Shame is one of those awful words. No one likes feeling ashamed, ever. Some people’s early learning about sex involves so much shame and judgment that they want to reject the whole guilt idea altogether. One worldview sees many things related to sexuality as shameful, and another says there’s nothing to be ashamed of, ever.
The truth is more complicated than either of those.
I believe that there are some aspects of sexuality that we should never be ashamed of—and other situations in which shame is appropriate. (If this makes you mad, please hear me out; then feel free to comment if you still think I’m off-base.)
You never need to feel ashamed about:
Your body or any of its parts. Your body may not match some aesthetic ideal, but it’s yours, and it’s amazing. Think about all the things it can do! Your body deserves your love and care, not your judgment.
Having sexual feelings. Sexual feelings are a normal part of being human. Other than the small percentage of folks who are asexual, everyone has them.
Your orientation and gender identity. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, queer, cis, trans, or whatever, that is who you are. It’s just your truth, and there’s no shame in that.
What turns you on. Different things excite different people. Some people’s pleasures are white-bread, other people’s are pretty kinky, and it’s all OK.
Sexual aggression done to you. If you were sexually mistreated (as a child or as an adult), you may feel shame about that—but that shame does not belong to you. The shame belongs to the person who harmed you. That person’s destructive behavior says nothing about your value as a person. You did nothing wrong.
Not living up to someone else’s hopes. Someone in your life may wish you were straight, or still a virgin, or willing to participate in some sexual activity, or whatever. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for not doing/being what they want. Their wishing does not trump you living your own truth.
Take-away: There is no shame in anything that is normal, beyond your control, or necessary for maintaining your integrity.
On the other hand, there are times when shame is appropriate. These all involve willful actions in which you somehow harm another person. For instance:
Ridiculing someone’s body, orientation, libido, performance, or sexual choices.
Manipulating or coercing someone to do something that’s not right for him or her.
Cheating on your partner.
Trying to seduce or pressure someone to cheat on his or her partner.
Hiding the fact that you’re in a committed relationship in order to get someone else to have sex with you.
Making someone think you’re romantically interested in him/her when you’re not.
Neglecting to mention to a sexual partner that you’ve got an STI.
Saying or implying to a sexual partner that you’re using birth control when you’re not.
Failing to honor someone’s No.
Getting so high or drunk that you fail to respect someone’s No (you’re still responsible).
Being so focused on your own needs or desires that you ignore your partner’s needs and desires.
If you do any of these things, it’s reasonable to feel ashamed of yourself. Learn from that experience; avoid the yuckiness of feeling ashamed by not repeating your mistake.
And then there’s the gray area. What if you feel ashamed of your own sexual choices (even those that haven’t harmed anyone)? This shame likely stems from one of two sources:
You’ve violated norms and expectations that someone else has imposed on you. For example, your religion may think it’s shameful to have sex before marriage, or your parents may think it’s wrong to have sex outside a committed relationship—but you don’t see it that way.
Or, you’ve violated your own values or feelings. Suppose you thought it’d be fine to hook up with someone you don’t know, but afterward you feel ashamed. Or you tried something outside your comfort zone and feel bad about it the next day. In these sorts of situations, your feeling is information about what isn’t right for you.
Sometimes it can be hard to sort out what’s yours and what’s not. Give some thought to what you truly believe, what’s right for you as an individual. If the shame comes from something external that doesn’t fit for you, see if you can let it go. If it comes from a choice you’ve made, learn from the experience and choose differently next time.