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. If you find yourself navigating these feelings or concerns, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are ways to embrace exactly who you are and what brings you pleasure.
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 there’s a prominent religious perspective that engaging in anything but cishet sex is sexually deviant.
Even for those of us who don’t subscribe to traditional religion or spirituality, those harmful perspectives can be hard 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 who were 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 show up in many places in our lives — 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, our upbringing, our past experiences, and even the stories we’ve heard from others,” says Dr. Sara C. Flowers, vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Each of us lives in one body, and that body is made up of many interconnected parts, including our feelings and mental health. Our feelings can have a significant impact on how we experience events, and how we learn and process information. This can also hold true for our sexuality,” Flowers says.
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 more free 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,” says Flowers.
According to Flowers, 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:
- appearance and body image
- professional identity and work
- mental and physical health
- speaking out
- surviving trauma
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.
Shame is a common feeling, but it’s possible to engage with your sexuality in a way that feels good to you. Because shame and self-stigma can be so prevalent, it can feel daunting to embark on a journey to mitigate those feelings. Flowers has a few suggestions to get you started:
Journal 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 on. 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 may be coming 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 work towards those goals in a healthy way?” says Flowers.
For those wanting to discuss these topics with children, Flowers says 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 brings them pleasure, in addition to tools around communication.
Get to know yourself
Flowers suggests 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 which can reduce stress and induce sleep — both of 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,” she says.
Have open conversations with a partner or trusted person
“Once you get more comfortable working through your feelings on your own, you may feel ready to discuss them with someone you trust. This could mean talking about sex in general, or perhaps sharing some of the feelings and emotions about sex you’ve journaled about,” said Flowers.
Additionally, in getting to know what brings you pleasure, 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(s), 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 the positive thoughts and feelings you have about yourself, your body, and sex and your sexuality can help support your continued growth,” Flowers says.
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
Flowers says, “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 who is trained to help you explore your emotions and ideas and develop strong, healthy thought patterns and behaviors.”
Need help finding the right therapist?
There are plenty of online resources to help you find the right therapist for your needs. Consider checking out Psych Central’s Find Help tool, or one of these resources:
- African American Therapists Directory
- American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists’ Referral Directory
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Ayana — Mental healthcare for marginalized and intersectional communities
- Black Female Therapists
- Inclusive Therapists
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Society for Sex Therapy and Research’s Find a Therapist tool
- Therapy in Color
- Therapy for Black Girls
- The National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association’s Service Provider list
- Therapy for Latinx
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, and you don’t have to work through those feelings alone or without resources.
Flowers says, “To eradicate shame, let’s move away from the concept of ‘normal,’ and embrace the fact that each body looks and works differently and the standard for that body is best determined by the person 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 important 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 be in control of 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,” says Flowers.
Taneasha White (she/her) is a Black, Queer lover of words, inquisition, and community. She loves conversations around gender and sexuality, Black representation, and mental health, and is excited to continue that work with an intersectional approach as a staff writer with Psych Central. You can find some of Taneasha’s work in the mental health and wellness space, as well as pieces on activism and inclusion in Well + Good, Verywell, mindbodygreen, Asparagus Magazine, among others. Taneasha’s dedication to uplifting her community is also shown through her work through The Collab Spot, a QTPOC-focused community hub and co-working space housed in Richmond, Virginia, and the podcast Critiques for The Culture that she co-hosts.You can view more of Taneasha’s work at her website, including her current projects and creative nonfiction work.