Clocking Culture’s Role in Pleasure-Related Shame 

Michel Foucault (1982) put it perfectly when stating that “sex is not a fatality: it’s a possibility for creative life.” The interview, “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity,” was published in Advocate, Los Angeles, in August of 1984, but the importance of its message withstands the wears of time today. It remains all too common that cultural narratives around sex are riddled with pleasure-negativity. While exploring issues related to sexuality, it is important to note that internalizing these narratives deeply hinders the possibility for healthy sexual expression. Without minimizing the harms these attitudes perpetuate, we at the G&STC hope to weave in more compassionate perspectives about what it means to both engage with and enjoy the full range of sexual expression.  

It is our belief that human beings are capable of both holding the reality of their struggles while also acknowledging the parts of their experience that are not in struggle. With this in mind, a stuck point that often hinders folks’ ability to speak openly about sex and pleasure lies within the conflation of guilt and shame. Without understanding the difference, they begin thinking of themselves in a way that reinforces the harmful stereotypes we seek to combat.

One way to approach more useful conversations about this dilemma is to distinguish between guilt and shame.  As discussed in the post from December 4th, guilt refers to behavior, while shame refers to an internal experience of the self. Prominent shame researcher, Brenè Brown, further clarifies this point when positing that guilt means ‘I did something bad,’ while shame means ‘I am bad.’ By deepening an understanding of this distinction, we can begin to identify and externalize the narratives that propagate shame and inauthenticity.  

Navigating shame once it’s identified also requires us to understand that much of what we’ve been taught about sexuality is pleasure-phobic and oppressive. Human sexuality is rife with diverse forms of expression that, despite being consensual and pleasurable, are considered ‘bad’ because they are incongruent with dominant cultural norms. Sexual sadism and masochism, for example, are often thought of as behaviors associated with survivors of childhood sexual trauma. Disclaimer: there is no such correlation made in the research that would confirm this stereotype. On the contrary, not only can engaging in consensual amounts of pain be sexy to folks, it can also be cathartic and freeing. Conversely, feeling ashamed of these desires contributes to increased isolation, anxiety, self-negativity, and potential harm to partners.

At the G&STC, we aim to foster different conversations about pleasure-related shame, one that deepens our clients’ understanding of the harmful narratives they may be holding on to. It is through this process that we work towards a more authentic expression of sexuality, and build the foundation for a more self-affirming, pleasure-positive, and creative life.

Blog authors all hold positions at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective (G&STC). For more information about our therapists and services please contact us.