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Sex - Overview | October 3, 2022, 6:00 CDT

What Does Sexual Repression Really Mean?

If sex causes feelings of guilt and shame, it's time for an honest self-appraisal.
Tabby Kibugi

Written by

Tabby Kibugi
A woman with painted nails reaches her hand upward to cover her mouth.

For many people, sexual thoughts are often accompanied by excitement, desire for their partner, memories of past sexual experiences and potential future encounters.

However, if you're sexually repressed, even the word "sex" can trigger feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment.

"A person experiencing sexual repression may prevent themselves from feeling, exploring or engaging in sexual behavior," said Debra Laino, a sex therapist in Delaware who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). "Such feelings may make you unable to express your sexuality."

How do I know if I'm asexual or sexually repressed?

A lot of times, sexual repression and asexuality get mixed up. Laino described asexuality as a general lack of interest in sexual experimentation, not something driven by fear or shame.

"Sexual repression is driven by negative emotions," she said. "It's more of an 'Oh, my God, I can't have those feelings,' versus no sexual feelings at all or, at minimum, no desire to act on them."

If you avoid thinking about sex and get uncomfortable when the subject arises or when a sexual connection is sparked, you are probably experiencing some level of sexual repression, said Indigo Stray Conger, an AASECT-certified sex therapist for Mile High Psychotherapy in Denver.

"However, if you are comfortable discussing sex or being around sensual vibes, but sex is about as interesting as watching paint dry and you'd rather eat cake, then you are probably somewhere on the asexual spectrum," she added.

What causes sexual repression?

First explored by the Austrian neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, sexual repression may be caused by one or more of the following:

Negative beliefs or ideas about sex

Sexual repression most frequently arises from the messages and beliefs internalized in your childhood or in early adulthood. You may also absorb ideas from watching other people around you.

"People who grow up in strongly religious households frequently receive messaging that sexual urges and sexual acts are sinful and should be avoided, causing compartmentalization and dissociation from natural sexual desires," Conger said.

An example of this kind of experience might be messaging that says masturbation is wrong. Children exploring their bodies and the feeling of arousal might be shamed—intentionally or not—if caught touching their genitals or masturbating, she added.

"As a result, before they have a context of an understanding of what sex is, they already feel that the sexual part of themselves is dirty or wrong," Conger said.

Sexual trauma

A negative or traumatic sexual experience can lead to sublimation of an unconscious (or sometimes conscious) instinct to protect yourself from further harm.

"Negative associations around sex can taint and confuse experiences of desire and longing," Conger explained. "This can result in a person's sexuality atrophying from the contradiction."

If a person who is sexually assaulted ends up having a spontaneous orgasm during the attack, they may question themselves and further exacerbate the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it, Laino noted.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can get confidential support from a trained support specialist by contacting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Hotline. The call is free to make at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

Sexual orientation

Desires that are atypical to heteronormative messaging can play into sexual repression. For instance, you might have grown up believing sex should occur only between a man and a woman. If your sexual orientation doesn't align with this belief, you may repress feelings to avoid facing rejection.

"Interest in partners who are not opposite-gendered or sexual acts considered 'deviant' can cause internal conflict," Conger explained. "As a result, LGBTQ+ individuals and people with BDSM [bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism] proclivities may become sexually repressed until they find an accepting and open community within which to explore their sexuality."

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Harmful gender norms

In some cultures, women are forced to absorb harmful beliefs, for example, that their primary objective concerning sex is to satisfy a man's desire. Some communities teach women that they should not enjoy sex at all.

"There is also the misguided belief that men are sexual animals and can't control their sexual appetite," Laino said.

Simply having a vulva can also lead to sexual repression, according to Conger.

"The clitoris has been neglected in medical science and frequently redacted from medical books," she said. "Even now, the female anatomy of sexual pleasure remains understudied and misunderstood. Only in recent years have some women begun to claim their right to sexual pleasure and self-knowledge."

The effects of being sexually repressed

Sexual repression can cause feelings of desire to seem nonexistent, making it difficult to connect sexually to yourself or your partner.

"If someone has never explored sexuality in general as well as their own, it may be impossible for them to know what their desires are," Laino said. "Some will still have fantasies—often with guilt and shame—which may not be openly discussed."

As a result, relationships suffer or may never be found in the first place. After all, romance can be difficult to cultivate when sexual desire appears absent. Some sexually repressed people may struggle with communicating about sex to their partners, which may lead to issues with setting boundaries and being clear with consent.

"Many of them may face a hard time figuring out what is OK and what isn't OK with sex," Laino noted.

Repression of emotions can cause feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, according to a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research.

In addition, Conger noted that repression can lead to the following physical and emotional symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Premature or delayed ejaculation
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Anorgasmia, which is difficulty having an orgasm even after sexual arousal or adequate stimulation
  • Performance anxiety

How to break the cycle of sexual repression

If you're experiencing sexual repression, you should know that you can grow and learn to be comfortable with sex and your own sexuality. It's a journey that may require a significant amount of time and energy being spent on healing, so be patient with yourself.

"There are plenty of books on positive sexuality that can be helpful," Laino said. "Taking a class on healing trauma or a local sex education class can help you to work on the feelings of shame and guilt, establish healthy boundaries and learn more on body autonomy."

Learning to embrace your physical self is a great way to get comfortable with your sexuality. You can start with a simple meditation practice of genital awareness, Conger recommended.

"When you are comfortable and relaxed and have some time for yourself, clothed or not, turn your attention inward and see if you become aware of any sensations in and around your genitals," she said. "If any discomfort arises, notice what discomfort is like in your body and stay with the practice as long as the discomfort is not overwhelming.

If you're experiencing sexual repression, you should know that you can grow and learn to be comfortable with sex and your own sexuality.

"You aren't trying to create arousal or feel anything specific, simply seeing what happens when you turn your awareness to a body part that has been dissociated from or shamed," Conger continued.

You can also try to create an avenue for open communication with your partner so you can discuss your feelings, preferably in a situation where sex isn't involved. Conger advised bringing up your sexuality outside of how it relates to your partner so the information feels less personal.

You might start with a statement such as, "In my family, we never talked about sex and there was a lot of shame around sexuality," if such a situation applies to you. Giving specific requests to your partner can help both parties feel more hopeful about change.

A request might be, "I'd like to take a break from penetrative sex until I feel more aware of my body when we are being sexual" or "When we start kissing, can you pause and check in with me before any other touching occurs?"

Whether you are partnered or not, therapy with an experienced and certified sex therapist is a great place to start this journey. If you want to work with more than one therapist, that's also acceptable.

If you'd like to find a certified sex therapist in your area, a quick search on AASECT's Referral Directory can help.

Tabby Kibugi

Written by

Tabby Kibugi