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Moving Past Shame: A Candid Conversation about Mental Health and Sex

Updated: Mar 14

A small jalepeno pepper is covered in a condom. The pepper is on a speckled plate. The image background is mustard yellow.

Can I talk to you about sex? Actually, mental health and sex.

Sex is like money; you’re supposed to have it but not talk about it. Performative and superficial ideas of sex are everywhere in our culture and yet healthy, consensual, and pleasurable sex can occupy a secret and even shameful area of our lives. Most of us don’t have great models for how to talk to people about sex that doesn’t involve giggles or discomfort. Worse still, many men only know how to talk about sex in vulgar, dehumanizing, and bravado-fueled ways. Sex has become something we are very comfortable seeing on billboards, hearing about in music, and even awkwardly sitting through movie scenes with friends and family (like having sex with the ground awkward). Yet many folks cannot talk about their own sexuality or sex lives with anyone… sometimes even their partner.

Sexuality education that is ‘medically accurate’ is only required in 22 states in the U.S. (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020). That, of course, only accounts for public schools because private schools are entitled to teach what they deem 'appropriate.' Further, ‘medical accuracy’ does not mean shame-free, pleasure-focused, or LGBTQ+ inclusive. The definition of 'medical accuracy' varies from state to state, and naturally remains vague in what standards curricula will be measured against. Most sexuality education is explicitly intended to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, prevent teen pregnancy, and generally offer abstinence as the way to achieve these ends. Discussion of pleasure, consent, and generating a healthy relationship to one’s self as a sexual being are not a priority and often never addressed. 

Flash forward from the gym teacher telling you that you will get chlamydia (and die…). You are a grown-up now. You might even be married or with a long term partner. Heck, you might even have a child (or 2 or 3). You are successful in your career, you have friends, you manage your in-laws alright. But you still feel weird about sex. How much sex are you supposed to be having? Are your genitals weird? Does everybody have this problem? Do I ‘come’ too quickly? How about not orgasming at all? Is it weird that I don’t want sex? What about porn?! Masturbation? 

These are the types of questions I hear every day in my work. As I’ve learned over the years, it isn’t rare that people have conflicting feelings about these questions and more related to sex. The only reason we think it’s rare is because we 1) never learned about it this way and 2) we don’t talk about it! Even most physicians and therapists are uncomfortable asking their clients about these topics in real and meaningful ways. 

So, what will it take for us to change how we feel about sex?

Learn about it 

Get and give good information about sex. Much of what we learn about sex comes from porn, religion, and our friends (whose information comes typically from porn and religion). We don’t learn our communication skills from sit-coms, so why the double standard? I am not anti-porn, it’s a completely valid way that adults can entertain themselves... but it is not great sex education. Seek out good resources like Planned Parenthood or Scarleteen, or one of many science and pleasure based resources available as books, on the internet, or social media. 

Talk about it

We need to make it normal to talk about sex in healthy and realistic ways. It’s still fun to joke and have fun with sexual content, but we need to challenge ourselves to talk seriously and meaningfully with those around us about sex. One way to do this is to use language that isn’t vague (think: “intercourse” not “sex”) so that we can be clear about what we’re talking about. If you’re having a hard time doing this, consider bringing it up in therapy (that is, if your therapist will talk about it!). 

Address the Shame

Normalize the problems! Having an experience of erectile difficulty does not necessarily indicate an erectile disorder. Most people would just feel too much shame to ever even think further about that. It might be performance anxiety or indicative of a larger issue that you can unpack. Also, we can normalize pleasure, sexual interest, and desire! The more we address our own sense of shame about sexual functioning, sexual orientation, or frequency of sex, the more we are able to take the power away from it. Therapy is a place where you might be able to unpack where the shame comes from and how you can move forward in a different way. 

Do Things Differently

Take what you’ve read here and think about one thing you could do differently as it relates to sex. Maybe that means offering someone information when you hear someone perpetuating a sex myth (e.g., women don’t like sex as much as men, 'it only counts if you saw a nipple,' 'real orgasms' should happen from intercourse). It might also mean trying to feel differently about yourself for having a certain level of desire or interest. You could reach out to a new therapist to talk about your relationship to sex. Of you might consider changing the way you teach your children about their bodies or sex. We can all also engage in advocacy to make sure that more people do not get stuck learning inaccurate and harmful information about sex in school.

So, are you inspired yet? I know this is awkward, uncomfortable, and highly personal stuff. I know some people will be put off by my even writing this post! But I’m committed to helping people improve their mental health; shame is not good for your mental health. Ipso facto, I am committed to helping people get past sexual shame and move into a season of life where you can live your most authentic self. So what do you say? Will you join me in thinking, feeling, and relating differently to sex? 

So if you're looking for a mental health therapist or counselor in Towson, MD or a virtual therapist in Maryland, B'well counseling may be the right fit for you. At B’well counseling, we work with people, not problems. We don’t believe that the biggest priority should be finding out what’s ‘wrong’ with you so we can ‘fix’ it. Rather, we think it makes more sense to get to know you and help you get to know yourself better. We also think it makes sense to acknowledge the role of the chaos and broken systems around us in our problems. In therapy you’ll probably identify some things that you thought were ‘true’ but actually seem a bit ‘grayer’ upon closer inspection. You might change some things about your relationships, your family, your career, or your goals. It’s our hope that you’ll learn some useful skills along the way, but more importantly, that you’ll come to have a better relationship with yourself and those closest to you. So whether you’re looking for a therapist to address your relationship to people, your body, your identity, your career or our dumpster fire of a world, we think we might have some fresh perspective to offer you. Reach out today through the contact form on our website or just send any one of us an email. We can’t wait to hear from you. And until then, be well. 

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