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How can I stop feeling so guilty?

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chechelle asks:

I am 23. I started having sex with my boyfriend of 7 months at age 17. I was raised Christian, have stayed in the church until now but am seriously questioning what I believe. Ever since I first started having sex I have never been completely ok with it, always wondering whether I was doing something wrong or whether it was even ok. I would often feel extremely guilty once I reached the point of orgasm because it was like that was the time that I realized that I had given in to my desires and have done something wrong-again. (I had/have these same guilt feelings whenever I masturbate which I remember from age 12.) After the high school boyfriend I had sex with someone else a few years later but that one doesn't affect me nearly as much. A few years after that I met my now spouse. We started having sex after a few months and I always questioned whether what we were doing was ok or not, but I still wanted sex and I still enjoyed it. We got married a year ago and now I just cant enjoy sex at all. I just don't want to. When we do have sex it does feel good but not great and I feel like I am being punished for having sex before marriage. I also had a lot of pain starting close to when we got married and I eventually learned I had trich. So I don't know if I am now terrified of that happening again too? (even though we were both treated and I am supposedly cured) I have a great partner: he isn't pressuring me to get better and really wants me to be truly wanting sex otherwise he doesn't want it either. But I know he is getting anxious. How can I let go of the guilt that I have had for half my life? How can I enjoy sex again? What is wrong with me? I've discussed the spirituality aspects with several ministers and none of them think God is punishing me or that I have done anything wrong. I am also currently in counseling and we have talked at length about this sex issue and she is stumped too. I am ready to let go of this and move on but I just can't. Where should I go from here? Or should I just realize that there is no more sex in this life for me?

Heather Corinna replies:

Count me in as one more voice in the choir saying that I highly doubt G-d is punishing you for having sex outside marriage by somehow making you not want sex within it, or making your sex life in a marriage unhappy.

My own spiritual belief system doesn't involve a god, but I did more than my fair share of both Bible and world religions study, and I think it's sound to ask why a god would punish you sexually. What would be the benefit? To whom? How would that benefit you or anyone else or make you or anyone else closer to G-d? I also think it's sound to consider that fact that the vast majority of people, now and historically, and of all faiths, have not saved sex for marriage. That'd be a whole lot of people to punish, and for what? Who have those people harmed, and how would punishing all of those people help anyone? While again, a god isn't part of my own beliefs, I imagine that for those of you who do have/believe in a god, he, she, it or they probably has/have much better things to do and bigger fish to fry. I think any god would, for instance, be far more concerned about everyone in Haiti right now than about one person's consensual sex life, don't you? And if you're Christian, you have to know that one of the central messages of Jesus we understand, historically or religiously, is that condemning people -- which presumably includes oneself -- was not the way to go. And for the most part, Jesus was mighty quiet on the subject of sex: the only kind of sexual immorality that Jesus condemns in the New Testament in the gospels is adultery.

I also always feel that it's really important to remind people, even though I know some folks don't approve of this messaging, that there are a world of things the Old and New Testament says are acceptable and unacceptable, and it's so important to really try and look at the big picture, rather than only reading it or applying it selectively. For instance, I strongly doubt you'd feel it was acceptable to prostitute your daughters or have sex with them (Genesis), or that if you don't take one day off for every seven, you should be put to death (Exodus). Yet, those messages are part of the Bible, just like the issue of sex inside and outside marriage is. You probably also aren't on board (at least, I really hope you're not) with things like the racism, anti-semitism and sexism so omnipresent in the words of the Apostle Paul, with the idea of stoning women to death (Deuteronomy) or the notion that even just LOOKING at a woman who is menstruating isn't okay (Levictus). You probably don't think that it's necessary for all women to be in pain during childbirth because one woman did something G-d didn't like, nor that even if G-d says it's okay, that it's truly okay to sell your children into slavery (both Exodus). Why decide that one thing the Bible says must be right, while easily deciding others obviously aren't? Why is premarital or extra marital sex something you still feel terrible about while you don't feel any such guilt for working sometimes on a Sunday?

It might also be of important, especially if you're not familiar with this history, to bear in mind that for most of history, marriage hasn't actually been about romance, nor had the aim of a mutually beneficial and pleasurable sex life, especially for women. That isn't to say there cannot be marriages which are romantic and in which a healthy, satisfying and pleasurable sexual life isn't a part: there most certainly can be, and there most certainly are. However, when we're talking about your religion regarding sex in and out of marriage, there's little to support that any of those guidelines or rules had much, if anything, to do with enjoyment and pleasure. If we're going to really talk about you, especially as a woman, having healthy sexual desire, enjoying sex and having a pleasurable sex life, we're far afield of anything in the Bible, because historically, the thinkers and authors represented just were not there yet, largely because the status of women on the whole -- insofar as our rights, or the idea that we had or should have any sort of real equity -- was so different when it was written.

In addition, not every love relationship is a sexual relationship, and not everyone who loves each other has sexual feelings for, or chemistry with, one another. We all already know that just due to all the kinds of love we may have in our life, like the love a mother may have for a child or the child for that parent; like our platonic friendships or relationships with teachers or mentors. As well, as relationships grow and change, and individual people's daily lives fluctuate and impact them, it's not uncommon for people to have times when their sex drives aren't particularly high, or when sex isn't working out so well in a given relationship. Because you seem to have always had at least some negative feelings about sex and your sexual choices, I can't know if your partnership now is or really was a good sexual match for you or not, but I do think that's something to consider -- even if he's a great guy who you love -- particularly when you have a history of second-guessing your own feelings around sex a lot. It's certainly something to talk with your therapist about.

You express that when you started being sexual with your spouse that you had mixed feelings about it. You say that you enjoyed it, but still didn't feel totally right about it. You also say that even with not feeling totally right, you chose to engage in these sexual relationships anyway. That right there will tend to impact people's sex drives and their enjoyment of sex, and will also tend to make it tougher for a person to make their own best choices around sex and sexual partnerships. Have you ever worked to resolve those initial feelings? If not, that's one place to start, and having talks with your ministers and a counselor, it sounds like you've gotten a good start with that. In terms of your counseling, it may just be that you need some more time in that process to work through this. Results from counseling are infrequently instant: working through big issues tends to take time, sometimes months or years, depending. I have to be honest and say that I'm a bit concerned that it sounds like you still are not in a sexual partnership that you chose and felt 100% great about from the start. It is likely to be harder for you to resolve these issues without the ability and the freedom to only be in sexual relationships where there isn't any history of you having sex you didn't feel good about. Not impossible, just a lot tougher, and it will probably take longer than you want it to.

However, it also sounds like right now, neither of you wants to be sexual with the other, given the situation. There are so many reasons why that could be, and with only this tiny glimpse into one aspect of your relationship and life (and none, really, into his), it's impossible for me to say much on why that might be happening. But both of you might take a look at this list here to see if anything there might be playing a part in your lack of desire. You can also check in together to be sure that your relationship, as a whole, is working for both of you. Unresolved issues or conflicts in a relationship, including those that aren't about sex at all, can have a big influence on a couples sex life. If you've only been going into counseling by yourself, it may be that it's also time for couples counseling, especially if there are any issues or conflicts troubling you that you can't seem to resolve.

I want to also briefly unpack the trichomoniasis for you. Trich is an infection, like say, a sinus infection, that once treated is cured. A person can get it again if someone else they're intimate with has it or gets it elsewhere, but it's not going to just show up again out of nowhere. There is no "supposedly" here: if you got treated and now test negative, you don't have it, plain and simple. If you trust tests for, say, diabetes, there's no sound reason to be skeptical about the same kind of tests for a sexually transmitted infection. STIs are illnesses just like any other. Illnesses are not punishments. I don't believe you got trich because you did something morally wrong just like I don't think my dog got an ear infection because she did. Infections and other kinds of illness are simply part of the unavoidable biology and ecology of all life forms. The first outbreak of the Ebola virus was among nuns very devotedly providing needed care for people in Zaire: do you think G-d was punishing them?

One suggestion I can make for right now is that you try just taking sex off the table for a while. Seriously, worrying about this this much has got to be really wearing you out and causing you a lot of stress. Talking about how everyone wants to want or enjoy sex but how one or both people are not is rarely something that anyone is going to find particularly arousing: in other words, overfocus on sex can be a real turn-off. In long-term partnerships, there will almost always be times when the sexual aspect is particularly high-key and also particularly low-key, either for one or all partners. If you chose to get married, your relationship is probably about more than sex, so why not focus on the parts of the relationship that are going well right now, and which both of you DO enjoy. Sometimes a sexual lull can actually be something we can manifest into an opportunity to explore and further grow other parts of our relationship. How about taking this time now to do that instead? You may even find that just putting your shared energies into other parts of your relationship makes some positive differences in your sex life and sexual feelings over time.

I think you'll also want to try very hard to not make any of this about what you need to do to meet your partner's sexual needs or desires. In other words, if you figure you'd better fix this soon because of what he wants, that's not likely to be healthy for you or your sexuality, and it's also just going to put more pressure on you, which never helps. If he has needs that are not getting met while you work this out, you two have options. He can meet some of those needs with masturbation. You two can also have physical intimacy he may want without it having to be expressly sexual or about genital sex, such as via things like cuddling and kissing, massage or sensate focus.

One other suggestion I have is to check in with your own sexuality and sex life, the one separate from your partner. In other words, I'm talking about masturbation. Do both of you still masturbate? If so, how are each of you feeling when it comes to sex with yourself? Have you talked about masturbation and trying to get back to a healthy solo sex life with your counselor, too? When your sexuality as a whole is in a bad place, and you're trying to address it, it's important to look at the whole picture, not just a sexual relationship with a partner. What your sex life is like all by yourself is going to play a part in all of this.

I'd also encourage you to try and be as open as you can to working through this without being attached to any one result. It may turn out that at the end of the road, you and your spouse wind up creating a great sexual relationship you both desire and enjoy. But it may also turn out that this isn't the right sexual partnership for you, or that to get to a good sexual place with a partner, you really need a partnership that starts out on the best footing possible, where you were able to walk into it feeling good about it right from the start. If you're trying to get to a place with this that is about what you AND he wants, rather than trying to get to the place that's just about you, first, you may well be putting up road blocks to getting to a better place that's ultimately most right for you, and most right for you both, that given. I know it's not at all easy to do that when you have already made agreements with someone, but in healthy relationships, agreements should always be flexible enough that, if and when they need to be, they can be adapted to be sure they're really serving everyone best and really are the right ones for everyone involved per who you each are, what you each want, and what really works in that respect.

I want to make sure that you know, so that you don't feel alone, that many, many people struggle with guilt and shame around sex, people who have made a wide variety of choices, including those who have never had sex with anyone at all, or those who have only ever had sex with a spouse. Overall, our culture -- largely influenced by religion, or perhaps more accurately, how some people or groups enact or interpret a given religion -- has a long history of enabling both, and trying to use guilt and shame around sex for social control, especially of women (or more accurately, of people who are women, who identify as women, or who our culture or men identify as not-men).

What you express throughout this post is a very long history of guilt and shame around your sexuality, starting with masturbation in your early teens. If you felt ashamed and guilty that early, chances are good that's due to negative messages you got in even earlier childhood about sex and sexuality. You also express a long history of what sounds like never quite feeling like sex was right or okay in any context, including in your marriage now, as well as having experienced pain with sex, and having a sexual relationship now where your physical enjoyment of sex isn't all that. All of that given, we're more likely talking about guilt you have felt for not half your life, but all or most of your life, so I'd actually be pretty surprised if you were having a sex life you felt really great about right now; surprised if you felt A-OK with your sexuality as a whole.

For some people, guilt and shame around sexuality has been so formative, ongoing and severe that it literally debilitates a person. It's particularly pervasive among women and GLBT people: groups who are and have been very sexually marginalized. This may well be the case for you and you may need specific help. Is your counselor a sexual therapist? If not, and that counseling doesn't seem to get you anywhere with this over the next few weeks, you may want to ask for a referral for one. I hear you when you say you're ready to let this go, and one reason why you and your counselor may not be making any real headway, or why she may feel "stumped," is that you just need help from someone else more specifically trained in sexuality.

When I asked of our Sexperts, Dr. Ruthie, about your situation, she agreed that although all therapists get a little training on the topic of sexuality, most really don't get very much. She expressed, as I have, that this problem is very common for women with a religious upbringing but that it is rarely talked about out loud. She says it's one of the most common situations that she runs into as a sexuality educator with a background in couples therapy. She also agreed that a specially trained therapist, sexuality educator or quality relationship/sex coach will be able to help walk you through the process of letting go of this and moving to a place where you can appreciate her body. You can start your search for that kind of therapist at AASECT's listings, and if you can't find someone there you can still write to therapists/educators on that list to ask for referrals. She also suggested you take a look at The Religious Institute which is run by the well respected -- and seriously wonderful -- Reverend Haffner and brings together many people (leaders and practitioners) of faith to a new concept of sexuality and intimacy.

I want to finish by saying a few things to you about all of this from my own heart and mind. I don't expect them to be magic words that result in you suddenly feeling all better, but my hope is they may have some positive impact, especially when filed with the other supportive things your ministers and counselor have been telling you.

While I don't share your religion, I have yet to see any sound evidence that people enjoying pleasure, sexual or otherwise, in ways that do not hurt anyone -- that everyone involves wants and engages in with basic care and respect for themselves and others -- has anything but positive benefits for people and the world as a whole. Looking at history as well as at the current time, all I can see coming out of a lack of pleasure and real intimacy, and out of repression, guilt, fear and shame around sex are negatives like sexual violence, self-hatred, self-injury or illness (because when people are ashamed or fearful, they're less likely to protect themselves or others and get sexual healthcare: you want to finger something for STIs, shame is a biggie), people staying in sexually abusive relationships and a host of other ills and harms. Not only do I think you didn't do anything wrong in choosing to be sexual when you wanted to, I think guilt and shame are more likely to hurt you and others (though more yourself than anyone else) than wanted, consensual sex ever could. I also just can't imagine anyone's god would want anyone to suffer like that. Purposefully causing people pain, be it done by a person or a deity, just don't fit with my understanding of what is sacred, just, enlightened and loving.

I hope if you feel close to a god, that just as I'd hope with any other kind of relationship, that person or being isn't abusive, but is someone you strongly feel and know would do all they could to keep you safe from harm and pain, not someone who would purposefully try and cause them; I hope that god is someone who loves and respects you for who you are, not whose love is conditional based on what they want for themselves.

I'm of the mind that sexuality has an element of the sacred to it in any permutation it has when it's something people enact with mindfulness are care and is about one way of humanely expressing who they are and how they feel. I think that can be the case in, outside of or without marriage; for those of us who are gay, lesbian or bisexual just as much as for those who are straight; for those of us who are not monogamous just like for those who are. I also think our bodies, every part and aspect of them, including our sexuality, are just as sacred or holy as our hearts and minds. If you consider any one part of yourself holy, I don't think it makes any sense to consider another part unholy: all of who we are is a package deal, after all.

In my book, nothing is intrinsically wrong with you or your choices. You have simply likely been, as many people have, deeply and negatively impacted by guilt and shame and need to go through the process of unpacking and ditching them, and give yourself the blessing you need to feel truly comfortable with and accepting of your sexuality, your sexual history and yourself.

I want to leave you with a few extra links I think might help, as well as with my very best wishes:

written 17 Feb 2010 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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