I grew up in a fairly religious household where sex was rarely discussed (and when it was, it was talked about for the purposes of conception). Now, in my 30s, I have renounced many aspects of the religion I grew up with and come to realize some of the harm it caused in my life—including giving me a very problematic view of sex.

I’m a virgin and have barely even been able to masturbate, let alone approach intimacy with a partner. I feel ashamed and guilty whenever I try, even though I tell myself over and over again that self-exploration is healthy and necessary. I desperately want a relationship, too, but can’t fathom the idea of overcoming my nervousness about sex and exposing my body (nudity was condemned in my family as well).

While I am still a child of God and am waiting for marriage to have sex, I would like to be more open to physical acts of love and more self-accepting when it comes to touching myself. Can you tell me why shame and embarrassment persist around the subject of sex, even after I have released so much other negativity that was ingrained in me through my childhood faith? How can I shake the bad emotions that arise instantly when I feel aroused or try to indulge my thoughts and fantasies about sex? —Shackled by Shame

Dear Shackled,

First off, I want to say how much I respect and admire you. Clearly, you have worked hard to release the “negativity” that was part of your childhood. That is a huge undertaking, and you have accomplished a great deal. Nevertheless, you want to go further. You write that although you have achieved great self-understanding, there is an important aspect of your life that you would like to change—shame about sex.

You write that you feel ashamed and guilty about your sexuality. Shame and guilt are both powerful emotions, but very different from each other. Guilt has to do with feeling bad about something you have done. It’s hard to endure, but shame is worse. Shame is about who you are or, more accurately, who you think you are (based on the influences in your life)—no good, bad, worthless, and so on. If you feel guilty about something you have done, you can make retribution or decide to never repeat the action. But shame? Shame is about your core being, your whole self, body, and soul. I get the feeling from your words that shaming might have been part of your experiences growing up. Shame is used to belittle and control people; it is a tool of hate, not of love.

You describe sex as almost a great unmentionable in your childhood home, surrounded by prohibitions about nudity, masturbation, and adult relationships. Sexuality has something to do with love and loving, because sex is, finally, a loving physical and emotional expression of closeness with oneself and another. In fact, sexuality is an integral and intimate part of a person’s very being—and being in loving connection, the very opposite of shame.

You write that you are a “child of God.” I don’t know how you express your spirituality, but I wonder if you have come across this quotation from Ephesians 5:20: “For no one has ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, as the Messiah does the church.” In short, take care of yourself, body and soul, with complete love.

I recognize—and maybe you do, too—that this sounds easier said than done. For many people, the shame they experience surrounding sex stems from societal and religious taboos that have developed over many generations, making it a particularly difficult subject to reconcile new feelings around. I urge you to be compassionate with yourself as you work through your feelings, which clearly aren’t comfortable for you. It’s hard to overcome a lifetime of conditioning.

Many people experience negative feelings about the body. You wonder how you might overcome yours. I would start by working with a therapist around issues of loving yourself, emotionally as well as physically. Therapy can be very helpful as you gradually unlearn the negative feelings that are attached to your sexuality.

I find myself wondering how you care for yourself. Do you provide yourself with proper rest and physical care? Do you beautify yourself and your environment? Do things you like? Do you recognize and then give yourself what you need? Respecting, caring for, and loving oneself may gradually bring you closer to your body. Again, be kind to yourself.

Many people experience negative feelings about the body. You wonder how you might overcome yours. I would start by working with a therapist around issues of loving yourself, emotionally as well as physically. Therapy can be very helpful as you gradually unlearn the negative feelings that are attached to your sexuality. The experience of talking about your feelings with a compassionate other may itself be a way to lessen your feelings of shame as you bring them to light on your terms. This is a gradual process. There is no hurry.

You might also find physical outlets, such as sports or yoga or hiking, for example, that you enjoy. These are ways to perhaps feel more at home in your body.

As you gradually feel all of who you are, and the joy in and around you, you might also discover the joy of companionship with someone special. Often, people who are new to sex are worried about how they will do, as if sex were a test or performance to be graded. There is a simple remedy for such feelings. Rather than focusing on yourself and if you’re doing things right, you can focus on what your partner finds enjoyable as your partner finds ways to please you. As you treasure each other, your intimacy may deepen and grow.

Thank you very much for asking this delicate question. I hope my answers are helpful, and I wish you a blossoming of your full self.

Take care,

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