Shame is one of those words that gets used a lot (like self-esteem) but we don't always think very carefully about what it means. How is shame different, for example, from guilt? Is feeling shame and being ashamed the same thing? And when I feel shame, is that the same feeling that people are referring to when they say I should feel ashamed about something?
Generally speaking, shame refers to negative or painful emotions that are tied to who we are or at least who we think we are. Guilt is often related to a particular behavior or event; we feel guilty for something we have done. Shame can feel more like there is something fundamentally wrong or broken with us; we feel shame for something we are. Both feelings are connected to messages and expectations of others, but shame may be distinguished by a particular depth of negative feeling about ourselves.
What Is Sexual Shame?
Sexual shame refers to are all the ways we come to feel that who we are as sexual beings (including how we think about sex, our sexual beliefs and values, our sexual desires, and our sexual behaviors) are wrong, broken, fundamentally bad, or even evil. People experience sexual shame in response to many things, including:
- who we feel sexual desire for
- who we want to have sex with
- the kinds of sex we want to have
- our sexual thoughts and fantasies
- the ways that we see ourselves as sexual (which often includes how we understand our gender)
Sexual shame doesn't just come from "doing" things. Many of us experience sexual shame whether or not we ever act out our thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.
One of the most dangerous parts of sexual shame is how easy it is to believe that the shame originates from within us. For example, someone who likes to watch pornography may feel shame about their desire. They may feel that they are bad for wanting to watch pornography or bad because of the kinds of activities they like to watch. And they may feel as if that shame is "natural" which is to say that it's something they were born with. This can lead that person to never question their feelings of shame, and certainly to keep it private and never talk about it with others. Unfortunately, questioning and talking about the things we feel sexual shame about are two key ways of working with those feelings of shame and, if it's our goal, of transforming those feelings of shame into other kinds of feelings. Not enough of us ask ourselves the question...
Where Does Shame Come From?
One of the lies we're told about sex is that sexuality is natural, and there is a biological drive that leads us to feel, think, and act in particular sexual ways. If you believe this, it follows that when you feel shame about a particular sexual thought, desire, or belief that it is "natures way" of telling you that what you want or what you think is wrong. This is a very common way of thinking, and in fact it is an idea that many different traditions (religious and otherwise) encourage us to believe. But there is simply no truth to it. There is nothing "natural" or "unnatural" about sexual desire. Nature has nothing to do with it. No one is born feeling shame.
Our shame about sex begins not within ourselves but from outside of us. It comes from our families, from our cultural and religious traditions, it comes from our friends and our communities. It comes from professionals (doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers, therapists, etc...) and it comes from current cultural material like television, radio, books, websites, and other social spaces online.
We learn to feel ashamed of sexuality in general by being constantly exposed on the one hand to images and messages that say that sex is great and that happy, successful, popular people have sex and on the other hand to messages that say that sex is indulgent and sinful and wrong, and that it leads to disease and betrayal and death. We learn to feel shame about our own particular experience of sex and sexuality by being hit with a steady stream of messages that tell us the only sexuality that is okay is a very narrowly defined one (heterosexual, young, white, non-disabled, skinny, middle class people who do it to make babies and then once a week as an expression of their undying love for each other). The truth is that even if you are some of those things, none of us are all of them. Sexuality can't fit into such a narrow frame. In other words none of us meet this ideal.
We learn these lessons in ways that are painfully obvious at times and other times are so subtle that we don't even notice we're learning. We learn these lessons when we are exposed to violence, from harassment to assault and abuse that is physical, emotional, and/or psychological. We're told that feeling too much pleasure is bad. We're told that some kinds of sexual activities are okay, but others are wrong; that not wanting any sex is unhealthy; that being too open about sex and your body is a sign of a problem. We're told taht if you experience violence there must be something you did to deserve it. The list goes on and on and on. These messages seep into our brains and our bodies. By the time you're a teenager you already "know" what your body should look like and all of us feel some shame about the ways our bodies don't match that ideal. The same thing happens with desire, with sexual activities, with sexual and gender identities.
How Shame Influences Our Sexuality
Shame creates a great deal of conflict within ourselves when it comes to sexuality. If you've had consensual sex in your life then you probably have had the experience of sex being something that feels good (or even great). Being sexual, alone or with partners can create a lot of physical, emotional, and spiritual pleasure, and an overall sense of well being. And yet we're told much of it is wrong, and wanting it makes us bad people. It's easy to get stuck in a cycle of wanting something so badly, but making ourselves feel terrible even in the wanting of it.
The impact of all this is devastating to our sexuality. If you ask most sex therapists and educators they will tell you that one of the biggest obstacles to experiencing sexual health is the sexual shame that most of us carry around with us. And for many professionals, helping people to move towards greater sexual health means helping them uncover where their sense of shame comes from, and working with them to decide how they want to deal with it.
Our sexual shame can keep us from letting people get close to us. It can keep us from feeling comfortable in our own bodies. We can also come to feel as if our sexual shame is more of a rule book for how everyone should be sexual, and our sense of shame can lead us to judge and mistreat others. This can have an obvious impact on our ability to find sexual partners that we want, or sexual partners who will accept us for who we are. Our sexual shame can keep us from exploring specific sexual activities we may want to explore, and it can keep us from being with the sexual or romantic partners we want to be with. In this way sexual shame can not only prevent us from experiencing the possibilities of sexual pleasure, but also love, intimacy, companionship.
One of the biggest ways that shame affects our sexuality is by making us silent. When we feel ashamed about something we usually don't want to talk about it, we want to hide that part of us that we feel shame about. Shame leads us to compartmentalize our sexuality, to only show people (or even ourselves) the parts we think are acceptable and to hide the other parts. This compartmentalizing of our sexuality is artificial. It is something we impose and it can lead to many different kinds of sexual problems.
Can You Get Rid of Shame About Sex?
The short answer is yes. Or at least it's true that some people do seem able to lose their shame about some parts of their sexuality. This isn't to say that everyone can, or even that everyone wants to. For some of us our experience of shame is tied to something important and protective, and we may not be ready to give it up. Forcing someone to "deal with" their sexual shame isn't a good idea (also it won't work). But for many people who discover that their feelings of shame are keeping them from being the people they want to be, and from having experiences they want to have, it is very possible to eliminate or at least significantly reduce their feelings of sexual shame. Perhaps one of the most important things we can all do to reduce shame is to start talking about those things which we feel most ashamed of. Shame flourishes in silence. While we may be bombarded with sexual messages, this isn't the same thing as direct or honest communication about our sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The lack of public discussion of sexuality in ways that match our lived experience of it only increases our feelings of shame. Read more about dealing with sexual shame.
Can Sexual Shame Be a Good Thing?
What if you feel ashamed of something that everyone agrees is wrong? For example, feeling ashamed of a desire to force someone to engage in sexual activities either through physical violence, or psychological or emotional coercion? What about adults who want to have sex with children? It seems reasonable to ask whether that shame isn't a good thing. There is no easy answer to this point. And different sex educators would answer this differently. My response to this is that while shame alone may stop some people from engaging in activities, it won't stop everyone. People who have a desire to hurt others against their will, to control or do violence to other people, to deny them their basic human rights, need to be helped to not act on those desires (and it should be mentioned that it isn't always about desire, and it usually isn't about sexuality at all). These people need lots of different kinds of help (or "treatment" in the language of the medical model). Only shaming them likely won't be enough.
And in fact when we focus on shame we encourage them to hide their desires even more. While it's true that few of us want to hear about another persons wish to do harm to someone, when we keep them silent and hidden we actually make it harder to protect ourselves and our communities (and at the same time harder for them to ever consider seeking help).