All sex is personal, right? Well maybe not the sex we see in movies, advertisements, and TV! But in this chapter we discuss some important feelings that disrupt developing healthy attitudes towards sex and other people.
Shame and Sex
Shame is an immensely complex emotion that seems perhaps too complex to define or operationalize. It is likely that we are all going to have similar—yet distinct—ideas about what shame is and how it has been present in our lives. Our definitions of shame will likely be unique to who we are as individuals and to the various ways in which we understand or view the world around us. As you read through the following definitions of the emotion, try to think about how they are similar or different to yours.
Shame is related to one’s shortcomings. It arises when a person feels he has fallen short of a standard with which he identifies. The standard is usually determined by the group one is in or seeks to join. Due to this peer group or in-group element, shame is typically felt in the presence of someone you respect, or as if someone you respect were watching (Striblen, 2007).
Shame is, variously, an affect, emotion, cognition, or state (condition). The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning to cover; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.
Shame is often experienced as the inner, critical voice that judges whatever we do as wrong, inferior, or worthless. Often this inner critical voice is repeating what was said to us by our parents, relatives, teachers and peers. We may have been told that we were naughty, selfish, ugly, stupid, etc. We may have been ostracized by peers at school, humiliated by teachers, treated with contempt by our parents. Paradoxically, shame may be caused by others expecting too much of us, evoking criticism when our performance is less than perfect (Miller, 2009).
Shame is often coupled with the feeling of guilt. At times these two seem interchangeable or even identical. When writing about your experience, perhaps you considered guilt’s role in the lessons learned or with regard to the inclination to “cover” yourself. Guilt is, in actuality, something distinct and separate from shame. Feelings of guilt are said to be connected to different aspects of our experience of self. Striblen (2007) explains that “While shame is related to shortcomings, guilt is related to wrongdoing” (p. 478). Guilt is about what we do, while shame is about who we are.
An additional partner to shame, and perhaps even to guilt at times, is embarrassment. This feeling seems to be ever-present in the lives of teens. Why is this so? Much akin to shame, embarrassment is connected to our sense of in-group identity. It is built upon the rules, roles, and the expectations that go along with membership in our particular groups, just like shame. The primary difference, however, lies in the audience. Shame can be experienced alone, or solely within ourselves. People can feel ashamed of themselves for thoughts, fantasies, or feelings that they experience on their own, or in isolation. Embarrassment, on the other hand, occurs in front of an audience, whether that be one individual or many. It can be felt on very miniscule or incredibly grand levels. Shame, on the other hand, tends to elicit reactions that are felt more intensely across the board. The reason for this rests in the meaning connected to the act or behavior involved. Embarrassing experiences are those that are deemed solely socially unacceptable, whereas shame involves a combination of moral and social wrongdoing. Try to recall the last situation in which you felt embarrassed. What about that situation was embarrassing as opposed to shameful? How, in that case, can you distinguish the two?
- Why do you think teens often feel embarrassed?
- Have you felt embarrassed in this class when we’ve talked about sex?
- Why do you think we feel embarrassed when we talk about sex?
The following activities and questions are designed to help you gain an increased awareness of the differences between guilt and embarrassment while further building upon your understanding of shame.
With what you now know about embarrassment as opposed to shame or guilt, discuss your thoughts with regard to why you feel this emotion is so prevalent as a teen. What role does embarrassment play in sexual development and vice versa? Is embarrassment present in this conversation? Why do you think that is?
According to emitation.com’s top 5 “most shameful” celebrity moments of 2006, and CircleofShame.com’s posting from this past year, the following were deemed particularly shameful. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Brittney Spears is photographed on two distinct occasions in skimpy dresses with no underwear, giving the paparazzi and the public “an eyeful.”
- New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is caught visiting a prostitute.
- Kevin Federline’s (or “KFed”) attempt to establish himself as a rap artist.
- Paris Hilton is exposed in a sex-tape scandal, with the footage leaked all over the internet.
- Paul Byrd, the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, is accused of spending upwards of $20,000 HGH (human growth hormone) from 2002-2005.
- Mel Gibson, Lindsey Lohan, and Nicole Richie all receive DUI’s and have their prison photo displayed in popular magazines and tabloids everywhere.
- A married Ryan Phillipe cheats on wife Reese Witherspoon with his “B-list” co-star, ending his seven year relationship.
- Olympic gold metalist Michael Phelps is photographed smoking marijuana out of a bong, an incident he describes as “regrettable.”
- Mylie Cyris pole dances at the Teen Choice Awards.
Break into groups of five and then discuss:
- Whether you thought the persons above were ashamed?
- Should have been ashamed?
- And if it had been you, would you have felt shame?
- Can you think of an example in which a shameful activity was glorified?
- Which of these examples do you imagine would be the most shameful if you were the one involved?
- How would you imagine guilt and embarrassment are present for these individuals? Which ones do you think feel guilty and/or embarrassed?
- If embarrassment is a factor, who do you think these individuals were embarrassed or shamed in front of? In other words, who was the audience?
- In thinking about these examples, can you identify a difference in the things women versus men are ashamed of? What are the differences a result of?
Review the list below and discuss the following acts. Do teens feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment doing each of these? Should they? Would you? Why?
- Buying a condom
- Asking their doctor about a bump that they are concerned may be the result of a Sexually Transmitted Infection
- A parent accidentally walking in on them while masturbating
- Disclosing the number of sexual partners they have had thus far to friends or peers
- Admitting to being a virgin
- Dropping a tampon out of your purse in the school hallway
- Watching a porn on the internet that you accidentally came across
Sarah is seventeen years old and has been dating her boyfriend for a little over a month now. Almost daily some of her friends discuss their sexual activity in a way that is exciting and humorous. Sarah feels left out. She looks forward to this act with her boyfriend and anticipates being able to connect with her friends in this way after it happens, despite not feeling as though she is “in love” as she always thought she wanted to be when engaging in sex for the first time. Sarah decides to take things to the next level with her boyfriend and try oral sex that evening. She anticipated the discussion that would occur the next day with her friends and their surprise at her decision to go through with this behavior since she was always fondly referred to as the “late bloomer” in her group.
That night, after some “fooling around,” Sarah performed oral sex on her boyfriend. Upon arriving back home, she felt slightly strange. She felt uncomfortable, but in a way she wasn’t able to understand or explain. She wondered where her excitement had gone and what it meant that she no longer cared about the next day’s discussion with her friends. She found herself feeling slightly ashamed the following day but was not sure of the cause. She had a hard time understanding, since some of her friends had gone this far with their partners, why she felt this overwhelming sense of discomfort.
- What could have happened here?
- What are your thoughts about why she suddenly no longer cared about the reactions of her friends?
- What are some of the reasons you can think of for why she did and/or did not want to take things to this level with her boyfriend?
- How do you think pleasure factored into Sarah’s experience? Could pleasure have something to do with her reaction, or no?
- What could her personal reaction say about her values?
- How could she learn from this reaction? Should she explore it more?
- Could this reaction be connected to her ideas about love? How?
- How might this experience influence her identity as a sexual being?
Bobby is a sixteen year old male in High School. He is popular, on the basket ball team, gets good grades, and has a girlfriend whom he’s been dating for about six months now. His family consists of himself, his parents, and his little brother, and they are “very close.” He describes himself as a happy guy with a great family and group of friends. Lately, however, Bobby has been having fantasies that he feels are very disturbing or abnormal during masturbation. Although his friends don’t discuss at length the sort of fantasies they usually experience, he feels certain that they are not at all similar to his. He has no desire to perform the sort of fantasies he imagines on his girlfriend, yet worries that these images are required in order to obtain pleasure when masturbating. He additionally worries about what it means that he could derive pleasure from such atypical or “perverse” thoughts.
- Should Bobby feel ashamed?
- Is there something wrong with Bobby?
- How do we define “normal” when it comes to sexuality?
- Is it shameful to experience pleasure to thoughts or fantasies that go outside the norm?
- How is pleasure connected to shame?
- Can you think of some other examples where shame would be attached to pleasure? Guilt? Embarrassment?
- Where does this come from?
- What are the rules of your culture/ religion/ family with regard to pleasure and pleasure seeking behaviors?
Samantha is in 10th grade. She is a good student and very responsible despite the occasional late night out or shopping splurge. She recently broke up with her boyfriend of two years and ever since it seems she feels inclined to masturbate with more frequency than before. Although masturbation has always been a routine part of her life, she has never felt as though it was a constant thought or urge that was distracting or irrational. She is unsure of what is normal with regard to frequency of this behavior, and feels confused about the messages she heard growing up to this effect. Her “excessive” desire has resulted in feelings of confusion about who she is as a sexual person and negative thoughts about her identity as a girl.
- Is there something wrong with Samantha?
- How do we define “normal” when it comes to masturbation?
- Can her behavior be labeled as “shameful”? Why/ why not?
Vignette from Pop Culture:
Let’s think about the acts of domestic violence perpetrated against Rihanna by boyfriend and pop-star Chris Brown last year. Discuss with a partner or in small groups how Chris may be experiencing both shame and guilt in this situation.
- How is it that others are ashamed of his behavior?
- Where does this feeling come from?
- What should Chris feel guilty about?
- Why is it that guilt is a justified experience for Chris?
Jot down your ideas and discuss them with the class.
Talking about shame, guilt, and even embarrassment, can feel rather heavy. These are emotions that are not easy to experience, and they can be just as difficult to think about or discuss with others. These feelings are often attached to adverse, confusing, or negative situations and behaviors from our past, and they can be just as potent now as they were then. Some feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment disappear or are transformed quickly. Some of these feelings stay with us for a long time. As unpleasant as they are to think and talk about, these emotions are a part of life, part of how we learn about ourselves, and part of figuring out how we can move forward in a way that feels more in line with who we wish to become. As we each have a great many years ahead of us, we can take a stand with regard to how best to prevent further encounters with these unpleasant feelings. We can ask ourselves the following questions when shame and/or guilt and/or embarrassment find their way into our lives:
- How can I learn from it?
- How can I live with it?
- How can I make more positive choices in order to feel good about my sexual self and how I choose to act?
Miller, M. (2009). Shame and psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://www.columbiapsych.com/shame_miller.html
Striblen, C. A. (2007). Guilt, shame and shared responsibility. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38, 469-485.