Can you hear the shame bell ringing in your head? You’re not alone. Sadly, there is a sweeping commonality in many people’s sexual experiences, and it centers around that one universal emotion: shame.
What is sexual shame and why do I feel it?
Shame is a primordial human emotion, but it’s an unintended side effect of being a social species. While guilt is centered around our behaviors and actions, shame is related to who we are. As shame researcher Brené Brown defines it, “Guilt is, ‘I made a mistake.’ Shame is, ‘I am a mistake.”
Sexual shame can come from literal endless avenues, (Sad confetti of tears!) There isn’t one way to feel shame about your sexuality. You can feel shame around why, how, when, where, and what you’re doing, but for the purpose of this article we’re going to focus on a few common reasons someone might feel the hot and cold flip flop sensation of “I, or what I like is gross”.
Reason 1: Growing up in a Religious and Sex-Negative Community
When researching the topic, a consistent source of shame for most people was their religious upbringing. Surprise! Actually, it was challenging to find books and resources on experiencing sexual shame that wasn’t linked to religious communities.
This is a bittersweet revelation: it means many people are recovering from their families of origin, but plenty more are in need of help.
There seems to be a general understanding that being told scientifically inaccurate lies around human sexuality in order to shame youths into a life of abstinence has been terribly harmful. Children and teens are not just encouraged to lead a life of chastity and virginity until marriage, which is a complex goal to say the least, but they’re absolutely shamed for being human beings with a drive towards physical pleasure.
When teens are told that they’re like a piece of used gum for having sex before marriage, or that sex outside of marriage will buy them a one-way ticket to hell… well, it’s no wonder these kids would grow up to be both inaccurately educated and repulsed by their own desires.
Reason 2: Internalized Homophobia
It will surprise no one to know that we live in a culture where homosexuality has historically been considered “perverse”. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” as a diagnosable mental illness, but the culture of shame around it has lived on.
In the foreword to the book Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality by Patrick Moore, writer and academic Michael Bronski states that “Shame—from childhood to one’s last days—is a first-rate form of social control. Shame is what keeps us in line, and what prevents us from discovering not so much who we are, but what we might become.”
To this day, queer people are still unfortunately associated with unreputable people and behavior. Many queer folks have tried to wash away the “deviant” parts of their queer culture, distancing themselves from certain sex acts (anal, queer cruising, or orgies) as a way to make themselves more palatable to mainstream culture.
Internalized homophobia is a form of internalized shame towards one’s own non-heterosexuality. As we’ve discussed before, shame is a kind of bug in our social nature as human beings but specifically politicized for queer folks. As Yasmin Nair writes in her essay, “Against Equality, Against Marriage” that “today, capitalism does not seek to exclude gays and lesbians—instead, it seeks to integrate them into its structure of exploitation as long as they don’t upset the status quo.”
Certain sexual acts, like anal or group sex or sex clubs, are seen as deviant and risky to the mainstream despite how integral they have been to the queer community as a whole. Queer people can exist, but they have to exist within the same rigid sexual framework as good-upstanding-heterosexual-citizens have. (I’d imagine not being invited to fun sex parties can make Jack and Jane Heterosexual pretty jealous!)
It makes a lot of sense that queer people would have levels of internalized homophobia towards themselves, especially when we grow up seeing contentious portrayals of queer people, or the chaos that can come out of someone’s life for their simple preferences. Distancing yourself from those reactions to queerness is a form of survival for many people, and can persist even after making the decision to come out.
Reason 3: Internalized Transphobia
Have you ever had the experience of watching old comedies from the 90s, and being confronted with how badly they’ve aged? Scene after scene, there are “playful” mentions of sexual assault, homophobia, and enough transphobia to make a person sick.
It is exhausting. The world as a whole still encourages trans people to hate our bodies, through jokes or lack of healthcare. Academic Valerié Robin Clayman writes in her book, I’m Supposed to Relate to This?, “We see trans characters shunned by family, beaten, addicted to drugs, raped, and forced to sell their bodies; and these are only the biographical films. If audiences adopt the traditional male gaze, does this mean that trans people are being asked by filmmakers to identify with tragic characters they don’t wish to become?”
Trans people are still living in a time where our bodies are seen as medical marvels in the worst possible way. We experience gatekeeping at a professional level and have to prove we’re “trans enough” to cisgender doctors who may share very old-school views on what transness is. Trans people have to gracefully dance around pointed questions about our bodies and genitals, lest we let out a fury that would make god of war Ares shake in his boots and push people from supporting trans causes. We also have to experience people’s constant comments of “I don’t want to date a woman with a dick, that’s not transphobic!”.
It obviously leaves an impact on our levels of self-compassion, which directly impacts our levels of health in all its definitions. We have higher levels of suicidality, as well as discomfort around sexuality.
Reason 4: Body Image Issues
“Beach body season” has come and gone, and good riddance to it. Every year I make a wish that the grip society has over our self-esteem weakens more and more… and I’m not alone.
In the book Burnout, researcher Emily Nagoski and her sister Amelia refer to the intense pressure capitalistic society has over bodies, particularly women’s bodies, as the “Bikini Industrial Complex”. Bodies are tools for capitalism, and if you’re satisfied with your body, you’re not indulging in the outlandishly profitable diet industry.
It goes even farther than that: Nagoski writes in her book Come as You Are that studies that “women who feel worse about their bodies have less satisfying, riskier sex, with less pleasure, more unwanted consequences, and more pain”. Shame and society’s neverending pressure around body pleasure has direct health impacts!
Reason 5: Racism
Ahh, racism. Are we surprised that the effects of one of the greatest evil institutions would worm its way into sexual shame?
Many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities have been working to undo hundreds of years of oppression and colonization. There can be a return to more rigid socially acceptable views of sexuality, as a way to try and undo the fetishization of the white gaze. With regards to sexuality, white men and women have treated BIPOC bodies in the cruelest of ways, treating them less like human beings and more like sex toys or living breathing kinks.
For many people, it can be safer to avoid engaging in some kinks all together rather than be discriminated against by fellow kinksters, or be treated as a constant “other”. Even discussing these issues can be met with a lot of resistance, even in sex-positive “woke” spaces.
How do we find ourselves out of this madness?
So at this point, you might be fired up and ready to fight. You want to smash plates over the CEOs of diet companies, throw rocks at the windows of sex-negative institutions, and riot against transphobia.
If you’re so inclined to more direct forms of action, do those things. Bite the demanding hand of the Bikini Industrial Complex, wage war with what Sonya Renee Taylor calls “body terrorism”, and fight the powers that seek to profit from your sexual shame.
But also… heal. Healing means limiting the toxic images spewed onto us every day about what our bodies should look like. Healing means coming to terms with how internalized homophobia still controls how we appreciate sex. Healing means understanding that it’s okay to be a trans woman who doesn’t hate her dick, or a trans man who appreciates his form.
To heal, you need healthy amounts of neutral curiosity and compassion for yourself. Neutral curiosity maintains a distance from the emotional reactions we get when we think “oh no, how gross is my body for being fat” or “of course no one wants to sleep with a nonbinary person like me”. Sit with those thoughts; they’re only thoughts, they’ve been learned, and they can be unlearned so long as we don’t engage with them.
Then, be absolutely punk rock and practice radical self-compassion. Do you want to change the world? Begin by changing your relationship to one person: yourself. As the Nagoski twins write in Burnout, “Until you are free, we can’t be fully free, which is why all of us together have to collaborate to create that freedom for everyone. Our wellness is tied to yours.”
As we’ve seen, sexual shame does not live in a vacuum. It did not come out of nowhere, but came out of our environments. So practice creating a kind environment for yourself internally, build up that self-love muscle and skill, and smash the oppressors who would keep you chained away from pleasure for their own benefit.
I want to leave you with the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, who writes:
“How we value and honor our own bodies impacts how we value and honor the bodies of others… It is through our own transformed relationship with our bodies that we become champions for other bodies on our planet. As we awaken to our indoctrinated body shame, we feel inspired to awaken others and to interrupt the systems that perpetuate the body shame and oppression against all bodies.”
Here are some excellent sources of material you absolutely should invest some time into: