Ashamed of Your Sexuality?
This past month, a range of men and women sought treatment with me because, they said, they were deeply ashamed of these various things:
I was molested as a child
I only date guys in poly marriages
I don’t desire my wife anymore
I want non-monogamy, and my husband doesn’t
I’m a 30-year-old virgin
I’ve never had an orgasm
I only have sex with sex workers
I rarely get erections, even with Viagra
I like porn featuring adult women who look really young
I’m a sex addict
I don’t want to have any children
I’m bisexual, and feel disloyal to my gay friends
Yes, it was just a typical month, listening to—and sympathizing with—people feeling ashamed of their sexuality.
In Western culture, shame and sexuality are deeply linked. One source of the shame is the traditional religious injunctions against various sexual activities and desires (no fantasizing, no same-gender sex, no sex before marriage, Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness). Then there’s the common parental freakout about their child’s masturbation—clearly conveying that sexual interest is somehow wrong.
But even people who weren’t burdened with these life disadvantages often feel shame about their sexuality.
A lot of it results from secrecy. Take these three people: one who’s been sexually exploited, one who can’t climax, and one who loves kink (sounds like one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes). Although their actual experiences of sex are dramatically different, they may all feel exactly the same—“I must not reveal this.”
But as each of these people keeps their secret, they get no compassion, no validation, no sense of the broader sexual community—the human family—that they’re very much a part of. They never give anyone a chance to accept this part of them.
And so the ashamed secret-keeper can tell himself “You say you accept me? Sure—but that’s only because you don’t know this awful thing about me.”
People are generally more self-forgiving about non-sexual things, events and facts. You had your identity stolen? Most people don’t blame themselves. You’re no good at fixing things around the house? Most people don’t fear others’ judgments. You love exotic food, travel, movies, or clothes? People don’t hide these tastes, they flaunt them.
So—victimized, clumsy, ignorant, or eccentric—if they don’t involve sex, there’s usually little or no shame involved. This stands in contrast to the shame typically surrounding our sexuality.
Shame leads to secrecy. Secrecy reinforces shame. How can we interrupt this cycle?
Shame is different from emotions like sadness, fear, and anger. You know those feelings are temporary, and they’re part of you, not all of you. Shame, however, feels permanent—“I’m a bad person” or “There’s something wrong with me”—and it feels like the center of you, maybe even all of you.
It’s not terribly helpful to tell someone “don’t feel ashamed of your sexuality.” So how can I assist people in accepting themselves?
In session, via email, and on the air, people of every persuasion repeatedly ask me what’s sexually “normal.” And for a number of reasons, I really dislike telling them.
First, people often don’t believe me, insisting that they’re sick, broken, or perverted. Second, it just makes me one more voice in a cultural cacophony—and often an outlying voice, given my understanding of the wide range of common sexual practices.
But more deeply, I don’t like supporting the idea of people accepting themselves simply because they’re like others. In my perfect world, people accept themselves simply because they’re ethical and human (if someone isn’t ethical, their self-acceptance should proceed slowly and conditionally). But apparently many people can’t accept themselves without some guarantee that they’re not unusual.
So OK, I’m holding my nose and will now proceed to do what I dislike. But I have a condition. Can we agree that if I tell you you’re normal, you’ll stop feeling ashamed, stop isolating yourself, stop worrying that people or your god will judge you?
If so, please read on. If not, well, you can see why I don’t like doing this.
Ah, I see you’ve agreed to my deal. I assume you’ll keep your end of the bargain, and so herewith I’ll keep mine. If you’re any of the following, you’re “normal”:
~ You have sexual fantasies of things you’d never do;
~ You know less about sex, or have less sexual experience, than anyone you know;
~ Someone has used sexuality to hurt or take advantage of you;
~ Despite what people tell you, you don’t feel attractive or desirable;
~ Your body doesn’t do what you want it to do during sex;
~ Your favorite sexual activity isn’t penis-in-vagina intercourse;
~ You masturbate, although you’re in a loving relationship;
…and, of course, “normal” includes way, way more experiences, feelings, and preferences.
Why should you believe me? How do I know that these things are “normal?”
Every survey of sexual behavior reinforces the fact that people do and imagine an incredibly wide range of things.
~ Clinical experience:
Every therapist has the same experience: week after week, people come in and demonstrate the breadth of human sexual interest (and the incredible range of sex-related things people feel ashamed about).
Every society has its own version of “normal sexuality”—and these differ across geography and time. To Southern Europeans, West Africans seem perverse. To today’s West Africans, their ancestors’ practices seem perverse. To Russians, Americans seem perverse. And to just about everyone today, the Egyptian Pharoahs seem perverse.
~ World art & literature:
An encyclopedia of sexual practices that some society, somewhere, condemns.
The world’s largest porn site, visited by 81 million people per day, is a library of human sexual fantasy. And its range is enormous.
These are some of the ways we know what human sexuality looks like across time and space. And that almost certainly includes you.
So if someone wants to start decreasing their shame about their sexuality, what might they do?
With a partner, be yourself. Tell your partner who you are. Where you’ve been. Most importantly, what you want now. Of course, you may not get everything you want—that’s life—but you’ll be giving your partner a chance. And you’ll be inviting more intimacy, which is what most people say they want.
Both you and your partner should understand the difference between ‘I approve of you’ and ‘I accept you;’ between ‘I accept that this is part of you’ and “I think that this is all (or most) of you.’
Again, note the difference between sex and everything else. No one says “the main thing about her is she loves Judy Garland,” or “everything you need to know about him is the fact that he can’t cook.” But that’s what we do with sex: we tend to think a person doesn’t just enjoy kinky sex, she’s a kinky person; a person doesn’t simply have erection problems, he’s impotent.
So start coming out of the closet with a mate if you have one. Or perhaps with a close friend. Certainly with the people you’ve hired to help you through life: your physician, therapist, attorney.
It’s stunning how many people mislead their own doctors because they’re too embarrassed to tell the truth about their sexuality: for example,
~ My husband isn’t my primary sex partner;
~ I use Viagra to get erect, and cocaine to last longer;
~ My vaginal muscles have been painfully tight since my wedding night, which went terribly wrong.
Similarly, as a therapist, I sometimes have to pull or tease information out of patients that I need in order to be helpful. Yes, I know it takes time for most people to trust others. Therapy is the perfect opportunity to take such a chance. I know it can be difficult—if it weren’t, a person wouldn’t be in therapy. And yes, although many therapists will handle your truth just fine, others will be blown away. We all have to train our therapist—not for their sake, but for ours. Learning together creates exactly the intimate experience/environment that can help heal you.
For those without partners (sometimes a result of the very shame-secrecy-isolation that we’re discussing here), self-acceptance starts with, well, self-acceptance. Imagine a compassionate, understanding, wise person inside you (like an uncle, perhaps, or your college roommate’s mother, or that older sister you never had), and invite them to talk with you about your self-image, to support you as you change the narrative of who you are. Listen to their gentle voice, feel the connection, and contradict the urge to isolate yourself.
We are all of us part of an enormously complex and varied sexual family—the human family. As sexual health physician Dr. Charles Moser says, “human sexuality is more diverse than any one of us can possibly imagine.”
Welcome to the family.
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If you enjoyed this article, I bet you’ll also enjoy my piece at www.MartyKlein.com/sex-and-death/