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Recovering from Sexual Shame

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123throwme asks:

When I was younger, I was caught "experimenting" with oral sex by my parents. They reprimanded me severely. Ever since then I've had a hard time coming to terms with my sexuality. It took me a long time to get over my feelings of how "sex is bad," but now I'm in a healthy, sexually active relationship. My problem is that, although I want to be intimate with my boyfriend, there's a part of me that still feels the shame of my younger self. It's led to me being uncomfortable with myself, and especially uncomfortable with oral sex (giving, but mostly just receiving). My sex life is fine, but I can tell that my partner doesn't really understand where I'm coming from. I haven't told him any of this, and I'd rather not. What can I do to get over this feeling?

Sam W replies:

Having a parent walk in on us when we're doing something sexual is one of those things that is awkward at best and awful at worst. Our families, while not the only source of messages about sex, are definitely one source that leaves a big impression. So, it's not surprising that, even though you've worked past the initial baseline of "sex is bad", you're still feeling some residual shame that's making you uncomfortable.

I will say this first for you and anyone else who may need to hear it: mutually consensual, truly wanted sex is a very positive part of most people's lives. All its various permutations (oral sex among them) are perfectly valid ways for people to express shared feelings and desires with each other. What it decidedly is not is shameful. Pleasure, joy and intimacy are not things anyone needs to feel ashamed of.

Before you take any other steps, it's important to get a clear sense of what you want in your sex life. What aspects of sex are important to you? What activities do you want and like? Which ones make you feel tingly and happy just thinking about them? Are there any that you really want to try? Then, you can ask yourself how and to what extent the negative feelings from your past are impeding you from doing any of the above. Once you have that sorted out, you can think about what approaches might help you combat those negative feelings.

Lets take oral sex as an example, as you mention it specifically. Is oral sex something you don't actually enjoy that much? Then just take the pressure off yourself by acknowledging that you don't have to do it. There's no rule that says everyone must engage in every type of sex, and there are sexual activities someone might not want to do or enjoy even without ever having had any negative experiences or messages around them at all. Conversely, is oral sex you get a lot of pleasure from or, at least, is something that you'd like to be able to do every now and then? If that's the case, you can think about what would make you feel more comfortable engaging in it. For example, maybe you will feel more at ease if you're engaging in it in a space that is solidly private where you can be absolutely assured that no one will walk in on you.

In addition to this introspection, an exercise you can try is writing out positive affirmations for yourself in regards to sex and sexuality. It can be an ongoing resource for you to look at when you're feeling down on yourself, and the act of writing and reading it may help you shift your thinking in that area towards your own ideas and beliefs, rather than those of your parents.

Now, the next big step you can take to deal with your unpleasant feelings is one you say you'd prefer to avoid, but avoiding it is probably not a great choice, especially if you want a really great sexual life and want to experience some improvement around feelings of shame.

That is, you probably really need to talk to your partner about how you're feeling and give at least a little context for those feelings.

You don't have to disclose every detail of what happened. You can be as general as, "My parents caught me trying oral sex when I was younger and made me feel extremely guilty for it. As a result, I still feel some shame around that kind of sex."

I'm advocating you talk to your partner for two big reasons. The first is because of something you mentioned in your question. The reason that you feel like your partner can't understand where you're coming from? Is probably because you haven't given them any info that would allow them to do so. I think there's a pretty good chance that they've noticed that something is up, but don't have a sense of what it is or how to ask about it. We can't expect others to understand us if we don't give them information to work with.

Dynamics like this, where one person is feeling uncomfortable but has difficulty disclosing why, have the potential to create some big gaps between partners. Talking about how you're feeling will help head off that gap and may actually bring you closer to your partner (as they will have a better sense of how to make you feel comfortable and happy when it comes to sex).

The other reason I suggest bringing this up is that emotions like guilt and shame generally don't go away by ignoring or avoiding them.

I think many of us are familiar with the hope that, if we ignore something it will, eventually, magically just disappear. This strategy fails more often than it succeeds, and we usually find out that it's failed when what we were trying to ignore sneaks up behind us and shoves us into a pool of frustration and unhappiness. With issues like negative feelings around sex, the sneak attack generally takes the form of those feelings coming up suddenly when you're happily engaging in sexytime with your partner. If you haven't discussed what's up, the sudden change in your mental mood is likely to make you feel frustrated and uncomfortable and them feel confused and worried. So, by talking with you're partner, you're helping head off one of the more unpleasant side effects of your negative feelings. Speaking these feelings out loud also carries a lot of power in diminishing shame, which tends to thrive in silence.

Once you've explained the situation to whatever degree makes you comfortable, you and your partner can brainstorm steps to take in your sexual life together to help you work through your negative feelings. If you're not doing this already, having open communication is going to be important. That means that you feel okay speaking up when the negative thoughts spring up, and that when you do, you and your partner stop the action and recalibrate.

It will help for you both to keep a couple important things in mind.

Getting over negative thoughts can often take more time than we'd like it to, so try not to get too frustrated if the steps you're taking don't produce instant results. The second thing is that the steps you need to take to feel comfortable when the negative feelings arise may change from day to day: one approach may not always feel like a fit or stay a fit. One day you may decide that you want scale back to a different intimate behavior at the moment, while on another you'd prefer to just put sex on hold for a little while. Or, you may decide to take oral sex off the table entirely for a while (or forever). It all depends on what you, personally, want to do and find you feel best doing (or not doing).

One other approach you may explore is taking a second to push feelings of shame back down and then continue with whatever you were doing when they came up.

To be clear, this does not mean that I advocate pushing through sexual discomfort out of feelings of obligation. As a general rule, when something you're doing sexually makes you uncomfortable, that's usually a sign you should probably not do that thing for the time being, or in that particular way or situation. However, some people working through negative sexual messages find it helps them to just push past those messages in order to continue being sexual and, in doing so, remind themselves that sex is okay and something they want, like and enjoy. Again, the decision to keep going needs to be made by the person feeling discomfort, not pressed onto them by the person who isn't.

You may also find that aftercare also becomes something important to your sex life. For you, aftercare may involve your partner saying things that help counter the negative voices in your head, or reviewing some of those affirmations you journaled. That can mean reassuring you that what you do together is not shameful, or reminding you that what you do in bed has zero to do with your value as a human being. It's up to the two of you to figure about what ideas or phrases you find the most helpful to hear. You can also use those phrases during sex, as it might help keep any negative feelings at bay.

Aside from opening up to your partner, there are a few other things you can do to help you "get over" the shame you're feeling. If you haven't been doing so, reading blogs and articles that are sex positive in nature is a great places to get messages that might counteract the ones you got from your parents. Those spaces can also be good places to encounter folks who had experiences similar to yours and hear them talk about how they dealt with their own feelings of sexual shame. Scarleteen itself if a great place to start your reading list, but other great resource include the book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do with It by Aline Zoldbrod and The Pervocracy, a website that covers a bunch of sex related topics, including growing up in a fairly sex negative environment.

If the discomfort and shame feel particularly intractable, you may also consider seeing a counselor. Sometimes, when we're dealing with conflicting emotions knotting us up inside us (e.g a desire for a happy sex life headbutting with what we were told as kids) and feel stuck, it can be helpful to have someone who is trained to help us unravel those feelings and move forward. You may find that you want to wait on this step a little and see how communicating with your partner goes by itself, and then bring in the pros if you find you're still struggling. Or not: maybe it's time for some help and pursuing that now, rather than waiting, would be a big relief.

In the end, getting over these feelings comes down to being willing to talk with your partner and being patient with yourself as you work through them. I wish you all the best in this process, and have included a few readings to help get you started.

Here's some more reading, on and off the site, that may help you further:

written 11 Mar 2014 . updated 11 Mar 2014

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