We have collectively grown highly attuned to the problems associated with a lack of shame around sex: with a decadent culture in which it seems that everything goes, where the atmosphere is often overly explicit and where some people get badly hurt by the unwanted and aggressive attentions of others.
It could seem – therefore – a little odd, even indulgent, to bring up the problem of sexual shame, that is, to discuss the intense mental suffering generated by embarrassment about our desires and bodies, by a feeling of not being physically acceptable and by a self-disgust and terror at the idea of our sexual thoughts being found out and judged. These can seem like issues that no one could sincerely have worried about since the waning of the age of top hats or at least the revolutions of the 1960s. The dangers around sex appear to lie squarely at the other, shame-less end of the spectrum.
But sexual shame has, in truth, never remotely gone away, for it is a psychological, not a political or religious problem.
Our capacity to express our sexual selves confidently and happily, our ability to say what we want, to ask for it without embarrassment and quickly to leave situations where we are unfulfilled or humiliated, all these are enormous psychological achievements. They are also generally only available to those who enjoyed highly supportive and emotionally evolved early environments. For us to be sexually untroubled adults requires that, way back, others will have left us feeling acceptable to ourselves: enjoying a sense that our bodies and their functions were natural and fine things, that we were not naughty or sinful for expressing curiosity about ourselves and that it was more than a good idea to be, at the age of two, properly delighted by the strange and wondrous existence of one’s own bottom.
Sexual desire is one of the most personal and vulnerable things that we are ever called upon to express – and it exposes one to potentially momentous degrees of ridicule. As bullies of all kinds have always known, if you want to destroy someone fast, shame them about their sexuality; they’ll never have the self-confidence to challenge you again. There are few things more deeply ‘us’ than our longing for sexual connection and therefore any feelings of unworthiness – any worries about how nice we are, how deserving we may be or how legitimate it is that we exist – have a sure habit of cropping up in the bedroom and of destroying our ability to be straightforward and unconflicted sexual beings. To generalise crudely, if there is any danger of us feeling bad about ourselves, we’re going – by a psychological inevitability – to feel bad about ourselves and sex. What get called sexual problems – impotence, vaginismus, lack of desire, harmful addictions – are, first and foremost, always problems of self-hatred. And one can’t as a rule both hate oneself and be having a terrific time in bed.
Beginning to repair the problem of sexual shame relies on a basic acceptance that the problem exists and can play havoc with our lives. We need to learn to name and track the matter; despite suggestions to the contrary, a lot of us, women and men, are right now (as in the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition) walking the earth intensely ashamed of ourselves sexually – not because what we want sexually is in any objective way ‘bad’ (that is, willingly hurtful to someone else) but because our histories have predisposed us to feel so negatively about our own selfhood.
A central effect of sexual shame is to silence us. We are so embarrassed that we cannot even speak of our embarrassment. It is of huge importance therefore to dare to put our feelings into words and to seek out warm-hearted, broad-minded people with whom we can, in safety, finally admit to our inhibitions – and learn to see ourselves through more unbiased, non-judgemental and caring eyes.
To take a measure of how much shame we are carrying within us, we might along the way ask ourselves a few poignant questions to which we might not have pleasant answers:
How do you feel about your own body?
How sorry do you have to feel for a person having sex with you?
Could someone know you sexually, properly know you, and still like you?
There are of course a great many dangers around an unbridled hurtful expression of sexuality, the kind that destroys the confidence and lives of innocent people. But there are also enormous dangers in living with an unwarranted sense that we are sexual aberrations. In a caring, mutually supportive environment, our acceptance of our sexuality is one of the most generous and mature acts we’re capable of. We – the ashamed ones – deserve to rediscover sex not as a zone of guilt and fear but as an intensely fulfilling, innocent and in the profound sense ‘fun’ pastime, something we truly deserve to enjoy in the same way that, despite early intimations to the contrary, we truly deserve to exist.