Sexuality is complicated. It develops over a lifespan and is influenced by many factors: parents, friends, teachers, school, church, healthcare, media, morality, and American culture.
All of these influences either gave you an…
Explicit message (“Don’t have sex before marriage” or “Masturbation is a normal biological urge”)
Implicit message (You pick up an unspoken rule in your family that you don’t talk about sex or observe generally how sex goes among your social circles)
Ignored message (Did your pediatrician ever talk to you about your sexual health as a teenager? Does your Primary Care Provider bring up your sexual health?).
These messages influence the development of your own sexual self. You begin to create an idea of what sex is like before you even experience it. It influences your sexual values, behavior and thoughts, and feelings about yourself.
When my clients are seeing me about issues around sexual behavior, I always want to take a peek at their thoughts and feelings around their sense of sexual self. Thoughts and feelings are complicated, too. And can influence whether our sense of sexual self leans more healthy or leans more toward sexual shame – two opposites on the same sexual self range.
Generally, we find positive thoughts and feelings to be associated with healthier sexuality and negative thoughts and feelings to be associated with sexual dissatisfaction. Add in a layer of societal influences, and that dissatisfaction can quickly turn into shame.
Think of shame as our “social feeling.” Instead of feeling guilty about doing something bad, shame makes us feel I am bad. And that is a lousy feeling. I recently attended a lecture on sexual shame and enjoyed this working definition by Dr. Noel Clark:
“Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being and a belief of being abnormal, inferior, and unworthy. This feeling can be internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy.
Sexual shame develops across the lifespan in interactions with interpersonal relationships, one’s culture and society, and subsequent critical self-appraisal (a continuous feedback loop). There is also a fear and uncertainty related to one’s power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions, related to sexual encounters, along with an internalized judgment toward one’s own sexual desire.”
It’s a lot to unpack, isn’t it?
The insidious part of sexual shame is that you might not even be aware of its impact on you. It can show up in lots of different ways:
Not liking your body
Wondering if your sexual desire is normal
Feeling anxious about sex
Thinking you are bad or broken
Your fight, flight, or freeze is activated with sex
Thinking pleasure can’t be a part of your life
Feeling bad about fantasies you wouldn’t want to happen in real life
These are just to name a few.
As Brené Brown, famed shame researcher, shares, the best way to unpack your shame is by noticing it and unpacking it with a TRUSTED person – a best friend, beloved partner, or certified sex therapist.
The good news is all that junky shame wiring can get “un-wired”.
We all have the potential to achieve true sexual health where our thoughts and feelings align with “I am lovable”; “I am of worth” or “I belong”.
A healthy sexual self can happen when you love yourself.