Feelings of sex shame can be devastating to our sex lives. One of the biggest obstacles many of my clients face in experiencing erotic pleasure is the sexual shame they have carried around with them since their childhood.

So what exactly is sex shame?

Well, none of us is born with shame! This feeling about sex may have been learned from our families, friends, and peers, religious or cultural backgrounds. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to us because in our culture sex unfortunately is still very much a taboo. So many religions and customs have linked sex with shame or guilt that few of us escape entirely unaffected.

Many of us may have encountered shame for the first time as children. We were taught from a very early age not to touch our genitals, the implication being it was bad to do so. We were often given silly names to refer to our penis or vagina as if to use the correct name was somehow offensive. And if we were caught masturbating or exploring our bodies while playing childhood games, we were yelled at and made to feel ashamed and guilty.

There are probably very few parents around who would explain to their children that masturbation is a normal and healthy activity and would tell them to just enjoy it.

Sex is such a personal issue that it’s the most painful place a young person can be shamed. Now that social media has become so prevalent it’s has become the common arena in which to harass someone. For example, the expression “slut-shaming” is often used online when teenage girls are being criticized (shamed) for their sexual expression or assumed sexual experiences. No chance we will ever see “stud shaming” used to the same extent.

Being shamed can affect anyone, but it especially affects those who don’t fit the “norm” – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex, and asexual (LGBTIA) people are easy targets. They are recognized as being a high-risk group for suicide, documented in this 2010 senate committee report. They feel marginalized because of their sexuality – this is how sexual shame hurts people.

Yes, Sex is Normal

So if we don’t want people to feel ashamed about sex, what exactly is “normal sex”? Sex is a consensual act between adults and you can do anything you want as long as it’s legal. Bondage, group sex, cybersex, swinging and kinky sex, looking at porn or using sex toys – anything goes. And if you don’t have a partner, solo sex is a great way to self-pleasure.

This interesting TEDex talk by American writer and sex-educator Alyssa Royse explains that “Sex IS not shameful – Shame IS hurtful”.

Sex shame often turns into inhibitions. Women may not like their body shape, the size of their breasts, the look of their vagina, or the fact that they find it difficult to have an orgasm. Some men find it difficult to show their feelings because they believe it’s not a manly thing to do; they also may not like the size of their penis or worry they may lose their erection or come (ejaculate) too quickly.

Sexual shame can keep us from letting a partner get to close. It can make us feel uncomfortable in our own bodies. When we feel ashamed about something we usually don’t want to talk about it, and it’s already difficult enough for most couples to talk about sex anyway. This can keep us from exploring specific sexual activities we may like to try out and can prevent us from experiencing the possibilities of more intimacy and sexual pleasure. It’s no wonder that so many couples are sexually frustrated.

I always tell my clients, if you can’t talk about your desires and what turns you on, you can’t expect your partner to read your mind. It may sound like a broken record, but when it comes to sex, good communication can help you better understand each other. You’ll also increase intimacy and feel more comfortable.

These days we are expected to live longer and research has shown that many people still have sex in their 80s or even 90s. The need for intimacy is ageless, therefore it’s never too late to let your inhibitions and shame go and enjoy the time you have left to improve your sex life.

Isn’t it time to stop feeling ashamed?

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This post originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and was published on May 25, 2015. This article is republished here with permission and updated on September 2, 2020.