Durex conducted a survey to determine how happy Americans are with their sex lives. The results were disturbing, showing that over half of sexually active Americans are dissatisfied with the duration of their intimate activities. That’s a lot of unhappy people. Your reaction to that information might be, “Well, why don’t they just talk to their partners about how they can satisfy them better?” If that is your reaction, that means you see open communication about sexual pleasure as a normal and healthy part of an intimate relationship. Unfortunately, one of the reasons so many Americans are unhappy with their sex lives is probably that they don’t feel comfortable talking about them. There certainly are many simple things a couple can do to help both parties be happier with their sex life, so if those things aren’t happening, it’s reasonable to guess a lack of communication is what stands in their way. Clamming up when it’s time to talk about such issues can come about from sexual shame.
Any issues happening outside of the bedroom – issues of not feeling safe, or loved, or whole – will likely present themselves during sex, or in conversations about sex. To get a better understanding of sexual shame, we spoke with sexuality doula and sex educator Ev’Yan Whitney. She is one of the finalists in the Lovers’ Ultimate Sex Educators Awards, a grant program awarding $15,000 to sex educators working to further sex education and end sexual violence. Here’s what Whitney shared with us.
What are some behavioral indicators of shame?
We asked Whitney what some behaviors are that a person might display that can be indicative of unexplored sexual shame. It’s possible a person can live with these for years without realizing life doesn’t need to be this way. When it comes to one’s actual sex life, Whitney explained, “Sexual shame can show up in many ways. It can look like having anxiety, fear, or general discomfort about sex—not just the physical act but even the topic of sex. It can look like avoiding sex with a loving partner because there’s something about sex itself that just feels wrong or inaccessible. It can look like feeling imposter syndrome around sex or your sexuality.”
Some of it is part of an inner dialogue
It is possible that your shame doesn’t come out through your sexual activities but rather through your thinking about sex. One’s sex life may appear “healthy” but their feelings may say otherwise. If you think of someone with an eating disorder, for example, this individual may eat in a “healthy” way by a nutritionist’s standards, but live with disturbing thoughts and feelings around food. In that same way, sexual shame in some cases may only present internally. “A lot of sexual shame shows up within the self-talk and inner dialogues we have with ourselves,” Whitney says. “It’s in the way we think about sex in general but particularly in the way we feel about our sexuality, our sexual desires.”
It can co-exist or be compounded by other issues
Though not always the case, sexual shame can be tied to other issues pertaining to emotional or mental wellbeing.
“Any deep-seated feelings or limiting beliefs we have that our sexuality is wrong, bad, should be kept hidden, or that sex just isn’t something we’re allowed to enjoy or want for ourselves are big indicators that someone is afflicted with sexual shame,” Whitney says. “I’ll say too that there are often many other factors that come into play with sexual shame. Sexual shame can be alongside or compounded by other personal struggles—body image, self-worth, or any trauma we’ve experienced.”
Your story plays a part in it
“In my work, I like to look at sexual shame with a full picture of who a person is, what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve endured,” Whitney states. “Sexual shame doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes from and is reinforced by so many things in many areas of our lives.” Some of it can be generational and can be tied to the ways our ancestors were taught to look at sex and their bodies, even. “It’s in the way we’ve been taught (or not taught) about sex. It’s in the dogmas or superstitions that were passed down to us,” she adds. “It’s in the things we were taught in our formative years about our bodies, relationships, identity, and whether or not we are seen as fully human beings.”
Our culture doesn’t help
Even if your family has done a wonderful job helping you nurture a healthy relationship with your body and your sexuality, they cannot protect you from the messages society might impress upon you.
“It’s in the internalized misogyny, homophobia, and sexism that we’ve picked up just by being in this white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist society we live in,” Whitney says of sexual shame. “Unfortunately, sexual shame is deeply embedded into every aspect of the world we live in, from the religions we’ve been indoctrinated into to the television shows we grew up watching to the things we told our own selves about sex due to traumatic experiences.”
Explore it. Don’t ignore it.
While there are some problems in life we have little embarrassment around addressing and resolving, sexual shame can be something uncomfortable to admit that we live with. There may even be added shame in a desire to understand sexual shame, which then becomes a very layered issue.
“The first step is to identify what exactly you are ashamed of. I think a lot of times people feel the shame and it’s so dark and uncomfortable that they’d rather just get rid of it without going too deep into it,” Whitney explains. “In my work, I like to gently encourage and guide my clients into being curious about their shame.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
“If someone comes to me and says, ‘I have a lot of shame around my sexuality,’ I would ask them, ‘What exactly are you ashamed of when it comes to your sexuality? Who taught you to have that shame? Where does that shame come from? If that sexual shame were to be living in your body, what part of your body does it live in? What is that sexual shame’s purpose?’” Whitney asks. Sometimes we cannot answer those questions on a cerebral level – at least not without some help. That is why Whitney created a guided meditation that encourages individuals to use breathwork to get to the root of their sexual shame.
Have patience with yourself
Like with any other pain, from trauma pertaining to childhood abuse to trust issues after infidelity, sexual shame can’t be figured out and fixed overnight. You need to be patient with it, Whitney says. “It can be difficult to do work like this and I always tell folks to be gentle and easy with themselves during this process; uprooting shame is not meant to be one and done but a long journey of peeling back the caked-on layers that have likely accumulated over a lifetime. Once you can get to the nitty-gritty of what that sexual shame is, where it comes from, and why it exists, it’ll be much easier to begin the process of healing and releasing it.”
Are we encouraging shame?
Even if we don’t live with sexual shame, there’s a possibility you could be perpetuating ideas that feed into it in others. We are all products of our society in many ways, so we can unknowingly communicate ideas that we don’t realize were implanted in us from outside voices. “Check your impulse to slut-shame. Check your whorephobia. Check your biases. Interrogate your impulses to pass judgment on others whose sexuality or sexual expressions don’t look like your own or for those you feel ‘shouldn’t’ be sexual,” Whitney urges. “Check the ‘shoulds’ you place on your own self about your sexuality—as in, ‘As a mother, daughter, person in their 30s, my sexuality ‘should’ look this way.’ Allow people to exist as the sexual beings they are, with their unique desires and nuances, particularly if they are engaging in sexual expressions that are safe, consensual, and do no harm to anyone.”
Help kids at an early age
You’ll of course want to curate a curriculum and have conversations that are age-appropriate, but cultivating a healthy outlook on sex and body image in children from a young age is an important part of combatting the ideas society will teach them. Arm them with a healthy outlook, so they can assess what society tells them with more clarity. “Educate yourself on the areas within sex and sexuality you don’t understand or that you just feel an aversion to. Invest in comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education for your kids or young ones in your life. And if you hear any conversations or narratives that sound like they’re reinforcing sexual intolerance or fearmongering, challenge them,” Whitney says.