The Impact of Sexual Shame

6 years ago

I write because people scare me. Talking to people makes me nervous, speaking in front of thousands of people, terrified. I write about sex because it matters to me. Not the act, but the freedom. I was raised by a gay dad. I am a rape survivor. It took me well into my 30's to figure out how I like sex, and damned near 40 before I really went for it.

But talking about sex, in front of thousands, for one of the most venerable conferences there is? You have to be kidding! But I did it. And it was great. The most gratifying thing, however, was the audience response.

People I didn't know were thanking me. Not congratulating me, but thanking me. Thanking me for giving them permission to be honest about their sexuality with themselves, maybe their partners. For telling them -- and everyone -- that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

At the end of this video you'll see people participating in a survey, which was my favorite part. I'm still collecting answers, and will write up what I learn shortly. But I can tell you this: we are all a bit kinky and all a bit less than satisfied.

The following is a transcript from the video:

I have the least revolutionary idea that you're going to hear all day. That is that you and you and you and you are allowed to have sex exactly the way you want to, as often as you want to, and it's up to the rest of us to make sure that you know that. Right? That's not a bad way to end the day. And it's a perfect time in our history to have that conversation now that we finally got rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I had to think of what the opposite of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is. It's ask and tell. So now that we understand that it's okay if the soldier fighting next to us is having gay sex, it's time to ask ourselves if it's okay that the neighbor living next door to us is getting tied up and spanked in a little girl's dress every night. And the answer is it is okay because it has no impact on you whatsoever, because what they're doing is a consensual act between adults and unless you're doing it with them, it does not matter to you.

But we have to get back to a very simple question: what is sex? Sex is a consensual act between adults. And that is all that is. If you look at this picture right here, that's a temple, like a thousand years ago in India and that is not monogamous and it's probably not heterosexual. As long as people have been having sex, they've been doing it in wild and creative ways and they often even call it art. Sex is a consensual act between adults. It is intimate, it is personal, and it is totally natural.

So why do we have all the shame around it? I think the first thing is to understand what shame is, and to do that, we need to separate it from guilt. Guilt is an internal voice inside your body that pops up when you know you have done something wrong to someone: "I told a lie -- I feel guilty about that. I did something bad."

Shame is an external force that people put on you. It tells you that you are something bad. So it's not "I told a lie and did something bad," it's "I'm gay, I am bad." That's a really debilitating idea. That takes away your autonomous control over your sexuality. And anybody who wants to take your autonomous control over your sexuality does not have your best interest at heart, whether it's your preacher, your teacher, your lover, or anyone else. That's not natural.

But what does shame do to people? Why does this even matter? If you can turn on the news and see gay kids jumping off of bridges because they're ashamed to be gay, you know that this matters. In fact, there is a lot of research about the impact of sexual shame on gay and lesbian people. Unfortunately it's all about gay and lesbian people because we don't research shame with heterosexuals too much.

If you look at the statistics, youth between the ages of 21 and 25 are eight times more likely to commit suicide if they feel marginalized because of their sexuality. That's really mean. In the 16 states in 2005 that instituted constitutional amendments saying that gay marriage is wrong and banned, the statistics are kind of shocking. Depression in the gay and lesbian population in those states went from 23 to 31 percent, generalized anxiety went from three percent to nine percent, alcohol abuse went from 22 to 31 percent. This hurts people. Sexual shame hurts people.

But that's just gay people. That's the good news for the rest of us. Except that it turns out that gay people are in fact just people. So if sexual shame hurts gay people, it probably hurts straight people, also.

Turns out about eight percent of the population is homosexual. In a survey that was done in 2005 asking people about their sexual behavior, 20 percent of respondents identified themselves as kinky, meaning that they had multiple partners at the same time, they used toys, bondange, spanking, watched porn together. Eight percent of people are living out of the closet, 20 percent of people -- and I think that's low -- are still living in shame in the closet (which is probably where they keep all the toys, so maybe that's okay).

"Mistress" via Shutterstock.

The problem is that this is a huge thing for all of us. Sex is a huge industry. Even in the depression, it's a $13 billion industry to watch porn. Twenty-five percent of every single search engine request is looking for porn. Twelve percent of the sites on the internet are porn and if you think that's big, $13 billion on porn, last year, the world's worst economy we remember since the Depression, $15 billion worth of sex toys were purchased. We're a kinky people. We're spending a lot of time and money looking for sex -- or looking for more fun sex, anyway.

So what exactly is normal sex? Now that we have established that we don't want people to feel ashamed, normal sex is a consensual act between adults: you can spank each other, you can wear costumes, you can do anything you want. And it is normal. My boyfriend and I this morning were trying to come up with examples to illustrate the depth and breadth of human sexuality without scaring you with photos, which are scary, even to me. So we went to the LustLab, which is The Stranger's online personal ads, specifically for people who are looking for interesting sex -- there are 90 different kinks just on LustLab that you can register looking for a partner for. And that's in Seattle. Seattle has got to be one of the most uptight cities in the country, so that's saying something, right?

Looking on LustLab, everything went from asphyxiation to watersports -- and watersports, in case you didn't know, is peeing on water -- and everything in between. Bondage, knife play, group sex, you name it. It's all normal.

Why does it matter that we're shaming each other? As if jumping off bridges wasn't bad enough, as if being depressed wasn't bad enough. The truth is people are destroying marriages, careers, lives and communities by keeping secrets about what they're into sexually. All those politicians who are suddenly looking for little boys in airport bathrooms -- it's bad enough that his own career was destroyed, but what about the woman he married, who believed she was in a happy, consensual marriage with somebody she believed was getting his needs met? That lie didn't just hurt him, that lie hurt her and his family. It's just not cool. Not okay.

Milton Diamond was hired a few years ago to do research on the impact of porn and kinky sex on sex crimes, hopefully to prove that people who have kinky sex and watch porn are the ones committing the crimes. He actually found an inverse correlation. People who watch porn and are sexually fulfilled are less likely to commit crimes. And that statistic is bared out in the fact that there is less crime in the cities where there is more porn watched. Guess what state has the most porn watched in the country? Utah. Yeah. It's not a coincidence.

So I was running around doing statistics -- the politicians in airports are kind of funny -- I ran across this statistic that really hit home for me. Trans people -- people who are transitioning from either being male or female -- have three times the urinary tract infections of the general population. You know why? They're afraid to go in public bathrooms because people will ridicule them. That's pretty direct.

So why do we do it? I think it's really simple. Nobody actually knows why we shame people about their sexuality unless you take the church out, which I'm trying to do. We shame people about their sexuality because we're afraid of our own sexuality. It lives very deep inside of us and it's intimate and real, and scary and personal, and we want to and we should protect our own sexuality. So if we give those people the right to do those scary, weird things to each other, I think we're afraid that we're giving them permission to do those things to us as well. And that is kind of scary.

I have awesome news for you: it actually works the opposite way. When we give people back autonmous control over their sexuality and say, "you're allowed to define your sexulity however you want, you go do it!" We give ourselves that same right. So we're allowed to say, "I want you to tie me up, but I don't want you to spank me." We're allowed to draw our own boundaries, so not only do get to have what we want, we don't have to have what we don't want. The upside for that as people is that we create a really safe place for ourselves to be honest. And when we are honest and safe with our lovers, we might actually be able to push our own boundaries just a little bit farther and discover the whole spectrum for ourselves.

Please share the video and take the survey and let's start a dialog about sexual freedom.

Alyssa's Royse writes at and runs the sexuality information site for women

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