In a previous post, I went over the important connection between sexuality and emotions. In this article, I am going to focus specifically on the core emotion of shame, since it wreaks so much havoc on all aspects of our lives, but in particular our sexuality. Shame can be very nefarious, as it is one of those emotions that can become internalized as part of our identity. To understand why, let’s take a look at the difference between two words which are often used interchangeably, but are actually quite dissimilar– guilt and shame. Guilt is an emotion that we experience when we feel bad about something we did. Shame, in contrast, is an emotion that is experienced as feeling bad about who we are. This self-identity aspect of shame makes it into a potentially highly problematic emotion. This is because sexuality, whether we are speaking about gender, orientation, or specific interests or behavior, is often experienced as a central, core aspect of one’s personal identity. If we also experience a great deal of shame, since it touches upon our self-identity, it inevitably also affects the way we experience our sexuality. For this reason, folks struggling with any aspect of their sexuality also frequently struggle with the emotion of shame.
Shame is a very quirky emotion in that different people react to it in different ways. Some folks, for example, will avoid anything that may even remotely evoke feelings of shame. Others, however, react in the opposite, or counterphobic way, in that they are compelled towards situations that feel shameful. For example, exhibitionists, and here I’m referring to the sex offender types who flash unsuspecting women in the street, often feel incredibly ashamed about their penises, specifically its (small) size and shape. These kinds of “flashers,” shamed by feelings of inadequacy, instead of desiring to hide their genitals from the world, instead attempt to project their shame on to others by trying to intimidate the same people who they blame for their feelings of inadequacy– women. Indeed, the worst reaction that these flashers can get back is no response at all or something like casual bemusement; they don’t feel satisfied until they find someone who is terrified enough to call the cops (which is why they are repeatedly arrested so often).
Moving from the pathological to the more mundane– the fantasy of public sex and being caught in the act is one of the most popular sexual fantasies out there. Often, the very possibility of being exposed and as a result, embarrassed, is the main ingredient that provides fuel for this fantasy. This fantasy may often be experienced as too risky, so many don’t act on it and instead are satisfied to let it remain as merely an idea, but others specifically seek out places to have sex that carry the real threat of someone walking in and discovering them in the act. We are getting into another grey area so I’m going to move to one more example. Cuckolding is a widespread fetish (in the top 10 based on internet searches) in which the female of a couple has sex with another man (while the primary male usually watches). What distinguishes this from other forms of consensual non-monogamy is a kind of shame angle where the other man is presumably more virile or well-endowed and so the primary male is humiliated or made to feel inferior by helplessly watching as his partner is ravaged by a more alpha male. The common thread between this example and the others is that shame is the active emotion that actually fuels sexual desire in these scenarios.
Shame, on the other hand, and more commonly, is experienced as the antithesis of sexual desire. Shame is one of the core components, for example, in social anxiety, and by extension, sexual anxiety, and so many common sexual dysfunctions such as rapid ejaculation and erectile dysfunction often have some element of shame lurking in the shadows. Shame, I believe is also intertwined with anger, and this may play itself out in a myriad number of ways. In a previous article, for example, I described how anger contributes to sexual difficulties. In these situations, sexual dysfunctions may often be relieved when the anger stemming from shame is finally allowed to be experienced. When I have asked men with erectile dysfunction about their sexual fantasies for example, more than once I have heard a scenario involving some domination fantasy in which my client is doing the ravishing with some female, while her husband is in the room watching, perhaps tied up, but is helpless to intervene. If we deconstruct this kind of fantasy, we can see that the individual can finally reach arousal by transferring his shame from himself to someone else, the other helpless, humiliated man in the room. By creating such a fantasy, these specific individuals have found an elegant solution to dealing with the core shame that prevents them from experiencing sexual satisfaction in real life. For more on sexual fantasies, go here.
I’ll wrap things up at this point. I can go on with more examples, but I think I’ve presented a clear layout of how shame is a central emotion that affects sexuality. In some cases, shame leads us to avoid sex and creates dysfunctions ranging from rapid ejaculation to erectile dysfunction to a myriad number of pain syndromes. In other cases, shame actually creates more arousal and propels individuals towards specific kinds of behaviors that will evoke more shame. In this way, shame creates a myriad amount of sexual responses range that through the entire continuum of sexual behavior. The only constant that remains the same is shame.