John R. Ballew, M.S., L.P.C.
Toxic shame wrecks sex. That really sucks, because we live in a culture where sexual shame is rampant. Most of us grow up with lots of mixed messages about sex; theologian James Nelson describes it as “Sex is filthy and disgusting…. and you should save it for the one you love.” Churches, of course, breed sexual shame like kennels breed puppies. (Or, as a satirical web site says, “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.”)
Sexual shame also comes from other places: families too inhibited about sex to talk about it candidly, schools that teach only abstinence and call it “sex education,” speeches from conservative politicians. The common denominator is that sex comes across as a nasty little secret.
All this gay men and women in a bind. Secrecy ferments shame, but most of us spend a long time keeping our same-sex desire a secret before finally coming out of the closet. So on the one hand, sexuality becomes an important part of our identity (“I am a gay man”) while on the other, we fear prejudice or rejection from those closest to us if we don’t keep quiet. We learn to keep our identity and our sexuality secret.
There are other potential burdens for gay men. Many men feel their bodies don’t measure up, feeling they should be more muscular or somehow more attractive. And the message in much of the gay community is that men should be ready for sex all the time, skilled, self-confident and unconflicted, ready for recreational sex. (How many ads for phone lines or web sites have you seen that read, “Men are ready NOW!”)? For HIV positive men, having the virus can be yet another source of shame.
When it comes to actually being with someone, though, especially someone we love and care about, sex isn’t just… sex. Sex may still be fun, but it can easily become complicated by sexual shame. We believe sex should be uncomplicated, automatic, flawless, but anything that sounds like criticism can lead us to feel inadequate.
And losing an erection or having difficulty ejaculating can feel as humiliating as forgetting your lines when you’re the lead actor on stage.
We’re embarrassed to talk about what we want with a partner for fear of being rejected or laughed at. Many men imagine that when we love someone we will magically gain the ability to read one another’s mind. I’ll know what you want and you’ll know just what I want, all without the awkwardness of actually having to talk about sex.
Some men cope by trivializing sex. Talking with a partner openly is taboo, but sex becomes a topic for jokes or gossip. Since a juicy sexual relationship requires communication and allowing ourselves to open up, this sort of arrangement is headed for trouble. Small wonder the urge is sometimes strong to avoid intimacy and substitute one-night stands, since tricking keeps it purely physical, and performance is less an issue when your partner is someone you’re not likely to see again; communicating is often limited to the sort of dialog you’d find in a porn video. When cybersex becomes a major erotic outlet, shame is probably lurking nearby. The same with drug use. When sex mostly involves “party and play” scenes, the guys involved are probably using crystal meth or other stuff to distract themselves from their fear and shame.
Want to evict shame from your sex life? It may take effort, but the payoff is worth it.
Start by examining your beliefs and challenging the ones that require you to be anything other than true to yourself.
Learn to speak up about what you feel, what you want, what you expect.
Ask yourself hard questions: What are you afraid of? Are you settling for less than what you really want in life? What would happen if you were really honest when having sex?
No one gets through life without wounds – including sexual ones. Learning to move beyond them helps us get more of what we want from life. Talking things through with a therapist who is comfortable with his or her sexuality and is open and nonjudgmental can help us shed toxic sexual shame and enjoy more fulfilling sexuality.