Why Do We Feel So Ashamed About Sex?

From Monica Lewinsky to former porn star Candida Royalle, every woman has been judged for her sexuality. And the ramifications run much deeper than most of us realize.
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If you’re having a conversation about sex with someone in the U.S., you are probably also, implicitly or explicitly, also talking about shame. The two are intertwined, even for those who appear to exude openness and pride around their sexuality, all the more so for women.

Shame is something we learn, often at an early age, about our bodies and what we do with them sexually. My mother has told me on more than one occasion, for example, that my outfits are too low-cut for family gatherings. Obviously, this is a subjective judgment, but I think my clothing is reasonable—the cut doesn’t reach my neck, but nor am I risking a wardrobe malfunction. Another example: I was on a first date that was going extremely well—until I asked him to go home with me. He complied, and seemed to enjoy himself. But I realized, during the date and especially, the radio silence he transmitted after it was over, that I had stepped into a role he didn’t approve of. I wouldn’t say I felt ashamed of sleeping with him, but I did feel like I’d somehow done something wrong.

The good news is twofold: This shame can be unlearned, shed in favor of an approach that puts our desires first, and that it’s being discussed more widely in our culture, especially the ways it haunts women in particular. Enter Monica Lewinsky, who broke her long silence over her affair with President Clinton last year in a Vanity Fair essay, a speech at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, and at last week’s annual TED conference for her talk, “The Price of Shame,” at which she received a standing ovation. She said, “I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, that woman … And I get it: It was easy to forget that that woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”

I believe almost any woman who grew up in the U.S. (and likely elsewhere) has faced many of these same epithets, along with the accompanying feeling Lewinsky describes. Even when our heads know better, we may take to heart those toxic beliefs about our worth and value as they relate to sex. 

When choosing the title for this column, I picked “Shameless Sex” mainly because it sounded catchy, and summarized the overall principle I want to represent. But it wasn’t until I watched Sheona McDonald’s recent documentary Inside Her Sex that I realized just how much shame is embedded into our psyches from a young age. Even women who have made careers out of being prominent, outspoken advocates about sexuality, even women who identify as feminists, have grappled with the baggage of a sexist culture that pins a twisted value system on women’s supposed “purity.”

The documentary follows three women, former porn star turned couple’s porn director Candida (Candice) Royalle, sex educator and blogger Elle Chase, and The Daily Beast contributor Samantha Allen, discussing how their childhood experiences with notions of sexuality and shame shaped their current paths. Dealing with, respectively, porn and attempted sexual assault, a sexless marriage, and growing up transgender in a Mormon household, each moves on from a shame-fraught start, often in direct defiance of the prevailing notions of acceptability. Originally begun as an exploration of women porn users, director McDonald shifted the focus as she dug deeper into these three women’s lives. While not meant to represent all women, McDonald recognized something universal in the ways shame permeates women’s lives. “There are very, very few women that I have spoken to, particularly heterosexual women, who don’t relate at least one story of a really poor sexual experience … either a rape or ‘very close to rape’ situation, a scary situation, an unpleasant or disrespectful situation,” McDonald said.

While on the surface, their stories are vastly different, the staggering level of shame each experienced leapt out at me. To learn more about how shame can be conquered, I interviewed Chase and Royalle. For Chase, who was stuck in a sexless marriage, watching True Blood awakened her to the realization, at 40, that she was indeed a sexual being, and that there was nothing wrong with her. “The chemistry between Sookie and Bill was palpable,” she told me. “I binge-watched the first four episodes to catch up. Later, Sookie and Bill consummate their love, and it did something to me. I just started sobbing; I mean full-on hyperventilating wails. It was fucking nuts, but I couldn’t stop. That scene affected me so deeply I still get emotional when I talk about it. I wanted to stop but I couldn’t. I kept rewinding the scene and watching, sobbing, and rewinding again. Then it hit me why I was so affected by this. It was the passion; the passion was so tangible to me that it affected me viscerally. I’d never experienced that. I’d never known passion sexually. I’d never had good sex so I had no idea what I was missing, but somewhere my psyche did.”

She took immediate action. “After that huge realization, I moved into the guest room and began a make believe True Blood role-playing life” on Twitter, Chase recalled. “Within this world, I wasn’t ugly, overweight, salty, unsexy, unattractive me. I had the confidence to make my way from learning to flirting to getting super sexual. I was told I was sexy, desirable, and then successfully wooed.” Chase said she had “no choice” but to get over her sexual shame. “My entire being didn’t have time for the petty insecurities and doubts that my id held over me.”

Royalle opens the film recounting an anecdote about when she was 13, and she had to fend off a rapist in the woods. Her mother’s reaction? “I told you not to go into the woods.” Her father’s? “Women who are raped are asking for it.” She says in the film, “The only one that comforted me was the policeman. I didn’t feel human.” Describing the story in her book How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do, Royalle wrote, “The message I internalized was that my sexual urges must be contained or, if let loose, they would cause men to do terrible things to me.” 

How does one overcome such a powerful and potentially debilitating message? Royalle spent years looking for the right therapist; she found hers at 30, one who shared Royalle’s history of sex work and drugs. Finally, she could truly be herself, and not worry about being judged. Prior to that, “I would call feminist centers that offered therapy or referrals and they didn’t know what to do with me,” Royalle told me. “They didn’t know how to handle a woman that had been in porn. Because I had done a lot of drugs, they felt like I should just check myself into some in-patient place. So when I found her, it was such a relief. I had been in the feminist movement myself and I just thought, How dare you? You’re turning away a woman who is asking for help. It was really appalling.”

She was surprised to discover, after years of appearing in porn and embracing her role in it, that she had lingering issues about sex that stemmed from her Catholic upbringing. “Even though I felt it was okay to perform sexually for other people to enjoy watching as long as it was consensual, I knew that I still carried a whole bunch of shame around.” Royalle strongly recommends therapy to women who share similar experiences. “We live in a culture that watches these movies in record numbers and we still condemn the women who perform in them. If women that go into porn don’t really confront their deep feelings about this, I really believe a lot of us will continue to carry around a lot of shame that we’re not even aware of, and it will make us suffer.”

I don’t intend to suggest that we are all walking around with hidden sexual shame eating away at us—I certainly hope that’s not the case. But it is important that we each explore the ways shame is imposed on us by our culture, whether it comes from damaging messages of women’s responsibility, about how we should “protect ourselves” from being assaulted or harassed by dressing in the “right” way (hint: not slutty) or not binge drinking, or by the more subtle social cues about number of sexual partners or “proper” sexual behavior. Yes, it’s 2015, but in many ways society has gotten worse, not better, about policing women’s sexual agency.

We also need to understand that sex and shame isn’t solely a “women’s issue.” Men who aren’t heterosexual or don’t otherwise fit into culturally sanctioned sexual roles (e.g., submissive men, cross-dressers) also carry the weight of this shame. Lewinsky highlighted the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after being secretly filmed being intimate with another man. But men who date and partner with women are also going to find themselves implicated in this web of shame, especially if their partners cannot truly be themselves without worrying about crossing a verboten sexual line. They too need to work to not add to women’s shame, but to alleviate it.

We may not be able to change others’ sex-negative judgments immediately, but we can change how we react when we are sexually shamed. I once had a lover tell me a certain sexual position felt too “pornlike.” My first instinct was to feel like I’d done something taboo, when I should have acknowledged that we each had different but equally valid opinions on the matter. Now, I’m far more likely to listen but not internalize someone else’s misguided notions of how I should approach my own pleasureeven if that someone is in bed with me.

The solution to ending sexual shame needs to be both political and personal, eradicating the sexist, deeply problematic assumptions behind messages like women are “asking to be raped” or don’t deserve sexual pleasure, as well as, when we hear those messages, seeking out the counsel of friends, family, or trained professionals who can help loudly, clearly work with us to combat them in our own minds.

 

Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) writes widely about sex, dating, books, and pop culture. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms, Cheeky Spanking Stories, Women in Lust, Fast Girls, Best Sex Writing 2013, and others, and teaches erotic writing workshops. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and on her blog, Lusty Lady (lustylady.blogspot.com).