NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, December 14, 2023

Overcoming Feelings of Sexual Shame and Guilt Due to Cultural Issues

Sexual shame and guilt affect many people. So, if you're experiencing shame and guilt about sex, you're not alone (see my article: Understanding the Difference Between Shame and Guilt).

Overcoming Sexual Shame and Guilt

Often there are personal, interpersonal and cultural roots to sexual shame (see my article: Shame is at the Root of Most Emotional Problems).

In their book, Desire - An Inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships, authors Lauren Fogel Mersy, PsyD and Jennifer Vancill, PhD, discuss sexual shame and guilt with regard to cultural, interpersonal and personal factors (see my article: Overcoming Shame).

The authors discuss how disruptive shame and guilt can be to an individual's or a couple's sex life.

Sexual shame often causes people to feel that a part of them is wrong, bad or unacceptable in others' eyes, according to the authors.

They also make a distinction between sexual shame and guilt:
  • Sexual shame is a worry about being rejected for an aspect of who you are--namely, a sexual being. 
  • Sexual guilt is the worry about being rejected due to your sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviors. 
So, whereas shame is related to who you are (your character), guilt is related to what you have done or not done (your behavior).

By breaking down sexual shame and guilt according to cultural, interpersonal and personal factors, the authors help readers to see how powerfully disruptive these factors can be for individuals and couples.

The Cultural Roots of Sexual Shame and Guilt
In this article, I'm focusing on cultural factors and I'll discuss personal and interpersonal factors in upcoming articles.

Many cultures, including certain religions, intentionally or unintentionally instill a sense of shame and guilt about sexual matters.

People who grew up in a culture where it was considered taboo to have sex before marriage often find it difficult to "flip a switch" to feel positive about sex after they're married. 

The taboo about sex doesn't necessarily go away after they're married, especially if the taboo is deeply ingrained.  As a result, it can interfere with sexual pleasure for individuals and couples.

Overcoming Sexual Shame and Guilt 

Another taboo often found in certain cultures is that sex is only acceptable in monogamous, heterosexual relationships, which can cause guilt and shame if someone is part of the LGBTQ community, non-binary, consensually nonmonogamous, sexually questioning, sexually fluid or non-heteronormative.

Over time, I have worked with many psychotherapy clients who struggled with sexual guilt and shame due to cultural factors.

Logically they knew there was nothing to be ashamed or guilty about but, on an emotional level, they still carried these sex-negative emotions inside them because they were deeply internalized due to their culture.

Cultural factors also include the pervasive destructive messages women get about their body image. Women are often told explicitly and implicitly on social media, in magazines, on TV and by loved ones that they need to be thinner or taller or look some other way.  

All of these messages serve to convey to women, "You're not good enough," which can make it difficult for women to feel good about their bodies, especially during sex when they are most vulnerable.

Also see my article about how modern day slut-shaming affects women: Slut-Shaming Women and Girls is a Form of Bullying and Sexual Harassment).

Clinical Vignette:
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases with no identifying information, illustrates how cultural factors can engender feelings of sexual shame and guilt:

Sara and John
Sara and John began dating after they met at a party in their third year of college.

John grew up in a family that attended church, but they were culturally liberal.  Due to their sex-positive beliefs, they spoke to John about sex in a positive and age-appropriate way.  

In addition, they raised John to believe that his sexual feelings were a natural part of himself.

Sara grew up in a conservative religious family.  Her parents almost never discussed sex, and the only "sex education" she received from them was about the dangers of having sex in terms of an unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  

Her parents believed sex before marriage was a sin due to their religious beliefs. They also believed that, even after marriage, sexual pleasure was for men only, and women should only engage in sex as part of their "wifely duty" or marital obligation.

Whereas John had prior sexual experiences before going out with Sara, Sara had no sexual experience before she met John. He was her first sexual partner.  

Even though she enjoyed sex with John, and logically, she didn't practice her childhood religion anymore or believe sex before marriage was a sin, she struggled emotionally after she and John had sex.  She enjoyed sex in the moment with John, but afterwards she felt the weight of guilt and shame bear down on her.

Overcoming Sexual Shame and Guilt

She shared her mixed reactions about sex with John, who was very understanding and patient.
They both believed that Sara's shame and guilt would disappear after they were married because she would no longer be going against the childhood religious prohibitions she grew up with.

But five years into their marriage, Sara couldn't shake these feelings.  She couldn't understand how her logical mind and her emotional mind reacted so differently to sex.

Although John was understanding, he was concerned that Sara might never overcome her shame and guilt if they didn't get help, so he suggested they attend sex therapy to work on their sexual problems.

They learned in sex therapy that these problems are relational problems--not just Sara's problem and, over time, they began to overcome these problems together with the help of their sex therapist.

Feelings of sexual shame and guilt are common. 

Personal, interpersonal or cultural factors are often the root cause.

These problems are often difficult to overcome on your own, so working with a licensed mental health professional who is a sex therapist is usually helpful.

This article focused on cultural issues.  The next articles will focus on interpersonal and personal issues related to sexual shame and guilt.

Next Articles: 

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

There is no sex, nudity or physical exams during sex therapy sessions (see my article: What Are Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

Individual adults and couples seek help in sex therapy for a variety of reasons (see my article: What Are Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?).

If you're struggling with a sexual issue, rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who is a sex therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a sex-positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.