Sex, Secrets, & Shame

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As an everyday therapist, shame isn’t some abstract idea—it’s quite real to me. It’s why people keep secrets. It’s why they do exactly the opposite of what they want to—to prove that they don’t want it. It’s a big reason people behave self-destructively—unable to talk about their impulses, their feelings, or their curiosity, they act them out, despite the consequences.

(Note: When the behavior involves sex, this may be mistaken as “addiction.” Nonsense.)

There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex. Predictably, that leads to sexual secrets, sexual violence, sexual acting out, and dramatic sexual inhibitions.

And it’s intertwined with sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it. For example:

You go to Mary’s house for dinner, you tell her how you like your chicken cooked. You go to bed with Mary, you don’t tell her you’d like less fingernails on your back.

You go hiking with John and you tell him to slow down a bit. You go to bed with John and you don’t tell him you wish he’d slow down a bit.

You’ve seen the musical Cats a dozen times—which you know other people think is odd, but that’s OK with you. You like a finger in your butt during sex—which you imagine other people think is odd, and that’s definitely not OK with you.

You watch a NASCAR race knowing that the thought of someone crashing is actually kind of exciting. You go to bed knowing that the thought of your husband slapping you is kind of exciting—and you’re terrified of what it “means” about you.

Enter the Internet.

On the Internet, we can be ourselves. We can also be someone other than ourselves: Shy people can be flirtatious or even aggressive. Females can be male. The old can be young, the young old, and everyone can have blue eyes and a flat stomach. Many people find these adventures to be liberating.

But there are games the government won’t allow you to play, even within the relative safety of the Internet. Adults are not allowed to talk about sex with unrelated minors (it can look like grooming for abuse). Adults are not allowed to photoshop children’s heads on nude adult bodies. Adults are not allowed to go to chatrooms where other adults pretend to be minors and talk with them about having pretend sex together.

You better not do that last one—what participants call erotic age-play or age role-play—because the government has planted detectives in these chatrooms to pose as adults pretending to be minors. If the adult you’re involved with in age-play turns out to be a cop, you’ll be accused of believing that the adult you’ve been playing with is an actual minor, and your life will be ruined.

Yes, it’s that simple.

If the point of age-play is to pretend as believably as you can (“Is your mom home? No? Great! What are you wearing, honey?”), it’s almost impossible to prove that you didn’t believe you were talking to an actual minor (as opposed to an adult pretending to be a minor). And while the burden of proof rests with the government, juries play better-safe-than-sorry when confronted with someone who just might be a predator.

Which brings us back to shame: shame that we have the sexual fantasies we do, that we yearn to play the sex games we love, that our body parts are wired for pleasure a little differently than some others’ (you know, “normal” others).

Learning about it hour after hour, decade after decade, as a sex therapist I’m privileged to know exactly how kinky the human family is. Are my patients super-strange? Nah—when I compare what I hear with what my colleagues hear, it’s pretty much the same.

Age-play. Fetishes. Erogenous zones that no one would dream of (except for the millions of people with the same one). And fantasies: ranging from Cleopatra to Henry Kissinger, from a lonely farmhouse to a not-so-lonely space capsule, from the most violent and cruel to the most docile and eerily innocent.

If people weren’t ashamed of their idiosyncratic eroticism, if we all had a more accurate sense of human sexual desire, fantasy, imagination, and curiosity, we’d each realize just how gloriously ordinary our sexuality is. We wouldn’t have to hide in the anonymous bulrushes of the internet, wouldn’t have to suffer silently through others’ irritating sexual techniques, wouldn’t need special sexual etiquette. As in other things, paying attention, being respectful, and keeping a sense of humor would cover most situations.

Until then, people will keep sexual secrets from their mate (and their therapist). They’ll stop having sex with their partner, or they’ll compulsively pursue their partner every day, regardless of practicality (“I and the baby and both sick, Mario, do you really think I want sex?”). They’ll drop out of therapy rather than risk my judgement about how weird they are.

A terrified patient once said, “I bet if I tell you my story, it’ll be the weirdest thing you ever heard in this room.” “Listen,” I replied, “I’ll bet it wouldn’t even be the oddest story I’ve heard since lunch.”

And that’s the day he started changing his life.

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