It's probably safe to say that everyone experiences some degree of shame about sex. Whether we feel shame for what (or who) we desire, shame for things that we chose to do, shame for things that were done against our will to us, or any number of other sexual thoughts, feelings, and desires, if we want to explore our own sexuality we're likely going to come up against feelings of shame.
With sexual shame being so common it may seem surprising that we don't talk about it more. Only it isn't. Shame leads us to be silent about our sexuality and it gets more powerful in that silence. Whether you can live a life without any sexual shame or not, there are things we can all do to change our experience of sexual shame. For many of us this work is best done with a professional (either a general counselor or therapist or perhaps someone who specializes in sex therapy). In fact for some people, starting to unpack their sexual shame can be unsafe if they do it on their own, without any supports in place.
The ideas below are not a substitute for talking with a friend, partner, family member or trusted professional. And because this is information for a general audience, I am not suggesting everyone should, or needs to, follow the ideas below. But if you have some support and you're interested in shifting your experience of sexual shame the suggestions below may help you begin to think about a different way of approaching your experience of sexual shame.
Begin to Notice and Name the Shame
Feelings of shame can be like a vicious cycle. We feel sexual shame, we keep it to ourselves, it leads us to tell ourselves that there's something wrong with us, which we feel shame for, but can't tell anyone about. Live with shame long enough and you stop noticing it's even there, you just feel bad or tired or unmotivated to think about it. One of the first things you can do is catch yourself when you're feeling ashamed and just take note of it. What prompted the feeling of shame? And what was your response? Did you get quiet? Did you retreat socially? Did you start telling yourself anything in particular? And when you feel it can you just say to yourself, oh, I'm feeling ashamed.
Learn About Others Shame
Because we are usually silent about the things we're most ashamed of, most of us never discover the truth, which is that everyone feels shame about some things, and many people share shame about the very thing we are ashamed of. Whether you want to read a book, check out a website, watch or listen to a documentary, it can help to hear other people's stories about shame. It may be sexual shame around being the victim of sexual violence, or shame around a sexual orientation. It might even be shame that isn't about sexuality at all. Just witnessing other people who have found a way to talk about their shame can sometimes begin to change the way you feel about your own shame.
Think About the Origins of Your Feelings of Shame
For many of us, feeling ashamed of our sexuality is related to difficult experiences in our past and often to something to do with our body. It might be connected to something someone did to us emotionally, physically, and/or psychologically. It might be related to a relationship in our family or community or in the context of a romantic or sexual relationship. Taking some time to think about where the sense of shame comes from, or at least where feeling shame takes you back to, can be one way to find an opening into the closed system that shame can feel like. Working on something like a personal sexual history is one way to do this.
Talk to Yourself
If you think talking to yourself is something only people with mental illness do, think again. Talking to yourself is not, in and of itself, a problem. In fact it can be an important tool in changing the way you think about things. Often when we experience sexual shame it comes with a lot of negative self talk. We can tell ourselves that we're disgusting or dirty or unlovable. We can say the most horrible things to ourselves. But you can also make a conscious effort to say different things to yourself. To tell yourself that it's okay. Even if you're feeling shame you may not always feel this way. That you don't need to feel ashamed, and that you could stop feeling ashamed and still make whatever decisions you want about your sex life and your sexuality. Something as simple as saying to yourself "oh, that's sexual shame I'm feeling" every time you notice you're feeling ashamed can be a useful exercise.
Talk to Others
One of the most powerful ways to reduce or eliminate feelings of shame is to talk with others about your feelings honestly and openly. Of course, depending on what your feeling shame about, you need to choose those others carefully. Because of abuses of human rights around the world, there are some of us who risk arrest, imprisonment, even death if we reveal the thing we feel ashamed of (particularly when that shame is tied to our sexual orientation, identity, and/or gender identity). The truth is that not everyone is safe to talk to about our sexual shame, not everyone has the boundaries to accept our vulnerability. Even professionals who are trained to deal appropriately with personal disclosures can let their own values and judgments come out when hearing someone be honest about their feelings of shame about sexuality.
This is one of the reasons why talking with a professional who has some training in human sexuality can be a good idea. Although talking to a partner or family member or friend who has proven trustworthy can be just as good or better. Talking with others may not be something you ever choose to do, which is okay too. But for many people this is an important part of the process once they've worked through a lot of their own feelings and thoughts about whatever it is they feel ashamed of.
Work With Your Body and Your Thoughts
A lot of sexual shame is tied up in how we feel about and experience our bodies. For this reason a lot of people find doing some kind of work with their body can help them change their relationship to shame. It might be dancing or yoga or meditation, it could be taking a self-defense class or soaking in a tub. For some people learning to show love and feel pleasure in their own bodies, through masturbation, can be transformative. The shame we feel about our bodies can be intense and sometimes only thinking about it or only approaching it from a physical perspective isn't enough. This can be a particular struggle as even those people who support reducing sexual shame in the world often still hold ableist beliefs and judgments about what our bodies are "supposed" to be like.
Focus on the Process Not the Goal
Shame is often the result of experiences, beliefs, and values that have been forced on us from others. Trying to eliminate shame by forcing yourself, or pushing yourself beyond what you feel like you can handle may be trying to achieve something good, but the process matters. It can be helpful to focus on the process instead of fixating on a need to rid yourself of shame right away. The process of exploring where your feelings of shame came from, what other options you may have to feeling differently about yourself and your sexuality, even imagining what life without sexual shame would feel like, is useful in and of itself. Think about the process as something good you're doing for yourself. Don't consider yourself a success only if you never feel shame again, and a failure otherwise. Which brings us to the final suggestion...
Be Gentle and Generous with Yourself
Most societies are set up to keep us feeling ashamed of some aspect of our sexuality. If you're working on changing that acknowledge that the work is hard, and that even trying is an important way of saying that you're worth it, that you're valuable and worthy of love and respect. Often shame feels like harsh judgment, so be your own best example by trying to be gentle with yourself. That may mean not pushing yourself if you don't feel up for it. Or making sure you have someone you can always call when you're feeling down, or just doing one thing every day that gives you a bit of pleasure or joy.