The term sexual repression was coined by Sigmund Freud in his book Three Essays on Sexuality. He used it to describe an "inhibition" that he believed was common among people in Western society.
The concept has been criticized for being vague and over-generalized, and is frequently misused. What exactly does sexual repression mean? What are the effects of sexual repression, and how can they be overcome?
What Is Sexual Repression?
Sexual repression typically refers to norms that prohibit sexual expression or behavior. Sexually repressive ideas and attitudes are usually perpetuated by cultures, religions, teachers, and parents.
Sexual repression has been described as "the most common form of human socialization". Sigmund Freud believed it played an important role in the development of neuroses. In his view, sexual repression led to issues like what he termed "frigidity," lack of sexual arousal, and erectile dysfunction. He also thought that it could be overcome through psychoanalysis.
What Sexual Repression Isn't
The words sexual repression are often tossed around casually, and may be used erroneously to describe someone who has certain sexual boundaries. Sexual repression and boundaries are very different; in fact, sexual boundaries are a healthy way to define what kind of sex, if any, you like and are comfortable with.
The following are examples of healthy boundaries, not sexual repression:
- You don't want to engage in anal sex
- You don't want to try BDSM, or don't want to do it again if you tried it and didn't enjoy it
- You aren't interested in engaging in certain kinks
- You've decided not to have sex until you're married or in a committed relationship
- You don't want to watch porn. You may be told that watching porn is "normal" or "healthy," and that you're sexually repressed if you don't like it. No one else gets to choose what's normal and healthy for you
- You choose not to have a partner who watches porn
- You've decided not to have sex at this time in your life simply because you don't want to, or haven't found the right partner(s)
- You don't want to try a threesome or polyamory, or you object to your partner's desire to have sex with others
- You choose not to have sex with people of a certain gender
- You're asexual or have a low sex drive, and don't feel the need to have sex
- You're older and no longer want sex, or want it only occasionally
- You don't want to have sex without a condom
- You aren't interested in casual sex, hook-ups, or one-night stands
- You don't want to have sex to avoid pregnancy or STIs
- You don't want to sext or discuss sex on the phone
- You don't want to take/send nude pictures or create sexual videos of yourself (or yourself with a partner)
- You decide to say no to sex, at any time, for any reason
Remember — the difference between sexual boundaries and repression is that boundaries are a conscious choice. They express who you are as person and a sexual being, and are not imposed on you by another person, a culture, or a religion.
You have every right to your own sexual preferences, none of which make you sexually repressed. Sexual repression usually comes with confusing, shameful, or negative feelings, and unlike boundaries, is disempowering. Repression can prevent you from living authentically, while sexual boundaries are a clear demonstration of your authentic self.
Sexual Repression Symptoms
Now that we've discussed the difference between sexual repression and boundaries, let's look at some symptoms of repression. Sexual repression often begins in early childhood with cultural conditioning passed on through parents, cultural influences, and teachers. It can have profound effects that impact our sexual development, relationships, even our career choices.
Some of the most common effects of sexual repression include:
- Fear and anxiety. Sexual repression can impact your emotional health and development, and cause such negative emotions as anxiety and fear. You might feel angry when you think about sex, or feel unable to talk about sex with a partner or other people. Some people feel a general depression that may or may not feel related to how they feel about sex.
- Shame. Multiple studies show a clear link between sexual repression and shame. Shame results from feeling guilty about something you have done or failed to do. Sexual repression is often a precursor to shame, and can lead to feelings of guilt, self-hatred, and inadequacy. Shame can also be directed outward toward other people, and is often the driving force behind sexual violence, so-called slut-shaming, and compulsive sexual behavior.
- Sexual dysfunction. Difficulty feeling arousal is one of the most common physical signs of sexual repression. Others include the inability to have an orgasm, pain during intercourse, and feeling disconnected or shut down during sex. Repression can contribute to erectile dysfunction and pain syndromes like dyspareunia, a vaginal pain syndrome.
- Judgment of yourself or others. If you've experienced sexual repression, you might judge yourself for sexual feelings or desires, or judge others for their sexual choices. We may believe the judgments come from ourselves, when in fact they reflect the conditioning we received from family, our culture, or our religion.
- Body image issues. Sexual repression can be turned inward and directed at our own bodies through self-destructive behavior like eating disorders, cutting, and body dysmorphic disorder. Sexual repression may make us feel that our bodies are unattractive, unhealthy, or dirty.
- Violence. Violence, particularly violence against women or members of the LGBTQ+ community, can be triggered by sexual repression or repressive thoughts. Violence might be directed against a partner or children, and may take the form of socially sanctioned mutilation like genital cutting. Violence may even be enshrined in law in sexually repressed countries, and target anyone who does not follow strict laws or customs. Violence may also include the marriage of children, or honor killings of people who defy rigid sexual mandates.
How To Overcome Sexual Repression
Growing up in a sexually repressive environment can make it difficult to understand your own sexuality or experience it in a healthy way. But overcoming sexual repression is possible, and can open up a world of joy and connection.
The steps to overcome repression will take time and effort, and may include therapy to help you unlearn old beliefs and reclaim your sexuality. Remember that working to overcome repression does not mean you need to reject your culture or deny everything about the traditions you grew up with. But you get to decide who you are and what your sexuality means to you.
Steps to overcoming sexual repression may include:
- Practicing sexual mindfulness. Sexual mindfulness involves becoming aware of your sexual thoughts and feelings. You observe them and allow them to pass through you, simply noticing them without anxiety or fear. This exercise is about awareness and acceptance, not judgment. Try spending 10 minutes at a time at first, and gradually build up to 20 minutes or more as you get more comfortable.
- Getting to know your body. Sexual repression may have made you feel disconnected from your body. You might avoid looking at yourself naked, or feel uncomfortable or anxious when you do. Try observing your body the way you observed your thoughts and feelings in the mindfulness exercise. It may help to try sleeping naked, giving yourself foot rubs and other massages, and gradually getting used to your body as your home, an important part of who you are.
- Talking about sex. Part of the power of sexual repression is in the way it silences the discussion of sex and pleasure. Try talking about sex (or your desire to get more comfortable talking about it) with a partner or friend you trust, particularly if they are more accepting and nonjudgmental. Talking about sex means being vulnerable, so trust is crucial when you decide to start opening up.
- Experimenting with pleasure products. Pleasure products like vibrators and massage oil can make discovering your sexuality fun. You may have tried to masturbate only to feel disappointed, but vibrators can help open your mind and body up to new sensations. Lubricants are great if you have difficulty feeling aroused, and Kegel exercisers can help tone your vaginal muscles and increase blood flow.
- Seeing a therapist. Tackling sexual repression can feel overwhelming, especially if you've lived with it for many years. You may have tried to overcome it on your own but felt confused or frustrated. A therapist can be enormously helping in guiding you away from sexual repression into a more fulfilling view of sexuality.