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Saturday, December 16, 2023

Overcoming Feelings of Sexual Shame and Guilt Due to Interpersonal Issues

In my prior article, Overcoming Feelings of Sexual Shame and Guilt Due to Cultural Factors, I began a discussion based on a book by Lauren Fogel Mersy, PsyD and Jennifer A. Vencill PhD that I have been recommending to clients. It's called Desire: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships.

Interpersonal Issues Can Create Sexual Shame and Guilt

One of the topics the authors discuss is sexual shame and guilt and how these personal, interpersonal and cultural factors contribute to shame and guilt.

In the current article, I'm focusing on interpersonal factors and in the next article I'll discuss personal factors.

As a recap from my prior article on cultural factors: The difference between sexual shame and guilt, according to the authors, is:
  • Sexual shame is a worry about being rejected for an aspect of who you are as a sexual being. 
  • Sexual guilt is a worry about being rejected for your sexual thoughts, feelings or behavior
Sexual Shame and Guilt Due to Interpersonal Issues
Sexual shame and guilt can come up in a relationship for many reasons.  

Here are some of the most common reasons:
  • Growing Up in a Sex-Negative Family: Early experiences of growing up in a sex-negative environment usually carries over into adulthood if these experiences aren't addressed. For instance, if a child is repeatedly shamed and scolded by a parent for masturbating, that child can grow up believing sexual pleasure is wrong and "dirty" which can create sexual shame and guilt. This can also be complicated by religious or other cultural factors that were sex-negative as opposed to sex-positive (see my article: What Does Sex-Positive Mean?).
  • Experiencing Childhood Trauma: If an individual was sexually abused as a child, they might get triggered during sex with their partner. Even if the abuse wasn't sexual, emotional or physical abuse often has lasting effects that can impact adult relationships (see my article: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse).
  • Feeling Uncomfortable Talking About Sex With a Partner: This is a common problem--even for couples in long term relationships who are having sex but who feel too ashamed to talk it (see my articles: How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex - Part 1 and Part 2).
  • Engaging in "Duty Sex": Instead of sex being a way to connect in a mutually enjoyable, playful and intimate way, sex turns into a chore or obligation to avoid conflict and guilt. This problem is related to problems with talking about sex because the partner who is engaging in "duty sex" often doesn't know how to talk about it and the other partner, who might sense their partner is engaging in sex as a chore, also doesn't know how to address it.  Often neither partner feels good about "duty sex" because it's usually not pleasurable for either of them and it often creates more problems than it was meant to to avoid.  It's not unusual for one or both partners to find reasons to avoid having sex altogether so, eventually, they become a no-sex couple (see my article: Have You and Your Partner Stopped Having Sex?).
  • Experiencing a Partner Turning Away Sexually and/or Emotionally: Asking for emotional or sexual connection is a vulnerable act.  When a partner responds in an unsupportive way, this can create shame and guilt in the partner who is looking for support as well as the partner who can't or won't give it. This includes situations where a partner is turning towards the other partner for emotional or sexual connection but not getting it (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Emotional and Sexual Intimacy).
Experiencing a Partner Turning Away Sexually or Emotionally

  • Lacking Sexual Experience: If one or both partners is sexually inexperienced, they might feel ashamed about this and guilty that their partner might not be enjoying sex with them. This can be due to cultural, religious or the partner's values. There's nothing wrong with waiting for sex, if that's part of a person's values.  It becomes a problem if it creates sexual shame or guilt.
  • Experiencing Body Image Problems: There are messages everywhere--magazines, social media, TV--about how men and woman should look.  This is especially true for women. Both men and women can experience problems with body image in terms of weight, height, breast size, penis size and so on. Problems with body image can engender shame  about one's own body (see my article: Is a Negative Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?). 
  • Experiencing Libido Differences: Sexual desire discrepancy between partners is a common problem in relationships. Most couples don't have the same exact likes and dislikes in other areas of their life, so why should they experience sexual desire in the same way? It's only a problem when the couple can't reconcile these differences, which often causes sexual shame and guilt. Libido differences are the #1 reason why couples seek help in sex therapy (see my article: Mismatched Libidos in Relationships: What is Sexual Desire Discrepancy?)
  • Experiencing Different Preference: Vanilla vs. Kinky Sex: If one partner only likes vanilla sex (meaning conventional sex) and the other partner only wants kinky sex, this can create sexual shame and guilt between the partners if it's not addressed. It can also lead to their becoming a no-sex couple. However, these preferences can be negotiated, and it's possible to reach a compromise if both partners can be flexible and find common ground (see my article: What is Kinky Sex?).
Sex Comes in Many Different Flavors: Vanilla and Kinky

  • Having Misconceptions About Spontaneous and Responsive Sexual Desire: According to Sex Educator Dr. Emily Nagoski, who wrote Come As You Are, only about 15% of women experience spontaneous sexual desire, so the vast majority of women experience responsive desire. There are also men who experience responsive desire instead of spontaneous desire. However, many people aren't sexually informed about responsive and spontaneous desire due to a lack of sex education and a skewed portrayal of sexual desire in the media. These portrayals almost always show only spontaneous desire. In addition, in long term committed relationships, after the limerence phase of a relationship (also known as the honeymoon phase), many people, even individuals who experienced mostly spontaneous desire before, often experience responsive desire over time. Neither type of desire is better than the other. When partners have differences in the way they experience sexual desire, a willingness on the part of the responsive desire partner to begin having sex often results in enhancing sexual desire for that partner once they get started. This also requires the spontaneous desire partner to be patient and hold the "sexual charge" for both of them until the responsive desire partner gets aroused (see my article: Spontaneous Sexual Desire and Responsive Sexual Desire Are Both Normal).
  • Experiencing an Orgasm Gap Between Partners: Problems with an orgasm gap tend to occur more often in heterosexual couples as opposed to LGBTQ couples. An orgasm gap occurs when one partner has a tendency to experience an orgasm during partnered sex and the other does not. This doesn't refer to occasional instances when one partner has an orgasm and the other doesn't. Instead, an orgasm gap refers to an ongoing problem. Problems with an orgasm gap usually affect heterosexual women. A common reason for this is that there isn't enough clitoral stimulation for the woman because the couple is relying only on sexual intercourse, which is not the best way for most women to have an orgasm. Another contributing factor to an orgasm gap occurs when a couple approaches sex solely in terms of goal-oriented sexual performance rather than sexual pleasure. In addition, couples who are stuck in a rigid sex script or who are stuck on a linear and rigid sexual staircase can also experience problems with an orgasm gap. In addition, sexual boredom can be an issue, especially in long term relationships. There can also be other reasons (see my articles: Closing the Orgasm Gencap Between Heterosexual Men and Women - Part 1 and Part 2).
Experiencing an Orgasm Gap
  • Experiencing Sexual Disorders: A sexual disorder can be frustrating for both people in a relationship. It often leads to one or both people wanting to avoid sex as a way to side step dealing with the problem. Many sexual disorders, including painful sex (dyspareunia, vaginismus, pain related to a sexually transmitted infection or other issues) and problems with erectile unpredictability (erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or delayed ejaculation) can have physical and psychological causes. Ruling out a physical problem first is essential. If a physical problem has been ruled out or there appears to be a psychological component in addition to the physical problem, couples can be helped by a sex therapist. When there are physical and psychological problems, they are dealt with at the same time with the physical problem being handled by a urologist, sexual medicine professional or a pelvic floor physical therapist, and the psychological component being treated by a sex therapist.
  • Dealing with a History of Cheating: Most people assume that partners cheat because they're unhappy in the relationship, but most of the time this isn't true. Cheating often occurs for complex reasons. Also, contrary to popular belief, most couples usually work out these issues, especially if they have been together for a while and they attend couples therapy. Of course, this is a personal choice and many couples are unable to work out issues related to cheating either because the partner who feels betrayed can't and/or won't do reconcile or because the partner who cheated won't give up a sexual affair (see my article: Why Do People in Happy Relationships Cheat?).
Dealing with a History of Cheating
  • Dealing with a History of Compulsive or Out of Control Sexual Behavior: When a partner has a history of compulsive or out of control sexual behavior, this usually presents a problem in the relationship. There are many misconceptions about sexual compulsivity in terms of how to define it, whether it's an addiction, and other similar issues. But if the couple is willing to work on it, it's possible to overcome problems with sexual compulsivity in sex therapy.  In addition, many people are misinformed about this issue. For example, a man who thinks he is sexually compulsive because he masturbates occasionally in the privacy of his home, might actually be contending with sexual shame and guilt if his masturbation doesn't get in the way of the rest of his life. Another example would be a wife who thinks her husband has a "sexual addiction" because he watches porn occasionally. She is most likely misinformed. This doesn't mean that the husband watching porn might not be going against their relationship agreement. But it's probably not an "addiction." Of course, every case is different and context matters. So, a case where someone watches porn occasionally at home in private is different from someone who watches porn occasionally at work where they have been warned that they could be fired for violating the company policy. If that person continues to watch porn at work, knowing they are being monitored and they are jeopardizing their job, they have a problem (see my article: What is Out of Control Sexual Behavior?).
  • Disagreeing About Whether or Not to Open Up the Relationship: Many people, who are currently in monogamous relationships, would like to have an open relationship, but their partner doesn't want it.  Couples who have a conflict around this issue could benefit from sex therapy where this issue can be negotiated, if both people are willing. Other couples want to open up the relationship, but they don't know how. There are many forms of consensual nonmonogamy. A couple can work out an agreement that suits both of them or they can acknowledge they're not compatible and end the relationship amicably. Sex therapy can help with all of these issues (see my article: What is Consensual Nonmonogamy?).
Disagreements About Opening Up a Relationship
  • Experiencing Other Stressors in the Relationship: Chronic stress is usually a libido killer that can exacerbate already existing shame and guilt about sex. This can include:
    • Health issues (in addition to the ones mentioned above)
    • Lack of sleep
    • Stress involved with child rearing
    • Family problems
    • Money problems
    • Work-related stressors
    • Other problems

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 touch 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.