Picture this - You've been dreaming about some sexy scenes with your partner(s) and you’re ready for some action! But your stomach twists into knots and you become tongue-tied, unable to ask for what you want. You end up repeating the same old routine in bed.
Or, have you ever had icky feelings when you touch yourself or undress in front of your partner before an intimate moment? You quickly switch the lights off and sneak under the covers.
Rest assured - you are not alone. We’ve all had those moments, and the chances are, those fears and discomfort are linked to the infamous emotion called sexual shame.
Shame and sex
Sexual shame (Litam, 2021) can make us feel embarrassed, disgusted, inadequate and uncomfortable about our own thoughts, behaviours and feelings around sex. It can alienate us from our own sexual identity, desire and attractions.
Research suggests that religious and cultural messages, values, sexual trauma, and often misguided sex education can all contribute to sexual shame. These influences come from school, religion, and family, and exposure to social media, movies and the views of people in our lives.
For example, as kids we might have heard parents refer to genitals as ‘’dirty parts’’ and consequently, we may find it difficult to touch our genitals for pleasure, or feel ashamed of our bodies. As adults ourselves, we’re bombarded by society’s narratives, media and culture that often reinforce harmful stigmas such as ageism, or homophobia.
Sexual shame compels us to believe that we are wrong; we should conceal who we are and that we are alone in this shame. It’s no surprise that shameful feelings can hang around indefinitely, and they can be felt instantaneously within us and externally in our relationships.
The good news is that we can liberate ourselves from sexual shame. We have the capacity to unlearn the shameful messages about sexuality that we have absorbed during our lives. One powerful way to do this is using creative techniques like journaling or art-making. Trust me, I am an art therapist and sex therapist and I’ve seen some powerful results from the combination of both processes.
Some words of caution: while the techniques I am about to share with you can be empowering, they can also be challenging and daunting. If these ideas are too much, move on to the next tip. Take plenty of breaks and time to do this work.
So grab your journal, crayons, and markers and let’s get into freeing ourselves from sexual shame and nurturing a healthier relationship with our sexuality.
1. Express Your Sexual Shame
‘’Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’’ - Aristotle
I often encourage my clients to express the shameful sexual feelings that are otherwise hidden by giving form to them. Paint them, doodle them, explore them through shape and colour.
Then take your journal and reflect. Does this feeling or shape have a name? Who is it? Where are they coming from? How do they show up in our mind, body and relationships?
Another caution here: please don’t be surprised by how harsh, critical and triggering this part can be! This is where you must practice curiosity, and above all else - self-compassion and gentleness.
2. Identify Your (Sexual) Core Values
You’re now on the journey to getting to know your sexual self and gaining deeper understanding of your sexual core values. Yes – this is another drawing and writing exercise!
Draw 3 large circles nested within each other. The innermost circle contains your sexual values, the middle circle is your partner(s)’ sexual values, and the outer circle contains the values of society, or your family, school and friends.
Working from the outside of the circle to the inside, begin to discern which values belong to you and others. Identify values you want to bring into your inner circle (aka your sexual core values) and discard those that don’t work for you. Think about how you can live by one of these core values.
For example, if you adopt curiosity and love as your core sexual values, set a time to self-pleasure yourself with the intention of self-love and self-discovery. The possibilities are endless.
3. Re-write Your Own Sexual Story
Write a letter from your future, wiser, sexually enlightened self to your present self. What obstacles did you overcome to be free from sexual shame? How does your sex life look in the future? How grateful are you and your partner(s) for your new sexual life? What have you achieved, who helped you on the way? What encouragement can you give your present self?
You can share the letter with a trusted friend or loved one who supports your sexual liberation journey.
4. Build A Circle Of Empowerment
Surrounding yourself with non-judgemental and like-minded people who make you feel safe is essential to this journey and your ability to be authentic. Yes, these could be those friends, loved ones who would smile and cheer you on when you shared the letter from your empowered sexual future. They will be the ones that give you those warm feelings when you are around them.
Understandably, you may need to find a new tribe or circle of friends to support you. If this is the case, do consider joining educational pleasure workshops that embody a safe and open community to aid you in your positive journey navigating pleasure free of shame.
5. Talk To A Professional / Speak With An Expert
By now, you are patting yourself on the back for taking some steps to empower yourself and be free from sexual guilt and shame. Good on you for journaling or drawing those thoughts and creating a supportive tribe for yourself. If, through this process, you find yourself wanting to learn more about yourself or finding them challenging, do consider working with a counsellor or a sex therapist who is trained to support you and help you to develop new narratives, feelings, thoughts and behaviour around your sexuality.
In this auspicious September Sexual Health Month, I wish you success in finding sexual empowerment that brings you a sense of ease and wholeness.
Dian Handayani, Director and Founder of Nambani.
A sex therapist, sexologist and an art psychotherapist
Litam, S. A., & Speciale, M. (2021). Deconstructing Sexual Shame: Implications for Clinical Counselors and Counselor Educators. Journal of Counseling Sexology & Sexual Wellness: Research, Practice, and Education, 3 (1), 14-24. https://doi.org/10.34296/03011045