Moving from Sexual Shame to Sexual Health

Operational definition for sexual shame

Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being and a belief of being abnormal, inferior and unworthy. This feeling can be internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships having a negative impact on trust, communication and physical and emotional intimacy. Sexual shame develops across the lifespan in interactions with interpersonal relationships, one’s culture and society and subsequent critical self-appraisal (a continuous feedback loop). There is also a fear and uncertainty related to one’s power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions, related to sexual encounters, along with an internalized judgement toward one’s own sexual desire.”

-From the dissertation work of Dr. Noel Clark at Seattle Pacific University, 2017

Often in my work with clients the topic of sexual shame comes up. We now have a definition of sexual shame that helps break down the walls we have built. That helps us recognize those walls as antiquated obstacles to our sexual health. Some of the things that can contribute to sexual shame are sexual silence, being sexually shamed, not having accurate sexual knowledge, having hurtful sexual experiences or bad information. This is made worse if there is an abuse of power used in shaming someone for normal sexual responses. This is not something we just see in religious communities. America as a whole can do better with sex education. Only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate. And often people come from homes where sex wasn’t discussed. When we don’t talk about it, we are also giving messages that affect people’s sexual attitudes that can affect them into their adulthood and marriages.

We can manage the sexual shame we are experiencing. For starters, putting a name to it and calling it out for what it is. We should review our own education about sex. What has been helpful? What was harmful? We can actively acquire updated information and then reframe the negative messages we have recognized. Keep the good, rewrite the bad. A therapist properly trained can help write the blueprints to better sexual health.

Because ultimately shame is just bad design.

Erect a new model where sexual health can reside. Build with a solid foundation and framework of correct information. You can then furnish and adorn it however you like.

Here is one definition of sexual health I find helpful from The World Health Organization in 2006.

“Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction and infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive, respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

Some helpful resources are:

Sex, God & the Conservative Church by Tina Schermer Sellers

Check Your Baggage: Unpack the Messages Getting in the Way of Your Sex Life by Natasha Helfer Parker

Jennifer White, LCSW

Jennifer specializes in helping people with depression, anxiety, sexuality concerns, trauma, and faith transitions/journeys. She offers coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.

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