Shame can be associated with sexual preference, orientation, function, fantasy, and more. Aleksandra Trkulja breaks down why we experience it and how to face up to it.
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But in actuality, we end up talking a lot about shame.
So I’m going to unpack how shame and sexuality are linked, and some ways to work with shame.
Shame is a social emotion that serves an important purpose of holding us accountable to the social and cultural expectations of our communities.
Shame is fearing that a personal characteristic will lead to rejection by a group. This is different to guilt, which is fearing a behaviour may lead to rejection.
We are born with the inherent knowledge that our lives depend on being accepted by our communities. The evolutionary value of shame is to protect us from rejection from our community.
But shame makes us want to hide the things we fear others will judge sufficient to reject us. And avoid things, like parts of ourselves or others.
Sexuality is a component of our human experience that is shamed from the get go.
In Western society, people are often ashamed of elements of sex and sexuality including their sexual orientation, who they have sex with, and the sexual behaviours they engage in.
For example, we are conditioned to believe that heterosexual relationship dynamics are the ‘norm’, and in doing so, any expression outside of this one is considered ‘abnormal’, and people are shamed for it.
But in actuality, heterosexuality is one expression of sexuality that was deemed appropriate by society and culture.
But the stigma goes beyond sexual orientation. The act of sex itself has been demoralised through religious notions of the body as dirty, and the mind as pure.
In his book ‘Sapiens’, Yuval Noah Harari describes how humans aimed to distinguish themselves from other species by valuing their progressed cognitive power. They started to value the mind, and separate it from the body. The body reflects simple functions shared similar to animals, and this is the origin of beliefs about sex as dirty, risky, unnatural, or dangerous.
Women were repressed further with notions of sexual purity and virginity. Today we recognise this as slut-shaming, or victim-blaming when women are sexual, while men are seen as playboys or even celebrated.
The negative connotations associated with sexuality are known as sex-negativity. This is when sex is approached from a place of fear, stigma, and oppression. It represents the judgemental or shameful reactions toward sex and sexuality.
So you can see that shame and sexuality have historically gone hand in hand. Sexual shame, or shame associated with sexuality is an incredibly common experience.
For many people, shame can be associated with:
+ Their appearance
+ Their sexual function (not experiencing erections, ejaculation, orgasm, or lubrication)
+ Their sexual preferences (liking certain sexual behaviours)
+ Having lots of sexual partners (and feeling judged)
+ Not having many sexual partners (and feeling inexperienced)
+ How their sexual function happens (orgasming a certain way)
+ Their relationships with porn
+ Their sexual orientation
+ Who they're attracted to, date, fantasise about, or have sex with
The list goes on. We are very afraid of being judged and rejected in regards to sex and sexuality.
Stephen Porges (researcher of the polyvagal theory) found that the biological response to shame is similar to a life threat. It activates the nervous system in the same way as our fight or flight response.
People can become immobilised, or numb. You might notice your posture changing, or your body trying to shrink and disappear.
To begin to engage with shame, notice where you feel it in your body. It helps to close your eyes, take a breath, and identify the sensations you feel, and where.
Engage with shame by grounding yourself through your five senses. This might seem too simple, but the research shows that it helps to activate your nervous system, and keep you present.
Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.
The antidote to shame is being seen as we are by people we value, and being accepted by them in that state.
Shame thrives on secrecy. The more we hide, the stronger the shame gets. So we need to expose the things we fear will threaten our belonging, and see that we will not be rejected.
Exposure needs to be done safely, so start small, and with people you trust.
Working with shame and sexuality can be a difficult thing to do. It always helps to have the support of trained professionals to guide you through the reflective process. It requires patience, but can be an incredibly liberating process for many people.