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy.
To be clear, sexual shame is different from guilt. Shame means that we cannot separate our actions from who we are as a person, whereas guilt often means that we can distinguish our choices from our inherent worth as a person. And oftentimes, the ways in which religion and culture are linked to sex are inaccurate, fear-based, and incomplete.
Many parents and communities think that fear- and shame-based teachings about abstinence from sex will help young people make the right decisions about their bodies. But research demonstrates that such approaches don’t work. We actually need holistic and empowering sexual health information in line with religious and/or cultural values to feel empowered about our bodies, not ashamed by them. Especially when faith traditions view the body – and sex – as being sacred creations of God.
Shame also has dire consequences on our conceptualization of ourselves as sexual beings. According to Matthias, the shame we feel about sex can manifest in different ways:
We may cut ourselves off from understanding our sexual selves completely (shamefulness)
We may engage in sex, but in secret, leading a double life (shamelessness)
We may have dealt with shame, yet it shows up now and then (autopilot)
Shamefulness: If we grow up in environments that shroud sex with shame, and sex is framed solely as a list of rules tied to consequences, we may internalize that shame. This means that we may become hyper-vigilant and control what we are exposed to, what we think, what we believe, and what we feel. we fear that even learning about and understanding our sexual selves may lead to chaos because the messages we’ve received about sex are shame-based. we take an “all or nothing” approach, even as it relates to learning about sex, focusing on “nothing.”
Shamelessness: With this response, some of us become so tired of feeling shame, that we decide to push it aside and jump into “freedom.” We cast away the rules we’ve been taught, and ignore how we’ve been told to live our lives, as a means to gain control back. Although we try to control shame with this response, it, unfortunately, ends up still controlling us. When we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that we don’t actually feel “free” – we’re just running away from our working through our shame.
Autopilot: Some of us may have worked through the shame that we feel, meaning that it pops up now and then. In this case, we may not be sure about what we believe about sex; we may generally know our values but haven’t clearly defined them, and we may not have actually thought much about sex. We take things as they come, and may rely on our instincts to get us through situations. We question ourselves a lot, sometimes to a point of causing anxious thoughts and feelings, which is one manifestation of being on autopilot.
Well then…what can we do if we identify with having sexual shame?
Goal: Gain awareness about your sexual shame
Whether we identify with a religion or grew up in a household that held puritanical, limiting perspectives about sex, a first step may be to foster time, space, and patience to compassionately explore our thoughts, feelings, and actions related to sex.
Examine the beliefs or ideas you hold about sex and intimacy, their relationship to shame, and where you believe these ideas came from. Explore the differences between shame and guilt. Try to get these thoughts and feelings out of your head by journaling, talking with a trusted professional or friend, using art and creative activities, or any other processing method that works for you.
Goal: Explore new understandings of sex
Once we have fostered self-awareness, we can begin to change our understandings. This can be accomplished by focusing on acquiring spiritually grounded, holistic, and empowering information about sex. We can learn how to make fully-informed decisions about our body through the lens of God-consciousness, rather than with a lens of fear- and hell-fire-based consequences. And if we do something that goes against our values, we can foster healthy mechanisms to reconcile this. Overall, feeling shame with sex has many more consequences than benefits, and there are holistic alternatives that lead to overall healthier sexual schemas.
As you re-learn information about sex, find professionals who have expertise in the field of sexual health. You may want to seek out sexual health educators, sex therapists, ob/gynecologists, and others to follow. If your faith tradition is important, you’ll want to explore professionals with expertise in both sexual health AND your religion.
Shame isn’t always easy to address and this journey can be challenging. Yet by creating spaces to reflect on what you know about sex and how it makes you feel related to your spiritual and religious identity, you can re-learn accurate and holistic information about sex and your body.
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