sex ed sexual shame cycle

How to End the Sexual Shame Cycle: A New Outlook on Sex Education

  • The bottom drawer of our bed stand 
  • A box in our closet
  • Discreet shipping

What could these three things possibly have in common?

If you guessed that they’re all ways we humans hide our sex toys mostly due to the sexual shame cycle, great! If not, that’s okay! 

I didn’t realize how these things correlated until I sat down to think about it. 

Over half of humans have used a sex toy since the start of the pandemic, according to an article on a website called Sex & Psychology by Dr. Justin Lehmiller.

If something is so common, why the heck are we hiding it? 

Why are we feeling so much shame about exploring or even ensuring our pleasure?

Well, I have a theory. 

As someone who has worked with children and parents for over six years, I believe our feelings of shame around sex begin in childhood.

Parents dread having ‘the talk’ with their children. 

Some will even wait until well after puberty to even touch on the idea of sex and pleasure; But, the reality is that children are naturally curious about their bodies way before puberty.

Children (and adults!) enjoy things that feel good for them. 

Eating a piece of chocolate, playing with their favorite toy, and getting a good grade on a test are all examples of things that release that ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, dopamine.

A release of dopamine makes any human want to do the pleasurable thing over and over again because it FEELS SO GOOD! 

It doesn’t end with eating chocolate or getting a good grade. 

Children, through the natural exploration of their bodies, will discover certain things that they become curious about! 

During this period of curiosity they may or may not ask their parents some questions, like ‘What is this body part for?’ or, ‘Why do I have this, and X person has a different part?’

On top of asking questions, kids touch themselves on or around their genitals because it feels good

Typically when parents find out their child is doing this exploration or gets asked a question like the above, they either get angry, panic, or even shut their child down by quickly ending the conversation or refusing to even engage in the conversation. 

What may follow is the parent telling their child that what they are doing is ‘bad, ‘wrong,’ or even ‘dirty,’ or ‘sinful’. 

BOOM. The Sexual Shame Cycle Begins.

They’ve just started the process of their child feeling ashamed of their body and sex, which will surely stick with them as they grow up. (Do you have a memory like this from when you were a kid?)

The feeling of being ashamed about exploring their bodies follows these kiddos all the way through puberty, and well into their adult lives. 

This is especially true if the parents don’t have ‘the talk’ with their kids at the a good time for the child, leaving them to learn about sex through their peers or information on the internet; Sometimes if they do have the conversation and it’s with their teenagers, scare tactics or abstinence-only language are common. 

Anyone else remember the classic line, “If you have sex, you will get pregnant, and die,” from Mean Girls?! I do. 

Again, this is only going to reinforce hiding behavior and shameful feelings. 

Good news! The cycle of shame is preventable! Here are my tips:

  1. If you notice young children asking questions about their body, noticing differences, and/or exploring… DON’T SHUT THEM DOWN!  Instead, reframe their actions! Give them anatomically correct terms, designate spaces for exploration, and keep it on a need-to-know basis based on their age; Dr. Nadine Thronhill, a certified sex educator and Doctor of Education, has a really helpful video to help you get started!
  1. As kids get older and start asking ‘where do babies come from?’ be honest with them!  Explain where babies come from. Are you freaking out? You don’t have to get super detailed! Keep it simple and let them ask more questions. Chances are, they’ll either be grossed out or say something like ‘oh, okay.’. I promise it will not be as scary as you think it will be. 
sexual shame cycle sex ed rachel wright kelsey feldman
  1. Be open and honest with your teenager. Create a safe space for your teen to ask you questions about sex and relationships by letting them know that you are there to answer their questions and support them. If you create a safe environment, chances are they will come to you instead of friends or the internet when they need help or have a question. 

The sexual shame cycle can be stopped! 

It all begins in childhood (doesn’t everything?). 

As adults, let’s strive to aim higher and stop avoiding, shaming, and putting down our kids when they broach the topic of sex and pleasure. 

If these action steps are taken, our children will be more confident, self-sufficient, and happy adults!

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