This Is Why You Were Conditioned to Feel Shameful About Sex — and How to Unlearn It

·15 min read
This Is Why You Were Conditioned to Feel Shameful About Sex — and How to Unlearn It
This Is Why You Were Conditioned to Feel Shameful About Sex — and How to Unlearn It

Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

The "walk of shame" might be a running joke, but, unfortunately, it's reflective of reality. Many people (jokes aside) really do experience shame surrounding sex and sexuality.

Your childhood — the lessons you learn and the ways you're socialized to behave from parents, sexual education (or lack thereof), religion, the media, etc. — immensely impact the ways in which you experience sexuality as an adult. Because of that, some folks carry immense shame for exploring their sexuality or practicing pleasure throughout their lives.

"Most psychological dynamics are rooted in an intricate interaction between nature and nurture; however, sexual shame is 99 percent rooted in nurture — the message, verbal and nonverbal, a child receives from their environment," adds Nancy B. Irwin, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist and therapeutic hypnotist who concentrates in sexual abuse recovery. "We are all sexual beings and, uninterrupted will seek pleasure. Of course, boundaries must be enforced, but with love, not shame and blame."

While beliefs and behaviors surrounding sexuality ingrained from childhood can feel permanent, there are ways to unpack and unlearn them if you want. Here, many different experts — from a hypnotist to a psychologist and sexperts alike — share how to understand the shame you might have around sex and how it got there in the first place. Then, you'll learn how to reclaim control of your sexuality and sexual choices — because everyone deserves to feel pleasure, with no strings of shame attached.

What Is Shame, Really?

Shame refers to feelings of embarrassment that arise from the perception of having done something perhaps immoral or improper. Sexual shame, specifically, refers to shame caused by negative evaluations of one's sexual identity, behaviors, attractions, thoughts, or feelings.

Shame is normal. Everyone experiences it at one point or another. And, in many ways, it's beneficial. After all, shame is critical in the development of social boundaries and may serve as a self-protective mechanism. But shame can quickly become toxic, and that's because it's associated with self-deprecation.

It's important to note, however, that shame and guilt, while both self-conscious emotions are very different, according to research published in Health and Social Care in the Community. Guilt assesses behaviors as good or bad, or right or wrong, whereas shame assesses the self as such.

Think of it this way: "Words related to shame are 'ashamed' and 'embarrassed;' they involve that public component, whereas guilt is within you," explains Karen Beale, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and certified sex educator. So, shame is public; guilt is private.

Also unlike guilt, shame often stems from trauma. To understand your own shame, you have to understand any of the trauma in which it's rooted, explains Carson Cooper, certified coach, hypnotist, and master reiki teacher.

Where Does Sexual Shame Come from?

Studies suggest that sexual shame runs deep, and can stem from a whole host of sources.

"There are various reasons why some people might feel shame in expressing themselves sexually or even thinking about sex," says Shagoon Maurya, psychologist, psychotherapist, and founder of Safe Space counseling. For example, "some people might grow up in houses that strictly follow religious norms that suggest that masturbation is sinful or someone should wait until marriage to have sex. Some people might feel insecure about their bodies and perceive themselves as less desirable, which can cause difficulty in embracing sex. Some people might be victims of sexual abuse... In some cases, even emotional abuse could lead people to feel ashamed." (See: This Sex Educator Offers a 'Purity Culture Dropout' Program)

Research shows that parents and teachers may also instill shame in children — whether they mean to or not. Parents and guardians are often the first people to have "the talk" with their kids and tend to have the biggest impact on their sexual decisions down the line, other research suggests. One study shows that sex-positive communication between parents and children reduces riskier sexual choices later in life. But, too often, parents teach children to stifle sexuality, rather than to explore it.

But it's important to note that sources of sexual shame are not always explicit. Parents may treat the conversation about sex as an awkward obligation, which, in and of itself, induces shame, says David F. Khalili, L.M.F.T., author of Sex Worriers. Even parents who don't show each other physical affection can send the wrong message that physical touch and affection is something to hide or avoid completely. And they may further instill shame by embarrassing, slut-shaming, and policing their kids.

"In the last 10 years of my work, I've found that direct and indirect messages around sex and sexuality during childhood have a real impact on how you view your sex life in adulthood," says Khalili. "In some families, the fact that sex is never discussed sends a strong indirect message that sex is incredibly taboo."

The "hush-hush" approach may seem better than preaching straight-up abstinence, but it still leaves a shameful impression.

"Not calling body parts by their names and using non-verbals [like body language] indicates something is wrong," says Beale. "For example, you don't talk in hushed voices about your elbows and call them 'bendy-bends,' but you do that for genitalia — kitty, pee-pee, flower, down-there. Kids learn quickly that these [body parts] are shameful."

Of course, sexual education in school — or lack thereof — can also color experiences. Research purports that comprehensive, inclusive sexual education curriculums create safer school environments for students with more peer acceptance and far less bullying. But this still isn't commonplace; in fact, a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that, among teens 15 to 17 years old who have had sex, nearly 80 percent had no formal sex education before losing their virginity. As of October 2020, 33 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but many of them stress abstinence and risk-reduction in their curriculum. Research suggests that sex education focused on risk-reduction and abstinence fails youth because it paints sex as a recipe for disaster and disease. (More: Sex Education In the U.S. Is Broken—Sustain Wants to Fix It)

Body image is a factor in this conversation as well. Media messaging that perpetuates an unfounded yet pervasive and singular ideal of beauty — one that excludes, frankly, most people — also takes a toll on how you perceive sexuality. After all, if you're constantly convinced that your legs aren't tall enough, your skin isn't white enough, your hair isn't long enough, your stomach isn't flat enough, your breasts aren't big enough, and so on, it's not exactly easy to feel sexy or deserving of sexual attention.

Of course, religion and culture also play a role in how you view sex as an adult. Higher levels of religiosity are correlated with more sexual shame and also less sexual satisfaction, according to research published in the journal Sexuality & Culture. Indeed, other research shows that people from conservative religious backgrounds appear to be at higher risk for developing relational distress (a relationship in which problems have a clinically significant impact on peoples' wellbeing) and experiencing sexual shame compared to their non-religious counterparts. When religious ideologies emphasize how sex acts should only occur within the institution of a heteronormative, monogamous marriage, it limits an ability to explore other sexual identities, engage in sexual behaviors, or seek information about contraception, abortion, and safer sex practices. Plus, people who view pornography or engage in non-marital sexual activity or masturbation may experience profound guilt from violating religious moral codes and expectations.

Finally, sexual abuse can also cause trauma that lingers, which can manifest as intense shame surrounding the circumstances of the abuse. And this factor is more common than you may realize: One in nine girls and one in 53 boys under 18 years old experience sexual abuse or assault by an adult, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It's clear that sexual abuse can take a toll on someone's mental health for years. Victims are about four times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and about three times more likely to experience a major depressive episode in their adult lives, according to RAINN.

Why Does Sexual Shame Stick Around?

The first time you experience a negative emotion — shame included — the brain labels it, explains Cooper. And every time you experience it thereafter, the brain creates a "gestalt," which refers to a series of linked emotions, according to gestalt psychology (a school of thought that introduced the idea that human perception isn't just based on your current environment but rather includes your past experiences, thoughts, feelings, and needs as well). So, when that particular emotion is triggered later in life, you feel the emotion not just of that particular event but of the whole slew of events that caused you to feel it in the first place. Therefore, if you experience shame around something once, this psychological theory suggests you'll experience the same feelings of shame any time it reoccurs.

Here's an example: "The first time you feel shame around your body, masturbation, or sex, you label that change — and then every time after, you only add to the gestalt of shame," says Cooper.

Because shame is so internalized, it's difficult to identify, unpack, and dismantle. And it sticks with you because, according to basic neuroscience and the concept of neuroplasticity, the more you engage with your thoughts (including shame), the more you become prone to having them — and the more those thoughts transform into habits. In other words: What you believe dictates how you behave, and this becomes a vicious cycle. (FYI, neuroplasticity plays a role in being able to "manifest" things.)

Plus, people tend to hold onto emotionally-charged memories, such as memories of shame-inducing trauma, more than other memories. Emotionally charged events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time, according to research; because the event triggers both the cognitive and emotional neural networks, it enhances the brain's processing of that memory. While researchers have found that the brain is certainly capable of repressing unwanted memories, the experiences can still affect you years later, even if you're not cognizant of it.

"Any experience that evoked a powerful emotion will usually stick in your subconscious mind," explains Danielle Lee, certified happiness coach, rapid transformational therapist, and hypnotherapist. "Your brain is wired to seek pleasure and keep you away from painful experiences. So, if you have memories that evoke very painful emotions, the brain has the ability to just bury them away deep in the subconscious. However, although you may not be able to recall them using the conscious part of your brain, they're still there and can still cause you problems and issues as an adult."

While this holds true for less extreme causes of internalized sex shame — like the awkward "birds and the bees" conversation with your parents or learning that premarital sex is bad in church — it's worse when intense emotions are involved.

How Sexual Shame Manifests In Adulthood

Perhaps the most obvious impact that deeply entrenched sexual shame may have is negatively affecting your sexual relationships in adulthood. Notably, sexual shame predicts lower sexual satisfaction and lower sexual efficacy, overall, says Dr. Beale. (Learn more about what it really means to be sex positive, and take a quiz that will help you figure out where you land.)

If you have internalized shame around sex, you might also "loathe the idea of having sex, or be disgusted by or feel conflicted about their desires," explains Maurya. Avoiding sex altogether, having a difficult time communicating desires, taking longer to orgasm (if at all), feeling frustrated, and coping with guilt after engaging in sexual activity are products of shame. (Also read: Why You Might Feel a Little Depressed After Sex)

It may not always be glaringly obvious, but holding negative emotions surrounding sex can impact your adult life "maybe in very subtle little ways that you wouldn't even notice, but they will be there," says Lee.

Hypo- and hypersexuality — levels of sexual interest and/or activity that are unusually low or high, respectively — and a whole scope of intimacy issues can also be traced back to sexual trauma, research shows. People who experience sexual abuse also tend to engage in substance abuse and sexual exploitation and are more likely to face intimate partner violence, than those who had not been abused, according to research. Suicide rates are also higher among those who have been abused, according to RAINN.

How to Dismantle Your Internalize Shame Around Sex

Fortunately, there are ways you can tap into that entrenched shame and unlearn it to reclaim your power in this space. Beliefs are indeed malleable.

"A belief is just a thought you continue to think; it can be changed and replaced with a more empowering belief, but the first step is finding out what it is and where it came from — and then choosing to let it go," says Lee.

Here are five ways to notice shame-driven behaviors, identify the root of them, and effect change.

1. Acknowledge that you have shame around sex.

"The foremost step in the journey is recognizing the source of your shame," says Maurya. After all, you have to confront shame to overcome it.

"The best way to work through shame is to acknowledge it, bring it to the surface, be curious with it, ask it questions, show it compassion, and then allow it to step away," adds Khalili. "Shame tells you to hide, so the one way to combat it is to bring it [into the] light and examine it. You will likely find that it's a lot less scary or embarrassing than you imagined."

2. Seek mental health help.

Therapy never hurts — especially if you've experienced some sort of abuse. It can help you identify your triggers and get to the root of them as well as come up with healthy coping mechanisms.

There are different types of therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, can help you better understand the connection between your beliefs and behaviors, as well as the emotions you associate with it all, according to the American Psychological Association. (Here's how to find the right therapist for you.)

"Work with a trained professional to trace what limiting, shaming beliefs you developed as a child and how that affected your sexual history," says Irwin. "Then decide what beliefs you'd like to have about sex, and allow the process of intention to unfold."

3. Consider hypnosis.

Hypnosis is often touted as "a return to the self" via a journey into the subconscious mind. "You need to access our subconscious minds where your beliefs are stored away, which can be done with deep meditation and hypnosis," says Lee. "Understanding is power. If you know where your beliefs have originated from, you can gradually start to release them."

"Hypnosis just puts you in a very relaxed meditative state where you feel completely comfortable and are able to access parts of your brain that you may not have had access to for a very long time," explains Lee.

In fact, hypnosis is a natural state that you likely experience each day (think: daydreaming and losing track of time when hyper-focused), adds Eli Bliliuos, a New York City-based certified hypnotist who specializes in clients with sexual dysfunction and shame. He and other hypnotists use a combination of tools like guided imagery, deep breathing, and body relaxation techniques to take clients into a hypnotic trance, where "sensitizing events can be uncovered, reframed, and let go of," he says. "Once reframed, clients can experience a profound shift and release any shame or limiting beliefs related to sexuality. After completing hypnosis sessions, they often report being able to enjoy intimacy."

Studies confirm that hypnosis may be useful when used in conjunction with other evidence-based practices (such as therapy) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. So, while hypnosis may be a tool you can use in your healing process, it's best to consult with your doctor or therapist for guidance on exactly how it can fit into your individual treatment plan.

4. Practice self-care.

All sorts of self-care practices can be beneficial. Take journaling, for example. Research shows that journaling offers tons of mental health benefits, and that extends to your sex life.

More specifically, research suggests that self-expressive writing can help limit intrusive, negative thoughts (i.e. sexual shame), and another study shows that consistent journaling can help with depression and anxiety (which may accompany sexual shame). Never mind that journaling can help you become more aware of your sexuality by exploring it in a private, safe space devoid of judgment.

But, if journaling is not your thing, that's okay, too. Just focus on healing your mind, body, and soul in whatever method you feel works for you, says Cooper. "Pray, meditate, be in nature, receive energy healing...Focus on what you want. Create goals that satisfy your wants and your needs."

5. Indulge in self-pleasure.

Masturbate. Reclaiming control over your body and finding pleasure isn't an easy feat, but when you're in complete control and your enjoyment is your only priority, you may find empowerment. Masturbating or taking a mindful look at your own body can also help you overcome the shame that you've been taught to have around your genitals and the pleasure they can give you. (Not to mention, masturbating comes with a myriad of health benefits.)

Oh, and don't shame others for the same things that have stifled your sex life for so long. As an adult, you may be able to recognize other people's shame coming out and remind yourself that, sometimes, it's not about you but, rather, about them.