20 Signs You Might Have Sexual Shame, and How To Overcome It

Photo: Getty Images/Diego_Cervo
Sure, sex may be considered taboo, but there’s a difference between conversations you wouldn’t want to have at work with your boss and feeling sexual shame that impacts your life, self-worth, and relationships. “Sexual shame begins way back when we are little kids,” psychotherapist and sex therapist Madeline Lucas, LCSW, explains. “The very normal, healthy sexual development that is self-touch, exploration of genitals, and questions around our bodies are met with negative responses and consequences. Parents may have said things like 'put that thing away!' or 'stop touching there!' or discouraged curiosity with 'Don’t ask things like that—be a good boy/girl,'"Lucas says.

“Sexual shame begins way back when we are little kids,”—Madeline Lucas, LCSW, psychotherapist and sex therapist

This shame is the composite of such direct and indirect messaging we receive about sex being good or bad, psychotherapist Domenique Harrison, MPH, LMFT, LPCC, notes. Such black-and-white, binary, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to sexual shame that can manifest in sexual repression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and other forms of sexual shame, as Harrison explains.

Experts In This Article

If you’ve ever wondered if you might have sexual shame or are curious about how to have a healthier relationship with your sexuality, have no fear. We asked several experts to explain everything about sexual shame, from the definition, to causes, physical symptoms of shame, and tips on how to overcome it. Read on for more.

What is the definition of sexual shame?

“Sexual shame is a learned negative feeling surrounding sexual feelings, acts, or desires,” psychotherapist Mary Tate, LCSW, explains. This can show up in several different ways, from avoidance of sex completely, to a “lack of deservingness in feeling that your sexual needs should be met and the hesitancy to take someone else’s time to get your needs met,” says therapist Laura Rhodes-Levin, MS, LMFT, author of The Missing Peace: Rewire Your Brain, Reduce Anxiety, and Recreate Your Life.

What causes sexual shame?

Sexual shame can be caused by a variety of things, such as sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, insecurity, and abusive relationships, Rhodes-Levin notes. Cultural and personal influences may also play a part in these feelings. A very strict, fear-based childhood where experiences and exploration of sex were silenced and punished can result in sexual shame, Harrison adds.

For women especially, Rhodes-Levin explains, shame around sex that manifests as prioritizing their partner’s needs over their own, may be due to hundreds of years of societal and cultural influences. “For the last several hundred years, women literally couldn’t survive unless there was a man who was paying for them, and so we’ve been trained to make sure we [women] are appealing, even at the risk of our own discomfort,” she explains. It’s the idea that someone else’s needs come before your own, she adds, that may make it difficult for some women to embrace their own sexuality without sexual shame or guilt.

How do you know if you’re sexually repressed?

You might be sexually repressed if you find it easier to feel negative ideas around sex, psychotherapist Mary Tate explains. Another sign might be if you find that you’re not completely satisfied with your sexual experience (i.e., hiding secrets, fantasies, or fetishes) that you don’t feel comfortable sharing with your partner because you have fear around them, as Rhodes-Levin explains.

Tate explains that sexual repression can be viewed as an unconscious defense mechanism, protecting oneself from sexual shame. “The deeper the feeling is pushed (or repressed), the less awareness we have to know that it is negatively affecting us,” she explains.

What are the physical symptoms of shame?

The physical symptoms of shame can manifest as pain, discomfort, feeling disconnected, and feeling anxious, inadequate, and disappointed in ourselves, Harrison explains.

While some might experience anxiety and panic as physical symptoms of shame, others may go through with the act of sex, but mentally shut down and dissociate as a form of physical shame, Rhodes-Levin adds.

Signs of sexual shame, according to experts

Besides the physical and mental symptoms we talked about above, here are some other signs our experts note may be associated with sexual shame.

1. Avoidance of nudity (even in non-sexual contexts)

For those experiencing sexual shame, clothing and the feeling of coverage can be seen as a protective measure from being viewed sexually, Tate explains. While this can include sexual contexts, it can also include non-sexual contexts, such as getting undressed for doctor’s visits, Tate adds.

2. Feeling distracted during sex

If you find that you have difficulty staying present in sexual experiences, this may be a sign you have sexual shame, psychotherapist and sex therapist Madeline Lucas notes.

3. Being more concerned with satisfying your partner than achieving satisfaction yourself

Both Harrison and Rhodes-Levin note that an inflexible belief that your partner’s satisfaction or expectations as more important than your own may be symptoms of sexual shame as well. This kind of people pleasing in your sex life may actually be a sign that there’s deeper sexual shame behind the curtain here.

4. Insecurity with the self

Sexual shame often manifests as a disconnection from the self, says sexologist Megwyn White, a licensed sex coach, and director of education at sexual-wellness product brand Satisfyer.

5. A certain physical stature or diminished voice

Sexual shame can also present in how we carry ourselves. For example, maybe you frequently cross your arms, hunch your shoulders, slouch, or struggle to make or hold eye contact with partners. “The voice may also be affected in that there is a general inhibition to make sound during sexual exploration,” adds White.

6. Sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction

Sexual response typically reflects sexual energy (or arousal) that flows freely. “When shame is present, it constitutes a closed state in which sexual energy cannot flow to produce arousal, excitement, or orgasm,” relationship and sex therapist Andrew Aaron, LICSW, notes. Of course, correlation is not causation, which is to say that lack of arousal does not mean shame is definitely present. Sex educator Erica Smith adds that shame can make communicating with sexual partners difficult, which can, in turn, make sex less pleasurable.

7. Trouble with intimacy and relationships

“Shame is expressed through avoidance or being shut down and inhibited. Each of these responses is a form of distancing from the action or activity,” says Aaron. In this way, shame can lead you to form walls, limits, and boundaries that may make relationships feel less secure and intimate. “I've worked with folks who avoided dating for years because they were terrified of what would happen if they got close enough to someone to become sexually intimate,” says Smith.

8. Viewing sex as “bad” or something that you “shouldn’t do”

“Some experience deep feelings of regret and shame immediately after any sexual encounter,” says Smith, who notes she has worked with women who bought vibrators in an attempt to masturbate, then threw them away after being overcome with shame.

“The shaming of masturbation is damaging because as children, masturbation is our first method to connect with our genitals and sexual pleasure,” says Aaron. “When masturbation is forbidden, the training from young is to view our genitals, sexuality, and sexual pleasure as shameful.” Yes, sexual shame starts that young.

9. You’re uncomfortable talking about sex

Some people feel nervous, or a deep burning embarrassment, when the topic of sex comes up, which Smith says can be a sign of sexual shame. The typical response to shame is hiding it, but that’s the same way shame grows. “It’s also why being able to admit to what you’re ashamed of is the first step in overcoming it,” says White. “Once sexual shame is in the light, it can dissolve more easily.”

Harrison agrees, adding that shame “is insidious, pervasive, long–lasting…and continues to thrive in silence and darkness.” You owe it to yourself to let go of any shame or guilt.

How do I get over sexual shame?

“Healing our sexual shame is a multi-pronged and long-term approach,” Harrison says, adding that a good starting off point may be to look at articles (like this one!), books, podcasts, or TedTalks from sex-positive experts who can help explain why you may have guilt around sex. Beyond that, the following may also help.

1. Journal

Harrison also suggests starting with journaling about your past beliefs about sex and sexuality and working with a sex or sexuality-affirming therapist, trustworthy friends, or support group to dig into how messaging from childhood or beyond may have impacted the feelings of shame and guilt you may have around sex.

2. Explore core values

As sexual shame is often rooted in beliefs of what is “normal,” Tate suggests patients make a list of their top 10 core values (such as family, success, love, independence, etc.) and relate each point back to how that particular value has led to sexual shame. “From there, it is easier to recognize the beliefs we hold around sex that give us the most discomfort and shame,” she adds.

3. Have positive experiences

“[Read] the latest smutty romance book, watch educational videos about sex from medical resources, or enter a physical relationship with someone,” Tate says. By slowly building positive experiences around sex, you can begin to work through sexual shame. While you’re doing so, Tate says to also take note of if and where you might have heightened shame, as these can be helpful in understanding “what areas around sexual experiences may need more attention.”

4. Practice self-compassion

Since so much of sexual shame revolves around, well, shame, this is a great opportunity for you to practice showing yourself some kindness. Harrison recommends creating a phrase or gesture for yourself that you can refer back to in moments of deep shame and guilt. Give yourself an affirmation or non-judgmental reminder that you are trying your best with the tools that you have, because you are.

“Shame is a feeling we are always working on and observing throughout our life,” Tate says. “Observing sexual shame and how it appears can tell us a lot about how we are feeling about ourselves and our relationships,” she adds. So, remember to be kind to yourself because doing any kind of inner work takes strength and bravery and is an ongoing process.

5. Therapy

And finally, another great way to work on sexual shame is through therapy and emphasizing your own deservingness of pleasure and love for yourself, explains Rhodes-Levin. Forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) could be very helpful here. CBT focuses on changing your thought patterns, while DBT focuses on “dialectical” AKA opposite ideas. DBT may be particularly helpful here, Rhodes-Levin notes, as people who have sexual shame can sometimes think in extremes about very deep seated thoughts that aren’t serving them.

What are the benefits of overcoming sexual shame?

One of the most important benefits to overcoming sexual shame is increased pleasure and confidence. By working to confront and overcome sexual shame, Smith says, you may have more confidence and self-esteem that can then give way to better communication with partners, better solo or partnered sex, a newfound interest in kink (or even vanilla sex!), sex toys, casual sex relationships, or polyamory, or perhaps the realization that you have a different sexual or gender identity.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...