Like many of us, I have definitely struggled with shame from sex throughout my life. After all, from a young age, we’re taught negative and harmful messages about sexuality—that PIV sex is the only “real” type of sex, that we're supposed to do and enjoy certain things, and that men's pleasure comes first. Even if you live in a more sex-positive household, and you’re taught to take pride in your body and your pleasure, it’s likely you’ve still had to do a fair bit of exploring and unlearning on your own. And that process can lead to questions, like how do I like to have sex? What actually makes me feel good? And, ultimately, what if those things are “bad” or “weird?” What if they’re things to be ashamed of?
But your sex life is your sex life, and we all define sex, and pleasure, differently. Whether your masturbation habits make you feel a little guilty or you think your libido is lacking or much too high, there’s a really good chance you’re actually completely normal (whatever “normal” means!).
What does shame feel like?
Shame around sex can look different for different people, but for many people, it’s a sort of heavy, dreadful feeling that shrouds the idea of having sex, with yourself and/or with other people. You might feel embarrassed to ask for what you want in bed, or insecure about the way you look. You might feel totally fine and excited before and during the act, but then find yourself feeling guilty or gross once sex has ended. You might even feel stress about masturbating, and wonder if how you’re getting off, or what you like to watch, listen to, or fantasize about during masturbation is somehow bad.
Where does shame come from?
So let’s get to the root of it. If you do feel like shame is negatively impacting your sex life, or is making you generally unhappy and uncomfortable, one important change you can make is finding the root of your shame. Where did it come from? From there, you can attempt to work through it. Natalie Finegood Goldberg, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, explains that shame can come from a range of experiences and factors. “Growing up with a particularly sex-negative religion (one which condemns sexuality, masturbation, or sexual activity), growing up with lots of negative messages around sex (masturbation is bad/dirty, don't be a slut, sex is bad/dirty, etc.), or experiencing any sort of unwanted touching or sexual attention from a young age can all result in sexual shame,” Finegood Goldberg explains.
People who experience shame around sex might struggle with admitting it. “Everyone feels some amount of shame about their sex lives, but so many people also feel ashamed for feeling shame,” Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist and writer specializing in sex therapy, explains. “It's an awful shame spiral!” And it takes admitting it to do something to stop, or lessen, the issue.
How to overcome stigma and shame
One realization that can help you deal with shame around sex is realizing that it’s not some big evil thing that you have to combat all at once. “It's really important to me to normalize feeling shame around sex, and point out that we are taught to feel that way by our religions, cultures, media, family, and so many other sources. None of us are born feeling ashamed of sex,” Marin says.
“I believe the most important thing that people can do to overcome stigma or shame is to create their own definition of healthy sex,” Finegood Goldberg reiterates. “Sex and sexual pleasure are so different for everyone; by creating a definition of sex that works for you, you're no longer holding yourself to a standard that may not be right, appropriate, or even enjoyable for you!”
Try introducing aftercare
It’s possible that part of the shame you feel may come from needing a little more discussion and openness with your partner around sex. Do you think you might feel better if you felt supported by your partner? What if you talked things through both before and after, and were clear about the care you need? That’s where aftercare comes in, or, in short, the idea of a check-in after sex.
As Finegood Goldberg explained, sex means different things for different people. Some of the sex you enjoy most might come with a negative association from the mainstream, or it might be something that you were told was supposed to make you feel bad, or dirty. That’s where aftercare can help (though, of course, aftercare is helpful and beneficial, period). “If shame creeps in after sex, gentle reminders of your definition of healthy sex, as well as creating a calm soothing environment for yourself, can help bring you back to center,” Finegood Goldberg says.
Understand that it’s a journey
It takes time to overcome shame. It is, after all, a huge emotion, and it’s been ingrained in many of us our entire lives. For better or for worse, shame is big part of being human, especially depending on your background, your experiences with sex, and what you were taught about your body and pleasure. It doesn’t help to beat yourself up because you’re having feelings of shame. Instead, pat yourself on the back for taking the first step of admitting that this is something you’re struggling with. If you can talk about it with a friend, a therapist, or a partner, that may help you feel less alone in your journey. And you’ll probably realize that you’re far from the only person in your inner-circle who’s had feelings of doubt or embarrassment when it comes to sex.
Rachel Charlene Lewis is a writer and editor who writes about queerness and culture. Her work has been published in Bitch, Allure, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. You can find her throughout the internet as @RachelCharleneL.