There is no area of behaviour that human beings feel more shame around than sex. We can perhaps understand some of the origins of this culture of shame when we look at the historical values of religion or even modern sex education, with its emphasis on physical functions and pregnancy prevention.
As relationship coaches and psychotherapists, we sit with couples from all walks of life, where at least one of the partners is affected by sexual shame. By sexual shame, we mean all the ways we come to feel that who we are as sexual beings – including how we think about sex, our sexual beliefs and values, our sexual desires and our sexual behaviours are wrong, fundamentally bad or evil, or more corrosive still, embarrassing.
Some families instil a sense of shame in children for having sexual feelings in the first place. Where parents talk about sex and sexual relationships with judgement or condemnation, children internalise the notion that “sex is wrong”. If there is an absence of appropriate touch between the parents, children grow up with no modelling of affection, tenderness or playfulness.
As children, we were sexually innocent, touching our genitals with no sense of shame or embarrassment. But soon, we were told to stop doing it, without any explanation as to why. We were often given silly names to refer to our penis or vagina, as if to use the correct name was somehow offensive. And if we were caught exploring our bodies while playing childhood games, we were told off and made to feel ashamed and guilty. There are probably very few parents around who would explain to their children that masturbation is a normal and healthy activity and would encourage them just to enjoy it,
Since social media has become so powerful, it has become a common area for harassment. For example, the expression “slut shaming” is often used online when teenage girls are being criticised (shamed) for their sexual expression or assumed sexual experiences. Boys are not immune either – taunts about penis size, sexual impotence or effeminacy are all too common and cause lasting damage.
Being shamed can affect anyone, but it especially affects those who don’t fit the so-called norm. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer / questioning (LGBTQ) are easy targets. They are recognised as being a high risk group for suicide and they often feel marginalised because of their sexuality. This is how shame hurts and destroys.
So what does sexual shame look like in couples psychotherapy. Sometimes at LoveRelations, clients are very clear – they are ashamed of their bisexuality, their cross-dressing, their on-line porn habit. More often, couples arrive in therapy and allude to “lack of intimacy”, or a “sexless marriage”.
Why aren’t these couples having sex? Once we’ve ruled out health problems, or a hidden affair – someone else in the picture is a very common cause and catalyst of a sexless marriage – then it’s worth exploring sexual shame. If one or both partners in the relationship has shame around their sexuality, or an aspect of their sexuality, or sexual functioning, it’s most likely they will keep it a secret. That’s how shame works.
The author and leading shame researcher, Brene Brown talks about guilt and shame in this way: “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
“Is shame is about the fear of losing your worthiness and social connections, sexual shame is all about feeling unloveable, unworthy of partnership and being branded abnormal”
Much of our work at LoveRelations is about helping couples detoxify some of their shame. It’s often in the one-to-one therapy sessions that a man may talk about erectile dysfunction. Sometimes clients will begin to talk about their discomfort in being sexual in the first place. Whilst they might know it’s a set of negative messages from childhood or from popular culture, still the shame persists. And because it’s so inextricably bound up with feeling “wrong” or “bad” then to talk about it feels nearly impossible. Hence the stalemate. No sex, no discussions.
There are many forms of sexual shame, just as there are all sorts of couples. What is similar, sadly, is the pain and silence which accompanied the suffering. At LoveRelations, we encourage couples to take the lid offs one of this shame. We look at what messages might have been acquired along the way to do with “good” and “bad” or “normal”. We create a safe space where couples can begin. To communicate, free from shame, judgement or even expectation.
Where there is sexual shame, there is always secrecy and silence. No relationship can flourish under these conditions. And every individual deserves to be free of their toxic shame.