Dr. Patti Britton speaks often on the topic of sexual shame which affects all genders—men, women, trans, and nonbinary folk. She calls it, “Toxic Sexual Shame,” due to the devastation it can cause somebody’s mind, body, spirit, and psyche. While sexual shame can affect anyone to some degree and many themes are universal, some manifestations of shame are specific to each gender as a result of conditioning, socialization, culture, and gender roles. This article will explore working with sexual shame in cisgender women and nonbinary vulva owners.
Exploring sexual shame in women is a broad topic because of course women are not a homogenous group! How women think and feel about themselves as sexual beings and their sexual behavior is a result of their upbringing and socialization, their unique psychology, and their biology. This is why using the biopsychosocial model is helpful in understanding this, because there are many dimensions to what makes us human.
We then need to address the intersections of race, culture, religion, orientation, gender identity, age, and physical ability because all of these factors contribute to the kind of sexual shame that women can experience.
Remember that almost nobody was raised in a truly sex-positive culture or society with positive attitudes towards sexuality. You may have been fortunate with having permissive parents, but you cannot ignore the wider world you live in, which is why sexual shame can affect anybody.
Is it being prudish, or is it shame?
The term “prude” or “being a prude” is often used as a slur and is more often directed toward women than men. It usually describes an uptight woman who is seen as a “killjoy,” who is clutching her pearls and covering her eyes. We can also describe many laws and policies in different countries around the world—especially in the United States—as prudish because they reflect the puritanical values of the politicians and lawmakers who make them.
We need to call prudishness what it really is: shame. Prudishness and repressive views on sexuality all come from a place of shame and discomfort. Many countries around the world have a history of sex-negative religions and patriarchal attitudes towards women, which often lead to these feelings.
All laws and policies that concern sexuality—from those that govern reproductive healthcare, to sexual assault, to sexuality education, to sex workers, and more—disproportionally impact women, sexual minorities, and People of Color the most.
Is it any surprise, then, that women are the ones most affected by sexual shame?
What sexual shame can look like in women
Not every woman struggling with sexual shame can immediately identify that they are experiencing this, because it often isn’t socially acceptable for women to talk openly about their sexuality.
There’s often a societal assumption that “good girls” or “good wives” don’t talk about sex because it’s embarrassing or inappropriate. It’s easy then to think that feeling ashamed and uncomfortable is normal.
What can increase the feeling of shame and anxiety is feeling ashamed of the shame.
Women may notice that, when they are around friends or family members who talk more openly about sex, pleasurable experiences, or sexual history, they feel ashamed that they feel so ashamed.
Many women are deeply worried there is something wrong with them and that they are completely alone in this feeling. This adds to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can be kept secret for years before they seek help.
Here’s how it can look:
- Finding it uncomfortable or stressful to talk about sex in any context, even with their intimate partner.
- Finding it uncomfortable or even traumatic to be seen naked, even by their intimate partner.
- Struggling to engage with or enjoy sex with their intimate partner.
- Experiencing dissociation or freezing during partner sex.
- Discomfort with their genitals, either talking about, touching, or talking with medical professionals about them.
- Discomfort using correct anatomical terms when talking about their genitals, using euphemisms or nicknames such as, “down there,” “you know what,” “my thing,” or the equivalent in other languages.
- Discomfort and distress when seeing erotic content or people engaging in erotic behavior—often described as “prudishness.”
This will inevitably lead to a breakdown of the sexual connection with their partner and can often appear as the sexual concern of Uneven Desire in a couple, or Low Desire in the woman. This usually manifests in the dynamic of their partner chasing them for sex while the woman feels like the gatekeeper. This will put a relationship or marriage under extreme stress, with both partners feeling frustrated, confused, and hurt.
What contributes to sexual shame in women:
We have already explored some of the context that can create sexual shame in women. It is important to recognize this is a direct consequence to the culture we live in and not an isolated case, no matter how a woman may feel.
- Gender roles and what is seen as “appropriate” and “acceptable” for how women behave, think, and feel.
- Cultures and communities with greater gender inequality and strict gender roles.
- Living in a culture that demonizes or discourages female sexual pleasure and female sexual behaviour (which is most countries in the world!)
- Slut shaming—whether you received this personally, the fear of it, and/or seeing it in the media and in your community.
- Religious communities that stigmatize sexual behaviour and expression outside of heterosexual marriage.
- Lack of accurate and pleasure-focused sexuality education.
- Beauty standards, body image, and diet culture that leave women feeling insecure in their bodies.
- Negative messages you received growing up from your parents, family, caregivers, and community.
- Racialized stereotypes of how a woman from a certain country or ethnic group should think, feel, and behave sexually.
- Past traumatic experiences: physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse, including sexual assault.
- Surgery or serious illness that has changed the feeling or appearance of her body.
- Traumatic childbirth and/or injury during childbirth resulting in vulvar or vaginal pain, and/or changing the appearance of the vulvar area.
For most women, their experience is a combination of many of these factors.
To paraphrase Carlin Ross, “There is no country in the world that encourages girls and women to explore their sexuality.”
How to work with sexual shame in women as a sex coach
Sexual shame is one of the most common concerns you will see in your private practice and every case will be different. It is important to work with sensitivity and compassion, working at the client’s own pace. The most important aspect of this work is embodying the “P” in the PLISSIC model: Permission!
Here are a few things to keep in mind when helping women heal their sexual shame:
- Meet your client exactly where they are right now and create a rapport of trust and safety. This could mean using different metaphors and creative tools, mirroring their language, taking the coaching process slower, and celebrating their wins.
- Normalize their experience as much as possible. This is incredibly important to remind them just how common this is and that millions of other women feel similarly. It takes them out of the secondary feeling of shame that they are the only person to feel like this. If possible, give real-life examples of people and stories.
- Encourage them to seek out or facilitate their own affirming and sex-positive community. It could be a Facebook group, a Twitch channel, a membership or meetup group, or something else. It takes a village to help people heal and being in a community where it’s safe to talk about and explore sexuality has immense potential for growth that only working 1:1 cannot provide.
- Reaffirm to them that there is nothing “wrong” with them and remind them of their inherent wholeness and worthiness.
- Include lots of pleasure-focused sexuality education and explore reframing limiting beliefs with them.
- Educate them on how desire works, especially on the difference between responsive and spontaneous desire, the dual control model, and what are their contexts.
- Affirm to them that this is for them and on their own terms, not just to keep their partner happy. Help them to explore pleasure on their own terms and what brings them joy and pleasure in every area of their life.
- Focus on giving them choice and sovereignty in all of the work you do. When they know that they are in the driving seat and they can always be in control, this creates a feeling of safety.
- Look out for signs of overwhelm and dissociation, and learn some simple grounding and orienting tools to teach them to help them stay feeling safe.
As sex coaches, we must remain client-led and by what our clients ultimately want, while remaining empathetic and respectful of their cultural and/or religious beliefs. It is very easy to want to step into the role of a “liberator” of women and to try to help somebody to “open up” when you can clearly see what is blocking them.
However, exercise caution in this. When you are stepping into the role of a rescuer, this is another way of denying agency to somebody and could make them feel unsafe. Remember that you cannot appeal to everybody, so it’s important to get clear on the kinds of clients you do and do not want to work with.
It is a great privilege and honor to bear witness to a client’s sexual healing, especially as you help them shed layers of shame.
If you struggled with sexual shame on your healing journey, what did you need to know or experience to start to release it? What do you think is most important for sex coaches to know? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter or Instagram!