"Sexual shame" describes feelings of guilt, remorse, and responsibility that can result from sex, masturbation, or sexual thoughts. The word "shame" comes from the Latin word for "to blush," and describes a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation.
Sexual shame is common in sexually repressed cultures and families that pass on negative views of sex, or don't discuss it at all. Sexual shame can prevent you from enjoying your sexuality or having a fulfilling sexual relationship.
Let's take a closer look at sexual shame, its potential effects, and how you can overcome it.
Sexual Shame Vs. Sexual Repression
Though sexual shame and sexual repression may sound similar, they are actually different. Sexual repression refers to norms that prohibit sexual expression or certain types of behavior. Sexually repressive ideas and attitudes are usually perpetuated by cultures, religions, teachers, and parents.
Sexual repression is common in religious societies where women have few legal rights and certain sexual behavior is enshrined in law. At its most extreme, sexual repression can take the form of genital mutilation, arranged marriage, child marriage, honor killings, and other kind of socially accepted violence.
Sexual shame is often a direct result of sexual repression, or growing up in a sexually repressive environment. Negative messages about sex, laws that prohibit certain types of sex, and the vilification of LGBTQ + people can lead to the feeling that sex is sinful and that natural human desires should be stifled.
Sexual shame can also be triggered by media, such as influencers with certain body types. Social media might worsen body image issues or make you feel that you fall short of an unattainable ideal, even if you know that many images are altered and don't reflect reality.
What Are The Signs of Sexual Shame?
Sexual shame can have profound effects on how you think about sex and express your sexuality. If sexual shame is an issue for you, you may:
- Not talk about sex. People who feel shame about sex may try to avoid it by refusing to talk about sex, even with close partners, friends, or doctors.
- Think of sex as dirty or wrong. The basis of sexual shame is often the feeling that sex is somehow wrong or harmful. Because of an underlying feeling of shame, you may think of sex as disgusting, unnatural, or violating.
- Be afraid to ask questions about sex. Asking questions about sex might feel embarrassing, even with a healthcare professional. Lack of accurate information may lead you to have misconceptions about sex and your body.
- Limit what you do with your body. Sexual shame can make it difficult to expose your body to other people, even partners or doctors. You may be uncomfortable seeing your body in the mirror, touching yourself, or masturbating.
- Control your body. Some people express sexual shame by trying to control what and how much they eat, exercising excessively, or other compulsive, body-focused behavior like cutting.
- Close yourself off from others. Sexual shame can cause you to close off your sexuality, feelings, and other intimate parts of yourself.
- Force yourself not to think about sex. You might feel uncomfortable or sinful thinking about sex, or allowing yourself to have sexual fantasies.
- Not have certain types of sex such as oral or anal sex, or not have sex at all. Because of sexual shame, you may feel anxious or turned off by certain types of sex, or feel that wanting certain types of sex is wrong.
How Does Sexual Shame Affect Your Life?
Shame of any kind can have a significant impact on your life. When sexual shame influences your decisions, you might make choices that make you feel unhappy or unfulfilled, or lead you into difficult relationships.
Some of most damaging effects of sexual shame can include:
- Insecurity. Sexual shame can make you feel insecure about your sexuality, and about yourself overall. This kind of shame rarely affects only your sexuality, and can affect how you feel about your body, your worth as a person, and your value as a partner. Shame can cause you to worry about how you look and appear to other people.
- Sexual dysfunction. Shame is one of the most common causes of sexual dysfunction. Arousal is intricately connected to body image and self-esteem, and can be negatively impacted by feelings of shame, guilt, or insecurity. Shame can make it difficult to get or stay aroused, attain an erection, or have an orgasm. You might have trouble masturbating, or feel guilty if you do.
- Difficulty accepting your sexual orientation or gender. Shame and sexual repression can cause you to deny your authentic self, particularly if you come from a family or culture that didn't accept LGBTQ + members of society. Denying who you are may have felt like the only safe choice. Even if you live in a different culture now, shame takes awareness, time, and energy to work through, and needs to be addressed at your own pace.
- Judgment of others. Early negative conditioning can lead you to not only feel shame yourself, but to externalize that shame by judging other people. You might judge them for who they love, how they dress, or their attitudes about sex. Shame is often at the heart of homophobia, misogyny, and criticism of how other people express who they are.
- Difficulty with intimacy and relationships. Shame can stand in the way of trust and the willingness to be vulnerable, which are key to intimate relationships. Shame can cause you to put up walls to protect yourself, and keep others from seeing who you are. You might push people away, shut down, or use conflict to create distance, all as a way to keep other people from getting too close.
How To Overcome Sexual Shame
Overcoming sexual shame means making room for your authentic self and leaving behind destructive influences. Though overcoming sexual shame may feel daunting, you can take control of your sexual and emotional health.
Here are some important steps to creating a more joyful and pleasurable life that belongs solely to you.
- Recognize your feelings of shame. Look inward at your sexual feelings and assumptions, and assess whether they work for you. Are you happy with your sexuality and sexual relationships? Do you associate sexuality with negative thoughts or emotions? Shine an honest light on your deep feelings about sex so you can empower yourself to make changes.
- Take stock of the past. If you grew up in a sexually restrictive environment, you may have internalized negative messages that no longer serve you. Think about the social, familial, and religious influences you were exposed to growing up, and how you may have been conditioned to think about sex, love, and your body.
- Discover yourself. Instead of approaching your body or sexual feelings as a source of shame, try to view them with a sense of curiosity. Try to put thoughts and judgments aside and just notice what feels good and what interests you. Take baths, move your body, light candles, and take your time eating meals. Gradually expand to exploring your sexual feelings through masturbation or with a partner you trust.
- Try therapy. A trained therapist can help you explore deeply rooted issues that may be difficult to understand on your own. Therapists can often recognize problematic patterns of behavior and help you make different choices. Flawed thinking or childhood conditioning may make recovering from sexual shame a challenge to do without the skills of a professional. Therapy can accelerate the process of overcoming shame, and help you reclaim your authentic sexual self.