It’s a shame, shame, shame how we feel shame about sex
by Karen Kreps
Admit it. You and I have all experienced it, and we enjoyed it—though we’re loath to tell anyone exactly what we did. We felt heat emerge from within our bodies, as a flush turned skin red and self-consciousness became acute: We wallowed in our private sense of sexual shame.
Ever since Adam and Eve got expelled from the Garden of Eden (the Hebrew word for which, by the way, means, “pleasure”), humans have been ashamed of their nakedness. Sure, we’ve been through the Sexual Revolution and now many people have declared themselves “sex positive” (a movement promoting open sexuality with few limits, in contrast to sex-negativity, which adherents identify as the dominant view of sex in Western culture). But shame—either suffered by the submissive or inflicted and enjoyed vicariously by the dominant—still permeates the sexual experience.
There’s an undercurrent, if not an emphasis, on bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM) in erotica, pornography and adult entertainment. The master-slave dynamic is acted out to stimulate our imaginations. For some, it is a turnoff. For others—such as consumers who support the ten billion dollars-a-year pornography industry—it is arousing.
Most adults won’t talk about sex. For some, it’s a matter of discretion. For many, sexual issues are seen as “dirty” and immoral, even in this age of supposed sexual enlightenment.
Why is a natural act, even non-kinky sex, a source of shame?
Children are taught to feel shame from an early age. When used properly, it is a useful self-regulating mechanism for behavior. Sadly, it often causes the shamed one to pull back, physically and emotionally, afraid of being exposed or seen as being bad.
Feelings of shame may also be the result of sex abuse or early childhood stimulation, which could not be resolved—unrequited Oedipal longings. But even in normal, age-appropriate sex play, children may be shamed and told they are bad and wrong. When parents are embarrassed by their children’s sexual behavior, they pass their misgivings about sex to their offspring. As a result, for example, we begin to feel guilty about masturbation, the most basic self-care and self-pleasuring.
We’re fooling ourselves if we think we could totally free ourselves from these feelings of shame. So many religions and customs have linked sex with guilt that few of us are entirely unaffected. Over centuries, the Judeo-Christian ethic has ingrained into our psyches the belief that sex is synonymous with sin. Churches have used shame as the guiding force to redirect young peoples’ sexual impulse. Puritanical teachings say that life is about suffering and the hedonism of pleasure is to be shunned. It’s programmed into us. Yet we enjoy intimacy and making love. So when we do things that support that, we feel a sense of shame.
Some men have a Madonna-whore complex. They want to be mated with a pure virgin, but sex without guilt doesn’t to it for them, and they lust after the shame of a prostitute.
We pride ourselves on having evolved out of the cave to a highly sophisticated social structure where sexual impulse is restrained by intellect. Our fear of being discovered spares us from doing things we would later regret.
Guilt emerges when we revert to our animal behavior. We’re ashamed about appearing selfish in our desires or about having lost control of ourselves. Orgasm becomes taboo, experienced only in private and rarely discussed. We feel inhibited by something. Could it be the fear of being visible, disarmed at the deepest levels?
Sexual shame is rampant in our culture. We objectify each other sexually, and then we feel shamed for having done so. Thinking of someone as a sex object instead of as a human is a way of depersonalizing the experience, of toning down the intensity. And we can even recognize this self-imposed limitation and feel ashamed for indulging in it. Then we eroticize shame itself. Its “forbidden” status hooks us into an addictive cycle made even stronger by shame.
Although stories of sexual shame now fill tell-it-all TV talk shows, the pages of popular magazines and the plots of soap operas, few people will ever talk about or admit to their own feelings of shame. If one or both partners are too shy, embarrassed or ashamed to talk about sex and any shame they may associate with it, they’ll miss the exploration and risk-taking required for good, lasting sex with a long-term partner.
“There are two ways to absolve ourselves of shame,” states psychologist and sexologist Joy Davidson. “One is to speak of it, share it, expose it to the light and watch it burn away. The other is to use it, to eroticize it. Fantasy allows us to utilize shame in extraordinarily creative ways. If you allow yourself this privilege, you triumph over shame.”
Tantra is an Eastern tradition that teaches us to reframe how we see sex, to celebrate it as divine, not a shame. It views sexuality as a path on by which we may be guided out of the illusion of being incomplete and separate to an understanding of our intrinsic wholeness and connection.
Before we evolve to that exalted level of consciousness, we have some issues to work out. Perhaps it’s not a shame that we experience shame, for it compels us to self-examine and to better understand what triggers our response. Do enough of that, and lovemaking is bound to be something to be—not ashamed of—but proud about.