Why Does Sex Make Me Feel Guilty? How To Combat Religious Shame About Sex

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We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Please send your sex and relationship inquiries to tips@bustle.com. Now, onto this week’s topic: how to kick religious guilt about sex to the curb.

Q: “I was raised in a very conservative, very religious Catholic household. I did it all — church every Sunday, Bible study groups, Missionary trips. I broke away from the church when I left the house at 18, and after a lot of soul-searching, no longer consider myself a religious person. It’s an ongoing process, but one of the things I’m still struggling with is guilt about sex. Sex is a source of a lot of shame and guilt for my family. I was taught that sex is only to be shared between husband and wife, and that masturbation is sinful. I was always ashamed of my body and my sexuality. As an adult, I want to be able to have healthy sexual relationships, but I find myself constantly wracked by guilt. How can I move past this?“

A: Thanks for the question! First of all, please know that you’re definitely not alone in this struggle. Religion and sex have a complicated relationship, and my sex therapy practice is filled with people who were raised religious. The most important thing that I want you to recognize is that you were not born with sexual guilt. It is not an inherent part of who you are as a person. You were taught to feel that way. You can unlearn those limiting beliefs, and make your own decisions about your sex life. Here are eight steps to doing just that.

Name What You’ve Been Taught

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The first step is to start with recognizing and labeling what you were taught to believe. Write down a list of every lesson about sex that your parents, church, or community ever taught you. Take a good look at the specific values that you were raised to believe. The big ones, like “premarital sex is evil,” might come to mind quickly, but see if you can dig up some of the less obvious ones too. Keep adding to the list whenever something new comes to mind.

Get Educated

Next, I want to encourage you to increase your exposure to sexual words, thoughts, and topics. Every day, spend a few minutes reading articles or blog posts about sex. (Going through my backlog of Bustle articles is a good place to start!) The specific topic doesn’t even matter so much, just as long as it’s about sex. This exposure can help you start to get more comfortable with sex in general, and it will give you plenty of topics to start thinking about.

Start To Identify Your Actual Beliefs

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As you start thinking about sex more regularly, I want you to also start making a second list. This list is going to be the sexual beliefs that you’re going to consciously choose for yourself. This is going to be your sexuality “manifesto.” I know that right now, those feelings of guilt probably feel way stronger than any other feelings. But what do you eventually want to believe about sex? For example, maybe you want to believe that masturbation is healthy, or that your pleasure is important. Again, the big topics might jump right out at you, but see if you can name some smaller, subtler beliefs too.

As you make this list, you can also refer back to the list of sexual beliefs you were taught to believe. See if you want to make any changes or additions to your personal manifesto. Take every belief that you were taught to believe, and examine it with the context of what you want to choose to believe. This is an incredibly powerful process that is going to make you feel so much more in control of your own sex life.

Back Up Your Words With Actions

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Once you’ve got a solid version of your manifesto, keep it in a place where you can easily see or access it. If you have a private room, write the list down and keep it near your desk. Or keep it on your phone. Make yourself look at your list at least once a day, to keep it fresh in your mind. When it comes to your sex life, start to make decisions based on your moral code.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide whether or not to sleep with someone that you’ve been dating. What does your manifesto say is important to you? You can also be purposeful about comparing what your religious upbringing would tell you to do against what your personal moral code says. In your head, it might sound something like this, “my religion would tell me that sleeping with this person is a sin. But I’ve decided that I feel comfortable sleeping with someone as long as they’re respectful and caring, and I feel the active desire to.”

Explore Your Sexuality

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Creating and taking ownership of your own beliefs is one of the most important parts of the process, but another crucial part is actually having real-world experiences with sex that match up with those beliefs. The more positive experiences you have with your body and your sexuality, the faster those guilt feelings will start to sink into the background.

You can have these kinds of experiences on your own and with partners. Touch your body on a regular basis. Look at it in the mirror. Be mindful about taking good care of your body. Try starting a masturbation practice. Once you’re with a partner you trust, allow yourself to explore sexual fantasies or curiosities that you’ve had. Every experience is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, and further refine your personal beliefs.

Talk About Sex More

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Sexual guilt has a way of making us feel really alone. Like I said above, you’re certainly not alone, but I know it can feel that way. One of the best ways to combat that feeling is to start talking about it. Do you have any friends that you would feel comfortable talking about sex with? Maybe you have a friend that’s just starting to examine their own beliefs about religion. Maybe you have a friend who has always been refreshingly open. Or maybe you’re just starting to get serious with someone new. Try to push yourself outside of your comfort zone here; you may be surprised to realize how many other people are struggling with this very issue.

If you’re nervous, you could start really basic, by saying something simple like, “I’m just starting to realize how much guilt and shame I have around sex. I can’t even have a full conversation about it.” You can talk about talking about sex, without going into any specific details about your sex life or your personal beliefs.

Get Support

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the possibility of getting support from a therapist. Your therapist can help identify blockages and beliefs that are getting in your way, and help you feel supported in your journey.

Be Kind To Yourself

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Throughout this process, try to be kind and gentle with yourself. Expect that there will be some hiccups along the way, but don’t let them derail you. You may always have those guilty feelings lurking in the back of your mind — but you can still have a healthy sex life. The important thing is to be conscious about your actions and make the decisions you want to make.

Wishing you the best of luck!