Extinguish Sexual Shame by Claiming Your Authentic Desire: Sexual Healing

woman in bed

ColumnSexual shame dominates our lives — even when we’re not consciously thinking about sex. Shame is so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to extricate oneself from the ubiquitous, all-consuming spiral of it.

Sexual shame is not just what happens in the act of sex, or post-coitally. It’s not the just the “walk of shame” or guilt about casual sex that you wish you could un-have. It’s something you carry around with you when you commute to work, when you’re hanging out with your friends, when you’re relaxing with your family – it’s always there, lurking in the background, until you consciously decide to kill it off.

There are almost too many sources of shame to list in one article, but I’ll try. There is the most obvious kind of shame – the kind that happens after a sexual assault. This brand of shame is ostensibly permitted, at least in clinical settings. Not all women come forward after rape, however – so it’s only the few who are allowed to work through the trauma. One-in-four women will be raped in their lifetime – a staggering statistic that elicits a tsunami of shame.

Yet sexual shame is also straight-up body shame. It’s waking up in the morning, looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror, and thinking, “Ugh”. It’s feeling too old or too ugly to experience love. It’s repressing your anger because you’re afraid of offending a partner or potential partner. It’s the sense that you must always be a good girl, even if you’re a grown-ass woman.

Sexual shame is not asking for sex when you’re horny, because you feel too fat or not pretty enough. It’s not asking your partner to go down on you because you worry that there’s something wrong with your vulva – maybe it’s not “normal.” It’s being in your head when your partner does go down on you – worrying whether you’re good enough to deserve that pleasure, wondering why you’re not feeling enough pleasure, worrying if you’re moaning loud enough to make your partner feel like you’re having a good time – instead of just having a good time. Worrying, on the other hand, that you’re moaning too loud.

On the flip side, there is not speaking up about what you don’t want, also born of shame. We want to be pleasing, even as we’re afraid to ask to be pleased. We’ll show up for sex when we’re not in the mood, because we’re afraid of alienating our partner. There is also the shame you might feel after (or while) looking at porn. There is post-orgasmic shame.

There is slut-shaming, still everywhere, even as we fight against it. We’re still damned if we do and damned if we don’t as the Madonna-Whore complex rules most of our social interactions and messaging from pop culture. No matter how progressive we are, even if we’re atheists, there is still the sexual shaming born of religion – as active, or perhaps more active, than ever. The ever-present war on women seems to dominate every election cycle. As I said — too many kinds of shame to list in this space.

Our culture is saturated by sex – it’s in our imagery and our innuendo. It dominates our advertising and films, our viral videos and Netflix queues, our nightly news — our everything. Despite the constant stream of sex, almost none of it (save a few daring projects like “Orange is the New Black” & “Masters of Sex”) honestly depict real (and diverse) women’s sex lives. Women are still overwhelmingly portrayed as objects for consumption by male viewers. There are precious few representations of our desires on the big and small screen – the spaces where we tend to work out our unconscious drives.

What is the cost of all of this unremitting shame? Self-shaming robs you of pleasure – which is really just a way of robbing you of your life force. I believe that shame can actually make you sick, but the good news is that reclaiming pleasure can renew you — body, mind and soul.

So after a lifetime of pervasive sexual shame, how do we purge it? You may want to change the rules of patriarchy, and may be actively working toward that — but it’s not enough. In order to disentangle yourself from the twisted mess that is the shame industrial complex, you must ask yourself what you really want. Peel it back, layer by layer. Let your fantasy life be the lab in which you discover what might turn you on if you weren’t shaped by misogynistic images.

Sexuality is deeply complex, and I’m not telling you to reject any part of yours. There are moments that shaped you from childhood and young adulthood, and some of those, even if they come from what you might objectively consider harmful or negative — they might still be yours. This is yet another level of shame which must be purged. There is nothing wrong with any fetish, or anything that turns you on — as long as consent and communication rule.

Ending sexual shame has everything to do with claiming your authentic desire. Even if you know how to give yourself an orgasm, you probably don’t have enough of them. If you’re a typical heterosexual woman, you come to partnered sex without the expectation of having one, because most of us experience clitoral orgasms, not vaginal ones. And because so many straight men don’t put a lot of thought into our anatomy, and properly pleasing us — many of us give up. If you want to claim your desire, you have to be brave enough to speak up.

Here are some daily practices that can help you expurgate shame, and wholeheartedly embrace pleasure:

If you begin claiming what’s yours in other areas of your life, standing up, being strong, not wilting in situations where you’d ordinarily give up — you’ll empower yourself to stand strong for your sex life. I was incredibly inspired by Rebecca Traister’s admonition to women this week — that we, in the words of our hero Tina Fey, say “I don’t f**king care if you like it” the next time we’re coddled or infantilized by men.

Figure out what is YOURS, not your partner’s. This doesn’t mean you will stop pleasing your partner. If the person you’re married to or sleeping with is threatened by your self-discoveries, rather than turned on by them — I’d suggest that you might reconsider that relationship. Come to the bedroom with new revelations about your needs, new demands, new fantasies, new ways to role-play, new positions – and communicate about them. That’s where it starts — but only you know where it goes from there.

Join Stefanie on a journey to the authentic heart of your sexual self with Project 40: Sadism, Masochism, Sexuality & Shadow, an online 40-day tour through the heart of your psyche via intensive journaling, ritual, and guided daily emails. 

Got a question for Stefanie? Email stefanie at ecosalon dot com, and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.

Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter@ecosexuality

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Stefanie Iris Weiss

Stefanie Iris Weiss is the author of nine books, including her latest title–Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable (Crown Publishing/Ten Speed Press, 2010). She keeps her carbon footprint small in New York City, where she writes about sustainability, sexuality, reproductive rights, dating and relationships, politics, fashion, beauty, and more. Stefanie is a regular contributor to British Elle, and has written for Above Magazine, Nerve, The Daily Green, Marie Claire, EcoSalon and Teen Vogue, to name a few. Her HuffPost blog is sometimes controversial. Stefanie is an on-and-off adjunct professor when not busy writing and teaching about sustainable love. A vegetarian and eco-activist since her teen years, Stefanie has made her passion into her work, and she wouldn't want it any other way. She believes that life is always better when there's more pleasure, and sustainable satisfaction is the best kind. Learn more about her various projects at ecosex.net and follow her on Twitter: @ecosexuality.