Contributed by: Xanet Pailet
How the Origins of Conscious and Subconscious Shame have Negatively Colored Our Feelings About Sex
In my new book, Living an Orgasmic Life: Heal Yourself and Awaken Your Pleasure, I devote an entire chapter to shame, which I call “The Nastiest Five Letter Word in the Universe”. Shame is so insidious that we feel shame even talking about shame. It’s rarely brought up, except maybe in the context of therapy. But shame creeps up constantly in our lives. It’s the rare client who walks in my door without a boatload of shame.
It’s unfortunate since human beings are designed to experience pleasure. Think about babies freely exploring and touching their bodies with wonderment and joy. They coo when they are nursing, pooing, and peeing; an expression of pure pleasure and satisfaction. As we get older, our spontaneous expressions of joy lessens as we are compelled by our environment (e.g. adults) to rein in our pleasure-seeking behavior.
It’s an odd paradox since we have over ten thousand nerve endings in our genitals. Female mammals are the only animals that have a clitoris and it does not serve any role in reproduction. Its only purpose is for us to experience pleasure. Our physiology supports this argument but when we get older and want to touch ourselves, an element of shame often seeps in, completely spoiling our experience of pleasure.
Where does our sexual shame come from? Ancient cultures attitudes towards sex were actually quite positive. Many ancient Eastern cultures worshipped sex and prayed to statues of Lingham’s (penises) and Yoni’s (vaginas) representing the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Goddess worship was also a major part of ancient Egyptian and Greek culture.
It was the Judeo-Christian religion that vilified sex. Adam and Eve were shamed for their nakedness, accused of “original sin” and banished from the Garden of Eden. We have been paying the price of their banishment and carrying the weight of their shame ever since.
To understand how shame impacts the relationship with your own sexuality, you need to examine your sexual blueprint. Similar to an architectural blueprint, you have a sexual blueprint composed of all the early life experiences that make up yourself as a sexual being. The elements of your sexual blueprint include:
- Messages you received about sex as a child from parents, other adults and society
- Early childhood sexual exploration with yourself and/or others
- Your first sexual experiences
- Relationships with your mother and father or primary caregiver
- Seminal events that impacted your body image
- Religious ideology or indoctrination
How these messages impact you differs for everyone but we all experience shame… that is a part of human existence. Here’s an example of how this plays out.
When I was growing up I had a dog whose name was Lucky. He was a yappy, high strung neurotic Yorkshire terrier; we did not have the best relationship. When I was 8 years old, Lucky started to lick my private parts while I was lying in bed at night. I experienced a lot of pleasure from this. I also knew from earlier experiences that I would be punished if my mother caught me. So, the pleasure I experienced was colored with fear, anxiety, and shame. Fast forward 15 years. Is there any wonder that I was really uncomfortable with oral sex and could never relax enough to experience it as pleasurable? My body combined the sensation of pleasure with the sensation of anxiety and shame, making it impossible for me to ever have an orgasm.
My experience is hardly unique. One of my clients who grew up in Iran was constantly slut-shamed by her mother for wanting to wear shorts and tight tops and express her budding femininity. The minute her partner touched her sensually and she felt any amount of pleasurable sensations in her body, she completely shut down. She heard the voice of her mother saying “Only sluts enjoy sex.”
To get rid of your shame around sex, you have to first normalize it. I spend a lot of time with clients normalizing their shame, behavior, and desires. One of the first ways to normalize shame is to write about it in your own personal journal. That was the beginning of my breakthrough when I finally admitted to myself the incident with my dog Lucky. It still took me a long time to be able to share that story.
But what I learned is that talking about your shame with others is a huge step towards healing it. That’s why I included several “shame normalization” exercises in my new book Living an Orgasmic Life. An action that you can take right now is to have a “shame-a-thon” conversation with friends or partners. Start by just talking about the messages you received around sex growing up and how you think those messages might be impacting you as an adult. You can also share about early childhood sexual exploration. What you’re bound to discover is that you’re not alone and likely share many similar experiences. This realization alone will be a giant step towards normalizing and banishing your shame.