Sexual shame is a hugely common issue for many people. We live in a society that sends shaming messages about bodies and sex constantly so when Violet Grey offered to write us a piece about it including ways in which we can challenge that shame we knew we had to take her up on the offer.
We are a society obsessed with sexual shaming. If it’s not how many people we do or don’t fuck, it’s in how we dress, how we act or if we have kinks, fetishes or an interest in BDSM.
Most of us have felt some form of sexual shame at some point, usually towards ourselves. I feel the stigma of sexual shame, and how it affects us, is important to talk about. Not only that, but how we can break said stigma, so we can have a healthier relationship with sex, our sexualities and ultimately, ourselves as a whole.
YOUR ‘NUMBER’ DOESN’T DETERMINE YOUR WORTH
For context, I am a cisgender woman. So all my life so far, be it from a person, society or the media we consume, I see or experience some form of gender-based sexual policing, almost daily.
In my formative years, the most common shaming I saw was of women who had casual sex. They were shamed as having ‘no self-respect’, being ‘easy’ or a ‘whore’. It was common to be told by one person or another: ‘A man will always go after an easy woman, but he’ll never marry one’, in an attempt to protect me from society’s wrath towards women and their sexuality. Their well-meaning warnings made it very clear of how society saw me: Your value and being worthy of a man’s love depends on your sexual encounters.
Needless to say, as young woman, I soaked up this information like a sponge. I didn’t want to be ‘the girl with a reputation’. It wasn’t until I became an adult and gained a bit more life experience, when I realised just how ridiculous and harmful it was.
I also experienced shame for not having casual sex. I remember being told by a man who regularly had casual sex that I, ‘wasn’t trying hard enough to separate sex from love’ (the two are interlinked for me).
Like most women and feminine presenting folks, it’s easy to feel like no matter what you do, you just can’t win.
HOW SEXUAL SHAME IS WEAPONIZED
There’s so much information on this subject and its history that I could write an entire dissertation on the piece. So, keep in mind I’m only scratching the surface in how sexual shame runs deep in our societies.
It runs deep in all facets of life, both secular and faith-based. Various approaches to weaponizing this include using pseudo-science and religion to justify it. One prominent example is abstinence-only-until-marriage education, which champions damaging purity culture and is still in effect in various US states.
Famous examples in abstinence-only education include the ‘chewed up bubblegum’ analogy, usually referring to a woman’s virginity. It is taught that every time a woman has pre-marital sex (LGBTQ education is not mentioned, if not completely demonised) she is a piece of gum being chewed. And what man wants to marry a chewed up piece of bubblegum? *shudders*.
In secular and faith-based life, another prominent stance is the policing of women and feminine presenting people’s bodies in what they wear, under archaic reasoning of ‘immodesty’ (modesty is subjective) ‘not distracting the men’ or making men act a certain sexual way towards them. This paints them as rabid animals who can’t control their sexual urges, which is insulting for all parties.
And in one of its most insidious forms, it manifests in victim-blaming survivors of sexual violence. Victim-blaming is still prevalent, often heard in the form of: ‘What were you wearing?’, ‘Were you drinking?’ or ‘Can you blame him when you were dressed like a slut?’ to name a few, often traumatising survivors further.
To make this clear: Rape and sexual assault is not about sex. It is about control and asserting dominance through robbing someone of their agency in one of the most violating ways imaginable. I can’t believe we still have to say this: It is never the survivor’s fault.
OUR BODIES ARE OUR OWN
That’s the long, short and truth of it: our bodies belong solely to us. Our sexuality belongs solely to us. We are not the property of our families or spouses. We are not ‘chewed up bubblegum’ or ‘a dirty glass of water’. We are our own people with autonomy.
As well as practicing safe sex, autonomy and sex-positivity is choosing what is right for you. Whether that’s engaging in safe casual sex, you’re monogamous, polyamorous or want to only have sex when you’re married, who you share your sexuality with, between consenting adults of course, is entirely up to you. Or perhaps you’re asexual, aromantic, or both. Perhaps you want a partner where you share a platonic companionship. Either way, comprehensive and sex-positive approaches, rather than shaming, enables us to make healthier choices not just for us, but for others as well.
Once shame is ingrained into you it can be difficult to unlearn. But it can be done, and it can take time. Here are some ways we can break down internalised sexual shame:
I can’t stress enough just how important communication with a partner is. Forget about elusiveness or whether asking someone’s boundaries is ‘unromantic’. Showing you care about someone’s boundaries is not only sexy as hell, is shows you’re a decent human. Talking to our partners is so important both in and out of the bedroom.
What we like, don’t like, what me might be curious to try or what we absolutely will not do If there is something we are ashamed of that we want to change, i.e. performance anxiety, body-image, a medical condition that affects our sex lives i.e. vaginismus, erectile dysfunction etc. talking with our partners opens the doors to navigating new avenues of how we can modify sex/sexual play so we feel comfortable and safe.
And not just that, but communicating with ourselves if we feel safe or enjoy something. Not putting pressure on ourselves or beating ourselves up if we can’t do something. Everyone is different and that’s ok.
COMPREHENSIVE SEX EDUCATION
I firmly believe this, not just for young people, but for us as adults as well. We don’t stop learning about sex. Information from reputable, sex-positive educators can help tremendously in breaking down sexual stigmas.
Let’s face it, for a lot of us, our sex education in school and college wasn’t particularly great. It’s important to learn thoroughly about consent, sexual healthcare, STIs, safe sex, LGBTQ education and relationships.
Numerous studies have found that countries with comprehensive sex education (such as the Netherlands) have lower rates of teen pregnancy, STI contractions and abortion, as opposed to countries and states with no formal or abstinence-only education, with many people looking to porn to fill the gaps.
And on that note…
SEPARATING ONLINE FROM REALITY
As we know, porn is enjoyed by many and in professional settings, produced by talented production crews and performers. But these are very different to real life relationships, as it’s the depiction of fantasy. This gap however, is definitely not being bridged, at least not in the UK currently. Widespread discussion is still somewhat taboo.
Going back to comprehensive education, it’s important to know the differences between online adult content, and how sex and relationships work for the average Joe Bloggs on the street. This murkiness between fantasy and reality can reinforce negative perceptions of ourselves and sex i.e. negative body image, consent, perceptions surrounding condoms.
New Zealand has recently broached this topic in their Keep It Real Online campaign, offering help and information for parents, teaching their children these differences.
While porn in itself is not a bad thing (produced safely between consenting adults, of course) it’s important to recognise our personal responses to it. Some respond positively and some don’t.
Now, there are many ethical and feminist porn companies becoming more popular, with a diverse range of performers showcasing more realistic sexual content that viewers can relate to. Even then, we have to remember: we are watching a fantasy made especially for our viewing pleasure. Most of us don’t have fancy lights, cameras and a director every time we have sex.
IT’S OK TO ASK FOR HELP
Sometimes, we need a little extra help, and that’s ok. If you think something’s wrong, you don’t have to suffer in silence. If you think there’s a problem, consult your doctor. I know can feel scary and embarrassing, but they might be able to offer help and support if you need treatment, be for an infection, a mental health issue or an ongoing physical condition.
As well, a doctor or certified sex therapist may be able to hep with what you are experiencing, i.e. difficulty with orgasm, lack of libido, vaginismus and erectile dysfunction etc. Either way, you are not alone and there is no shame in seeking help if you are experiencing unhappiness, pain or distress.
You are not alone in experiencing sexual shame. By deconstructing it in a positive, judgement-free way, we can rebuild our sexual self-esteem and how we approach sex as a whole.