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Overcoming Sexual Shame

Sexual shame is a negative reaction to any combination of turn-ons, fantasies, sexual feelings or acts, or body feelings.

Feeling embarrassed after you masturbate? Sexual shame. Being afraid to share what you like or fantasize about with a partner because that’s something you feel like you’re not supposed to talk about? Sexual shame. Hunching over with a weird hot feeling in your chest or behind your eyes in case someone sees what’s on your screen right now? Sexual shame.

When we live in a pervasive sex- and body-negative society, it’s no surprise that many of us experience shame around our sexual desires. Unfortunately, shame can come from a range of sources that link to all parts of ourselves. Family, religion, lack of sex education (or worse, actively sex- and pleasure-hostile sex education), and more can all lead to a pervasive sense of shame around any sexual expression.

In the United States specifically, while 30 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, the details are often left for individual school districts to determine, according to Guttmatcher Institute. Of those, 28 states require educators to stress abstinence, an approach that has been found to be ethically and scientifically questionable at best. “The extent of the harm to children’s respect for themselves [...] from this condemnation and shame is unknown,” according to the authors of “Sex, Lies, & Stereotypes: How Abstinence-Only Programs Harm Women and Girls.”

Whether from abstinence-only sex education or from other sources, shame unquestionably harms sexuality. For men (to use the researchers’ language around gender), it can relate to distress about not having enough sexual experience, remorse around masturbation or porn, body dissatisfaction, libido disdain, experiencing an attraction that’s at odds with their self-image, and insecurity about sexual performance, according to a study in the Journal of Men’s Studies.

For women (to use the researchers’ language around gender), sexual shame, and menstrual shame, can lead to risker sexual decision-making, according to a study in the Journal of Sex Research.

So how do you move forward from a place of sexual shame and into a place of sexual empowerment?

Let Go of Self-Judgment...

Self-judgment is wasted energy. Practicing a release of thoughts related to self-judgment around your sexuality can have a transformative impact on your sexual pleasure, and is a great place to start when it comes to releasing sexual shame.

To start, begin to notice when thoughts of self-judgment or embarrassment come up around your sexual feelings or actions. What is it like to simply notice those thoughts and then let them pass, rather than fixating on them?

...Or, Eroticize It

You can also turn your sexual shame into an erotic experience that brings you great sexual pleasure. Sharing your shame with an accepting partner can be a way to reframe it or connect over a similar experience. It can also be a way to practice engaging with a sense of shame that’s entirely within your control.

For instance, if you worry about being called a degrading term because of your sexuality or sexual behaviors, you and your partner can discuss playing with using that term during sex together.

What does it feel like to be called that word by someone with whom you share mutual trust and respect, while doing something consensual and pleasurable together? You might discover it’s an opportunity to reclaim it. You might also discover that it leads to some uncomfortable feelings to work through, so make sure you agree on a safeword or other way to stop the play if you feel uncomfortable, and on a plan for aftercare so you can feel safe and connected afterwards.

Remember that Others Share Your Fantasies

Sometimes, letting go of shame can be as simple as learning that you’re not alone. About 97% of Americans report sexual fantasies. While these fantasies can be as varied as the people who have them, many of them fall along seven themes, according to a study by Justin Lehmiller. These include:

  1. Sex with multiple partners (including threesomes and orgies)

  2. BDSM and kink

  3. Novelty and adventure

  4. Taboo sex acts (such as exhibitionism or voyeurism)

  5. Intimacy and romance (including feeling loved and desired by a partner, as well as emotional connection)

  6. Non-monogamy (including polyamory, cuckolding, and swinging)

  7. Changes in gender and sexual orientation (such as pushing the boundaries of or changing your gender expression or your partners’)

Of these, 99% of respondents fantasized about intimacy and romance, while 97% of respondents fantasized about novelty and adventure. Depending on gender, 93–96% of respondents fantasized about BDSM, while 87–95% fantasized about multi-partner sex. As Lehmiller writes, “Most people reported having had several different types of fantasies. In other words, it’s normal to fantasize about more than one thing!”

What should you take from this? Your fantasies are normal.

Move Forward with Intention

What impact would your fantasies and sexuality have in your life if you viewed them with gratitude rather than shame?

What possibilities could they bring?

What adventures might they open up?

And what is the first step you can take towards embracing them?


Download the Lover app today to discover a mindfulness exercise designed to neutralize unhelpful sexual thoughts.


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