An Evolutionary Tool Run Amok?
By Carlyle Jansen
We humans are social animals. We need connection to each other for support, love and, at times, survival. As collectives, we have developed cultural norms, values, and rules to ensure harmony and getting along such as: respect, truthfulness, helping each other, etc. Shame is an emotion that is an evolutionary tool to try to keep us all following the norms and in check. Traditionally those who did not follow the rules were banished out of the community. In this way, shame can be healthy when it leads us to be humble and feel guilty for harm caused to another because we care about them. We make amends, adjust our behaviour, and grow from it. And then let it go.
The Curse of Normalized Standards
Unfortunately there are many societal norms, values and rules that we live with and that are not inclusive. Many ideas about what is healthy, good, right, best for our community and/ or proper are very narrow and can be harmful. Thin people are deemed better than curvier or fatter people. Heterosexual orientation is considered the only option for purposes of reproduction, religious morality, and social order. Gender is split into male and female with strict ideas about how each category of people is supposed to behave, dress, and speak. Folks with disabilities and trans people are not seen as worthy. All of these norms are absorbed through messages throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes it is hard to even see what the rules are because they are so implicit.
When who we are is different from these narrow rules and norms, we feel shame from the world around us, sometimes overtly through derogatory comments or looks, and sometimes through exclusion. We often also feel that shame from within. We believe that there is something wrong or unacceptable and/ or immoral about ourselves which can weigh heavily on our mental and physical health. Depending on whether we get support or messages from others to the contrary, we can try to become something we are not: thin, more sexual, less sexual, cisgender, acting according to gender roles, heterosexual, able to orgasm during intercourse, enjoying certain kinds of sex, etc. And even when we have support for who we are, we can easily fall prey to these messages that bombard us from the external world and from within ourselves, despite our best efforts to reject these narrow versions of what is normal, good, and healthy.
Shame in Sex and Pleasure
When it comes to sex and pleasure, there are very defined rules about who is sexy and what sex is supposed to look like. Penises and breasts are supposed to be large and vulva lips are supposed to be small. Sex is defined as penises entering vaginas and everyone orgasming at the same time during intercourse (which is somehow equated to eternal bliss). Men initiate sex and women are demure and need to be persuaded into having sex in order to not be perceived as either “sluts” or “frigid”. Fantasies need to be “normal” and kinky sex is ok only if it has been popularized and validated in a book such as Fifty Shades of Grey (which has its own problematic narratives on kink and consent). Even while sex between folks with penises is becoming more accepted by society, there are still heteronormative expectations placed on gay men such as anal sex.
Diversity is Normal
With all of these rules and standards, it is no wonder then that shame rears its ugly and harmful head so often around sex, pleasure and bodies. The reality is that no one falls exactly into what society tells us is “normal”. Moreover, erections do not always manifest when desired, orgasms do not happen on command, sometimes vaginas are wet when aroused, and sometimes they are not. Some people experience pain with genital touch or penetration.
Sex is a skill and many of us don’t know what we like or don’t know how to ask for what we like. It is common for us to freeze or endure sex as a trauma response or to get it over with quickly when are not sure what to do. Sometimes what we like is different from what society tells us we are supposed to like or different from what a partner likes. These are all reasons for which many unfortunately feel shame- from ourselves, a partner or society. Yet this shame is all based on faulty perspectives of what holds society together and what makes each of us a worthy, valued, and healthy member of our community and family. Many of these narrow ideas are being challenged daily; however it takes a long time to shift intergenerational ideas and norms.
How To Address Shame
When you experience shame, take a look at what the norm or value is behind the feeling. An open-minded friend, mentor or therapist can help you look a little deeper. Once you uncover the “should” (eg. “I should be thinner/ I wish I liked/ It would be easier if I could…”), you can unpack the validity of the statement that you should look like, behave, identify, have sex, or like something within a narrow definition. It can take some time to unlearn the many messages we have all received about what is not ok and reclaim new messages for ourselves. This is a lifelong journey for most of us. The good news is that there are many more diverse perspectives on sex, gender, bodies, and pleasure now to which we can expose ourselves.
Build Communities of Shared Values
Online we can find people who are like us or who have similar values and follow them in their newsletters, books, and social media. We can look for friends and groups online and in person who share similar perspectives and challenge the norms that we all grew up taking for granted. The more we counteract those messages, the more we can internally feel awesome about the uniqueness for who we are and make no apologies for what makes us sexy and a fabulous human.
Carlyle Jansen is a sex therapist (RP) and the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit goodforher.com or carlylejansen.com.