Catholic guilt and shame about sex

Sexual guilt & shame: is your cultural background affecting your sex life?

There are lots of positive and exciting factors that arise from the rich cultural landscape that makes up our global community. Sadly though, many cultures often bring with them unwanted beliefs and doctrines that can be suffocating to those who have grown up learning them, many of them linked to sexual guilt and shame. These directly relate to how we behave in relationships and specifically, how comfortable we are with matters of sex.

The problem is not linked to one specific country, culture or religion. In fact most cultures carry with them at least some values and beliefs that can be severely limiting when it comes to enjoying a normal and fulfilling sex life. It’s easy to blame our parents or even their parents, but these are behaviours that have been passed down through hundreds of years. Some behaviours and beliefs are learned, others are taken on almost by osmosis – from observing family members, friends, the media and other material we’re surrounded by in our formative years. The good news is, these beliefs and the subsequent patterns of behaviour can be broken as an adult, but the first step is in realising there’s a problem.

The problem of guilt and shame

With a quarter of young women still believing that masturbation is shameful there’s a long way to go before we’re fully accepting of our sexual desires and what we need to do in order to fulfil them. Sexual guilt and shame are side effects of many religions and psycho sensual practitioner Colin Richards has worked with hundreds of clients affected by the indoctrination and influence of religions such as certain branches of Christianity, especially Catholicism; Islam; Judaism and other orthodox religions.

In a recent interview for documentary The Pope Answers, Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church, commented on the religion’s teachings in relation to sex and said: “Sex is one of the most beautiful things that God gave human beings,” but admitted that the Catholic Church has a long way to go when it comes to embracing human sexuality, saying that “her catechesis on sex is still in diapers.”

This could go some way to relieving the Catholic guilt felt by many but it usually takes a lot more to silence the voice of disapproval that’s built up over a number of years.

Silencing the inner voice of criticism

Recognising when we’re being affected by childhood indoctrination or judgement can be difficult because those thoughts feel like they’re intertwined with our own identity, but it’s possible to cast them aside once and for all when we realise they’re not serving our best interests. As adults we’re free to live as we want to, but that doesn’t mean that we fully escape the prying and judging eyes of relatives or friends. In those situations it’s important to place the emphasis on our own happiness and satisfaction, being willing to prioritise our healthy desires and natural urges and learning to ignore the limiting beliefs and shame we’ve been taught to feel.

Unless we’re able to do this, we can’t learn to have a positive and empowered relationship with sex and to enjoy it freely. Re-discovering your natural sexual connection to yourself and others is something that can be worked on in a supportive, therapeutic environment such as that provided by Intimacy Matters, in one on one sexual counselling services for both men and women.

Sexual inequality

In many male dominated cultures such as those of the Middle East, the balance of sexual guilt and shame is unfairly tipped towards women, who may be denied any pleasure at all or at best their needs are not prioritised during sex with husbands, who are sometimes chosen for them by the families through arranged marriages. Since the idea of virginity is non-negotiable, pre-marital sex happens in secret but often takes the form of anal or oral sex in an attempt to preserve the in-tact hymen, a symbol of virginity. Sex in these types of cultural scenarios is sometimes purely functional or a symbol of ownership.

Men in these and other cultures also frequently struggle with the ‘Madonna-whore’ complex, where there is a clear distinction between sexual attraction and love and the two cannot be easily reconciled. This results in sexual guilt and shame and in men being unable to express themselves sexually with their wives and the mothers of their children, because they are no longer able to perceive them as the object of their physical desires. This can be very problematic and can lead to unfaithfulness and deep discontent for both parties.

Moving beyond these issues into a more connected and mutually satisfying relationship requires some time and attention to each other and a re-education process, which can be especially effective when carried out jointly as a couple.

A lack of true sexual education

For many people from sheltered cultural backgrounds, the secret enjoyment of porn serves as the only source of sex education they’ll ever experience and the problem with this is that it rarely reflects reality. It’s a poor reflection of the arousal process and does little to provide tips on foreplay for example, which is crucial to the build-up of orgasm. When sex education is taught in schools it centres on the biology of reproduction and sometimes contraception, but rarely touches on the importance of human intimacy and how through sex and pleasure, the human bond can be strengthened. The harmful and lasting effects of sexual guilt and shame are seldom addressed, in fact sometimes sex education can be the cause of this.

Many cultures and religious groups are exposed to sexuality only through the media and the internet, which provides a far from comprehensive or helpful education on sexual relationships. Re-learning much of what you know about sex can turn you into an accomplished and confident lover who not only knows how to give pleasure, but can receive it without shame or embarrassment.

Allowing emotion and vulnerability

One of the most poignant issues affecting enjoyment of sex is not being able to ‘let go’ or express emotion. This can stem from past trauma or it can be engrained as part of cultural identity or upbringing. Allowing the feeling of vulnerability during a sexual encounter can be terrifying for some, but if you’re with someone you trust it can be deeply fulfilling and lead to more explosive and deeply satisfying climax.

An issue commonly affecting east Asian cultures and often Eastern European women who have lived through communist regimes and are typically conditioned to hold back emotionally, it can be a very difficult behaviour to overcome. In some cultures, sex for women is recognised for its transactional value, allowing women to attract the right man for security.

According to Colin Richards, it’s not unusual for people from these types of backgrounds to struggle to reach orgasm. “From an early age, daughters are led to believe, often by their mothers, that to find a husband is a primary goal and that the best way to achieve this is to use their sexuality as a lure. Pleasing the man can become such a priority that it often results in an inability to focus on oneself and reach orgasm when with another person.” He goes on to say: “This dis-attachment of sexuality can undermine a woman’s identity as a sexual being and often to compensate or mask this, frustration can result in overt sexual behaviours. Working to try and repair this unhealthy mindset would involve placing greater focus on self-care and breaking down the emotional barriers preventing connection with oneself.”