It wasn’t until my mid-to-late-twenties that I realized I was carrying around a significant amount of sexual shame, and how common that actually is. We’re often taught to believe that sex is bad, or we’re simply given no information about it at all. Over time, sex becomes something we feel uncomfortable talking about, and the topic can eventually grow even a shameful connotation.
Research shows that sexual shame can originate from experiences dating all the way back to childhood and our most formative teenage years, including but not limited to traumatic sexual experiences, sex-negative messaging, insufficient communication about sex, low self-esteem, or a general lack of understanding of human sexuality. In a lot of cases, we are not even aware of the shame we have around sex, but it can have a negative impact on our relationships and, of course, on our sex life.
To better understand where sexual shame stems from, how to identify it, and ways to let it go, I caught up with my favorite sex expert Dr. Kristie Overstreet, certified sex therapist, speaker, consultant, and author. Dr. Overstreet describes sexual shame as feeling like “you are the problem” or that you are “not good enough, worthy enough, or deserving of pleasure.” A few of the causes she identified are any type of abuse (emotional, physical, verbal, sexual, etc.), your upbringing, and negative self-talk.
How might sexual shame surface in our lives?
1. Dismissal of your own need for sexual pleasure
If you find yourself ignoring your own needs for pleasure and hyper-focusing on the needs of your partner(s), it could be a sign that you are holding onto sexual shame. Maybe you don’t feel worthy of pleasure or simply think your role in your relationship is to please your partner, but if you are so focused on what makes them happy, you will lose sight of your own needs and may come to resent the partner or the relationship down the road. This is one of the (many) reasons why self-care, self-pleasure, and developing an understanding of what you like are so important.
2. Sexual dysfunction, pain, or discomfort during sex or self-pleasure
While there can be many causes of sexual dysfunction and pain during sex—and it is always best to consult with your doctor—sexual shame can commonly cause discomfort surrounding pleasure. When these feelings of shame or unworthiness are so deeply seeded into our bodies, it can be extremely difficult to let go during sexual experiences and can therefore result in pain and discomfort, whether you are with your partner or on your own.
3. Inability to talk about sex
This one was huge for me. Because I was never talked to about sex growing up, I viewed it as something that was meant to be covered up and not talked about. If you have feelings of shame surrounding the topic, you will likely not be comfortably talking to friends or (most importantly) your partner about sex, which can have a negative impact on your relationship. The conversations we have growing up are more impactful than you might think and can truly shape the way we feel about sex as adults.
How can we let go of sexual shame?
1. Improve your relationship with yourself
In her work with her clients, Dr. Overstreet explains that “how you see, talk, and act toward yourself can make a big impact on your sexual self.” It truly does all start from within. Once you start to build up your self-esteem and improve the relationship you have with yourself, you will begin to see that you are worthy of pleasure, and the feelings of shame you associate with it will start to lessen over time.
2. Re-write your narrative
On a similar note, how you talk to yourself matters. This is true for all aspects of life, but it’s especially important when it comes to the way we talk to ourselves about sex. Dr. Overstreet advised to “focus on your inner critic” and become aware of the things you are saying to yourself regularly that may be making you feel more shame. She recommended even writing down these negative messages as a way to visually see how unrealistic they are. Then, once you begin to see where your toxic thoughts are coming from, “rewrite the narrative by changing these unrealistic expectations you have of yourself and your sexuality.”
3. Take a look at your relationships
Unfortunately, sometimes there are people who are close to us whose energy and behavior can have a negative effect on us. Dr. Overstreet said it is important to take a closer look at your relationships and be mindful of any that might be toxic. Are there people in your life who have negative views on sex or continue to provide you with a narrative that induces shame? Voice these issues to them, create boundaries, and consider limiting your time around them or removing them from your life if it becomes toxic.
4. Deal with past trauma
Trauma from our past can have a huge impact on our present and future. Dealing with trauma can be messy and take a lot of work, but the payout is beyond worth it, and overcoming trauma is a huge step in releasing sexual shame.
5. Speak with an expert
Not sure how to deal with your trauma? Or maybe you don’t even know for sure what that trauma may be, or you’re still unsure where your feelings of sexual shame are stemming from? Our best advice is to speak with an expert who can help you uncover these causes and give you the tools you need to let them go.