unSEXpected: Discovering the Sexual Self by Unlearning Shame & Re-Framing Sexuality

We’re sitting on a hill after class, trying to make sense of the people and places that have made us the way that we are. We talk about mothers and how they shape our views of the world, sex, and everything in between. It’s dusk by the time he brings up his parents and their religion. Someone mentions a Christian encyclopedia and someone else laughs. Someone brings up repression and we hum in agreement. One by one we admit we never felt comfortable with our sexualities in our youth. Some of us still don’t. We’re not high-school kids anymore, but it’s difficult to shake off the shame we absorbed in our pasts. 


Shame is a crimson tinge that colours your cheeks and tightens your chest. It’s a feeling caused by the moral weight of right and wrong, and can be linked to disgust and self-hate. Shame is a part of life, which means it can often be a part of sex. But it doesn’t have to be.  

If you’ve grown up anytime over the last 20 to 30 years, you might have experienced a paradox of sorts regarding sex. Which is, within societies overflowing with sex-enthused media, it’s still so easy to pick up sex-shaming messages. Although we’re pushed to engage with it constantly (there are literally TikTok accounts dedicated to unpacking the sexual nature of strange viral videos based on kinks), we’re also being judged for it relentlessly, especially as teenagers.  

In true teenage nature, you might have begun developing your sexual self in secrecy, hidden from prying eyes but still clouded by guilt or fear. This development isn’t just about whether or not you were having sex, but how you felt about the desire to, and the narrative you built around it. If not re-written, this narrative, and the associated feelings around it, will follow you into adulthood. If it’s laced with shame, it may define your sexual identity, lead to toxic relationships, and leave you with self-destructive tendencies or harmful beliefs.  

Recognising Shame  

Shame comes in all different shapes and shades of crimson. You can feel shame for having desires, lacking desires, expressing what you want, enjoying kink play, having ‘too many’ sexual partners, not having ‘enough’ sexual partners, and the list goes on and on.  

As someone who is demisexual, I can feel a bit of shame that I haven’t had the experiences that others have had. I started trying to date a fair bit later than those around me, I haven’t been in a committed relationship yet and sex outside of that isn’t particularly something that I want. So I’m working on my self-confidence and feeling okay with doing what I want to be doing. – 25, Wynnum 

Often, the shame we feel is a product of internalised disgust. And the emotion is so primal, that when we experience it, we don’t stop to question or unpack it. We just give in to the negative connotations and judge ourselves for it. 

I never wanted the same things as my friends when it came to getting boyfriends or girlfriends. You couldn’t pay me to make out with anyone. I’ve never wanted anybody to rail me. Boyfriends were impatient to get to it, but I never had any desire. I feel a lot of shame about it, all the coercion and entitlement. Believing that having a boyfriend meant sex was something I owed in a relationship, because it’s what they believed. I have no drive for sex, no need or want. I’m indifferent. Sometimes that indifference twists into repulsion. I find it dirty and messy. Boring. Disappointing. Pissed that I felt I ever had to do it to be loved. Anger, because to a good deal of the population, it’s a staple in a romantic relationship. Because how am I supposed to find someone who also doesn’t need or want it? – Female, 23, Kelvin Grove 

If you grew up in any kind of religious context like I did, you’ll know the shame that was forced onto us by purity culture was demoralising at best; comparing you to perishable items that would lose their worth with the wear and tear of ‘use’.  

I used to lay next to the only person I had ever slept with in my life and worry they would think I was a whore for expressing too much desire. I used to think I was insatiable, and that my desires were morally wrong. – Cody, transmasc, 23

Sitting with Discomfort 

A wise friend once told me, the way to fight shame is to fight the silence that surrounds it. And he couldn’t be more right. Like so many other things in life, sometimes the only way forward is through.  

When I sit down with shame, it’s at a wobbly table in a dimly lit corner of my mind. One that squeaks louder than I can speak, and can barely hold my order. This is what we talk about: 

I never felt comfortable with my sexuality growing up. Early on, I started associating feelings of desire with recklessness and promiscuity, the fear of a fall from grace always looming. I received sex education in school, but I never received sex-positive education. I was taught about biology, classmates giggling with graphs of menstrual cycles in hand, but never about pleasure. So, pleasure was not something I grew up feeling entitled to. Instead, I grew into the desire of pleasing others.  

I wanted to make myself more consumable, because all I wanted was to be consumed. By sixteen, my sexuality was a bit lip and broken stockings in chapel – risqué and out of line. 

Around the same time school taught me I had a biological purpose, the media taught me I had a weapon to wield, my sexuality a tool that could be used against me, or in my favour.  

So, I let it be a tool, and I let myself be consumed. I embraced the idea that I could become people’s fantasies and dressed it as ‘empowerment’. I followed the narrative that I had built around myself, and I never thought to question it. I danced along a cliff’s edge. Until I fell. 

When I was young, I used to believe I wanted too much, too soon, and that I was morally corrupt for it. Now that I’m older, my shame looks different. I’m no longer ashamed of what I want. I’m just ashamed of what I’ve let people get away with. The only guilt I feel is not having known how to love myself better. 

Re-framing Sexuality 

It’s not enough to sit with shame, it needs to be de-throned.   

My shame looks different now, but it weighs just the same. I can’t carry it all at once, so I revisit it throughout the day. In the mornings, we have tea while I stare at my body long enough to recognise it as my own. When I cook and think of the men who have ‘loved’ me, I remind us both that I’m not to blame for the ways I’ve been hurt. In the evenings, we take turns counting blessings. 

I’m reframing shame as a cautious friend. I’m centering myself, and my pleasure, in the narrative. Something I was never taught how to do, but will damn sure learn. 

So far, these are the tips I would recommend: 

  • If you’re uncomfortable expressing your wants and needs to a sexual partner, practice saying them to yourself first. Build your comfort thought by thought, word by word. 
  • Learn to think about sex from a spiritual perspective. When shame is linked to religious upbringings, sex can feel like a sin. If you reframe sex as a form of worship or divine connection, instead of the antithesis of it, your sex life can become more fulfilling. 
  • Cut the things out of your life that make you feel bad about your sexuality. Nothing and nobody that makes you feel ashamed is worth your time and energy. If they can’t respect your boundaries, you don’t have to tolerate their disrespect.  
  • Masturbate. Get to know your body first, before you share it with others. Learn what kind of things you like so that it’s easier to help others please you.  
  • In the wise words of Moira Rose, take a thousand naked pictures of yourself! (Personally, I would recommend using a camera without any internet connection, so your nudes can’t end up in any shared or hackable clouds). Learn to appreciate your own naked body; it’ll do wonders for your self-confidence.  
  • Engage with sexual wellness content. Whatever you are experiencing, you are not alone. Somewhere out there is a book, article or podcast waiting to be found with exactly the kind of information you need. And if there isn’t, then you can be the one to make it. Become the fount of knowledge you would have appreciated. 
  • Talk to people around you – you don’t have to deal with shame all by yourself. De-stigmatize sex, one ‘casual conversation about the Dom/sub dichotomy in a public setting’ at a time. You can talk to your partners, friends, family, or therapist.  
  • Journal. Document your sexual wellness journey. That way, you can look back on your growth, and re-read passages when the going gets hard and you need a reminder of what you’re working for. 

Doing the work to dismantle feelings of sexual shame and reframing your sexuality in a positive light requires time and compassion. It’s a conscious effort to rewrite the narrative you once embraced. There is no quick fix, but that’s alright, because there’s no rush. And you’re doing great xx  


UnSEXpected is a Glass column dedicated to the things we learn about sex and intimacy through conversations with friends. If you have any unique, funny or interesting stories you’d like to share, please get in touch! It’s the team’s goal to make this column a fun, safe and diverse space.

 

Konstanz Muller Hering
Konstanz Muller Hering

Konstanz (she/ they) is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based writer and QUT Creative Writing graduate. Konstanz was a Glass editor, and now contributes as an alumni.

Articles: 24

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