Sexual shame is one of the most pervasive sexual challenges, but it rarely gets talked about directly. Because, you know…shame.
Sometimes sexual shame is broad, affecting how we engage with our sexual selves overall. That’s especially true for folks who have been raised in strict, socially conservative environments where all conversations about sex, sexual desire, and sexual safety were considered “no-go zones” and for folks who were raised in households where “sexual purity” was considered a core value.
Other times, sexual shame is specific. It might show up in relation to masturbation, our desires and fantasies, our kinks, how we choose to structure our relationships, how our genitals look, or any number of areas.
Shame isn’t inherent, though.
It’s taught. That shame instruction happens both actively (through our caregivers, schools, and religious communities) and passively (through conversations with friends and larger media messaging). It pushes us to believe that we are wrong, that we are alone in our experiences, and that we should hide who we are. But I have very good news: Because we can be taught shame, we can also unlearn shame.
Unlearning sexual shame has become a big part of my educational work. So, I’m sharing 6 ways to help you begin to uproot shame from your life.
As you read through this list, remember: Unlearning shame is work. It requires us to take a fresh, sometimes uncomfortable, look at our past, how we show judgment, and what our core values are. It also takes time. Give yourself permission to move as slowly and intentionally through this process as you need.
1. Inventory the areas of your sex life affected by shame
To take an inventory of how shame shows up in your sex life, list out the areas where you feel joyful, relaxed, and judgment-free. Then, list out the parts of yourself that you feel like you push to the side, silence, or judge. These areas could be behaviors, mindsets, ways of expressing yourself, fantasies, body-specific things—whatever feels true to you.
You may struggle with one or both of those categories. Some folks may feel like there are no parts of their sex lives that feel judgment-free (if that’s you, don’t get stuck in not being able to write something down—just move to the other category). Others may feel overwhelmed or even triggered by naming how their shame is manifesting.
Take as much time as you need to do this and take breaks when you need to.
2. Identify your “shame voice”
Your shame voice is the character in your brain who is telling you that you’re bad for thinking, feeling, or doing whatever. It might be someone who raised you, a person you had a previous relationship with, a religious leader—anyone, really.
Some people’s shame voices even sound like themselves. Others may find that their shame voice is amorphous and can’t be pinned to one person or institution.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is that person or institution someone whose opinion or guidance you still value?
- Has that person or institution demonstrated that you can turn to them for support and they won’t judge, condemn, or punish you?
In some cases, the answer may be a clear “no.” But in others, it may be “uh…sometimes?” and in other cases a complete “yes.”
Really important note: If your shame’s voice sounds like your own voice, then be gentle with that interrogation. Instead, I recommend asking yourself where you picked up the messages or values that informed your shame. Don’t bully yourself.
3. Seek out new information
Sexual shame is often born out of misinformation. For example, people with vaginas may have been taught that their value as a person is reduced once they have vaginal sex.
But that’s not true.
One major way to counteract shame’s effects on your life is to counterbalance its messaging. Find sex ed resources that are dedicated to teaching about sexuality without condemning your behaviors or desires. Some that I recommend are Scarleteen, The CSPH, What’s My Body Doing, Sex Positive Families, Thank God for Sex, and my own YouTube show, You Deserve Good Sex. We also have a lot of sex ed content right here on The House Call!
4. Build shame-free micro-communities
Our sexual shame might be fostered by the people who are around us day-to-day, and we might not want or be able to cut ties with those people or institutions. Instead, counterbalance their effects by creating and participating in spaces where shame simply isn’t welcome at the table.
That might look like following or unfollowing certain social media accounts. It could also look like joining a virtual or IRL support group, visiting a community center, or spending a lot of time on subreddits. Your micro-community may even be one or two friends with whom you can have open, honest conversations.
Whatever your thing is, there is an online or in-person community for it—I promise you.
Spend some time figuring out how you can build up shame-free spaces in your life, even if it’s just in your digital life. Those spaces can help you feel less alone and stigmatized, and they can even help with that “new information” thing we just talked about.
5. Identify your true values
For many of us, our core values are things that we inherited from our families and communities growing up. That can be both a positive and negative thing, but in general, it means that we may not have spent time thinking about if those values are really our values.
- What would you name as one of your core values?
- How do you put those values into action day-to-day?
- How do you want to embody those values?
- How do you want to share them with others?
That exercise can apply to values overall, and I recommend doing that work. But it’s just as important to think about our specific sexual values. All of those same questions apply; just consider them within the context of sex.
When you identify what your sexual values are, it can become easier to identify behaviors or systems that do and don’t support them.
6. Remind yourself: You don’t deserve shame
No matter what your shame voice may be telling you, you don’t deserve to feel shame.
Unlike guilt, which can help us identify if we’ve done something wrong, the only function of shame is to make us feel like we are entirely bad or unloveable. Some reminders:
- You are not a chewed-up piece of gum, a piece of linty tape, or a licked lollipop
- You are not alone in your desires
- Desire is not immoral
- Your body is made for your consensual, delightful, exploratory enjoyment
- Your body is not too big, too small, too uneven, too floppy, too curved — too anything
I’ll say it again: You don’t deserve shame. Tell yourself that as often as you need to. Interrupt your shame cycle as often as you need to. Because you didn’t plant your own shame seed, but you can be the one to uproot it.
As you begin your journey to unlearn your sexual shame, remember to give yourself time, patience, and abundant acceptance. You may need extra support from a therapist or support group, and that’s okay! You deserve that support.
In short, you’ve got this.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is a Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
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