Back in the day before I settled down to a monogamous existence, I had a brief, passionate affair with a beautiful woman named Sherry. We spent two weeks falling in love, circumstances drove us apart, and I suffered somewhat shocking grief and loss for the next three months as my body/mind system adjusted from in-love to lost-love.
Even though she was younger that me, Sherry was much more experienced in the dynamics of love affairs, and one afternoon as we lay in post-coital bliss, bathed in the sunlight streaming in from her bedroom window, she asked me, “Is there anything you really like. You know, something that especially turns you on?”
I was surprised at my reaction. First of all, I found it totally endearing that she’d ask this question, clearly eager to step into whatever Sex Goddess role my answers might indicate. Her erotic generosity felt beautiful and very personal. Secondly, I felt embarrassed, not particularly at the brief array of sexual fantasies that cascaded through my mind, but at the fact that I didn’t trust her enough to share them. Here I was, naked, vulnerable, in the most intimate physical space imaginable, and I didn’t trust my lover enough to share potentially embarrassing desires and fantasies.
In 2007 I published The Gift of Shame, which explored the shame family of emotions (shame, guilt, embarrassment, chagrin, mortification, etc.) and how badly they have been misunderstood and mismanaged over the last hundred years. Shame is a gift if we can understand it as a social emotion that enables mammals to instruct their young, and as an interior compass that guides us to identify, follow, and refine our moral standards.
In my chapter on sexual shame, I make the point that sexual taboos, rules, and learning are so highly charged that even a little bit of misattunement or disapproval can release a flood of shame, guilt, or—as in my response to Sherry—embarrassment at who we are and how we react.
Like most therapists, I’ve found that sex comes up all the time in sessions.
Almost without exception, where there’s sex, there’s some kind of shame emotion stirred into the mix.
This is especially true for couples who, unlike me with Sherry, have the courage to actually share their deepest, most embarrassing sexual yearnings. If those yearnings aren’t accepted and respected, disapproval, resentment, and even repulsion ensue, often with disastrous consequences.
For instance, some women I’ve worked with are aroused at the idea of sexy dancing in front of desirous men. These days such excitement can be pursued and supported by programs like burlesque classes, or systems like “The S-Factor” where women exercise with pole dancing. Unfortunately, often when a woman reveals such fantasies to her husband or lover, she’s met with his embarrassment, or stony disapproval, shutting both down and setting the stage for sexual shame and secrets.
Another common example is guys sharing fantasies involving threesomes, vibrators, lingerie, pornography, anal sex, or oral adventures. If his partner finds such activity unappealing or embarrassing, she radiates disapproval—sometimes including disgust, anger, or fear—leaving him ashamed and conflicted.
The point here is not that you need to like what your partner finds sexy, or engage in sexual behavior that is uncomfortable for you. I know of no couple—straight or gay—where both are turned on by exactly the same things—people are way too complicated for that.
The bottom line (when you talk about sex, almost everything becomes a double entendre!) is that every long term love affair becomes a compromise between how often you want to make love versus how often I want to make love, between your favorite romance/sexual overtures/activities and my favorite overtures/activities, and between what you believe is “normal” or “healthy” sex versus what I believe is “normal” or “healthy.” These compromises are inevitable and necessary.
Where everything goes to pieces is when partners start judging each other for what they like and don’t like, leaving them ashamed and separate.
I encourage lovers to accept whatever desires and fantasies they and their partner have and make love in ways that are acceptable to both.
For instance, Diana and Bill are in their mid forties with kids in grade school. Bill, repeating a long-standing refrain, complains bitterly, “You never want to have sex anymore! You always say ‘no!’”
Diana, equally pissed off, responds, “I have to tell you, Bill, ‘Let’s fuck,’ is not my idea of a romantic come on!”
Bill, always willing to dig himself deeper into this particular hole (see what I mean about double entendres?), fires back, “I didn’t realize you were such a prude when I married you!”
I interrupt before they can land any more blows. Both are angry, embarrassed, and ashamed (though, since shame is the ‘look away’ emotion, neither are particularly aware of it). “Stop it, you two! This is the most unsexy conversation I’ve heard this week, and I talk about sex all the time. Look at each other, remember you are lovers, and make some progress. Bill, I don’t hear you asking what kind of overtures Diana does like.”
Bill’s a good guy, and looks gratefully at me for saving him from more self-inflicted wounds. “OK. I’ll bite. What kind of overtures do you like?”
Diana, still smarting from the “prude” comment—which is only one or two steps better than the ever-popular “frigid” attack—doesn’t feel very generous at this moment, but she’s also acutely aware that I’m sitting with them and taking a stand for love and passion, so she heroically gets a handle on her anger and responds from her heart, “I like it when you’re friendly when you get home, and help in the kitchen when the girls are doing their homework.”
Bill looks genuinely bewildered, as many men do with statements like this. “What does that have to do with sex?” Diana looks to me for help, which I’m more than happy to provide.
“Come on Bill. We’ve talked about this before. Women’s sexuality tends to be contextual and run off whether she feels known, loved, and supported by her guy. Sure, women have at least three arousal systems—the ‘I am the embodiment of sexual beauty,’ the ‘ravish me,’ and the ‘cozy, cozy,’ systems (see my TEDxAmericanRiviera talk on the “speaking engagements” button on this site), but long term lovers like you and Diana need the safety of ‘cozy, cozy’ to access the others.”
Both are nodding at this point, and the rest of the session moves into Bill being more intimate and engaged, and Diana responding more generously to his efforts. With some luck, they’ll be a little more accepting and responsive this coming week, which is how couples usually change in sexual areas. Most of us have been trained by family and culture (often via shame emotions) to be unconscious about sexual desires and behaviors, so it’s amazingly hard to even remember sexual stuff, much less talk and act differently.
Which brings us to you. Where is it hard for you to be aware of and accepting of sexual desires and activities in you and your partner?
What can you do to make your romantic/erotic relationship more fun for you and your partner? Are you willing to change what you think and do to create more love and pleasure? Are you willing to be more expressive about who you are sexually, and more accepting of who your partner is sexually?
If you resist these questions—and most of us do—that’s your sexual shame talking. The more you’re aware of it and let your wisdom guide you instead of your shame, the better it is for you, your partner, your family, and all of us.