Confronting Sexual Shame
Originally Published: April 13, 2017
Revised: April 13, 2017
If you participated in an abstinence-based sex education program like I did, it’s possible you’ve had a lesson that involved a confusing analogy comparing a person who has had sex to some sort of “tarnished” object: a licked cupcake, a used piece of tape, a chewed stick of gum, and the list goes on. Maybe your lessons were not as extreme, but you were still taught that abstinence is necessary to preserve your “purity” or “virginity,” both concepts that directly suggest that after being sexually active you have lost some tangible essence of yourself, that you are less than you were before.
This message is usually backed by good intention; becoming sexually active presents its own set of risks and responsibilities that ought to be taken seriously. Abstinence is not an unworthy goal for a young person to have, nor an inappropriate choice to encourage during sex education. However, messages like these can shame teens who are sexually active and don’t adequately equip us with the facts and information we need to competently navigate decisions regarding our own sexuality.
You basically have to “reprogram” yourself by rediscovering sex and pleasure on your own terms, and it’s going to take some time.
The Consequences of Shame
The teenage years are generally when we begin to become aware of our sexuality and attraction (or lack thereof, which is perfectly normal too). Sorting through these feelings is already complicated enough. Add to the equation conflicting messages from a society that promotes sex as the be-all-end-all but still tiptoes around talking about it frankly, as well as shame-driven messages from misinformed abstinence-only programs that suggests sex is something dirty or wrong, and the result is a confusing and toxic concoction. So, it is not hard to believe that many people, teenagers and adults alike, experience intense feelings of guilt after being sexual.
My own initial exploration in sexuality was laden with guilt, frustration and tears. But not because I was being sexual when I didn’t want to be, as you might expect. On the contrary, I felt ashamed that I did want to be sexual. I was raised in a religious environment that preached highly conservative sexual ideals. I was taught that sex was intended strictly for married couples. Virginity was something to be treasured and protected at all costs. Masturbation was only rarely mentioned in hushed and awkward tones that conveyed the disgraceful and sinful nature of it all. It was under these conditions that sex and pleasure, things that should have been an exciting part of growing up, became a stifling emotional burden in my life. But this is not how the story ends.
Confrontation and Liberation
Turns out, you can’t rely on people to just hand you all the answers you need—an unfortunate realization, sure, but also an inevitable one that eventually led to a great deal of personal growth. If I wanted to stop feeling miserable and confused, it was up to me to find the answers. Luckily, there are great online sex education resources for teens; you just have to look for them. This involved a lot of research and hard questions like, “Do I feel guilty because of something I believe or because of something people tell me I’m supposed to believe?” By confronting the misconceptions I had been taught and educating myself properly, I developed my own beliefs and made informed decisions about my sexuality.
Keep in mind, brains are kind of like computers. When you experience guilt immediately after sexual pleasure, your brain has been programmed to connect sex and guilt. So, even when you logically know that those ideas about sex that made you feel guilty in the first place aren’t true, the feeling can persist. You basically have to “reprogram” yourself by rediscovering sex and pleasure on your own terms, and it’s going to take some time.
The good news is there is absolutely no rush. Whether you are reprogramming by yourself (and by yourself is a great place to start) or with a partner, make sure to move at your own pace. Most importantly, whether you choose to remain abstinent or to become sexually active—or anywhere in-between—make sure it’s because it’s what you want for yourself. And with that, I leave you with the words I wish someone had said to me a long time ago: you have nothing to be ashamed of.
*Bean Larson is a contributor who lives in Texas.
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