Talking About Shame
“Shame is a big issue for most of us given that it’s embedded in systems of education, religion, medicine, media, and pop culture. There are so many places that are trying to regulate our sexual wellbeing and tell us what not to do,” says Psychotherapist and Relationships Therapist Jo Nicholl, “We were raised by people who felt sexual shame and whether they consciously or unconsciously led us down that path, it’s been all around us.”
Shame is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” While it may wrap up into a neat definition, sexual shame is far from simple.
We live in a world that hyper-sexualises bodies but sex-positive spaces which challenge cultural attitudes whilst embracing all expressions of sex and sexuality still aren’t the norm. Desires are healthy and bodies are beautiful. However, when wider society forces ideas about ‘normal sex’ through social media, TV, and film, it can lead to embarrassment about certain sexual acts, your body, and the things you want to try in and out of the bedroom.
“Shame may lend itself to someone not feeling so comfortable in being vulnerable and authentic which sex needs for true connection,” says sex and relationships expert Sarah Louise Ryan.
“For some people, there may be an obvious cause, event, reason or experience which has lead to them feeling shame around sex. For others it may be more related to narratives or messaging about sex that they have picked up across their lifetime,” she says, “If you feel able to build some level of self-awareness and understanding around why you are feeling shame, then that’s a good place to start.”
You may think of yourself as someone who is fairly sexually open but feel there are certain things you need to do in order to be attractive or sexually acceptable. Nicholl explains that shame and judgement come hand in hand and often your biggest critic can be yourself. “The idea that you won’t be desired if you look a certain way or if you don’t orgasm then you’re not good enough is all self-judgement. You’re shaming yourself,” she said.
Learning About Sexual Shame
Feeling shameful about sex or certain sexual acts can be limiting and frustrating. However, there are sex-positive academics, influencers, and writers who are working to eradicate sexual shame once and for all. And giving yourself a sexual re-education can be incredibly fun.
Everyone learns about sex from somewhere. If the first places you heard about penetrative sex, oral, sex toys, and pleasure was in a secretive way at school or from the pages of porn magazines at sleepovers then it’s natural that you’re going to internalise that sex isn’t something to be spoken about or explored openly.
“I can’t over-emphasize the importance of feeling validated and understood,” says Nicholl, “Step back and talk to friends about their desires. How much do you know about sexuality? Ask yourself – why do I think having a need or desire is wrong? It’s normal, have some compassion for yourself.”
There’s a whole world of books, articles, apps, and podcasts that take a no-nonsense approach to sex and relationships. Moyle’s advice is to “start listening to other people’s perspectives and conversations through mediums like podcasts and following sex-positive educators and professionals on social media. It’s a way of exploring sexually which isn’t sexualised and requires you to do nothing, or be under any pressure to act on what you are hearing.”
Similarly, you can get that ‘me too’ moment by discovering books that talk about the ways shame can limit your sex life. Come As You Are by Dr Emily Nagoski, The Coitus Chronicles by Olive Persimmon, and She Comes First by Ian Kerner are all written by incredibly sex-positive experts who focus on your sexual relationship with yourself, first and foremost.
Learning about sex isn’t something you have to do alone either. Include your partner or partners and discuss the ideas that you read and hear. “When it’s expressed, those feelings feel a lot less dangerous. It takes courage and courage takes understanding and support,” says Nicholl.
Talking About Sexual Shame
When you think about what makes sex exciting, conversation might not be the thing that immediately springs to mind. However, communicating your desires, turn-ons, and turn-offs can open whole new worlds of intimacy for you and your partner(s). Communicating any shame or embarrassment you have to a partner may feel like an enormous hurdle, but it could also unlock new possibilities for your sex life.
You’re not obliged to talk about any sexual shame you have until you feel absolutely ready. “Take things at your own pace, only compare yourself to yourself. Think about where you are now and where you’d like to be in your sex life,” says Ryan, “There’s no right or wrong, only do what makes you feel good, happy and comfortable.”
If you do want to have that conversation Moyle says that it’s good to do so in an open and sensitive way. Language is really important and Nicholl explains that one of the most useful terms in conversations surrounding shame and your sex life is “I feel.”
“Reiterate how much you love your sex life but explain that when your partner asks you to do a certain thing you notice that it makes you feel a certain way. It’s not that you are an ashamed person or that your partner shames you,” she says, “It’s about you and your feelings in the presence of sex. You can’t make a feeling right or wrong and your partner can’t tell you you don’t feel a certain way.”
Having conversations about the way that sex and certain sexual acts make you feel gives your partner(s) the space to talk about their own feelings and, ultimately, you build a greater understanding of each other as sexual beings. “To have a fulfilling sex life you should be able to feel comfortable in your body, in what you want and what turns you on and be able to communicate it before, during and after sex without any fear of what someone else might think or say in return,” says Ryan.
Sometimes the most important foreplay begins in totally non-sexual settings. Knowing what your partner likes when they feel most comfortable and sexy, and the acts that make them feel uneasy could help you to start breaking down the barriers of shame that may be limiting your sex life.