In a society where sex and shame are often connected at the hip, people young and old are bound to feel guilty about their sexual encounters at one time or another in their lives. Discourse about sex and sexuality remains, for the most part, either private and off-the-record or simply nonexistent. For young people, wading through a slough of competing attitudes about sex and sexual activity can make feeling good about one’s own sexual choices sometimes near impossible.

These ideas are not particularly novel ones. Most young adults can probably sympathize with this sexual confusion on some level. 

“The question is, rather than how is there shame and guilt in the world, but how is there not? How do people escape it?” UW sociology professor Pepper Schwartz said.

What generates sexual shame and guilt may not be especially hard to deduce, but what promulgates and perpetuates it isn’t always so clear. 

“I look first at institutions,” Schwartz said. “That leads me first to religion, and almost every religion has prohibitions of various sorts against various kinds of sexual acts. That isn’t to say that they don’t have prohibitions about a lot of things … but among them quite centrally is usually sex … and if you get that early and often enough, sex is going to be laden with guilt even if you don’t believe in the guilt.”

Religious influences may be an obvious culprit in creating a society that shames sex at its very foundation, but other aspects of our lives play a part too, even for those who grew up in non-religious households and who, as Schwartz points out, may not even consciously believe in sexual shame. 

“And then it gets down to the family … and then it gets down to the peers and their judgmentalism, and pretty soon you’ve got it well-threaded through the society so much so that even when people get sexually abused they take on personal guilt even if it was rape, even if it was molestation,” Schwartz said. “Shame and guilt come along with it even for people who know they shouldn’t feel it.”

Sexual education in our country is often lacking in proper scientific information on how to have safe and healthy sex, even if it’s admitting that young people should have sex at all. 

“In the U.S. we have this really inaccurate assumption that if we tell kids sex is bad, or if we don’t give them information about it, they’re not going to do it,” UW doctoral student of sociology Sarah Diefendorf said. “And that’s not the case. Teens and young adults are going to continue to have sex. What we need to do is give them information that helps them engage in sexual activity that’s healthy.”

Even sex education programs in the United States that are not abstinence-only have their faults. It’s often taught from a fiercely heteronormative perspective, and leaves out information about and for LGBTQ+ students and their sexual experiences, Diefendorf said. Plus, many sex ed programs teach little to nothing about consent, an especially paramount topic, given the #MeToo movement and our current cultural moment. 

The issue of sexual guilt is not exclusive to women. Young men also experience the pressures to have sex as a gauge of masculinity. Men were not absent from the magnitude of #MeToo confessions and often face a different sort of stigma for sexual abuse committed against them, mostly from other men. However, young women tend to take the brunt of guilt attached to sex and sexual activity, and this has been rooted in a long history of sexual violence and sexual control over women.

In Texas, for example, a law was repealed in 1974 that legally allowed a husband to kill his wife if she was caught in bed with another man. Only in 1993 was a new law in the United States granted legal recognition of marital rape which before had been completely unenforceable. Although we may be legally beyond these former laws, history, and the attitudes that defined them are never fully erased. 

To this day, forces actively work against openness and acceptance around sex and sexuality. Former President Barack Obama cut all government funding for abstinence-only sex education in the nation’s 2017 budget. For 2018-2027, President Donald Trump has delegated $277 million for abstinence-only sex ed.

Legal, historical, religious, and interpersonal factors have created a society that allows sexual shame, particularly in women, to thrive. But this is not the only message that women experience with regards to sexual activity. Women are often expected to be simultaneously sexually available and sexually pure.

“It’s difficult to navigate between the voices of people that are telling you you should be having sex … normal people are having sex, that it’s a really casual thing that doesn’t matter,” junior Natalie Fernandi said. “And it’s true that it doesn’t have to matter, what matters is how you feel in the end. But then the other voice is telling you that you shouldn’t do that stuff. Between all of that it’s hard to tell what you feel on your own.”

Diefendorf spoke to how this same sentiment manifests itself in an academic setting at the UW.

“I have the great privilege of teaching Sociology of Sexuality to undergrads on campus,” Diefendorf said. “It’s my favorite class to teach, and one thing that’s really disheartening and happens every time I teach this class is that my students talk about how difficult it is to negotiate the messages that they’re receiving about sex and sexualtiy with their own sexual desires. And specifically around women and women’s pleasure and agency. I think that’s something that we really need to pay a lot more attention to, and that is definitely a repercussion of how we talk about sex in the U.S. starting from a very early age.”

Making a transition from “sex-is-bad” rhetoric in one’s youth, whether religiously influenced or not, to the collegiate expectation that everyone is and should be having sex, is a stark one to make for any person. How to go from one to the other, and not feel guilty about one’s sexual encounters (or lack thereof) at some point, can unsurprisingly become an emotional maze.

“It takes such a long time to get over [guilt related to sexual activity],” Fernandi said, echoing  Diefendorf’s sentiments. “Now we’re in college and there’s also this expectation [that] … college girls are supposed to be really experimental. And then there’s the expectation that we’ve already had sex by now, that we’re all sexually active, when that doesn’t need to be true. It seems to be never-ending.

“I feel like from a young age, and I feel like this is part of the reason for feeling sexual guilt, I feel like that’s in huge part because for a long time I thought that rape was only that brutal image of someone you don’t know jumping you in an alley and pinning you down, and I didn’t really include anything else in my idea of sexual assault,” Fernandi said. 

The question now remains: What can be done? How do we create a sexually healthy society?

“Not only educating students and giving them accurate information about sex and sexualtiy, but also normalizing conversations around sex and sexuality,” Diefendorf said.

Fernandi also expressed the need to continue redefining what we consider sexual abuse, which has gone through some necessary changes in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

“The amount of abuse that has come out of the #MeToo movement shows how much women kept inside, how much shame and guilt and were afraid to talk about it, how much domination and lack of protection from consequences were and still are in the culture,” Schwartz said. “We are still not a sexually healthy society, and it’s certainly not a sexually healthy world.”

The United States may be a society still plagued by our Puritanical past with regards to our views about sex and sexuality, but movements like #MeToo and others are a point of departure, rather than a completed goal, for real change. Many forces are still working for a sexually accepting society, but, like all change, it begins with one simple genesis: conversation. 

Reach writer Kendall Upton at Twitter @KendallSUpton

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