For the past couple of years, I’ve been on a whole-self wellness journey, mostly focusing on my mental health and emotional regulation. One of the practices I’ve incorporated is to relentlessly ask myself, “why?”
Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my kids need me?
Why do I procrastinate on important tasks?
Why do I feel resentment when my partner enjoys well deserved time for themselves?
The answers I seek out have been incredibly insightful and taking the time to pause and reflect has given me more patience, acceptance, and a deeper understanding of myself and the people I surround myself with.
Am I feeling overwhelmed by the kids because I’ve put all of my needs on hold and now I’m lashing out at them?
Am I procrastinating because of fear?
Am I actually resentful of my partner or am I just experiencing jealousy because he prioritizes his mental and emotional health and I choose martyrdom instead?
The biggest and most frequent “why” I’ve been asking myself in the past few years is, “Why do I feel embarrassed and ashamed to talk openly about sex?"
I know a big reason I struggle with sexual shame is my upbringing in an Evangelical church which provided intensely damaging messaging and shaming beliefs. Our culture and society further cemented those beliefs and I learned that my body is not my own to enjoy.
Sexual Shame vs. Stigma
Sexual shame is the deep-rooted feeling of disgrace or guilt associated with one's own sexuality, stemming from societal, cultural, or religious beliefs, while stigma is the negative judgment and discrimination directed at individuals based on their sexual behaviors or choices.
These forces can creep into our lives through whispered judgments, religious indoctrination, societal expectations, or our own internalized beliefs - affecting our relationships, self-perception, and life paths for years to come.
So, what’s the cause?
Sexual shame and stigma are often deeply intertwined with history, culture, and societal norms.
Throughout history, women's sexuality has been tightly controlled and regulated. In ancient civilizations (2000 BCE- 0 CE), women were seen as property and had limited sexual autonomy. In medieval times, (5th - 15th century) strict sexual norms and gender roles were reinforced and chastity and modesty were highly valued for women. Premarital and extramarital affairs were harshly punished by public humiliation, fines, flogging and whipping, exile, forced confinement, and even execution.
The Victorian era is known for it’s rigid moral standards and sexual repression and during this time the “female hysteria” diagnosis emerged. During the first wave of feminism in the late 19th century to early 20th century, the suffrage movement began to challenge these beliefs while the second-wave of feminism (1960’s - 1970’s) pushed for sexual liberation, reproductive rights, and dismantling the stigmas around women's sexuality.
During the sexual revolution of the 1960’s through 80’s, we saw significant changes in attitudes towards sex, and in the late 20th century to the present, progress is being made, but women continue to face challenges related to sexual shame and stigma.
Cultural norms, often perpetuated by religion and tradition, have enforced the idea that women's bodies and desires should be hidden or restrained and mainstream media has played a significant role in preserving these beliefs. Issues like slut shaming, unrealistic body expectations, and sexual violence persist while movements like #MeToo and third wave feminism work hard to combat these beliefs and societal conditioning.
Why Shame and Stigmas are Harmful to Women
The impact of sexual shame and stigma on women is harmful in many ways. These beliefs can lead to anxiety and depression, it can damage self-esteem and body image, and can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as engaging in risky sexual practices or staying in unhealthy, abusive, and dangerous relationships.
How to Overcome Shame and Stigma
Now, let's talk about the good stuff - how can we break free from this burden and support our sisters to help them feel empowered to do the same?
- Supporting Survivors: Women and men should provide support and resources for survivors of sexual trauma. Creating a safe space for survivors to share their experiences can be healing and empowering.
- Cultural Change: Challenge gender roles and promote a culture that celebrates diversity, inclusivity, and consent.
- Self-Reflection: Personal self-reflection and an openness to examine one's own beliefs and biases about gender and sexuality can lead to personal growth and a better understanding of yourself. RELENTLESSLY ASK YOURSELF, “WHY”.
Breaking free from sexual shame and stigma can be truly liberating. Here's what you gain: