My previous article opened Pandora’s Box of sexual shame. I separated the subjects of shame, embarrassment, and guilt and began laying the groundwork to dismantle our negative preconceived notions of what sex is and how it impacts our understanding for enjoyment. For this article (part 2), I will go even deeper and examine how social factors impact and morph our understanding of sexual shame.
What exactly does ‘social’ mean as it relates to sexual shame?
Essentially, social factors are anything that contributes to thinking patterns or behaviors in any given situation. For clarity in this article, I will exclude relationship and religious impacts as those are also important and deserve to be represented on their own.
Social factors include opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and even lifestyles among a group—whether that group is small or large. For example, I feel weird telling people from my home state, Texas, that I don’t like eating barbecue or eating meat. From a societal perspective, that is not normal where I’m from!
However, 1 in 10 Americans would say they do not eat meat. My smaller social circle would say it’s weird, but my larger one would not.
Social factors can impact the jobs you would look for, the partner you consider dating, the area you want to live in, the movies you see, and, you guessed it, the sex you have. Or, the sex you don’t have! It is one of the most foundational parts of developing sexual identity and can trigger the deepest feelings of sexual shame as well.
What are the 5 different social factors for sexual shame?
Really, almost anything can be a social factor and they can be very specific to each individual. Below are the most common I see in my practice and the ones I think have the largest reach.
Porn has a huge impact on sexuality, development, and shame. It is so easy to access in terms of availability and cost, and many adolescents rely heavily on pornography or explicit material to develop a sense of what sex should be, which is discussed later on.
I have had so many clients say that they think sex should look a certain way, usually loud and involving multiple positions in each encounter, to the point they are not able to actually enjoy the sex they are having.
Frequent questions include:
1. What does that say about me if I just want to enjoy missionary?
2. Will my partners not enjoy sex with me if I can’t last 15+ minutes?
3. Does my body need to look perfect for someone to want me?
These thoughts can be debilitating and lead to huge amounts of shame that can make it difficult, and sometimes even impossible, for individuals to connect sexually with a partner/s.
Conversely, porn can also impact shame if you find yourself enjoying certain types of materials that others do not. For example, at the time of writing this, there were 75,206 videos tagged ‘threesome’ on PornHub, versus 879 tagged ‘fisting’.
Both of those are common and yet there is still a huge discrepancy. You might notice shame for enjoying something when you don’t know of any others also enjoying that, or when there are fewer media to consume.
I also see many clients who experience shame for enjoying explicit material in the form of erotica, or even virtual reality, instead of the more mainstream ways of taking it in.
Overall, porn itself is not a good or a bad thing, but it can create large ripple effects on sexual shame instead of just being a tool to meet a need.
Social stereotypes can also have a big impact on the development of sexual shame. Stereotypes here include that in heterosexual relationships, men should be the ones to initiate and they should want to initiate often.
The amount of shame I see in couples where the penis-owning partner has a lower sex drive is the most pervasive type of sexual shame I encounter as a sex therapist. In reality, as long as all parties feel their needs are being met and are able to experience the kind of sex they want, frequency does not matter.
However, the stereotypes surrounding initiating and frequency run so deep in the shame narrative. It is also true in reverse—if a vulva-owning partner initiates more, they are more likely to think their partner is not attracted to them, is potentially cheating, or has a physical/hormone problem instead of being able to see that they just have a desire discrepancy.
Additional stereotypes include the narrative that vulva owners shouldn’t like sex as much as penis-owning counterparts do or else they are a ‘whore’, that older individuals are not sexual, that women should have a lower ‘body count’, that not having an orgasm means you are broken, and that men should be aggressive in pursuit of sexual encounters.
None of these are based in reality and can trigger deep shame spirals within individuals who do not represent them.
This category might be the most obvious to people. I bet if I asked you to name songs, books, movies, or music videos that depicted sexual imagery you could list hundreds in just a few minutes. Media is a big proponent of the stereotypes previously mentioned and further shows that we need to be a certain way in order to be ‘normal’ or experience healthy sex when that isn’t true.
There are very few depictions in mainstream media showing an aromantic person enjoying sex or an asexual person experiencing a healthy relationship without sex, yet both types of people exist.
Media can also normalize problematic behaviors such as sexual assault, or romanticize inappropriate relationships and grooming. Someone healing from these experiences might feel shame that they happened in the first place, and in some situations, shame they didn’t enjoy them.
We will go deeper in a later article, but media influences are the largest factor in body image stressors as well as being linked to pressure to be sexually active in general—neither of which are ideal and contribute to a shame narrative.
I love that media is slowly starting to normalize different types of sex and decrease shame narratives. In an episode of Tell Me Lies on Hulu, a woman is seen faking an orgasm and is immediately called out by her sexual partner and told that isn’t necessary. What a win for the shame narrative—you don’t have to experience an orgasm every time to have good sex!
Sexual shame can run deeper depending on one’s culture or family ties. Cultural impacts include anything explicitly or implicitly taught by your family of origin or greater culture.
For example, in many cultures, it is not acceptable to date someone outside of your race, much less be sexually interested in them.
Masturbation as a whole is not widely accepted in some cultures and families and can be hugely shameful. The age at which someone has their sexual debut can be a cultural source of shame, as well as limitations on what kind of sexual acts would be considered okay or not. If you find those activities enjoyable or interesting, or even if you’ve just done them once and hated them, you might find yourself feeling shame and unwilling to talk about it.
Cultural impact is one of the most overriding reasons survivors do not tell family or friends about a past sexual assault. Because sex is widely viewed as being a private matter, many families or greater cultures do not encourage sex, or assault, to be talked about as a topic, much less about your own experiences.
Lastly, what our friends or peers think is acceptable or unacceptable is a large part of shame development. Peer influence is a conglomerate of everyone and their own social impacts and has so many different pieces. This includes what others think is gross or interesting, as well as what acts would be considered okay. An example would be when DJ Khaled openly said he wouldn’t give oral sex to his wife “because there are different rules for men”.
While this is an example of a stereotype, younger generations might think giving oral is now not okay and could feel shame for having done it in the past or feel ongoing shame their partner asks for it.
There are also countless examples of ‘locker room mentality’ having real-world impacts—specifically justifying sexual assault or shaming the LGBTQ community, even if members of that group had been assaulted or were part of the community themselves. The idea that we need to fit into the larger groups can make us feel ashamed of our own desires or identity to the point we are not able to engage with them and end up doing things we are not proud of.
It is again important to remember that different people respond to different social factors and the impact can vary wildly on sexual functioning. For example, I asked my partner with no context what he thought the biggest factor of sexual shame would be. He said, “thinking of what friends would say” versus I can say the biggest impact would potentially be cultural components. What triggers shame for you may not do it for everyone, but it is valid and important.
Join K&T again next month where I’ll keep the conversation going and explore one of the biggest impacts of all—religion.