How Do I Overcome the Shame of Sex?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I grew up in a fairly religious household where sex was rarely discussed (and when it was, it was talked about for the purposes of conception). Now, in my 30s, I have renounced many aspects of the religion I grew up with and come to realize some of the harm it caused in my life—including giving me a very problematic view of sex.

I’m a virgin and have barely even been able to masturbate, let alone approach intimacy with a partner. I feel ashamed and guilty whenever I try, even though I tell myself over and over again that self-exploration is healthy and necessary. I desperately want a relationship, too, but can’t fathom the idea of overcoming my nervousness about sex and exposing my body (nudity was condemned in my family as well).

While I am still a child of God and am waiting for marriage to have sex, I would like to be more open to physical acts of love and more self-accepting when it comes to touching myself. Can you tell me why shame and embarrassment persist around the subject of sex, even after I have released so much other negativity that was ingrained in me through my childhood faith? How can I shake the bad emotions that arise instantly when I feel aroused or try to indulge my thoughts and fantasies about sex? —Shackled by Shame

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Dear Shackled,

First off, I want to say how much I respect and admire you. Clearly, you have worked hard to release the “negativity” that was part of your childhood. That is a huge undertaking, and you have accomplished a great deal. Nevertheless, you want to go further. You write that although you have achieved great self-understanding, there is an important aspect of your life that you would like to change—shame about sex.

You write that you feel ashamed and guilty about your sexuality. Shame and guilt are both powerful emotions, but very different from each other. Guilt has to do with feeling bad about something you have done. It’s hard to endure, but shame is worse. Shame is about who you are or, more accurately, who you think you are (based on the influences in your life)—no good, bad, worthless, and so on. If you feel guilty about something you have done, you can make retribution or decide to never repeat the action. But shame? Shame is about your core being, your whole self, body, and soul. I get the feeling from your words that shaming might have been part of your experiences growing up. Shame is used to belittle and control people; it is a tool of hate, not of love.

You describe sex as almost a great unmentionable in your childhood home, surrounded by prohibitions about nudity, masturbation, and adult relationships. Sexuality has something to do with love and loving, because sex is, finally, a loving physical and emotional expression of closeness with oneself and another. In fact, sexuality is an integral and intimate part of a person’s very being—and being in loving connection, the very opposite of shame.

You write that you are a “child of God.” I don’t know how you express your spirituality, but I wonder if you have come across this quotation from Ephesians 5:20: “For no one has ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, as the Messiah does the church.” In short, take care of yourself, body and soul, with complete love.

I recognize—and maybe you do, too—that this sounds easier said than done. For many people, the shame they experience surrounding sex stems from societal and religious taboos that have developed over many generations, making it a particularly difficult subject to reconcile new feelings around. I urge you to be compassionate with yourself as you work through your feelings, which clearly aren’t comfortable for you. It’s hard to overcome a lifetime of conditioning.

Many people experience negative feelings about the body. You wonder how you might overcome yours. I would start by working with a therapist around issues of loving yourself, emotionally as well as physically. Therapy can be very helpful as you gradually unlearn the negative feelings that are attached to your sexuality.

I find myself wondering how you care for yourself. Do you provide yourself with proper rest and physical care? Do you beautify yourself and your environment? Do things you like? Do you recognize and then give yourself what you need? Respecting, caring for, and loving oneself may gradually bring you closer to your body. Again, be kind to yourself.

Many people experience negative feelings about the body. You wonder how you might overcome yours. I would start by working with a therapist around issues of loving yourself, emotionally as well as physically. Therapy can be very helpful as you gradually unlearn the negative feelings that are attached to your sexuality. The experience of talking about your feelings with a compassionate other may itself be a way to lessen your feelings of shame as you bring them to light on your terms. This is a gradual process. There is no hurry.

You might also find physical outlets, such as sports or yoga or hiking, for example, that you enjoy. These are ways to perhaps feel more at home in your body.

As you gradually feel all of who you are, and the joy in and around you, you might also discover the joy of companionship with someone special. Often, people who are new to sex are worried about how they will do, as if sex were a test or performance to be graded. There is a simple remedy for such feelings. Rather than focusing on yourself and if you’re doing things right, you can focus on what your partner finds enjoyable as your partner finds ways to please you. As you treasure each other, your intimacy may deepen and grow.

Thank you very much for asking this delicate question. I hope my answers are helpful, and I wish you a blossoming of your full self.

Take care,

Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
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  • Logan

    Logan

    November 26th, 2016 at 8:42 AM

    Sometimes the best of intentions as I am sure that your family had end up with consequences for others that hurt them for a very long time.
    I would encourage you to begin working with someone who can lead you the understanding that sex can be a beautiful thing when it is between two people who genuinely love and care about one another.
    I applaud you for taking that first step, knowing that there is something more out there than what you may have been told to believe from a young age, and I hope that you are able to find someone who will open those doors of love for and to you.

  • Shayna

    Shayna

    November 26th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    Gosh the things that some parents do to their kids!

  • Naomi

    Naomi

    November 27th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    Shayna — we have all hurt our children. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US. Every one of us has failed on occasion to validate our kids’ pain or anger. It is true that some parents are more skilled than others — but trust me, if you have children, you have hurt them on occasion. One thing that DBT has taught me is that it is not helpful to judge others — only to work on yourself.

  • Pelly

    Pelly

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:49 AM

    The line of scripture that you quoted from Ephesians is beautiful

  • Carson

    Carson

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:23 PM

    It always amazes me that these are typically families who advocate for having a large number of children and yet they all grow up believing that the act of sex is something that we should be ashamed of.

    Why be ashamed of something that shows another person just how much you care for them? It is the ultimate show of loving someone.

  • Shayna

    Shayna

    November 28th, 2016 at 7:30 AM

    Naomi, I think that you took that comment a little too strongly. I would be the first to admit that I too have hurt my children, I just have to hope that I haven’t done anything that is irreparable.

  • Tao

    Tao

    November 28th, 2016 at 2:48 PM

    How is there shame in having sex or in being a sexual creature?
    Isn’t this what God himself has created us to be?
    And isn’t the very act of producing children, more of God’s children, directly related to having intimate relations with someone?
    So how could that ever be a bad thing?

  • Jeremy

    Jeremy

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:30 AM

    I was brought up in a somewhat similar type of upbringing and I do have to say that I still think that the females are made to feel worse about their bodies than men are.
    For the women it is all about making sure that they are sufficiently ashamed of themselves, and I know now why this is so hurtful to them and their self esteem, even their ability to fall in live with another person because you are so convinced that there is something wrong with you for feeling things.

  • juan

    juan

    April 6th, 2017 at 9:25 PM

    hey. I’m juan, two, three, four

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