Take a deep breath.
I want you to imagine a moment in your life in which you feel content, at home, and unapologetically yourself. Maybe it’s cruising down the highway with your music turned up on a beautiful day. Maybe it’s working on a personal project in a studio, garage, office, or gym. Maybe it’s coffee or beers with your best friend or a gathering with family. Maybe it’s at a library or a sports event or in your own backyard.
Now, I want to imagine yourself in a sexual situation. With yourself or with a partner. Do you feel content? Do you feel at home? Do you feel unapologetically yourself?
For the longest time, I did not. And I’m not the only one who has felt shame around my sexual feelings, expressions, or relationships.
Sexual shame is widespread
In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with others about sexuality, women often report feeling objectified, at times unsafe, unable to communicate their true needs, and dealing with body image issues that make it difficult to be comfortable in their own skins. Everyday things like clothing and food can generate feelings of shame.
Men have regularly reported feeling a disconnect from their sexualities, having to keep their sexual thoughts or desires secret, compromising or completely giving up their sexual needs, and longing to have more intimacy with their own bodies and in their relationships.
Non-binary and trans people may deal with the common shame issues of the genders they were assigned at birth, and/or shame around sexuality within their non-cis identities and bodies. And of course, there is overlap of these troubles, and people of all genders report wanting more information and more open discussions about sexuality and relationships.
We need the people who shame us – so we give in for their approval
The range of shame we carry about our sexualities can run from being ashamed of certain sexual thoughts, to feeling as though your entire identity as a human being is somehow dirty or broken. Sometimes shame is delivered by one person: a family member or partner, for example. Sometimes the shame is delivered by a social group: peers, members of your community, or society in general. Either way, we can’t imagine our lives without these people—we need and love them. So we give in to the shame for their approval.
When others use shame to judge or control our sexualities, we feel as though we don’t deserve to experience or enjoy an important and core aspect of our humanity. When we carry this shame for years, or even decades, many of us suffer a major impact on our mental and physical health.
I spent too many years denying my body pleasure or acceptance because I had internalized the shame society placed on my disabled body. I genuinely felt I did not deserve respect and that my body was not desirable. Others in my situation have defaulted to a mode of depression and disconnection from their bodies.
None of this helps us nurture intimacy or prioritize healthy and authentic relationships. In order to untangle shame and build healthy, fulfilling relationships, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our feelings.
Unlearning shame – learning sexual authenticity
My advice would be first to seek out the information you didn’t receive growing up and explore perspectives and philosophies to compare to your own life experiences. Yes, even scary topics like pornography, sexual fantasies, or sexual fluidity. Growing up as a disabled person, and well into adulthood, I had no one in my life who would talk with me about sex. So I turned to books. Not every single book or online article will have the right answers for you. But I encourage you to read widely, take the pieces you need, and leave the rest for others.
Next, start framing your sexual thoughts, desires, pleasures, and identity as part of a holistic version of yourself. If you aren’t hurting anyone or violating another person’s consent, enjoying sexual expression is no different than enjoying a hot coffee on a cold day, or feeling the sun shine on your skin.
Finally, you will have to take a chance and be vulnerable by opening up conversations with those who share your sexual life. You might need to seek out more tools to work on your relationships. But if you keep intimacy and authenticity as the goal, I promise the investment will be worth the effort. Eventually, perhaps you will become the person other people can talk to when they are afraid or confused.
Being open about your sexuality can make you vulnerable
Living authentically doesn’t mean complete transparency, nor does it mean not having any boundaries. But it does mean having compassion for others and not spreading shame because it is easy, makes you feel powerful, or is socially acceptable.
Being open about my sexuality on my blog The Unlaced Librarian has allowed me to help others, but has also left me vulnerable to abrupt or intense incidents of sexual shaming. Though I make no secret of my sex blogging in my everyday life, some people still see it as an opportunity to shame me when they find out about it. Sometimes I still feel as though I’ve done something wrong when this happens. But then I take a step back, evaluate my life, and know I’m not a bad or dirty person—it’s just the shame talking.
Regardless, my body still responds to the shame. After one such incident, I felt the impact for days. There was an anxiety in my body that I couldn’t turn off. The pit of my stomach felt heavy and constantly filled with butterflies. My chest was tight. I didn’t feel at home in my body. It wasn’t just my sexuality that was impacted—I felt disconnected from the things and people I loved. I felt like I couldn’t concentrate on writing or reading. I felt like I didn’t deserve the things that made me happy, that I didn’t deserve to feel good or even just okay.
Finally I managed to get some sleep, ate some healthy meals, and drank a lot of water. After running some errands I picked up a hot chocolate and took a book to the park. I breathed deep and eased back into feeling at home in my body. Then I faced the shame.
Those who are shaming you cannot take you from yourself
If you are living in this state of shame-induced anxiety—because you can’t come out, because you feel disconnected from your sexuality, because you are struggling to achieve integrity between your sexual thoughts and sexual life, or any other reason—I want you to know this:
Those who are shaming you cannot take you from yourself. Your dreams and reveries and pleasures and love are still yours.
The people who shame me can’t take away my husband, my home, my cat sleeping on my chest, my favorite books, my fantasies, my favorite hoodie, my sexuality, or the way I gaze at the stars at night. Those are mine and I deserve to feel them no matter what other people think. No matter if they approve or hate me or think I’m wrong. When I know I’m not hurting anyone else. Pleasure is still an important part of my life and I deserve to have access to it.
So do you. So does everyone.
I tell you this because, for myself, this was the edge I needed to not succumb to the shame. To make the decision to work through those feelings. To face others with kindness instead of anger.
Smile and breathe. Take a long bath or shower. Dress up just a little when you go out. Live your truth.
I see you. Keep going. We’re all in this together.
Leandra Vane is a sexuality writer and speaker – her blog The Unlaced Librarian covers book reviews on the topics of sexuality, erotic media, disability, fantasy, and kink.