“We pick up sexual shame from the world around us, beginning with the messages we receive as children from our parents, communities, churches, society, and culture,” says Erica Smith, sex educator and founder of the Purity Culture Dropout Program. A lot of the messaging may not even be overt or direct, though. “Most of us have internalized shame just from growing up in a culture that believes deeply that sex, our bodies, and our sex parts are bad,” says relationship and sex therapist Andrew Aaron, LICSW. “What makes the shame so insidious is that people are unaware of their shame: They don’t see it, identify it, or talk about it.”
Because sexual shame can fly so far under the radar, many may not realize how it can stand in the way of confidence, intimacy, and establishing healthy relationships with partners, sex, and self-pleasure. That’s why identifying the common thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns associated with sexual shame is the first step to overcoming it. Below, find six telltale signs of sexual shame and then learn how to overcome it.
6 signs of sexual shame, according to sex experts
1. Insecurity with the self
Sexual shame often manifests as a disconnection from the self, says Megwyn White, sexologist, licensed sex coach, and director of education at sexual-wellness product brand Satisfyer. “One of the key components to sexual shame is a break in the natural flow of personal expression and experience of the body,” she says. According to research, people who identify as women and who are not comfortable with the appearance of their genitals may experience a flood of intense self-judgment after sex or self-consciousness or body insecurity during sex.
2. 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,” says White, who adds feeling uncomfortable expressing desires and needs during sex is a sign of shame as well.
3. 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,” says Aaron. Correlation is not causation, though, which is to say that lack of arousal does not mean shame is definitely present. Smith adds that shame can make communicating with sexual partners difficult, which can, in turn, make sex less pleasureful.
4. 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 forms 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 is 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.”
The benefits of overcoming sexual shame—and how to do it
The benefits of confronting and releasing sexual shame start with pleasure. “A person is able to experience sexual response, get beyond sexual dysfunction, and perhaps the experience of high arousal and orgasm where that was inhibited prior,” says Aaron. And according to Smith, these benefits may yield more confidence and self-esteem that can give way to more effective communication with partners, better solo or partnered sex, and a newfound interest in kink, sex toys, casual sex relationships, or polyamory, or perhaps the realization that you have a different sexual or gender identity.
When you’re ready to uproot and release sexual shame, Smith says the first step is to remove yourself from the source and then—whether that source is a friend, parent, media outlet or otherwise—to set boundaries and heal. Therapy, sensual self-care, and masturbation can all help, as can educating yourself with books (check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, Pussy, a Reclamation by Regina Thomashauer, and Sex for One by Betty Dodson).
Also keep in mind that in the early stages of processing shame, things can sometimes feel worse before they get better. “This is a natural part of the process and needs to be honored with a great deal of compassion,” says White. “We don’t want to ‘shame the shame,’ if you know what I mean.” Ultimately, sexual shame is nothing to be ashamed about—there are many ways to explore releasing it, and no one way is the right way.
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