Sexual Inhibition

Sexual Inhibition

Rose MacDowell

Sexual inhibition is a psychological term for the tendency to be inhibited in sexual activity. Sexual inhibition can happen when you're not comfortable with sexuality, or don't know how to express yourself sexually.

If you're sexually inhibited, you might have trouble having conversations about sex or discussing your feelings. Sexual inhibition isn't necessarily associated with sexual dysfunction, and is different from asexuality, which is a lack of attraction to other people or a low interest in sex.

Let's take a look at examples of sexual inhibition, what causes it, and how you can overcome it. 

Examples Of Sexual Inhibition

Also known as "sexual shyness", sexual inhibition can occur at any age, and may be most common in adolescence. Sexual inhibitions vary from person to person, and are often, but not always, associated with anxiety or body image issues. 

You are not considered sexually inhibited if you avoid sex for specific reasons, such as:

  • The desire to prevent STIs
  • The desire to preserve sex until marriage or until you meet the right partner
  • Lack of attraction 
  • Resentment in a relationship
  • Physical pain or illness
  • Fear of a partner 
  • Domestic violence
  • The desire to avoid pregnancy
  • Simply not feeling "in the mood"
  • The desire for a different kind of sex than your partner wants
  • Having strong boundaries, like not wanting to have sex without a condom, on a first date, or with a new partner until you feel ready

Examples of sexual inhibition include:

  • Inhibition of masturbation. Only recently has masturbation become a more common and accepted topic. Many people are taught by parents or religious figures that masturbation is wrong, sinful, or will harm them ("you'll go to hell"). As a result, some people feel guilty after masturbating, while others may not want to masturbate at all.
  • Inhibition of oral sex. Many people find oral sex embarrassing or uncomfortable. It may be difficult to receive oral sex or to perform it. You might worry about the taste or smell, or have had a previous experience you didn't enjoy. Some religions state that because oral sex doesn't result in a potential pregnancy, it's sinful or unnatural. 
  • Inhibition of anal sex. Anal sex is considered taboo in many cultures. Even in cultures where it is less frowned upon, people may feel that anal sex is dirty, unnatural, or uncomfortable. They might be inhibited about touching around the anus as well as anal sex. 
  • Inhibition of touching. Sexual inhibition can refer to sexual acts other than intercourse or oral sex. Touching or kissing can feel physically awkward or uncomfortable. Some people don't like the exchange of saliva that can occur during kissing, or the feeling of another person's face close to theirs.  
  • Inhibition of vaginal intercourse. People of all genders can feel inhibited about vaginal intercourse. Women may worry about how they look or be afraid of feeling pain. It might seem sinful or wrong, particularly for people raised in certain cultures and religions. 
  • Inhibition of nudity. When we feel inhibited about being naked, we might feel uncomfortable in front of other people or even by ourselves. We may not like to look at ourselves naked, or feel vulnerable, exposed, or even in danger without clothes on.  
  • Inhibition of talking about sex. Some people have a strong aversion to sex which manifests itself in an unwillingness to discuss it, even with close friends. This can be due to embarrassment or shame about one's own sexual desires. In many cultures, there is a taboo against discussing sexual topics openly, even among married couples.

What Causes Sexual Inhibition?

Sexual inhibition is unique for each person, and usually is caused by a number of different factors. It can be caused by external influences like religious teachings, or internal issues such as mental health challenges.

Some of the most common causes of sexual inhibition include:  

  • Cultural taboos. Cultural taboos are one of the most common causes of sexual inhibition. Cultures typically use shame and judgment to enforce certain sexual restrictions, and may even make certain acts illegal. Some cultures denounce all sexual feelings and contact between gay partners, which can lead to strong inhibitions or denial of sexual identity.  
  • Lack of trust. Studies show that sexual inhibition tends to decrease as trust in a relationship increases. Lack of trust can cause fear of vulnerability, which is necessary for sexual contact of all kinds. Lack of trust can be the result of PTSD from childhood, difficult previous relationships, or anxiety and other mental health issues.   
  • Family influences. Family members can have a powerful influence on our views about sexuality. Parents in particular can shape sexual development and create inhibitions through early messages, such as "sex is bad" or "masturbation is a sin." We may internalize comments family members make about our bodies as we're growing up, leading to feelings of shame and sexual inhibition. 
  • Religious beliefs. Like cultural taboos and family influences, religious beliefs can have a significant impact on how we feel about our bodies and sex. Many religions severely restrict how we should express our sexuality, and try to limit when, how, and with whom we have sex. Certain religions may lead us to view our bodies and sexual desires as wrong or unhealthy, and can make  
  • Mental health issues. Many people who experience sexual inhibition also struggle with mental health issues. Anxiety and depression are common contributors to sexual inhibition, and may be made worse by trying to push through and force sexual contact. Austism spectrum disorders can make touching feel painful or uncomfortable, and can result in sexual inhibition over time.
  • Body image issues. Lack of comfort with our bodies or dissatisfaction with the way we look can cause sexual inhibitions. We may dislike our entire bodies or part of it, or feel unhappy with our weight or height. Body images issues can increase the risk of sexual inhibitions as well as eating disorders, low self esteem, and compulsive exercising.  
  • Sexual abuse. Survivors of sexual abuse may cause not only experience PTSD and other effects of trauma, but sexual inhibition, as well. Sexual abuse can lead to feeling disconnected from our bodies and our natural sexual desires. We may be afraid of touching, intercourse, and other types of sex, or feel repelled by being close to another person. Sex may lead us to re-experience trauma, leading us to "shut down" our sexuality altogether. 

Overcoming Sexual Inhibitions

The first step to overcoming sexual inhibitions is to acknowledge your own feelings and needs. It may make you feel less anxious to remember that you don't need to do anything you aren't comfortable with, and don't have to feel guilty for wanting to explore your sexuality. 

Once you decide that you're ready to work on lowering your inhibitions, the following steps can be helpful:

  • Draw your boundaries. Remind yourself as you go through the process of overcoming your sexual inhibitions that you're in charge of your body and sexuality. You never have to do anything you aren't comfortable with, and can decide what's best for you throughout your own journey. 
  • Choose language carefully. How you frame the process can make all the difference. Instead of thinking that you're trying to fix something wrong with you or breaking down walls, try more empowering self-talk. It can help to imagine that you're reclaiming your pleasure, discovering yourself, letting go of old messages that no longer work for you, or getting in touch with your physical side. 
  • Remember that you don't need a partner. You can discover and enjoy your sexuality all by yourself, without a partner or a relationship. You may decide to have a partner later, but being alone doesn't prevent you from learning about what you like and are comfortable with. Masturbation is more accepted (even celebrated!) than ever, and there is a huge array of sex toys that can make solo play feel fun and safe. 
  • Try therapy. Sexual inhibitions can take time to work through. Therapy with a trained professional can accelerate the process and help you understand underlying issues such as family of origin trauma, cultural or religious influences, or body image issues. Just giving voice to your fears and feelings can diminish their power and start you on the path to healing, accepting yourself, and reclaiming your sexuality.