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Combatting Shame with Sex Positivity

We live in a culture where most of us have been taught that our sexual desires are something to be ashamed of. In order to establish healthier relationships with ourselves, our bodies, and our partners, we can find ways to incorporate sex positivity into our lives.

CW: discussion of sex


Few other three letter words inspire as much emotions and reactions as this one. In all my work as a therapist, I find few three letter words that I can say to a client that bring up so much of a response. Some rare clients eagerly engage with me when I bring up intimacy, excited to have someone actually asking them the questions they thought they weren’t allowed to answer. Most of my clients show signs of being nervous, from awkward pauses to blushing to stumbling over their words. Clients who readily offer me up extensive information about their lives – their relationships with their parents, the things they can’t stand about their partner, the thoughts they could never in a million years share to their children – will suddenly become embarrassed and uncomfortable talking to me about this three letter word. 

And look, I get it. In an ideal world, I would love to say that I started my career as comfortable asking my clients how they’re doing in the bedroom as asking them how they’re doing in their cubicle, but that’s just not the case. Like the clients I work with, I had to train myself to be comfortable talking about sex. We live in a world where most of us have been socialized to feel ashamed about sex. We’ve been told it’s something impolite to talk about, that the very topic of sex is something to keep quiet about, even to the people we are having sex with. We’re not doomed to be frightened of sex forever, though, and that’s where today’s article begins; in response to a society where we are faced with sex negativity and shame, one of the best ways we can care for ourselves is through incorporating sex positivity into our lives. 

What is Sexual Shame?

"Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment." - Brene Brown

All of us have felt shame at one point or another – that pit in our stomach knowing when we know we’ve done something wrong or have been humiliated in front of others. Sexual shame isn’t all too different from general shame, being a wide ranging term for many different types of distress around our own sexuality or sexual preferences either invoked by comments made by others or our own internalized beliefs around what is “normal” sex and sexuality. Sexual shame can present in a lot of different ways, including shame around our sexual relationships with others, shame around our own thoughts and fantasies, and shame regarding inferiority or the sense that we aren’t “good enough” sexually. Even though shame can be a common and normal emotion, sexual shame is usually something that sticks with us as opposed to coming up in small moments. It colors our views of our own bodies, behaviors, and how we approach relationships. 

While sexual shame is far from uncommon, that doesn’t mean it can’t impact us deeper than just how we look at ourselves sexually. Sexual shame has been found to be linked to higher rates of depression, lower rates of mental health, body-shaming, sexual dysfunction, compulsive sexual behavior (often labeled as sex and porn “addiction”), and lower self-esteem. Sexual shame is related to and almost always caused by sex negativity. The American Psychological Association defines sex negativity as “a negative attitude or stance toward any sexual behavior other than procreative marital coitus”. 

Examples of Sex Negativity or Shaming include:

  • Abstinence-only education programs that place judgments on people who choose to have sex outside of marriage. 
  • People and media who spread the message that diversity in sexual expression (i.e. being LGBTQ+, kink, ethical non-monogamy, etc.) is linked to mental illness or is “abnormal” 
  • Gossip that shames others about the amount of sex they are (or are not) having
  • Jokes that stigmatize STIs and people that have them

What is Sex Positivity?

In response to sexual shame and negativity, one can choose to adopt a sex positive mindset. Sex positivity refers to a view of sex as something normal and healthy in the context of consensual relationships. It does not mean that you need to be having constant sex or that you have to be having sex at all if you don’t want to – sex positivity focuses instead on viewing sex and the different ways sex can be experienced as just one piece of the puzzle of physical health that deserves to be understood rather than judged. Sex positivity acknowledges that there is no one “correct” way to be sexual or have sex – in fact, you can argue that there are about as many different versions of sex as there are people having sex. 

Beyond just avoiding the negative impacts of sexual shame mentioned earlier on, sex positivity can be a route towards creating a healthy relationship between you, your body, and your mind. Educational programs that focus on sex positivity are more likely to reduce risks associated with STIs and unplanned pregnancies by giving participants ample information regarding birth control and prevention methods as opposed to using scare tactics or only preaching abstinence. Comfort around our own sexuality can also make us more comfortable talking to professionals about our sex lives, be it one’s therapist or medical doctor, which can help us in treating concerns when they do go wrong. 

When it comes to our mental health, being able to accept ourselves as we are can lead to numerous positive outcomes. Self-compassion doesn’t stop at the bedroom. Being able to fully embrace our sexualities and our bodies is integral to fostering healthy relationships with ourselves. Taking on a sex positive perspective also enriches our relationships by giving us more agency to speak about our own wants and needs sexually. 

How Can I be More Sex Positive?

  • Track where shame comes from. When did you first learn that your body was something to be ashamed of? Reflect on past experiences that painted sex in a negative light. How old were you when you first were told you shouldn’t masturbate? What did your teachers, family, religious community, etc. tell you about when and where you should be having sex? When you can pinpoint the roots of these messages, you can start the work of separating that inner shaming voice from your own voice. 
  • Let’s talk about sex, baby! Yep, we’re gonna use the most cliche song reference on this one. Talk about sex – with your partner, with your friends, with your therapist. Read books about sexual health, check out sex ed podcasts, engage with content putting sex in the spotlight – not as a commodity or as something subliminal, but media that makes sex a conversation.
  • Look toward yourself. What are your values as they relate to sex? What do you find pleasurable? Give yourself space to explore your own curiosities, be it with a partner or on your own. Approach yourself with compassion rather than judgment when it comes to interests. 
  • Challenge your own and others perspectives. A lot of information we hear about sex, from what we are taught in sex ed courses to conversations with peers to videos we see online, is slightly off at best and fully inaccurate at worst. Information you may already take for granted might actually be more myth than fact. (Curious about myths? Check out this article of ours that describes common sex misconceptions) 
  • Embrace pleasure! Beyond all the hard work of challenging all the negativity, sex is about pleasure. While there are a lot of “dirty” words around sex, pleasure should never be one of them. When talking about pleasure, this isn’t just about the physical pleasures relating to sex. Think of the mental pleasures, too – are you having fun? Do you enjoy watching your partner receive physical pleasure? Are you itching a curiosity you’ve had for a long time? Do you just enjoy the way you look in black lingerie? If you’re not sure what gives you pleasure, that may be the best place to start when building your sex positivity: What do I like?

Resources & Continued Reading