The Sex Goddess Blues: Overcoming Sexual Shame

Sexual shame hinders women in far too many ways. It's a difficult beast to tackle, as it assumes so many nuanced, subtle forms in our daily lives. To be sure, some forms of sexual shame are blatant, but many of them are so deeply engrained that we scarcely even notice them. By making ourselves aware of the different ways we're made to feel ashamed, however, we can begin to overcome them.  

Societal shame. Many of us have been taught that women are the gatekeepers of sex; men want it, but women want commitment first. It's implied that we must "give it out" and merely sit through or endure sex in exchange for commitment, a boyfriend/husband, and some semblance of emotional support. In years past, women who want and actually enjoy sex, especially outside of wedlock, have been thought of negatively. Although the concept of women as independent, sexual beings is beginning to gain traction, there are still many people who hold "loose" women in low opinion. Many times, people who feel this way project a facade of concern. They'll say things like, "That girl needs to get some self-respect." 

Although maintaining a healthy, fulfilling sex life contributes to self-love and self-respect, women are often made to believe that we don't respect ourselves if we engage in sex. We especially see this argument hurled at women who are perceived as promiscuous. Promiscuity can be defined in many different, ultimately arbitrary ways. Some people might call a woman promiscuous simply for having slept with a boyfriend or two. "Promiscuous," to me, feels like a dated label. Women are perfectly capable of deciding what to do or not do with their own sex lives. I mean, really, men have had this right throughout all of history. No man has ever been asked to "prove" their virginity before marriage in the same ways that women have. For centuries, it was expected that married men would have mistresses, and that unmarried men would have sex. The women they had sex with, however, ended up with bad reputations while the men got off scot-free. Unfortunately, this is still the case in many ways still today. 

Despite the intensity of these widespread messages, however, we can still take charge of our own choices. We can know what we need as people, and that we're the only ones allowed to make decisions about our bodies. One person never, ever has the right to tell another what "respecting themselves" should look like. At the end of the day, your sex life is between you and your partners; not anybody else.

Shame from hypothetical male romantic/sexual partners. This one sounds a little odd, but hear me out. Whether it's on a reality show, a sitcom, or some random message board you stumble across, women hear all kinds of misogynistic garbage about "what men really want." Of course, this should not be any kind of priority for us, because all people are different and there's no set of specific things all straight men universally desire. (And a lot of us have little to no desire to have sex with men in the first place.) However, much media will have us believe that it's the only priority that matters. Especially if you've never had any kind of sexual encounter before, you might have a lot of fears about what a hypothetical partner might think of you. A lot of media makes us believe that all partners will be attuned to every minute detail of our appearance and performance. Even if you don't have sex with men, you might worry that partners of other genders might feel this way.

This is simply not true. Are there scummy people out there who conduct themselves that way? Unfortunately, yes. However, the odds of you ending up with the lowest common denominator are not very high. There are lots of great people out there who will genuinely find you dazzling, incredible, and sexy even though you might not look like Hot Girl #23462374 from whatever TV show. I promise.

Shame from real-life romantic/sexual partners. If your partner is a good person for you to be with, they should not make you feel ashamed. Like, ever. Shame from partners isn't something you need to deal with -- this is a situation you can get away from, and I recommend that you do. Often, if a partner is making you feel unconfident, ashamed, or otherwise bad about yourself in the bedroom, they're likely hurting you in other ways as well. 

This might seem obvious, but ask yourself: does the person I'm having sex with actually deplete my confidence? I'll break down some ways our sexual partners can make us feel ashamed:

  • They use words like "slut," "whore," or other kinds of slurs pertaining to sexuality.
  • They make you feel like you're "weird" for wanting certain kinds of sex.
  • They put down your appearance.
  • They refuse to discuss sex with you, or listen to your desires.
  • They don't put much care or effort into your pleasure, and dismiss you if you imply you're at all unsatisfied.
  • They dismiss you or get defensive when you give them constructive criticism. 

Your sexual partner should never, ever add to your sexual shame or diminish your confidence. It's normal to feel unconfident or ashamed sometimes, of course -- however, your sexual partner should never contribute to low self-esteem. Instead, they should work with you and help you feel good about yourself. They're on their own journey with sex, too, and I guarantee that they're dealing with their own hangups. You should be able to help each other out rather than hurt each other.

Shame from family members. Many of us have been made to feel bad or ashamed about sex by our families. Maybe your parents are from a very different generation. Maybe they're highly religious. Maybe they're conservative. Maybe they're some combination of all of these things. If any of these are the case, your family might have some very...ah, specific and poignant opinions about sex. 

Many of the differences we have with our parents about sex are generational. We now know that much of the stuff they thought to be true when they were young is simply false. With the internet, access to up-to-the-minute, medically accurate sex education is widespread -- if you seek it out, you can find the right answers. Information your parents never had (like the information you get from Scarleteen!) is more available than ever before. As such, it's important to remember that your parents' opinions are far from the ultimate truth. There are facts they just don't know, and you probably know better than they do when it comes to sex.

Girls often deal with a heavier dose of shame from family than boys do. Many old-fashioned/religious/conservative parents feel they can shame their daughters into remaining "pure," only participating in acceptable kinds of sexual activity. The only kind of acceptable sexual activity for many such parents, however, involves a cisgender man and a cisgender woman having straightforward, vanilla sex under the sacred bonds of matrimony. You are not obligated to remain bound by this even though you may feel you are. You do not owe "purity" to your parents; in fact, virginity as they're thinking of it is entirely a social, historical construct. There's no physical way to know whether or not you're still a virgin. The "hymen," (actually called the vaginal coronais not at all what it was historically believed to be. So, while I don't want to discredit your or your family's beliefs, none of this "virginity" stuff is based in any kind of scientific fact.

I understand not wanting to disappoint your family or fearing their responses. The ways they likely view a girl's "purity," however, are at least dated if not outright dangerous. 

Want to talk to your parents about puberty, sex, and/or sexuality, you can click here for some guidelines.

Just know that there's absolutely nothing wrong with consensual sex; seeking pleasure is not wrong. In fact, it's your right to seek pleasure if you want it and feel ready for it. As you get older, you will have to make your own choices in this department; as much as it might feel they do, your parents don't have the right to dictate what you do or don't do.

Shame about being too sexually confident or precocious. Despite the tremendous pressure to be perfect in bed, women also face shame when they're perceived as being too experienced. We often worry about toeing the line between chastity and "sluttiness," afraid to fall too far to either side. Of course, there's no way to win here -- that's the way sexual oppression works. Once you're aware of this virgin/whore dichotomy, however, you can begin disregarding it in favor of making your own decisions based on your own needs.

Knowing yourself and your body is not "slutty." Masturbating isn't "slutty." Being prepared with safer sex supplies, sex toys, or lube is not "slutty." In fact, being "slutty" isn't even a thing; it's a slur used to bring down women perceived to have "too much" sex, or women who are otherwise "too" confident or knowledgeable in sex. I realize how much it can hurt to have that term hurled at you. I understand the fear of being called a slut. I get it. I totally get it. However, you've just got to know in your heart and mind that that word is meaningless. Really, it is. Our society is terrified of women who are comfortable with their sexuality, and it will do anything to bring them down. However, despite what we've been taught, there's no essential morality attached to consensual sex. Really, there's not. There's just nothing wrong with knowing about sex, communicating about it, wanting it, and having it consensually with whoever you want. That is unequivocally your right.

This is a section of a larger piece, The Sex Goddess Blues: Building Sexual Confidence, Busting Perfectionism. To read the whole piece or another section, click here! Illustrations: copyright 2014, Isabella Rotman.