Combating Sexual Shame
I’m not sure if anyone has managed to get through life and avoid some form of sexual shame at some point in their lives. Our culture is pretty sex negative (i.e. focuses more on pain than pleasure, overemphasizes abstinence until marriage, pretty shaming around any forms of kinky sex, etc.) so it’s no wonder we’ve all probably had a moment of feeling bad about ourselves for our sexual desires/acts/fantasies, etc. Experiencing sexual shame is problematic because it holds us back from being fully ourselves and exploring any and all of what we may be interested in sexually. I’ve also seen it manifest for folx in the form of: premature ejaculation or delayed ejaculation, vaginismus/painful sex, difficulty initiating or declining sex, difficulties with orgasm, inability to be present sexually, difficulty connecting intimately with a partner, engaging in affairs rather than sharing about a sexual desire with one’s partner… the list goes on.
Working with Your Thoughts:
When confronting sexual shame, it’s important to identify what the shame messages are that you’re hearing and where they’re coming from (i.e. yourself, your partner(s), culture, religion, peers, etc.). Write these messages down. Make them clear and concrete so you know what you’re fighting against. They may look like:
- It’s not okay for me to be sexy/sexual
- I’m not a good partner/lover if I can’t delay my orgasm long enough
- If I touch myself during sex, my partner is going to think I’m weird
- My partner(s) will never love me if they knew I was into BDSM
- My orgasm isn’t as important as my partner’s
- I am not enough sexually
- My partner will leave me if I don’t perform well sexually
And again, the list goes on. What are the messages and where did they come from for you? Is this a story you’ve told yourself based on others’ experiences or what you’ve seen in culture? If so, it’s time to decide if you still want to carry those with you. Take the time to explore what alternative truths fit for you. They might not feel real to you right away, but the more you practice saying affirmations to yourself about the sexual values you want to have, the less shame you will have and the more confident you will start to feel. This is science! We’ve done enough research to know that if we focus on the negatives, we’re going to see life in a more negative lens. If we shift to most positive thought patterns, we will experience life in a more positive way. Some affirmations you could tell yourself:
- I am a sexual being and am more than worthy of pleasure
- My sexual experiences don’t have to be orgasm-centric. They are pleasure-centric and my partner is happy to connect with me erotically
- My pleasure during sex is important. I know how to pleasure myself well and my partner revels in seeing me in the fullness of my pleasure
- Being interested in BDSM is great! My partner and I can find ways to explore this together. I am worthy of love, including the kinky sides of me.
- I am worthy of orgasmic release. I can enjoy my orgasm
- My worth is not based on my sexual performance. I am a sexual being learning to grow into my own sexuality and eroticism
Crafting out a new narrative for yourself and repeating phrases like this to yourself daily will help your mind gently shift to a space that is self-compassionate and more sex positive. Think of this as a meditation exercise and allow yourself to sit with these thoughts for 5 minutes a day, excluding all of the other stressors of life to focus on the pleasure that you are worthy of.
You may also work on this exercise while looking at yourself in the mirror. See yourself saying this to yourself compassionately. Witness how good it feels to be lovingly supported by yourself.
If you find that your partner is feeding into the negative shame messages you’ve been carrying around, it’s time for a conversation to practice shifting language together and using more gracious phrases/tones. If this is challenging for you both/all, you could explore this conversation in greater depth with a sex therapist. This does NOT include someone who is being coercive/manipulative/abusive. Those are relationships that need to end immediately for your safety.
Getting into your body:
Another helpful way to work through the sexual shame you’re experiencing is to get into your body. We carry so much of our emotional well-being in our bodies, so engaging with exercises that release some of that stress can be helpful. You may consider exercise, taking a dance class, or yoga for sexual wellness - essentially, activities that can be slightly more sensual while engaging you in physical movement. You could also engage in mindful masturbation (masturbating without porn/other distractions - simply focusing on touching various parts of your body in a way that is sensual/pleasurable) to get more acclimated to who you are and what you want.
Mindful masturbation is a good time to practice those more adaptive affirmations you came up with. If you notice shame-based thoughts flitting in, just let them float by as if they were leaves on a river and replace them with your positive mantras to remind yourself that you are worthy of pleasure - including self-pleasure!
Practice makes perfect:
If you’ve been avoiding certain sexual acts or avoiding sex in general as a result of sexual shame, it’s going to take a little while to regain your confidence. This doesn’t happen over night or with one therapy session. Think of it like exercise - if you haven’t done it in a while, your muscles aren’t toned and prepared to do the heavy lifting you once did. You have to build back up bit by bit to regain confidence. Sex is the same. You need to repetitively practice in order for it to start to feel natural and comfortable again. It’s okay to start slow and with activities/actions that feel safe to start, but just like exercise, you may have to push yourself a little - otherwise, you’re going to stay stuck in the uncomfortable place. Make time for engaging in sex, even if that means scheduling it. I promise that your head will eventually catch up to your body if you put in the work.
Engaging in sex positive content:
It can be hard to remind ourselves to catch all of the shame messages that are running in the background of our subconscious. Engaging in sex positive content on a regular basis is a great way to train your brain to be better at catching the shame messages and replacing them with something more adaptive. Find sex positive content to read/listen to, whether it’s following folx on social media, reading books/blogs, or listening to podcasts that are sex positive. I know you’re already scrolling on your phone daily, so might as well add a few sex positive content creators to start putting sex positive messages in the forefront of your mind.
Sexual shame doesn’t have to keep you from having great sex. By actively putting in the work to combat those negative thoughts and getting in tune with your body on a regular basis, shame can eventually be overcome. It does mean actively noticing the thoughts and replacing them with more helpful ones (which you can do through journaling, engaging in sex positive content, talking to others about sex, etc.) as well as actively making time to touch and explore your body/your partner’s body. It may feel uncomfortable for a little while at first but that’s normal. By continuing to put in the time and effort, you will eventually see a shift in your own sexual confidence and relationship to sex. Of course, if you have experienced some form of trauma or you’ve tried these activities and feel stuck - reach out to a sex therapist to help you get unstuck. Happy exploring!