Why sex equals shame? When writing both articles on masturbation as therapy, I was overwhelmed when I noticed how much shame narrative is woven into sexual pleasure and sexual joy. If you google “masturbation” and ignore the first few porn sites that pop up, a large part of the material covers myths about masturbation and orgasms as well as details on how to masturbate. While I think it is critical to know your own body and discover what is pleasurable for you—a lot of these websites focus on how to do it without getting caught, without your partner becoming upset, or even as a way to force yourself to want sex more. Yikes!

I brought these concerns up with my friends. My best friend does not have experience as a therapist and is married with children, and she mentioned how she feels intense shame saying no to her partner. Another friend who does not specialize in sex therapy but instead works with eating disorders shared that her clients feel immense pressure about their bodies to the point intimacy is either unenjoyable or off the table altogether. My sister is currently doing her own work in therapy to dismantle the ideas instilled from the religious upbringing that left a constant shame trigger for her.

After communicating my concerns, with these strong women I love dearly, and thinking of all the clients I see who bring up some form of shame on a weekly basis, I decided to do my part to challenge the mentality that sex and shame go hand in hand!

This article is part one of an ongoing series about sexual shame! Before I get too deep into it though, I need to first talk about what it is and why sex equals shame.

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So, what is sexual shame?

I’m glad you asked!

Shame is a very complex emotion that is often confused with embarrassment or guilt. Imagine you are celebrating a friend’s birthday by eating at an Italian restaurant. You order your favorite food-spaghetti! You aren’t paying a ton of attention to your eating skills and you accidentally drop some on your white shirt. Ugh!

Embarrassment is wishing your friends hadn’t seen you do it. You aren’t mad, just wish you had made a mess in the privacy of your own home so you wouldn’t have to experience them giggling or joking with you.

Guilt is feeling like you made a mistake. You might think to yourself “I should have been paying more attention” or “I shouldn’t have worn a white shirt and made it so noticeable.”

Have you noticed, how sometimes right before you go to bed your brain replays the past memories that make you cringe? Often, those memories are guilt and embarrassment.

Shame, however, is the feeling you are the mistake or the problem. You may have noticed calling yourself stupid or flawed for spilling. You might create a narrative that maybe none of your friends will want to hang out with you after this, and you might even get up and leave the meal early.

Shame is intense, it’s layered and can suck up all your energy, leaving you exhausted and fearful to try again.

Typically, feelings of shame originate when we do or think something that goes against what we believe social norms to be. So in the spaghetti example, you might believe that a good, functioning adult does not spill things on themselves, especially in front of others. When you do something you do not believe in, or feel you should not believe in, we’ve opened the door for shame.

Hilge Landweer, a philosopher, adds that “we need only imagine another’s judgment” about our actions to feel an intense, negative, shame-based response. Not only is shame impacted by what you think you should do, but what you believe others think you should do as well. These constant contradictory messages can be received from friends, family, religion, media, or your own personal experiences.

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How exactly does this relate to sex  Equals Shame?

Because shame can be so deep, you are likely to experience the side effects of it outside of the trigger. This could be depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and severe self-esteem concerns. While everyone can experience some type of shame, research has shown that AFAB (assigned female at birth) are more likely to experience shame than AMAB (assigned male at birth). Additionally, adolescents are more likely to feel shame for the first time on any given topic than an adult, and at what age do most people learn about sex? Adolescence!

If we don’t have a welcoming start to sex education, we can create the perfect storm for sexual shame.

Sexual shame is different than regular shame in the sense it focuses specifically on sexual desire, interest, and pleasure. As an example, if you were taught at an early age that sex should only happen between a husband and wife and you have sex, albeit with a loving, committed partner, before marriage, you’ve entered the sexual shame category. Or if you’ve had that same messaging but are exploring your sexuality—same thing, the potential for sexual shame!

In my practice, I see it often with individuals with a range of concerns—shame regarding enjoying anal sex, shame about having a lower libido than their partner, shame about feeling uncomfortable being naked with a partner, and even shame about exploring their own body. With shame messaging being so loud, where can enjoyment and pleasure fit in?

Over the next few months, I am excited to keep the conversation going about where these problematic messages come from and show you answers to not only heal the shame but find enjoyment as well.

What kind of shame comes up for you when you think of sex?