TW: This article contains themes of suicide. If you are not in a safe headspace for this kind of topic, please exit the page and take care of your mental health. If you need immediate support, please go to the nearest emergency room, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. September 6th – 12th is National Suicide Prevention Week. While it’s important to dedicate a week of the year to this important topic, suicide prevention is a full-time job, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Suicide prevention is a call to action for everyone, every day. One cause of suicide that is particularly important to acknowledge is the stark reality of those who take their lives due to sexual repression and sexual shame. Generally, people want to be seen for who they are, in their most authentic form, which includes who they are as a sexual being. What happens when people are denied aspects of their identities, stripped of personal autonomy, or shamed for completely natural human desires and experiences? It’s time to talk about it.
Sexual Repression and Shame
Sexual repression occurs when a person deters themselves from expressing and exploring their sexual desires and sexual identity due to strong negative feelings of guilt and shame associated with sexuality. Sexual repression tends to occur when someone receives messaging during childhood that sex is something dirty, immoral, or shameful. In some families this can mean having parents who tell their children they will go to hell if they have sex before marriage or claim sexual energy and urges are related to deviancy. In other households, negative messaging might look like talking about sex is a negative way, punishing children for engaging in masturbation, shaming teens or young adults when/if they start having sex, blaming child survivors of sexual abuse for what happened to them, or shunning children for identifying with a sexual orientation that is not within the parent(s) preference or understanding. All these situations can foster an environment that teaches children that sex is unnatural and based on a set of morals and values that the child has no autonomy in creating for themselves. When this child grows up, those messages about sexuality can stay with them and impact their relationship to sex for years. It can also color the way they judge others’ sex lives and hinder their ability to create a healthy, pleasurable, and fulfilling intimacy with sexual partners.
Sexual Repression & Suicide in the LGBTQ+ Community
Living with a shaming and judgmental view around sexuality is more serious than just limiting one’s ability to cultivate a more authentic sexual self – it’s potentially life threatening. There has been growing research throughout the years indicating a strong link between chronic feelings of shame and suicide attempts or completion. One of the most prominent causes of suicide due to sexual shame and repression can be seen within the LGBTQ+ community. Homophobia and transphobia are traumatic experiences for many LGBTQ+ people. So much so that Gay and bisexual men are four times more likely to attempt suicide than men who are straight. Roughly 45% of bisexual women and 40% of lesbians have considered or attempted suicide. Additionally, the suicide rate for transgender individuals is ten times the national rate in the United States. When someone is rejected by their family, friends, medical and scientific institutions, or society at large, it can lead to deep feelings of shame, isolation, loneliness, self-hatred, and suicidal thoughts. In fact, people in the LGBTQ+ community who experience rejection when they come out about their sexuality to their families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. The potential of losing your place within a family or community you’ve always known can be terrifying. The connection people have to their communities is part of their identity and it can be earth shattering to confront the loss of people they thought would always love and support them.
Shame + Compulsive Sexual Behavior
According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, an expert on compulsive sexual behaviors, 17% of people suffering with compulsive sexual behavior (sometimes referred to as sex addiction) attempt suicide. Many people who struggle with sex addiction experience extreme shame and feelings of guilt around the sexual impulses and compulsive sexual acts associated with sex addiction and worry how they might be judged by others. Due to many culture’s attitudes and beliefs about sex, it can be incredibly hard for people suffering with sex addiction to open up about what they are going through. For many, it’s difficult to talk about sex, especially when desires, sexual thoughts, and behaviors are related to more taboo subjects that are not widely and openly discussed in society. The fear around how they will be seen and potentially judged by others often keeps people struggling with sex addiction in an isolated state of shame and secrecy that continues to fuel the compulsive behavior. The helplessness and fear many people who struggle with addiction face can and often does lead to depression, which can lead to suicidal ideation.
Slut Shaming, Sexual Violence, and Suicide
Anyone can experience sexual shaming, but women are exposed to slut shaming, sexual harassment, and sexual violence more than men. Many women experience slut-shaming from family members, significant others, and often the conflicting messages in society about how women should and shouldn’t present themselves sexually. The moral panic many women experience around being labeled a slut often stifles them from fully expressing and exploring their sexual identity and desires. Slut shaming often impacts how women dress, how they feel about having sex with others and solo sex and creates judgements around how other women choose to express their sexuality – also known as internalized misogyny. This repression of the sexual self can be harmful, especially in a culture where women are shamed for being sexual beings while men are typically respected for it. Sexual violence is a significant catalyst for developing suicidal thoughts. Sexual violence can refer to rape, harassment, revenge porn, and many other non-consensual violations. Many survivors of sexual violence develop sexual shame after traumatic sexual experiences, and many choose to repress the sexual aspects of themselves as a means of protection from ever being harmed again. Sexual violence can have profound impacts on survivor’s mental health, including an increased risk of suicide. Survivors of sexual assault are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide compared to the general population. Those who have experienced workplace sexual harassment are nearly three times more likely to be at risk for suicide and 51% of people who have been a victim of revenge porn have contemplated suicide. These numbers are staggering proof that sexual shame is deeply harmful and something that needs immediate attention and support on a societal level.
Fighting Sexual Repression and Shame
There are a lot of serious statistics in this article, and it’s not presented this way to insight doom, but to showcase the dangerous results sexual shame and repression can have on society. If you’re wondering what you can do on an individual level, here are a few things that can help move society towards a sex positive direction.
Interrupt negative messaging
If you hear someone engaging in sex negativity, slut shaming, victim blaming, homophobia, transphobia, or anything contributing to further stigmatizing sex, speak up if you feel safe to do so. The more people allow harmful messaging to be funneled into culture, the more it remains in society and gets passed down to future generations. Strive to break the cycle of sexual shame.
Unpack your own beliefs about sex
It’s okay if you struggle with accepting aspects of your own or others’ sexuality and sexual expression. It doesn’t mean you have to maintain those beliefs – you can always unlearn negative beliefs and create your own to replace the beliefs that were handed down by family and society. Moreover, whatever your personal sexual beliefs, you do not have to shame others if their truth is different.
Work with a Sex Therapist
Many people who struggle with sexual shame and repression benefit from working with a sex therapist. Sex therapy can be a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore and unpack any harm shame and repression has had on your sex life, feel more sexually empowered, or simply learn more about sexuality through sex positive sex education.