Undoing Sexual Shame
Growing up, many people are taught to be ashamed of their sexuality, and that such things must be reserved for marriage, and that their sexuality (and their sexual relationships, married or otherwise) must also be heterosexual.
These ideas are ingrained into the minds of many, but anyone struggling with conflicts between their sexuality and their upbringing should know that what they’ve been taught are just that: ideas. These ideas are not universal, and there are likely people in the same town, congregation or family of someone struggling that feel and think differently. Accepting your sexuality in the wake of shame, guilt, fear, and repression can be a daunting task, but it’s totally and completely possible to work through any conflicting ideas and attain a peaceful and satisfying sex life.
Anyone who’s met and gotten to know me in the past three years or so would likely be surprised to hear that I once planned on waiting to have sex till marriage, dawned a “virginity rocks” t-shirt, and wore a purity ring. I have since become sexually active, am completely comfortable with my sexuality and sexual identity, and am very open and talk freely about sex. This dramatic shift didn’t happen overnight, though, and it didn’t come easy.
I grew up in a very sexually repressed environment, one where I was told that sex was only meant to be between one man and one woman, who are married to one another, and that anything that wavered from that standard was wrong, dirty, and sinful. Because of this, I struggled greatly through my sexual awakening. It started off as being curious about my own body-- what things were, what they looked like, what it felt like when I touched them-- and then feeling guilty, ashamed, and dirty after I allowed my curiosity to get the best of me. As my sexual feelings grew, and I longed to experiment with other people, I would always stop myself before things got “too far” and my purity was called into question.
My mother refused to speak to me for days after finding a sixteen-year-old-me and a male friend laying together on a couch watching a movie; she grounded me for months after discovering that I had gone out on dates and made out with boys. I felt like an abomination for being attracted to girls as well as guys. I had attended conferences where “purity” talks were given, and I was convinced that my body was reserved for my future husband only, and that no man would want to marry me if I gave into my sexual desires and let other men (let alone women!) touch me. They said I was like tape: that you stick the best the first time, and after that the bond gets weaker and weaker, and I believed them.
They made me feel wrong for something that’s not only completely natural, but can also be good, including outside the very limited contexts some people present the good of sexuality or sex as only occurring within.
If you’re reading this article right now, it could be because you felt the way I did, and you’re on a quest to discover what to do about these feelings you’re experiencing. Well, Scarleteen reader, I’m here to try and help.
The first, and most important thing that I want to say, is that there is nothing wrong with you. Let me say that one more time. There is nothing wrong with you. It’s okay to be curious about your body. It’s okay to explore your body. It’s okay to masturbate. It’s okay to have sexual desires and feelings. It’s okay to be with other people sexually when that's something everyone involved wants. It’s okay to be attracted to any gender, or to be any gender. In a perfect world, anyone struggling with their sexuality would read that and think “Oh, okay! I have nothing to worry about then,” and from there on out accept themselves and struggle no more. Unfortunately, though, we don’t live in a perfect world, and while those words you just read may ease the struggling a little bit, they aren't magic.
Coming to terms with the fact that being a sexual person is, in fact, okay, may take some time, but the fact that you searched for and found this article and website is a good start and a step in the right direction. It means you’re likely questioning whatever it is you’ve been taught about sexuality and it being a bad thing. So, though I hope that me telling you that being a sexual being is okay would be enough to convince you, I’m going to give you some steps to take in order to help yourself in case it didn't.
Step 1: Utilize the internet, and educate yourself. You’re already doing this by reading this article, but keep doing it! Scarleteen and other sexuality education websites have thousands of articles that can answer your questions about sexuality with sensitivity and without judgment. Plenty of blogs, websites, youtube channels and podcasts exist solely for the purpose of being sex positive and giving sex positive education.
Becoming educated about sex, sexuality, sexual identity, sexuality in culture and history and sexual anatomy, and discovering the sex positivity movement played the biggest role for me in navigating through my sexual awakening and gaining acceptance about myself. For example, I long believed that masturbation was wrong and dirty, until I heard from actual doctors about the health benefits of masturbation, and it clicked that something physically and mentally good for me can’t actually be wrong. I also always thought that “losing my virginity” would make me impure and dirty, but little did I know that virginity doesn’t even exist in a physical sense! I found out that t concept of virginity is just a social construct created centuries ago, mostly to control and manipulate people (and most commonly, women). Discovering that I wouldn’t “lose” anything the first time I had sex, and learning that equating the idea of purity to the idea of not being sexually active is actually an archaic, outdated concept really opened my eyes and helped me accept myself as a sexual being. Questioning and researching what you’ve been told about sexuality can do the same for you.
Step 2: Pinpoint where your sexual repression stems from, and learn how to deal with those sources. For most people, sexual repression and sexual shame stem from between one and three places: family, religion, culture. Depending on how strongly you identify with whichever source(s) that cause(s) the repression, the level of difficulty with dealing with it may vary. The main source of repression for me was my religion, because I identified very strongly with it and never dared believe that anything religious leaders told me could be wrong. I best dealt with that not by questioning my faith, but by questioning people in my faith.
I still identify as a member of the religion I grew up with, but I’ve changed my beliefs so that I no longer think that the higher power of my religion hates sex and will punish people who have it outside of one-man-one-woman-marriage. Altering your religious beliefs, such as I did, to fit my sexual identity may be extremely beneficial to some. Others may feel the need to distance themselves completely from the religion they feel represses them. Others may have difficulty doing either of those things because they believe they cannot question anything about their religion. No matter which category (if any) you fall into of the three, searching inside yourself about why you feel the way you do will help you to better come to terms and accept yourself for who you are.
It can be similar for culture. If you live in a culture where sex is taboo, you may need to call into question how strongly you relate to that culture, and whether or not you can adapt it to fit to yourself. And don't forget: culture is made of people, and cultures have often had shifts or changes in their pervasive beliefs, including around sexuality. So, even if you do very strongly identify with a culture and want to remain part of it, that doesn't mean you can't work towards cultural shifts to help make things batter for yourself and everyone else.
When it comes to family, the level of difficulty with dealing with the repression will vary based on the amount of conflict experienced. For some people, family members may merely be disappointed, or upset, or angry, but for others, family finding out about a person being sexually active (with themselves or others) could result in more extreme measures that may put a person’s safety or well-being at risk. How a person deals with their own situation will obviously depend on how extreme the family situation is, and how safe or unsafe certain ways of dealing may be.
For some people it may be perfectly fine to discuss your sexuality with family and explain to them that you feel differently than they do, but for others it may be best to remain mute on the subject until you’re at a point where they no longer hold control over you, like when you can freely come and go as an independent person. For example, I didn’t tell my parents about my newly discovered sexuality, even after I stopped feeling shame about it, until I felt that I was in a position where they could do longer do anything to punish me for it. So figure out where your conflict comes from, and search inside to discover how best to deal with it. Therapists and counselors can also often be of great help for people struggling with sexual shame or guilt they've picked up from their families.
Step 3: Take things slow. If you’re experiencing discomfort with being sexual, either with yourself or another person, don’t force yourself into sucking it up and bearing with the discomfort, because you feel like you have to, or think that if you just do it, all the bad feelings will go away. It won't: more likely, doing sexual things you don't feel okay with will probably just validate your negative feelings. Work up to sexual experiences as you work through your feelings. If sex is joyless, emotionally uncomfortable or not pleasurable in the beginning, don’t fret. It will usually get better in time, but just make sure that time is at your own, comfortable, pace.
Step 4: Tell yourself there’s nothing wrong with how you feel and what you’re doing, because as long as you’re being safe, and all parties involved have given clear consent, and you’re not doing anything illegal, there isn’t anything wrong with it.
That list of things that I said above that were “okay,” tell yourself that they’re okay. Maybe a lot. Use the education you got from step number one and remind yourself whenever need be that sex and sexuality are normal, healthy parts of the human experience, that masturbation isn’t wrong, or that it’s perfectly fine to be attracted to any gender. An exercise that may help is writing these things out. Write out a list of things that you like about your sexuality, or any positive experiences you’ve had. Write out some of the positive things you’ve learned about sex and sexuality that were powerful and important and empowering for you. Then, when you’re experiencing shame over your sexuality, read them over. Add to the list when you learn something new that’s important or have a new positive experience. Eventually, you won’t need it anymore.
Step 5: Re-condition your thoughts. Whether it came from family, religion, or culture, you probably feel shame about your sexuality mostly because you’ve been conditioned to. If the above steps aren’t enough to take away the shame and guilt, you can do a little bit more. One way to re-condition yourself is to take care of yourself with the negative emotions you feel after having sexual thoughts, feelings, or experiences. You can try and do this by doing something that makes you feel good. If you know you feel good when you exercise, or when you cook a meal, or play an instrument, or dance, or anything else that you enjoy doing, you can do that thing when you start to feel shame for your sexuality.
Feel-good activity can remedy some of those negative feelings, which can help in two ways. It can put you in a more positive mindset so you can work through your shame utilizing something like from steps one or three. It can also get your brain to equate your sexuality to the good emotions you get when doing your feel-good activity, which could help stop the feeling of shame arising when you have sexual thoughts, feelings or experiences.
Step 6: Talk to someone. If you’re unable to work through any struggles you may be having by yourself, talking to a professional who has specific training in sexuality can be a good option. They’ll help you work through your emotions and experiences and get to a point where you have a healthy relationship with your sexuality.
Scarleteen can help you find professionals in your area, and, if you live in America, you can also check out AASECT’s website registry which can help you locate counselor, therapist or educator near you. You can also utilize any of the many services available on the Scarleteen website which can help you work through any questions or struggles you may have.