Shame can be the primary drive and stressor in sexual compulsion. Shame can turn into a cyclical pattern, and people who experience shaming messaging around their sexual behaviors, desires, and interests may feel overwhelmed from this shame, causing the individual to hide their desires.
How Does Sexual Shame Develop?
We tend to pick up messages about sex, both good and bad, from the world around us. These messages are typically acquired by us as children. We gain knowledge of them from our parents, our religious beliefs, our cultures, our communities, our sex education (or lack thereof), our peers, and social media. Some messages may be directly stated, and others may not be discussed or talked about at all due to simply not knowing how to have these conversations.
What makes feelings of sexual shame so dangerous is that many folks don’t even realize that they are experiencing this during their day-to-day activities. Such things can show up in ways of feeling that sex and masturbation are inherently bad, losing sight of your own needs or sexual pleasure, or even finding it difficult to talk about sexual experiences or your sexual needs.
According to an article written by Diane Glelm for Psychology Today, she writes that no one is immune to sexual shame, not even medical or mental health professionals. Diane states that a person’s sexual shame is so ingrained and feels so much a part of their deepest self that they cannot imagine themselves without it. In other words, shame is a learned emotion that people pick up via interacting with others. Guilt says “this behavior is bad” while shame says, “I am a bad person.” This is a strong message that we tend to internalize for ourselves and thus feel ashamed about our sexual selves.
Think about this in relation to pleasure, sexual thoughts, and fantasies that one may have. If you are turned on and feeling sexual desire for something that you believe would be seen as “bad” or “wrong,” this might lead you to feeling shame around your sex life and desires. Hence the cyclical pattern leading into sexually compulsive behavior.
How Sexual Shame Fuels Sexually Compulsive Behavior
According to Mayo Clinic, compulsive sexual behavior is otherwise known as hypersexuality. This appears as a concentrated focus on sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are unable to be controlled, despite having tried, causing distress and problems maintaining healthy relationships, employment, physical health, and other domains of your life. In practice, compulsive sexual behavior typically involves:
- Compulsive masturbation
- Compulsive pornography use
- Sex with multiple partners (sex may or may not be unprotected)
Psych Central states that an individual who is full of doubt and shame may have low self-esteem and may question every part of their validity and negatively impact their relationship with sex. It is known that many individuals who struggle with compulsive sexual behavior have histories of trauma, whether that be emotional, physical, or sexual. From very early on, this individual may have confused “desirability” with “self-acceptance” and is attempting to fill a void that is partially created by feeling bad from chronic shame or emptiness.
Jack Morin, PhD., invites you to look closely at a peak turn-on that you may have. He believes that unforgettable turn-ons are windows into the erotic mind. When comparing this belief with shame and compulsive sexual behavior, for example, take a child that may have been shamed early in life when found engaging in masturbation. That child may have unconsciously connected shame and pleasure together into their erotic blueprint and may find it difficult to achieve orgasm without that shame factor. They may seek out dominatrixes to humiliate them and tell them something is wrong with them. Another common result of shame is self-abuse. The individual may turn to masochistic behaviors such as being whipped or verbally humiliated.
The individual may find shame in these behaviors, but also some amount of comfort, due to dopamine that is released in the brain, fueling this cycle of despair, leading one to feel alone and ashamed.
Developing a Shame-Free Relationship with Sex
Shame already underlies so much of society we live in, especially surrounding sex. Many individuals find it difficult to talk about sex, their needs, their wants, their desires. Even within most couples, there is a form of discomfort surrounding the topic of sex. However, it is possible to develop a shame-free relationship with sex and live in sex positivity.
- Improve your relationship with yourself – how you talk to and treat your “everyday” self has a significant impact on your sexual self. Give yourself permission to heal and explore your sexuality without guilt.
- Speak with an expert – Reach out to a sex therapist, a couples therapist, or a certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT) to process these internal struggles without fear of judgement.
- Find the origin of shame around sex and identify shame-reduction strategies – How do you interact with the shame? How do you avoid the shame?
- Lean on your support system/loved ones – You are not alone in this journey.
- Be patient with yourself, these things take time – remind yourself that you do not deserve shame. Your desire is normal, and your body is made for consensual enjoyment for yourself and with others.
“Sexually acting out behavior leads to feelings of shame and depression, isolation and a complete loss of control, whereas healthy sexual behavior is characterized by a mutual respect, a sense of clarity about feelings and communication, joyfulness, genuine intimacy, and tend to make people feel emotionally and physically safe.” (Hope and Recovery, 1987 SAA 12-Step).
There is one positive message I would like to leave you with: We were not born ashamed of our bodies or of being sexual beings. Shame is something that we were taught, something that we learned. So, shame is something that is possible to unlearn.