Shame and Sex
As we finish our series on sex and singleness today, I want to sit in a topic we’ve mentioned from time to time that deserves its full space here:
It’s different than guilt, which I think we have an easier time discussing. Guilt says, “What I did was bad.” We look at that behavior, that addiction, that decision, that choice and recognize it was wrong. Guilt can produce helpful change while maintaining our feelings of self-worth and belonging. Shame, on the other hand, says, “Who I am is bad.” Shame tells me that I am dirty, I am unlovable, I am wrong, and I am worthless. Shame makes its home in my sense of self.
Starting at an early age, we have the capacity to link our sexuality with shame. Here are some examples:
- Our parents are silent on the topic of sex. We try to ask questions, but are met with secrecy or avoidance. The secrecy makes discussing sex feel dirty, wrong, and shameful. The first time that we experience pleasure, touch ourselves, discover emotional/sexual feelings for another person, or attempt to discuss sexuality – we link the experience with shame. We are dirty or wrong to feel sexual desires.
- We experience sexual abuse. Our bodies react with a surge of pleasure followed by an immense sense of shame. How could I feel pleasure from something so wrong? What did I do to cause this? Why did my perpetrator choose me? How could I let this happen to me? These questions are met with deep embarrasment about who we are as a person. I am dirty, I am to blame, and I am worthless.
- We discover pornography for the first time as a young child. Although our parents had talked with us about porn, we never realized how easy it would be to run across it on our phones. We’re curious, so we take a look. We tell ourselves it’s just one time – but the feeling that follows is too addictive to abandon. We are embarrassed to have gained pleasure from a screen – we are embarrassed that we want to do it again. So we don’t tell anyone. We hide. We add layers of shame to our sexual story – I am pathetic, I am disgusting, I am weak.
- We wanted to wait to experience intimacy until marriage. But we found ourselves creating space for more and more of it in our dating relationships. We’d set boundaries then cross them over and over. Each time, we’d leave with an incredibly heavy weight of shame attached to those experiences – we label ourselves as filthy.
- We heard from an early age that sex was bad until we were married. So, we conditioned ourselves to suppress sexual desires when they arose. We never talked about sex, we never asked about it, and we never really processed our own sexual feelings. When we got married, we felt an overwhelming sense of shame when we gained pleasure from our spouse. Although we cognitively knew it was permissible, we still viewed sex and pleasure and desires as wrong. Each time we climaxed, we felt hatred towards ourselves.
These are just five examples of what it looks and feels like to carry a heavy sense of shame attached to your sexuality. Recognize that it’s not that the acts (porn use, intimacy before marriage, masturbation, etc.) are always okay; guilt as a response to these actions can lead to repentance and increased holiness. What shame does, though, is attach these actions to your identity. Shame says something is wrong with you.
Our core response to shame is to hide. It’s bad enough to feel worthless or unlovable or inherently flawed; being seen as these things is intolerable. Hiding is a protective measure that keeps us safe. The problem, though, is that hiding directly hinders connection. The more we link shame and sex, the further we move away from intimacy.
The antidote to shame.
The infamous Christmas carol, O Holy Night, proclaims: "Long lay the world in sin and error pining Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth."
These lyrics convey a steady, powerful truth: we feel our worth as we gaze upon the face of Jesus. This may sound simplistic, as I believe that shame affects us neurbiologically and takes comprehensive healing - but I truly believe that the antidote to shame is worthiness. If shame says that I am worthless, believing that I am worthy is crucial to overcoming shame. If shame says that I am dirty, healing begins with recognizing that the power of the Gospel makes me whole. And I think worthiness comes from connection, first with God and then also with people who speak truth into the dark places of our souls.
Our sexuality (which is innately part of being human) is not shameful. We are not worthless. Our sexual desires do not make us dirty. Jesus's infinite worth makes us worthy. His people remind us of that worth.