Sexual Shame: Women

Sexual Shame: Women

Posted By Josie Keeley
Sexual Shame: Women

Sexual Shame: A Series

This piece is part of a series on sexual shame to provide a deeper understanding of where shame comes from, how it affects us mentally, physically, emotionally, and especially sexually, and how we can move past it.

Part 1: Women 

On this day (Jan 26, 1998), former President Clinton infamously denied sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. She was a 22-year-old intern, and he was the most powerful man in the world. And yet, the discourse which followed pinned the burden of blame on Lewinsky. She was labeled both too stupid to realize what she was doing and the woman who had lured the President of the United States away from his wife. The culpability, the public decided, was her’s.

But before the Lewinsky scandal, Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Like the Lewinsky scandal, this revelation turned the public against Hill. Thomas’ hearings to determine his fitness to serve on the highest court in the land turned into Hill’s trial in the harshest court in the land: the court of public opinion. In the public’s discourse, Hill became an agitator or a liar. Either she made it up for attention and to discredit this man, or the sexual harassment had happened because Hill led him on. The responsibility began and ended with her. 

Since the ’90s, we’ve had a significant cultural shift in how we talk about sexual harassment. The Me Too Movement sparked a huge social reckoning as many abusers were outed and stripped from their power and public platforms. Third-wave feminism addressed “slut shaming” and has focused on normalizing and empowering women in their sexuality. 

And yet, so many women still report feeling shame about their sexuality. 

While the United States has experienced tremendous social growth in recent years, a pervasive undercurrent of puritanical ideology against the female body remains. In healthcare, women are less likely to be accurately diagnosed in a timely manner. Conversations around reproductive health in American classrooms, if any, begin and end with a conversation around the penis. Female pleasure or female consent are afterthoughts if thoughts at all. Diet culture has helped normalize eating disorders across generations of women, and purity culture has successfully shamed women into disconnecting with their innate sexuality. 

So comes as no surprise that many women and femme-presenting people feel alienated from their bodies when so much messaging they receive is that their bodies are not their own. 

But where do we go from here? 

A good starting place is naming the source of your trauma. Shame is like a tree: it branches off into many different parts of your life, and the roots often run deep into your psyche. Growing up, the messaging you receive sticks with you, so understanding this alienation can be the key to unpacking it and moving on. 

Growing up in a religious environment can dramatically erode your sense of ownership of your body. A core memory of so many women who grew up in these environments is shame. Forgoing shorts or tank tops or trendy styles in case you cause others to lust or are being told to guard yourself against romantic advances so that you may remain pure for your husband. But for those who remain in evangelical purity environments until marriage, many women cannot overcome the psychological programming that sex is bad and their body, by extent, is too. 

But even if you grew up in a sex-positive environment, our world isn’t always kind to women and femme-presenting people. Entire industries exist around warping how women view themselves to buy products to fix their perceived flaws. Things we have no control over, like hair growth and aging, become problems we’re expected to solve, lest we be labeled ugly or sloppy. Your perceived beauty often translates into respect others accord you. 

The culture around controlling what women do with their bodies speaks to a greater conversation about controlling women as a whole. The societal tendency to treat women as ornaments or consumable products needs to change. And this change starts with us saying that we’ve had enough. 

This is easier said than done, but it’s vital that all people who are women or present as female learn the art of self-validation. Your body is normal. Your sexual desires are normal. You deserve to feel good in your body and you deserve to experience pleasure in your body. Suffering does not have to be a way of life. 

Cassandra Corrado, Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator, suggests that those who want to combat sexual shame work to seek out new information about sexuality and build communities in which you can discuss the shame of your past while working toward an empowered future. Therapy is also a good choice per Corrado (and we agree), but it’s essential to have people in your life who get it. Sexual shame is a common, almost universal experience for femme people, and anyone who wants to deserves a safe space to deconstruct their shame. 

Work toward building confidence in your body. We are not advising you to diet or take up a rigorous exercise routine. When we say build confidence in your body, we mean to get to know it. What does it look like down there? How does it smell, feel, taste? But, most importantly, what does your body like—what do you like? Your body is your body. It’s the only one you’ll ever have, and you don’t get to stay in it forever, so make the most of it by finding ways to feel good and experience good things. 

You don’t have to feel confident right off the bat. A good starting place is feeling neutral about your body. Understand that your body is not inherently ugly or shameful. It does not need to look a certain way or be a certain way to deserve respect. 

When you make the decision to live your life in control of your body, you start to take back your power.

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