Is Shame Affecting Your Sex Life?

Couple sits on bed in embraceIn the safety of therapy, clients are able to open up about their sexual experiences. This all too often reveals shame lurking beneath the surface. For some people, it’s close to the surface, and for others, it’s buried deep within them.

Shame flourishes when it’s kept in the dark. But shame tends to diminish when it is brought into the open and met with love and compassion. I’m writing this article to highlight some of the common ways shame operates in regards to sexuality. Hopefully, you may learn some ways to leave it behind.

5 Ways Shame Impacts Sex

Internalized Problems

One marker of shame is that problems are experienced as integral to the person rather than as a natural result of situational factors that can be explained and addressed:

Chantelle looked down as she spoke. “I think there’s something wrong with me. I don’t get aroused anymore, and I barely feel pleasure from sex. I used to really enjoy sex.”

Once we began to unpack her problem and rule out any medical issues, it became clear that there were several very good reasons why Chantelle had low desire and arousal—she felt exhausted from lack of sleep and stress, and she often felt she was running on empty due to having very little time to herself.

Reframing Chantelle’s lack of sexual desire and arousal as a natural response to situational factors in her life rather than something inherently wrong with her was key in helping her let go of the shame and self-blame. Chantelle was then able to address the various factors that were making it difficult for her to enjoy sex. We found creative ways for Chantelle to prioritize her needs for sleep and self-care, which created more energy for her to reconnect with herself and her partner sexually.


Disgust and queasiness are signs there is shame lurking within oneself. When babies are born, they have no shame about their bodies. Babies will naturally begin to explore their body, and genitals, with no judgment. It is parents and adults who attach shame to that experience.

It is natural and healthy to explore one’s body, starting in childhood and through all stages of life. It is also natural to experience sexual desire and to act on that desire, when done in a safe and consensual way. If you feel disgust about your body or sexuality, it may mean you are carrying shame or judgments that don’t belong to you.

Many clients I see have some memory of being shamed as a child for exploring their body or playing “doctor” with other children. Other clients have experienced the trauma of sexual abuse as a child or an adult. Sexual abuse or harassment is never the victim’s fault. Please know there is help if you or someone you know has experienced this. In all cases of sexual shame and disgust, please seek help and guidance. Having sexual challenges or problems does not mean you or your body are disgusting or wrong.

Inhibited Desire and Arousal

Shame is like a thick coating of black tar that sits on top of what would be a natural and healthy sexual desire and arousal response. The natural responses are still there, but they are buried beneath the shame, which prevents the natural desire and arousal from surfacing.

Shame is like a thick coating of black tar that sits on top of what would be a natural and healthy sexual desire and arousal response. The natural responses are still there, but they are buried beneath the shame, which prevents the natural desire and arousal from surfacing.

Michael Bader writes in his book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies about certain mood states that are incompatible with arousal: anxiety, guilt, and shame. To circumvent these barriers, the subconscious may invent fantasies to remove the source of the anxiety, guilt, or shame to free the person up to experience arousal.

For instance, a shame-bound person may have a sexual fantasy of being shamed or humiliated, which sexualizes the very thing that is blocking their arousal. In many other cases, a person with shame about their body or sexuality will continue to live with a repressed sexuality, unable to overcome their mental blocks or to experience their full sexual expression.

Secrecy and Psychological Splitting

Being overwhelmed with sexual guilt and shame causes people to hide sexual desires or behaviors because they perceive them as bad or unworthy. Hiding and secrecy impede a person’s relationship with others and create isolation. This exacerbates the problem of shame for the person and often disrupts their relationships with their family, friends, and community.

Sexual shame also causes psychological splitting, which happens when a person “splits off” a part of themselves that is deemed to be unacceptable. The disowned part of themselves continues to exist, but only in secret, where it often becomes distorted and intertwined with shame.

Splitting and secrecy cause many problems, including internal disconnect, relational disconnect and conflict, depression, dishonesty, infidelity, and others. Clients with this issue are able to work towards integration of their disowned parts in therapy, which can help reduce the shame.

Communication Breakdown

Couples who have sexual problems accompanied by shame often lash out at each other or shut down during conversations about their issues. The conversation usually starts with an effort to make sense of the problem and try to find a solution. But the conversation becomes frustrating quickly when there is shame involved.

A person with shame is more likely to want to deflect away from their own role in the issue, which can lead to inadvertently blaming the other person rather than owning their part. In other cases, one or both parties are so embarrassed and ashamed that they shut down, and the conversation ends in tears or shutting the other person out:

Alexandra and Neil haven’t had regular sex in years. After what they felt was a debacle on their wedding night, they slowly sank into a cycle of shame and blame. She felt embarrassed at her lack of experience and felt it was her fault the sex was awkward and painful. He felt he had failed in his role as a husband because he couldn’t please his wife. After 2 years of trying and arguing, Alexandra and Neil stopped bringing it up altogether. Now in therapy 10 years later, they have many layers of guilt and shame to process in order to heal and repair their relationship.

Sex-Related Shame: What to Do About It

Remember that many people experience shame about their sexuality and are able to heal from it. If this applies to you, consider engaging the help of a mentor or therapist and use resources such as the books listed below.

Consider meditating on the following phrases:

  • “My sexuality is part of who I am.”
  • “Sex is good.”
  • “I can take responsibility for my sexual desires in a healthy way.”

A therapist can help you work on identifying any sex-negative or shame-based beliefs, exploring where they came from, and reframing them into something that is more positive and affirming of your sexuality. Through this process, you may also work on healing any underlying wounds. Find an understanding therapist here.

Make sure to consult a physician to rule out any physical contributors to your sexual functioning.

Sex-Positive Books on Sexuality

  • Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
  • For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life by Jennifer Berman, MD and Laura Berman, PhD
  • Sex for One: The Joy of Self Loving by Betty Dodson, PhD
  • Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want from Sex–and How to Get It by Marty Klein
  • Sexual Awareness: Your Guide to Healthy Couple Sexuality by Barry McCarthy
  • Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing by Karen McClintock

Books for Survivors of Sexual Trauma and Those Who Love Them

  • The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
  • The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz
  • Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child by Laura Davis

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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