Sexual shame. It sounds old-timey, but in reality is something just about all of us have experienced. In fact, many women are carrying around more sexual shame baggage than they may realize. Let’s unpack that baggage a bit and look at the effects shame can have on adult sexual self-esteem.
Forms of sexual shame
Sexual shame is insidious and takes many forms. Maybe you got caught touching yourself as a child and remember the embarrassment and shame you felt. Or you were too vocal during sex and a partner made you feel embarrassed. Perhaps you’ve been anxious about not reaching orgasm with a partner, or felt shame about something that gives you sexual pleasure. Many women raised religious homes were taught that sexual pleasure or sexual expression is dirty or even sinful. And too many LGBT moms have been shamed by friends and family for their sexual orientation.
Some women grew up with the idea that it was unbecoming or wanton to have healthy sexual appetites. Other women feel ashamed of their sexual fantasies or preferences in the bedroom. Moms experience an added layer of sexual shame in the form of the sexist double standard in our society that says that women can’t be sexually confident and good mothers, too.
The ramifications of shame
Shame manifests itself in subtle but treacherous ways: through guilt, embarrassment, feeling closed-off sexually, fear of trying something you think you might enjoy, or worrying that there is nothing you enjoy sexually. Shame is present when you can’t talk to your partner about sex. Shame is present when you feel something is wrong with you, with your libido, with your body, with your relationship. Some survivors of sexual trauma can feel haunted by sexual shame, and good support and therapy are invaluable. You can find a list of sexuality therapists and counselors in your area here.
How to counteract shame
Even when we intellectually know that the shame-filled messages we carry are bogus, they can taint our sexual self-confidence. To counteract sexual shame, acknowledge and be grateful for what you enjoy and are skilled at sexually. Learn to recognize how sexual shame can rear its ugly head in unexpected ways and moments. Banish the power of sexual shame by acknowledging it, recognizing where it comes from and how it affects your eroticism, and give yourself permission to let it go. One of my favorite mantras I repeat to myself when I feel caught in a damaging thought cycle is, Just because I think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Give yourself permission to live beyond shame, to recognize that you alone are the steward of your sexual happiness and pleasure and that your ability to express yourself sexually is one of the greatest gifts of being human. Don’t let shame stop you from seeking help if you need it. Our sexual self-confidence is something to celebrate, explore, and enjoy. And that, my friends, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Sarah J Swofford, MPH, the Mama Sexpert, is the author of “From Ouch! To Ahhh…The New Mom’s Guide To Sex After Baby.”