Column: Sexual shame is a shared experience

Sex is awkward, but we must avoid slut-shaming and judgment.

Sex is shameful to us.

It’s an occasion for losing control, for the convergence of personal intimacy and animal desire. It fills us with aversion and guilt.

Despite our exposure to sexualized media and imagery and our alleged involvement in a “hookup culture,” sex is embarrassing.

Certainly it’s natural to be embarrassed – sexual shame is nothing new. Most of us play around secretly, away from the eyes and ears of others. We don't talk about our sex publicly, or even if we do, honesty or transparency is easily forgotten. We create tidy narratives about our sex lives – they’re consensual, healthy and regular, adjectives no one could be against.

But if you’re overheard through the wall, if you’re caught with porn in your search history or if it’s revealed publicly that you’ve been sleeping around, all the veils are thrown away. You’re exposed, publicly sexualized, subject to criticism, humiliation or embarrassment.

Yet for all that we wouldn’t want to be critiqued or even noticed for our desires or proclivities, we’re happily armed and ready to control or judge the sex lives of others.

We slut-shame for sport – any girl wearing heels before lunch on the weekends must be a shacker returning home, or if someone articulates that they’ve had good sex, they’re too honest, probably just seeking attention. If we happen to show a little cleavage, it’s our right, but if someone else shows what might be a centimeter more, it’s slutty and unacceptable.

Our puritanical double standards about sex are troubling. While it might seem common sense for us to simply allow others their sexual autonomy, just as we’d like to have our own, that never plays out. We police the sex lives of others, directly, through our comments and gazes and, indirectly, by embracing one identity or set of tastes as if they were universally shared or should be.

But we also congratulate ourselves for doing so – it raises our moral credibility, our relative modesty and our image. Upholding this pious stance keeps us further away from that which we’re most embarrassed about and intent to keep under the sheets.

So how can we change? Certainly the answer is not to pretend shame doesn’t or shouldn’t exist – it’s unlikely we’ll ever be masturbating publicly. But a less ridiculous and more common way of pretending shame doesn’t exist is to posit sex as only liberating, only lighthearted, fulfilling, even spiritual. While there might be some optimism and truth in this, I suspect not everyone is easily willing to adopt this pastoral view.

Remember also that sexual moralists want to paint a similarly limiting picture – that sex is a natural, procreative function between a man and a woman. It’s important for us not to play along with the same rhetorical schemes that place some sexual practices at a privileged standard above others.

We need to acknowledge that we are all subject to shame, but that our shame does not give us license to be moral or social arbiters of what’s sexually appropriate. We need to control our impulses to scapegoat our shame onto those more vulnerable than us, and also not judge those for whom shame is more impactful. Just because you personally might not feel ashamed by sex doesn’t mean that someone else is uptight or virginal for being less willing to articulate their sexual desires.

It’s crucial to remember that the sexual practices of some stand at a greater risk than others. People can be beaten, humiliated for their desires or stigmatized as a deviant. It’s up to us to protect their autonomy and not contribute to the moral panic that further marginalizes those outside of the sexual mainstream.

My goal through the semester is to understand how shame contributes to our personal and public dialogues about sex, sexuality, body image and media. I invite you to join the comment section and contribute your ideas. Sexuality can only be brought to light in an honest, judgment-free forum, and certainly I cannot achieve that alone.

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