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June 6, 2020

Sex, Guilt & Shame: How our Emotions impact our Libido.

If you experience shame, guilt, or anxiety when having sex, you’re not alone.

In fact, as a clinical sexologist, I discuss these feelings in my private practice on a daily basis, no matter the sexual difficulty.

We’re not always aware of it, but negative emotions during sex can pop up when we least expect them to—ridding the experience of pleasure and enjoyment.

Experiencing these distressing feelings is one of the many reasons we suffer from a low sex drive.

But there are ways to not let your emotions get the better of your sexual desire. One of them is understanding why these emotions impact your libido in the first place.

Feeling Shame about Sex

Shame is an all-encompassing feeling. When it’s sparked, we feel it in our whole body. We become warm, sweaty, and blush, wanting to be swallowed up by the ground beneath us.

A common topic that elicits shame in a lot of us, is sex. This sense of shame is tied to different aspects of sex, depending on who we are, where we’re grown up in the world and what our parents taught us about it.

Shame and Pleasure

For some of us, the mere idea of experiencing pleasure with our naked body feels wrong, triggering shame when we engage in sex.

Perhaps you grew up in a family where sex was taboo and dirty.

Maybe you were taught that enjoying sex for the sake of pleasure, as opposed to for the sake of creating life, was wrong.

Or possibly, your religious beliefs made you feel like any kind of sex outside of wedlock was a sin.

Even if the messages you receive about sex now also encompass media and not just your parents or sex ed in school, these ideas might still affect how you feel about engaging in sex, and cause an onslaught of shame when having sex with a partner (or two).

Shame and Gender

In Western societies, sex is seen as more of a male activity than a female one. Men are meant to always be up for it, whereas women as meant to be sexy—not sexual.

These ideas of male and female sexuality affect all genders negatively, causing shame to those who identify as men when they don’t want sex, and shame to those who identify as women when they do want it.

Women I see in my private practice as a sex therapist often have difficulties grappling with being sexual because some part of them believes it’s “slutty” to like sex. Or that engaging in casual sex is wrong, which leads to shame.

For people who identify as nonbinary, the shame can sometimes run even deeper, as representations of nonbinary people having sex hardly exist in pop culture. This causes you to believe on an emotional level, that sex is for everybody else—except you.

Shame and Turn ons

Societal norms not only govern how we feel about having sex, they also affect how we feel about who or what turns us on.

Because of the private matter of sex, talking about what we get off to isn’t part of the norm. This leaves things like depictions of sex in movies and TV as our only source of information on what’s considered “normal” sex and “abnormal” sex.

Just as we talk about the importance of representation in the media when it comes to race, gender, and sexuality, representation regarding what we find arousing is important too.

One medium that shows sexuality in all of its different forms is pornography. But even if it showcases an impressive range of sexual stimuli, it doesn’t always have a shame-reducing effect on us as the medium is often seen as shameful in and of itself.

When the things you get turned on by are only ever shown in pornography, it can make you feel dirty and shameful—in fact, just as shameful as the feeling of being the only one who gets off to something in particular.

Shame Runs Deep

When you experience shame about what you like during sex, you’re actually experiencing shame about who you are—your very being. This is part of why shame about sex can be so damning.

Researcher Brené Brown describes shame in her TED Talk as the following:

“Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.’ How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake?’ How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” 

Feeling Guilty about Sex

Even though guilt is more about our behaviour being wrong than our souls “being wrong,” guilt can have a large impact on how we experience sex and what emotions during sex come up for us.

Guilt About Sexual Activity

For some people, guilt is ignited during specific sexual activities. For others, guilt is experienced solely because they engage in having sex at all. One sexual activity that’s often accompanied by guilt, especially at a young age, is masturbation.

Even if masturbation is completely normal, just like with partnered sex, we don’t talk about it a lot—especially not the way we masturbate or how many times a month we do it.

Gender norms surrounding sex also affect how we view masturbation.

Generally speaking, it’s seen as something men and boys engage in, not women and girls. Because of this viewpoint, girls are taught from a young age that they shouldn’t touch their genitals at all, because it’s dirty.

This leads to a lot of people who identify as girls, feeling guilty after they’ve masturbated. For some, the guilt is also there during the act itself, making it difficult to climax.

Guilt About Fantasizing During Sex

It’s rarely discussed, but having fantasies about other people during sex is common. In fact, for a lot of people, fantasizing is what leads them from pleasure to an explosive climax.

But because thoughts about others during sex is viewed as a sign of something being wrong in your relationship, or as an example of a loss of attraction, you may end up feeling guilty after sex.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasizing during sex—even if it’s not about the person you’re having sex with.

If fantasizing heightens sex for you or is sometimes a necessary means to pleasure, go for it!

How Emotions During Sex Impact Your Libido

Because of the way shame makes us feel about who we are as sexual beings, who turns us on and what makes us scream with pleasure, it can lead to low libido.

To enjoy sex and feel pleasure, we often need to feel we’re worthy of it. Because shame is a strong emotion that removes all feelings of worthiness, its presence inhibits sexual desire. This leads to low sexual desire and even difficulties with sexual arousal.

Guilt often arises as a reaction to what we’ve just done. For some, this means they don’t feel guilty in the heat of the moment, but rather after sex is over. However, over time, guilt that arises after every sexual encounter can cause sex to become associated with negative feelings.

Time after time, the afterglow of sexual pleasure is quickly masked by the dirty feeling that what we just did wasn’t okay. And unless it’s the kind of “wrong” that turns us on, libido can be dampened by guilt just as much as shame can.

Shame and guilt about sex is common and for some, the effects run deep. By understanding how negative emotions during sex can impact your libido, you can take the first step toward an increased sex drive.

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