How to overcome shame around sex

The history of shame around sex continues to affect us and our mental health, especially for those in marginalized communities.

Last updated on December 15, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on November 18, 2022.

When considering whether to invite your date back to your place after a great evening together, have you ever stopped yourself because you were worried about what people might think?

Or, maybe you’ve hesitated to ask a partner for something specific during intimacy, fearing they might think it’s odd.

Have you ever wondered where this fear comes from, or maybe felt alone in these feelings?

Sex and sexuality are often associated with shame. You’re not alone if you find yourself navigating these feelings or concerns. The good news is that there are ways to embrace exactly who you are and what pleases you.

Sex has historically been connected to value and virtue. For men and masculine-identified folks, some harmful societal lessons encourage viewing sex as a conquest.

Society pushes people to engage sexually, and there’s a tendency to pass judgment on those who view sex differently. In turn, this doesn’t leave room for folks who are asexual or simply have different perspectives around sex.

On the other hand, women and feminine-identified folks are often taught that their sexuality is something to be hidden and protected. Limiting themselves sexually ultimately adds to their value. Historically, women were often bartered like property and commanded a higher value for their “virginity.”

Today, this has led to some women feeling shame around having an active sex drive in a way that men and masculine-identified folks are not taught to feel.

For LGBTQIA+ folks, sex can feel like a shameful topic. For years, many sexual and gender identities were viewed as mental health disorders, and a prominent religious perspective is that engaging in anything but cishet sex is sexually deviant.

Even for those who don’t subscribe to traditional religion or spirituality, those harmful perspectives can be challenging to unlearn, given their prevalence in our media and culture. Furthermore, legal processes like conversion therapy continue to project ideals that reinforce feelings of shame within certain communities.

Sex has also been used as a tool of power and control. Black folks enslaved during and after the transatlantic slave trade were forced to give up their sexual agency and later branded with stereotypes because of those practices.

While this era is not the only one to have seen sexual assault used as a tool of control, members of the Black community have continued to grapple with the shame that has come along with that history.

Given this damaging historical context and the portrayal of sexuality in current media, it can be easy to feel a connection between shame and your personal desires, particularly if you feel like you’re not meeting societal expectations or aren’t feeling affirmation of your sexual choices.

Sexual stigma can appear in many places — like feeling shame about having a period, our body shape or size, being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), or our gender identity or sexual orientation. It can also stem from many sources, including our culture or religious beliefs, upbringing, past experiences, and even the stories we’ve heard from others.

How feeling shame about sex may affect mental health

Each of us lives in one body, and that body comprises many interconnected parts, including our feelings and mental health. Our feelings can significantly impact how we experience events and how we learn and process information. This can also hold true for our sexuality.

A recent study on sexual activity supports this. Researchers found that over the last 18 years, sexual activity and sexual partners have decreased for adults. The researchers cited several hypotheses, including the overall increase in depression and anxiety as potential links to this drop.

Though the research doesn’t address whether feelings of shame had any connection to the drop in sexual activity, the results indicate that negative feelings may negatively impact our sex life.

When we feel physically and emotionally safe, we may be freer to try new things, more open to new experiences, and more willing to share some vulnerable parts of ourselves. This can include exploring pleasure, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Shame can also lead to avoiding the healthcare that you may need. Folks who experience shame and guilt around sex and sexuality may be less likely to get sexual and reproductive health care services or feel comfortable in their bodies and identities.

Shame resilience theory

According to Brené Brown’s 2006 publication, shame resilience theory (SRT) offers a working definition of shame and a conceptual identity for shame. It describes the main concerns of women experiencing shame and identifies the strategies and processes women find effective in developing shame resilience.

This theory also seeks to understand the distinct challenges that come along with shame.

Even in recognizing the differences between women from different cultures and backgrounds, Brown identified several categories that may trigger shame in women, including:

Brown’s theory focuses on women and covers more than just sex, but its focus on the origin of shame can assist us in developing strategies for combatting it.

How to embrace sex without shame

Shame is familiar, but engaging with your sexuality in a way that feels good to you is possible. Because shame and self-stigma can be so prevalent, it can feel daunting to embark on a journey to mitigate those feelings. We have a few suggestions to get you started:

Write down your thoughts

Having a vehicle for getting out your thoughts and feelings can be a great starting point and an option for processing situations later. There is absolutely no pressure to share your journal with anyone else.

Getting these ideas on paper may help you dive deeper to identify where these feelings come from. You can also ask yourself questions about what your goals are. How would you like to feel about sex in the future? What would your ideal relationship with yourself or with a partner look like? And how can you healthily work towards those goals?

For those wanting to discuss these topics with children, engaging them in healthy and inclusive sex education is a great place to start, as it enables them to learn about their bodies, health, and what pleases them, in addition to tools around communication.

Get to know yourself

We suggest getting comfortable with yourself and your body as a first step to embracing sex and understanding your sexuality.

Masturbation is a great way to get familiar with what gives you sexual pleasure. Orgasms release endorphins that can reduce stress and induce sleep, which can help you feel relaxed.

Getting to know yourself can also be about self-discovery in other ways, including what makes you feel good outside of the bedroom and learning more about what your body really looks like.

Date yourself. Wear clothes that make you feel attractive, confident, and good in your body. Get familiar with your genitals by looking at them in a mirror. Explore what feels good to your body — scented candles in a warm bath, physical touch, crisp, clean bedsheets, or a run outside, for example.

Have open conversations with a partner or trusted person

Once you get more comfortable working through your feelings, you may feel ready to discuss them with someone you trust. This could mean discussing sex in general or sharing some of the feelings and emotions about sex you’ve journaled about.

Additionally, in getting to know what pleases you, remember that you’re not obligated to engage in this discovery with anyone else — though you can if you want. Learning what you do and don’t like can make it easier to communicate with your partner if you’re interested in doing so.

Build a circle of empowerment

Having positive people in your corner can aid you on this journey. While learning to love your body for what it is and what it can do, removing individuals that reinforce negative thoughts and feelings could be a step to consider.

It can also be helpful to surround yourself with people who love you and your body as you are. Being around people who reinforce your positive thoughts and feelings about yourself, your body, sex, and your sexuality can help support your continued growth.

Many of us have had loved ones who hold negative perspectives around bodies and sexuality, and consistent interaction with these narratives can make it hard to shift your own perspective.

Talk to a professional

Even though there are certainly steps you can take on your own, and with the support of loved ones, sexual shame and guilt can be deeply rooted issues. If you could benefit from a professional’s perspective or just want to talk your feelings out with a neutral expert, consider working with a therapist or mental health care provider trained to help you explore your emotions and ideas and develop robust and healthy thought patterns and behaviors.

Summary

Feelings of shame around sex and sexuality can be pervasive and can often feel isolating. You’re not the only person to feel this way; you don’t have to work through those feelings alone or without resources.

To eradicate shame, let’s move away from the concept of ‘normal,’ and embrace the fact that each body looks and works differently. The person best determines the standard for that body it belongs to, not by society. The person who’s lived in that body their entire life probably is the expert on the way that body works.

Self-discovery and surrounding yourself with people that will affirm both body and sex positivity are essential steps, and you can always seek out a mental health professional to talk further, especially if you have trauma that you’d like to work through.

We can control these parts of ourselves and determine what we share, who we share them with, and when. By affirming our autonomy, we begin to break down the stigma of keeping our sexual selves secret.

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