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.
For a full seven years, I have been writing the “Intimacies” column in The Good Life magazine and hosting the group at BookPeople on behalf of the magazine. It has been a great pleasure to write about love, sex and romance and to exchange confidences with everyone at the discussion group. So it is with great sadness that I must share with you the news that I received last week from my editor, Ken Martin. His email began as follows:
“Dear Good Lifers,
The road goes on forever
And the party never ends
But The Good Life must
It is with deep regret that I must inform you that The Good Life is
going out of business.
After publishing 136 editions, we have exhausted our resources….”
This came as a complete surprise for me. Since the magazine had revised its format last year and just last month launched a wonderful new website, it was not what I expected.
The January issue is the last.
The January 21 meeting at BookPeople is still scheduled and will occur, even though The Good Life is no longer sponsoring my efforts there. (I’ll buy the wine; contributions will be welcome.) Ironically, the topic is “Love in the Recession.” My special guest, Claire Miner PhD, and I will lead a conversation about how financial stress may affect our social lives and what we can do to nurture our relationships in spite of those problems. Claire trained at the Gottman Institute and has done a lot of career coaching and counseled couples and singles for five years.
Meet Wednesday, January 21, 2009, 7:00pm-8:30pm on the third floor of BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. Audience members will be encouraged to share their personal experiences. No charge, just bring your sense of humor and an open mind.
BookPeople management said that we can hold the Feb and March meetings since those are already programmed. Please watch for future announcements. To continue the meetings at BookPeople beyond March, however, the store has told me that I must find another well-established publisher for my column on line or in print.
When one door closes, another opens, and I hope that this may enable me to find a new, wider audience. I am seeking another publisher to continue my work. I’m asking for your ideas and support. Please write to me, Karen@TrueIntimacies.com, with suggestions for another publishing venue or an introduction to anyone who might be helpful in finding a new sponsor for my Intimacies work, writing and hosting.
Last year I published a collection of my columns in the book, Intimacies: Secrets of Love, Sex & Romance. The book is illustrated with photographs of figurative sculpture by my husband and “Intimacies research assistant,” Arye Shapiro. The book can be ordered online at www.TrueIntimacies.com (where I will also continue to blog). BookPeople has the book in stock, and it may be ordered from any bookstore in the country. If you’ve been attending the meetings at BookPeople or enjoying my columns in print, please buy a copy now as a souvenir. The book makes a great, meaningful Valentine’s Day gift that will stimulate conversation about relationships and pleasure. Please consider giving copies to your friends and lovers.
There has been an outpouring of appreciation for The Good Life magazine and letters to the editor have been posted on the magazine’s website. You can add your voice by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or by commenting with a reply on this blog.
It’s said that “Youth is wasted on the young.” The older I get, the more I tend to agree. I wrote about “Where the mysteries of sex meet the mysteries of age” for the January 09 Good Life Magazine. See my comments at:
Then, I happened upon this interesting short video about a fat woman who turned to porn for survival at age 60 and now is one of the UK’s top grossing porn stars. (Try this preceding link to view the video, since the video share feature below seems to allow a still image on my blog, but not the full video play feature.)
If it is not beauty or youth that makes us attractive, what is it?
In January, we’ll be talking about “Love in the Recession” with my special guest, Claire Miner PhD.
In February, we’ll be talking about “Reading Erotica” with author and former lit teacher Hapax Legomenon. (CANCELED)
In March, we’ll be talking about “Playful and Spontaneous Romance” with improv coach and performer Shana Merlin. (CANCELED)
Start sending in your questions for these folks now.
Sitting on my desk in artfully designed shiny foil wrappers are chocolate-, grape- and banana-flavored condoms. They were gifts from the good folk at Planned Parenthood, where I recently met with a group of sex-health educators. Since condoms are the most reliable available and reliable protection against unwanted pregnancy and STDs, Planned Parenthood is running a campaign to change the image of the rubber. It got me thinking…
What are the various was in which people can have fun with contraceptives? Must contraceptives be seen as a turn-off, however necessary, or are the part of the collection of toys in your pleasure chest? I’m collecting real-life anecdotes and suggestions, and I welcome yours. The compiled results will likely show up in a future “Intimacies” column I’ll write in The Good Life (names may be withheld on request). What memorable experiences have you had with any form of contraception?
Frank Butterfield was my special guest at BookPeople, talking about “Attracting Love” with the Law of Attraction.
Some of the crowd that turned out for the event. As the host, I stand in the middle, in front of Frank.
I hope you picked up a copy of The Good Life magazine to read my August column, “All eyes are drawn to bare skin and itsy-bitsy bikinis.” If you didn’t, please go to http://goodlifemag.com to find out where in Austin, Texas, you may still be able to put your hands on a hard copy. Or follow this link:
I’d welcome your comments on the column or on how you feel when you’re half naked at the public pool?