Blogbox | Gender

On sexual shame

By - 09.03.2023

Sexual shame and society’s beliefs about sex and sexuality.

“It’s an odd confrontation. On the one hand people want us to own our sexuality and they cheer: ‘You’re so sexy!’ ‘You’re a woman, that’s powerful!’ ‘You can have sex with as many people as you want!’ ‘You’re the owner of your body!’ And then on the other hand: ‘having sex with a lot of people is kind of dirty’ ‘you need to be more than your sexuality!’ ‘Why are you so focused on being sexy?!’ ‘Be yourself’ ‘don’t push yourself too hard’ ‘it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are!'”

–A participant in a study on sex by researcher Noel Clark


Influenced by patriarchal judgments that see women as less than fully human, less capable of making decisions and even less deserving of equal treatment, I have learned to be more aware of how I may be perceived by others. Especially regarding my physical appearance and my relationships. And I am not the only one.

It may sound strange that many adults these days have feelings of shame about their bodies, interests, sexuality and sexual experiences. We live in a modern society where freedom of sexual expression is said to be encouraged and it is assumed that we feel safe to discuss such topics.

In reality, men and women are walking the earth with strong feelings of sexual shame and dealing with a lot of two-sided messages about sex and intimacy.

On one hand, the bodies of girls and women are objectified, perceived as something to be possessed and controlled. Women are bombarded with questions about their personal and sexual lives and are inevitably scrutinised and “put on trial” if they experience sexual harassment or abuse.

On the other hand, boys and men are bullied for having little sexual experience, for not being “macho” enough. They are taught to be “masculine,” to adhere to an unwritten male ideal. This, apart from being harmful to gender justice in general, adds to the constant pressure on men. The concept of masculinity that glorifies stoicism, strength and dominance, is socially inappropriate and harmful to mental health.

Instead of expression freed from prejudice, gender norms and rigid expectations are actually rooted in what is known as sexual shame. Researcher Diane I. Litam defines this as a specific type of shame that involves negative self-evaluations about our sexual identity, behaviors, attractions, thoughts or feelings.

Sexual limitation through expectations

Women and men, albeit in different ways, are constantly faced with conflicting demands when it comes to sexual expression, desires and concerns.

Initially, boys and men are subject to shaming when they embody traits that society sees as “feminine,” such as expressing emotions, seeking help and committing to equality. Likewise, they are shamed by others when they express feelings of doubt about their lack of sexual experience, when they express dissatisfaction with their bodies or insecurity in sexual performance.

These concerns originate from the concept of “traditional” masculinity. A “real” man must have attributes such as: heterosexuality, physical toughness, strength and emotional contentment. Expectations about how the ideal man should be cause men to be less likely to express their feelings — at least feelings other than force and insensitivity.

Meanwhile, women are often portrayed in one of two ways. One category paints women as innocent, sweet or nice. The other side of this dichotomy categorizes women as “sexually free” and “promiscuous” or sometimes even as “powerful” and “brave.”

The message of both categories is that women cannot have both, that is, they cannot be both “good” and “sexually free.” The expectation that women should belong to only one category is sexually limiting for them.

In this context, there is a double standard for women. When we as women say no to sex, we are often considered frigid. When we say yes, they call us promiscuous. These types of messages about what is within the norms and what is outside of them are powerful and influential in patriarchal systems.

In some instances, including in the education system, mass media and religion, sex is framed as a dangerous and dirty act. Oppressive gender stereotypes and rape myths are perpetuated and silence is encouraged when it comes to sexual health and intimacy.

There is a risk of creating a situation where our values depend entirely on sexual experience or lack thereof, or perhaps this is already the case. 

We receive this information systematically from early childhood and it influences the way we experience sexual shame. Girls are taught to stay away from discussions about sex, reinforcing the idea that if they speak up, even about abuse against them, they will not be heard. Or that if they speak, they will face social judgment, which revictimizes them. 

Psychologists have long paid attention to their clients’ experiences of sexual shame, including humiliation and disgust about their bodies and uncertainty about their identity as sexual beings.

These feelings are nurtured by the fact that we are often told by society what is sexually appropriate and how we should behave in our sex lives. However, these conversations tend to arise only when there is a public discussion of rape, abuse or sexual harassment.

It’s not common that we can talk about our right to express ourselves sexually with confidence and happiness, about our ability to say what we want and ask for it without embarrassment and walk away from situations where we feel unfulfilled or humiliated.

Next, we come to sex education, which bears part of the blame for maintaining sexual shame.  In Kosovo, there has long been a reluctance to integrate sexual education into the school curricula. This reluctance helps maintain the stigmatization of sex and of discussions around it. Along with this, teachers often avoid topics related to sex, even when sex comes up in other subjects, such as biology or civic education. 

According to psychologist and sexuality expert David Ley, even when there is sex education in places outside Kosovo, it is often rooted in the idea that choosing not to be sexual outside of a committed, monogamous relationship is the best protection against exposure to sexually transmitted infections and/or unplanned pregnancy. In this way, the concept of sexual “purity” has been reinforced.

Many teachers today lack the right information, communication and approach needed to address issues related to sex, sexuality and intimacy. Sex education should be understood beyond just formal education, though topics related to sexuality are generally avoided by parents, educators and social circles.

Examining beliefs, values and prejudices about sexuality and how these attitudes can affect our ability to approach sexuality from a positive and empowering perspective is an opportunity to challenge society’s harmful patriarchal narratives on sex and sexuality. People should have the right to express dilemmas, questions and sexual desires without facing ridicule and prejudice. They should be able to do so without feeling ashamed to the point of isolation, without experiencing feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, incompetence and powerlessness.

Such an initiative, with a feminist counseling approach based on healthy sexuality and intimacy enables the overcoming of sexual shame. This is how space is created for us to engage collectively to create a more open society and to find our way towards a deeper love and acceptance of ourselves and others.

Feature Image: K2.0.