Sexual Shame

Many of the clients that I work with struggle with sexual shame.  Sexual shame refers to the feeling of profound responsibility and deep remorse associated with participation in and/or thoughts and fantasies about sexual activity.  A high level of sexual shame can place an individual at risk for sexual dysfunction, impaired relationships, and sexual acting out. 

Types of Sexual Shame: Here are some of the types of sexual shame that I typically see in my practice.  This list is nowhere near exhaustive:

  • Statements like, “My body isn’t reacting as it should (e.g., 'My penis won't get hard' or 'There is pain with penetration') and therefore I am broken.”

  • Internalized Homophobia - You are forcing your partner to stay in the closet with you.  Or feel contempt/disgust towards LGBTQ individuals who "don't blend in."  You don't feel like you can come out, even in safe communities and settings.  You have tried to change your sexual orientation.  You are unable to have emotionally intimate or romantic relationships.

  • Sexual abuse survivors often articulate a variety of shame-based feelings, particularly if their body reacted in confusing ways during the assault (e.g., getting turned on).  

  • Slut-Shaming - “If I tell my partner the truth about my sexual history or what I want in the bedroom, they won’t accept me and will think that I’m a total slut.”  "I have always been told that I need to be a good girl."

  • Underlying questions of: Am I okay? or Is this okay? about sexual behaviors- for example, “I get turned on by this particular kink (scat play, age play, waterspouts, etc.) and I am worried this is not normal.”

Origins of Sexual Shame:

Religious- Religious individuals (or those who grew up in a religious household) are at increased risk of developing sexual disorders.  These individuals are often told that sex should be restricted to the confines of marriage and that masturbation is sinful.  When these individuals seek help for their sexual concerns within their religious community, they are often told that their sexual desires are a form of sickness and instructed to suppress their sexuality or sent off for treatment at sex/porn addiction programs.  Shame creates a feedback loop of dysfunction, fear, pain, and self-hatred, which is often the true root of many sexual problems.

Familial- Kid's touch themselves.  So do babies.  Once a child discovers their genitals they also discover pleasure.  How parents or teachers react when they happen upon a child touching themselves is incredibly important and likely to shape the future of a child's relationship with their sexual self.  Family also influences how we see our bodies, self, and sexuality through implicit and explicit messages.

Social/Cultural- Most sex education programs in school, influenced by religious and moral forces, teach abstinence-only education.  Students are taught that abstinence, and choosing not be sexual, is the best and safest option.  Abstinence-only education has proven ineffective at delaying sexual initiation or reducing teen pregnancy.  Some schools are starting the shift towards comprehensive sexual education which includes accurate, unbiased, and age-appropriate information on contraception, sexuality, relationships, decision-making, and disease prevention.  A few schools are going above-and-beyond and teaching the importance of sexual pleasure as part of sexual health, overall wellbeing, and healthy relationships.  But let's face it, when we were growing up the majority of us weren't encouraged to discuss sexual pleasure with our partners, friends, parents, or physicians.  In addition, women in particular often grow up with the myth that "good girls don't enjoy sex" and are often "slut shamed" if they embrace and celebrate their sexual selves. 

Media- Media creates unrealistic expectations about how our bodies should look and what "real" sex looks like.  Porn, in particular, provides an "idealized" version of sexual encounters.  If we don't feel the urge to rip off our clothes in lust, orgasm every time we have penetrative sex, and unleash our primal selves during sex, we may conclude that there is something wrong with ourselves or our relationship.

Trauma- Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.  1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).  1 out of every 33 American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.  Sexual trauma can impact sexuality.  This occurs when an individual begins to associate sex with power, fear, shame, confusion, secrecy and/or pain.  This in turn makes these individuals more vulnerable to struggles with intimate relationships and sexuality.

Treatments:

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help an individual explore sexual shame by figuring out what it is, where it comes from, and how it is impacting the individual's life and sexuality.  Treatment is geared towards education, understanding, and self-acceptance.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is a type of psychotherapy that teaches individuals different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to unhelpful thoughts.  Individuals with sexual shame often have constructed disruptive narratives.  Cognitive restructuring helps the individual learn how to identify, challenge, and neutralize these maladaptive thoughts.  

Mindfulness: Mindfulness-based approaches have been shown to be useful with helping individuals accept themselves for who they are and detach from toxic shame.