Another article written with my partner in crime Yugen Korat
There is a certain nerve in your body that you probably haven’t heard about unless you studied anatomy, but you would definitely recognize. This nerve exits your spinal nerves S2-S4 (near the base of your spine), travels through your sacrum, and branches out to provide sensation and motor control to parts of your perineum, anus, and penis/clitoris. Beyond its role in waste excretion, it is also responsible for much of your sexual pleasure experience. It is called the Pudendal Nerve.
You might be surprised to learn that its name comes from the Latin word “pudendum”, which means “something to be ashamed of”. And in other languages e.g. German or Danish this is not the only word which is related to shame. The whole “down under area” for both genders is called “The Shame” in German, leading also to the use of “shamelips” for the inner and outer labias or “skamlæber” in danish or “Shamebone” for the os pubis.
Yes, you’ve read that right. The idea that sexual pleasure is shameful dates at least as far back as the study of anatomy, and has not stopped ever since. According to Maimonedes, circumcision is done to "quell all the impulses of matter", that is, to reduce sexual drive. Clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris, is practiced in several Muslim countries as a means to make sure a woman is not tempted to cheat on her husband. Facebook bans explicitly sexual content, and sex education series like “Make Love” have only permission to run after 22:00 in the German TV. And the list goes on and on, from burkhas to forbidding sex before marriage.
Some cultures/countries are a bit more relaxed than others, but it is still something one does not talk about loudly in the subway, at work or at a family dinner. People often feel awkward, embarrassed and uncomfortable around this subject.
Shame is an emotion with the implied interpretation of “I am wrong”, just like anger implies “That is wrong”. Both of these emotions trigger us to take action, to change something that our limbic system believes should be changed. We all experience shame as part of our nature, but the question is what do we do about it. Do we go along with it and allow it to dictate our life, or do we question it and use it as advice rather than gospel.
The word “shame” has a negative connotation. But like all emotions, shame can be useful in the right amounts. Too little of it can make you do things that hurt others, or damage your social status in the long run (we are talking about very extreme cases here). But too much of it can hold you back from actualizing your desires, for example by preventing you from bringing up with your partner something you would like to do together because it’s “embarrassing”. And if you never bring it up, you will never have a chance to know if your partner is into it as well. So like everything in life, shame is good in moderation. And you learn what is the right balance for you through self reflection and trying things out.
But despite the necessity of shame as part of human society, we think that when it comes to sexuality, the levels of shame are way out of balance, as the examples above demonstrated. Now it’s time to learn how to let go of that shame, for ourselves and for the next generations.
Sex is one of our greatest sources of pleasure, and it is also the reason we exist, so one would naively assume that it should have positive connotations within human society, and should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Shaming shows differently gender wise. While women are shamed as sluts or being too sexual, men are shamed when they are not the big “Don Juans”. So why is sex so strongly associated with shame for basically as long as the history of civilization itself?
There probably isn’t a simple answer to this question, and we are not here to offer one.
What matters is what we do with this shame feeling if we want to be less ashamed. So the power question in relation to shame is: “What kind of a person would I like to be? And What do I feel is right?” This gives the freedom to position yourself and become free of other people’s judgement.
Here are some ideas:
- Connect with any upcoming shame feeling and tune into whether this is an induced shame. The difference between induced shame (which is the topic of this article) and natural shame is: Natural shame comes up when we did something wrong (at least according to our own interpretation) so shame can only be according to our own interpretation and not someone else's.
- Talk to each other (and crucially, our children) about our desires, fantasies and boundaries with a smile rather than embarrassment.EXPRESS YOURSELF, as Madonna suggested. 😉
- Bring up your fears for discussion.
- Question taboos.
- Listen to your body. Everything that lets you expand is helpful, contraction and tension close you down and you shut off.
- Go to sexpositive workhops and by that get more used to learning about your own desires and what your way in the full garden of sexuality might be.
- Enjoy the process!