Sexual shame seems to be part of human nature, but its causes are mysterious.
The book of Genesis tells us that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they felt suddenly ashamed of being naked.
"Then the eyes of both [Adam and Eve] were opened and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." Genesis 3:7.
The story has some weak logic, of course. Cover themselves from whom? From each other? But they were a couple and had sex with each other - otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. From God? But God sees everything, so trying to cover yourself from Him seems rather futile.
Never mind. What is important in this story is that it tells us that sexual shame is universal, an intrinsic part of human nature. This means that sexual shame has a biological origin, and not merely a cultural one. Otherwise, sexual shame would be present only in some cultures and not in others. It would not be part of human nature.
Is this true? And, if so, why?
Instances of sexual shame
In many cultures, particularly in Western countries, being naked is shameful and humiliating. Partial states of undress are permissible at the beach, or while changing in the presence of members of the same sex. But having exposed genitalia, buttocks and breasts in public is taboo, and often illegal.
Another strong taboo is against having sex in public. Being surprised by strangers while having sex is deeply shameful.
Watching other people having sex (voyeurism) is taboo.
Watching pictures or movies of naked people, or people having sex (pornography), is also taboo, and illegal in some countries.
Being seen while experiencing sexual pleasure - for example, while masturbating - is shameful.
Sexual desires, fantasies and fetishes are kept secret. If somebody reveals them to others, this is shameful.
People often feel ashamed about the size or shape of their genitals, or other sexually charged body parts like breasts and buttocks.
Conversely, bragging about the size or shape of one’s genitals, or sexual body parts, is taboo or, at least, considered bad taste.
Sex is more shameful for women than for men. “Sex is boys' fame and girls' shame”.
However, homosexual sex is more shameful for men than for women.
Being penetrated sexually (vaginally, orally or anally) is considered humiliating, especially if you are a man.
Anal sex is the most humiliating sex act.
Giving oral sex is also considered degrading for men, and more so than receiving fellatio from another man.
People use sexual expressions to ridicule or humiliate somebody. “He’s an ass-kisser.” “He fucked him over.” “He has no balls”.
Being “cheated on” - when our partner has sex with other people - is considered one of the most shameful thing that can happen to you.
Sex should not be shameful
Sexual shame is so pervasive that we take it for granted. It’s just another fact of life. However, when you stop to think about it, there is no good reason why sex should be shameful.
No other animal experiences sexual shame. Animals have sex in front of other animals or people without any problem. But this is hardly surprising, since shame seems to be a uniquely human emotion.
Sex is one of the things that brings us the most joy and pleasure in our lives. When it comes to other pleasurable things - like drinking, eating and playing - we are happy to talk about them and do them with others. However, we hide sexual pleasure.
Sexual shame is dangerous and harmful
One huge problem in our society is the deep psychological trauma caused by sexual abuse, particularly during childhood. One of the main harms associated with this trauma is shame and the resulting decrease in self-esteem. Memories of the sexual abuse bring about strong sexual shame. It doesn’t matter that the victim is not responsible for the abuse; shame is felt all the same because there seems to be something intrinsically shameful about sex. How can the victim free herself or himself from this shame?
It seems that understanding sexual shame could be of help for sexual trauma.
Sexual abuse is not the only case in which sexual shame is harmful. When somebody is being persecuted for being gay, a lot of the harm is done by shaming. A lot of this shaming involves evoking images of what that person does during sex.
Sex-positive culture has come up with the term “slut-shaming” to denounce emotional attacks perpetrated on people who dare exert their sexual freedom against cultural norms. Particularly women, but also men. A similar term, “kink-shaming”, denounces the psychological warfare on people who practice BDSM and other kinks.
In all these cases, sexual shame is weaponized to maintain sexual norms and gender stereotypes, and to punish people who dare to infringe them. We fight shame with its opposite, pride, and have made it the flag of various sexual liberation movements. Still, sexual shame is so powerful and so pervasive that it is able to hurt even the most sex-positive people, never mind those who find themselves isolated in the midst of conservative populations.
What is shame, anyway?
“Shame is considered a social emotion (as opposed to basic emotions like happy, sad, and mad). It is learned via socialization (all the complexities of interacting with others) and through the transmission of group norms. […] Shame originates from morality.” No One Is Immune to Sexual Shame, Psychology Today.
I disagree. As I explained in my article What Is Shame?, shame has many physiological manifestations, like blushing, lowering the head, a hunched posture, inhibition of talking and moving, and social withdrawal. In that, it is similar to the six Ekman emotions - anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust and surprise -, which can be detected in humans and animals by facial expressions. Therefore, I think that shame is hard-wired, just like the six Ekman emotions. It is biological. It does not originate from morality.
Shame is also deadly. It often leads to suicide.
I think that shame evolved in humans as a means to enforce cooperation and social interaction. When you do something good for the community, you receive praise and you feel good about yourself. If, instead, you do something bad, refuse to cooperate, or even fail at a task you were supposed to do, you get punished with ridicule and shaming.
Pride and shame are two opposite emotions that increase and decrease your social status.
One has little control over their shame. If they did, it could not be used by others to control their behavior. It is hard to avoid feeling shame if you are surrounded by people intent on shaming you.
One of the main evolutionary pressures on humans was on having effective cooperation inside tribes. Communities that cooperated well flourished and reproduced. Those who didn’t went extinct.
Shame, indignation, ridicule, humor and sex
What happens when somebody feels unduly proud? Imagine somebody who hasn’t done a thing to help the community, and yet he goes around full of himself. This arouses indignation in the people around him, who feel compelled to bring him down a peg or two. They do things to make him lose his dignity, to fall into ridicule. When that happens, they laugh at him.
Note the interplay of several social emotions in this story: pride, indignation, dignity, ridicule, humor. They interact to regulate social status which, in small tribes of hunter-gatherers, could mean the difference between life and death. Or between having lots of children and having none. Which, evolutionarily speaking, is the same.
Instead, imagine that the proud person senses the indignation building around him and does something about it. Before anybody ridicules him, he humbles himself by engaging in clownish behavior and self-deprecating humor. People laugh with him, not at him, and social tension dissipates. He has lost social status, of course. But has done so voluntarily, so he is in a better position to regain it when he does something pride-worthy.
Therefore, shame, indignation, ridicule and humor are emotions that play together to control social status.
Curiously, ridicule and humor are also emotions that are commonly associated with sex. Think about all the jokes we tell about sex. And all the slapstick situations and ridicule that can happen around sex. As for indignation, this is the emotion that accompanies prudish behavior and puritanical morality. When sex doesn’t evoke laughter, it evokes pearl-clutching.
Is sexual shame caused by religion and sexual morals?
It is true that Western culture is one of the most loaded with sexual shame. Islamic cultures are even worse. In both cases, sexual shame originates from religious norms and prohibitions.
Still, even the most non-religious and sexually liberated people find it hard to escape sexual shame. No matter how hard they try, a mean comment or laughter will bring it back.
“But sexual shame has, in truth, never remotely gone away, for it is a psychological, not a political or religious problem.” The Problem of Sexual Shame.
The universality of sexual shame suggests that it is something intrinsic to human nature and not originating in morality.
“The universality of bodily shame is not supported by anthropological studies, which do not find the use of clothing to cover the genital areas in all societies, but instead the use of adornments to call attention to the sexuality of the body.” Cordwell & Schwarz (1979). The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment.
Yes, it is true that nakedness is not universally shameful. However, sexual behavior is. What happens is that nakedness is only perceived as sexual in certain cultures. There are even cultural differences between Europeans and Americans in this regard.
I think that humans are predisposed to feel shame about sex, but the exact manifestation of sexual shame varies from culture to culture.
There seems to be a time window during childhood for the imprinting of sexual shame, similar to the time window for the learning of language. Think about how easily children latch on to messages about shame. Once you tell them that they should be ashamed of being naked in public, this feeling becomes overwhelming for them. Sexual shame and sexual desire seem to become intrinsically linked with each other at this time, and also associated with cultural taboos and notions about humor and ridicule.
Explanation 1: sex is intimate because it serves for bonding
I am going to propose five possible explanations for sexual shame. I find some more plausible than others, but you may take your pick.
The first explanation is that sex is not really shameful, it’s just intimate and private. During sex, neurotransmitter like oxytocin, vasopressin and endorphins are released in key areas of the brain, leading to couple bonding. Perhaps it is necessary that this process happens away from other people, so that the bonding does not include them.
The problem with this hypothesis is that it does not explain why sexual shame is so hurtful. If sex was just meant to be private, then there should be a feeling of rejection or anger towards intruders, but not a self-directed feeling of loathing for being discovered having sex.
Besides, in a lot of people, sexual shame exists in confrontation with exhibitionism and voyeurism. Many people enjoy watching others having sex. Some people enjoy being watched having sex. It all seems to depend on our ability to open a space of intimacy and vulnerability around our sexuality.
Explanation 2: Sex is shameful because it is associated with disgust
Urinating and defecating are biological functions that, like sex, are done in private and that are shameful if done in public. They evoke disgust, one of our six basic emotions. Anybody who sees us voiding our vowels will be disgusted, and this emotion will become associated with us. We don’t want that, because being perceived as clean is part of our social prestige.
Disgust evolved to keep us away from substances that may transmit infections. Sex is one of the main ways in which we may acquire an infectious disease.
Our genitals are the same organs that we use for urinating, and they are extremely close to the anus. It is natural, then, to see the genitals as unclean.
Culturally, sexual shame is often expressed as disgust. Thus, promiscuous women are considered “dirty”, and sexual acts are often described as dirty or with words associated with filth. One of the main obstacles in first sexual experiences is disgust, because we are touching parts of another person’s body that we were trained during childhood to consider dirty.
Menstruating women are considered in many cultures as unclean and able to contaminate people who touch them. This is a big source of sexual shame for women in those cultures.
Puritanical and other sex-negative cultures are built around the idea of cleanliness and purity. This latches into feelings deeply built into human nature.
It is possible that shame itself evolved in humans as a specialization of disgust. Whereas disgust is found in all mammals, shame is exclusively human.
All these pieces of evidence indicate that sex is shameful because it may be perceived by others as disgusting. Thus, we avoid being seen having sex for the same reason that we avoid being seen defecating - so that others do not think that we are disgusting.
And yet, I do not find this explanation completely satisfactory. Many people get sexually aroused, and not disgusted, when they watch other people have sex. Likewise, most people find other people’s genitals arousing instead of disgusting, sometimes even the genitals of people of the same sex. Being disgusted by sex seems to be a reaction of people with little sexual experience, and may be culturally ingrained. As I argued above, sexual shame may go deeper than that, and be genetically encoded.
Explanation 3: Sex is shameful because it makes us vulnerable
Professor Brené Brown, in a famous TED talk, explains shame as a fear of disconnection. “Whole-hearted people” who are able to overcome shame and establish strong connections are those that embrace vulnerability and tell the story of who they are.
Then, perhaps sex is shameful because is an act that makes us vulnerable. Just like pain, sexual pleasure is salient, meaning that it forces us to pay attention to it.
Sexual desire needs others to be satisfied, making us depend on them.
During sex, our bodies express pleasure and desire in an uncontrolled way - the more we try to control ourselves, the less we enjoy sex. Sex can also be painful, particularly for the person being penetrated. However, it is funny how men receiving a fellatio seem oblivious to all those sharp teeth surrounding their penis. Feeling safe during sex requires having a lot of trust that our sexual partner will not hurt us.
All these things add up to make people vulnerable during sex. We don’t like strangers to see us in vulnerable positions. Maybe that’s why we feel ashamed if we are seen naked or having sex.
Explanation 4: sexual roles reinforce gender roles in patriarchal societies
This is the thinking that led the radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin to write “penetration is rape,” which was then taken literally by other radical feminists. Apparently, what she was discussing is the way that the act of being penetrated has taken on a meaning of being subjugated and shamed.
However, this is not limited to women. In men, it is worse. A man who is “getting it up the ass” is being emasculated, subjugated and shamed. A man who performs fellatio is a “cock sucker”, and a “sucker” is somebody who is gullible, passive and submissive.
And yet, in reality, women and men who are penetrated do so because they feel a strong desire for it. And they get pleasure from it. The act doesn’t make them losers. Then, why is it shameful?
Mainstream feminist theory sustains that the patriarchy has created cultural stereotypes and taboos that reinforce the role of men as dominant over women. It is the patriarchy, then, that established the belief that the penetrator (a man) is more powerful that the one being penetrated (a woman). According to this view, the sexual act is the ultimate enactment of gender roles and their power imbalance.
The rules of the patriarchy also imply that men who act like women by being anally penetrated or by performing fellatio emasculate themselves. They abandon their male privilege to become pseudo-women. This leads to homophobia - the fear of being homosexual or being perceived as being homosexual.
If this explanation is true, then sexual shame is not biological, but cultural. As we eliminate patriarchal stereotypes and beliefs, sexual shame would go away to leave room to new sexual freedom in which anyone can experience sex as they want, free from imposed gender roles and the shame of losing male privilege.
But I doubt that this would ever happen. As I said above, I think shame is hard-wired, and so is sexual shame.
Explanation 5: sex establishes social hierarchy
If shame is an emotion that evolved in humans to signal social status, then sexual shame may have something to do with social status.
On the other hand, human sexuality is different from the sexuality of other animals because it has been co-opted for bonding, away from its primary function for procreation. As I discussed in my article The Seven Enigmas of Sex, this co-opting of human sexuality explains why women lack estrous and have hidden ovulation instead, have powerful orgasms and a clitoris away from the vagina, menopause, and the commonality of homosexuality and sexual fetishes. One of those seven enigmas of sex was, precisely, sexual shame.
The two ideas that shame signal social status and that human sexuality is for bonding suggest that sexual shame exists because who you fuck and how you fuck has a big effect on your social status.
In men, having sex with desirable women - young and fertile - shows that they are powerful and thus should be a cause of pride: “sex is boy’s fame.”
In women in hunter-gatherer tribes, having sex with men who are good protectors and providers should also increase their social status. Then, why “sex is girl’s shame”? Perhaps because if a woman is seeing having sex with a young man - attractive but of low status - that would unduly decrease her social status.
The different reproductive strategies of men and woman may come into play. A high status male may want to have sex with a young woman who is more likely to give birth to healthy children, but may be honor-bound to be sexually exclusive with an older, high-status woman. The young woman, in turn, may want the protection of the high-status man but crave sex with an attractive young man. Then cheating happens. And that requires having sex in secret.
It has been proposed that ovulation is hidden in women so men cannot be sure which children are their own, and hence are motivated to protect all the children in the tribe. This would increase cooperation and social cohesion. This uncertainty of paternity would be increased in sex happened in secret.
In dogs and some species of monkeys, males mount another male as a sign of dominance. Conversely, males display their backside as a sign of submission, to stave off attacks by more powerful males. So, it is possible that the meaning of penetration as a sign of dominance is biologically encoded. This could explain why some sexual acts are perceived as demeaning, and why we wouldn’t want to be seen performing them in public. It would also explain why acts of domination and punishment, like bondage and spankings, have such strong sexual meaning.
Sexual shame is a key element of human sexuality, but it has not been sufficiently investigated. It is assumed that it is caused by religion and other sources of sexual repression, but its universality and the fact that shame is part of human nature suggests otherwise.
I have proposed five possible explanations for sexual shame, which are not mutually exclusive. I am sure that these five hypotheses can be tested in scientific research on sexual shame, which is sorely lacking.
Understanding sexual shame is essential to understand the trauma caused by sexual abuse and, hopefully, help to heal it.
Copyright 2022 Hermes Solenzol