Why do some sexual desires and practices make us feel good and others make us shrink with shame? Sometimes, this is due to a mismatch between our desires and our beliefs about what is right and wrong when it comes to sex. That mismatch often causes intense feelings of shame, anxiety, and low self-esteem. One way to address this is to clarify your sex values. 

Most of us internalized a lot of our sex values from authority figures when we were young: caregivers, school teachers, abstinence based sex ed programs, religion, and other important people in our communities. The problem with this is that the kind of sex that is “good” or “right” is often a very narrow version of all the ways that sex can be enjoyed. Many of us were taught that the only kind of sex that we’re allowed to have is cisheterosexual, monogamous sex (sex between two straight, cisgender people who are in an exclusive relationship). Any other kind of sex that we might desire, pursue or fantasize about is “deviant” and “wrong.” 

One way to realign your sex values and your behaviors or desires is to spend some time naming and evaluating your existing sex values. This can help identify any values you may be holding onto from childhood that no longer fit with who you are and the kind of sex life you want to have. We don’t often get a chance to slow down and really look at our underlying belief system. This can be a great opportunity to do that and to learn more about yourself in the process. 

The first question to ask yourself is: If my sexual behavior involves other people, is everyone (including yourself) consenting and capable of giving consent? This is an important starting question because shame is an acceptable response to behaviors that violate others' rights and boundaries. Shame is much less helpful when it comes to behaviors where everyone involved is enthusiastically consenting. The next steps below will help you make sense of and address feelings of shame that might arise even when your sexual desires and behaviors aren’t hurting anyone because of old, internalized values we absorbed as children. 

  1. Start by identifying a sexual desire, fantasy or act that raises feelings of shame, guilt, internal conflict, self-hatred, or other “bad” feelings. If it’s difficult to identify feelings, you might think of instances in which you keep the behavior secret from your partner(s) or friends, need to be drunk or high in order to engage in sex, or feel the urge to engage in self harm or self destructive behavior after sex. 
  1. Next, draw the table below or go through it mentally. Fill in your own relevant sexual desires or behaviors that you want to examine in the first column. For each sexual desire, fantasy or behavior, work across the row by first identifying whether or not you desire the sex act. Check the “Yes” box if you are interested in trying it, actively pursue it, get excited thinking about it, or fantasize about it. Check the “No” box if the act doesn’t interest you or if you don’t enjoy it when you do it. This might come up if your partner(s) enjoy it so you do it for them, but you don’t particularly desire it. Next, identify how you feel after you engage in the act or in the fantasy. Check “Good” if you feel satisfied, fulfilled, good about yourself, or happy afterward. Check “Bad” if you feel shame, guilt, numbness, or an impulse to self-harm afterward. Next, identify how other significant people in your life feel about it. Adapt this table as you see fit. Perhaps you don’t have a religious community now or as a child. In that case, you might change that to another influential group of people like “Partner(s),” “Teachers,” “Coworkers,” or “Neighbors.” Whichever groups you choose, check the appropriate box depending on whether you think they believe it is right or wrong. Don’t get too hung up on wondering what they really think about a particular sex act. You may find that individual people in your religious group are more open minded or deviate from the norm. But if, as a whole, you feel that the religious community thinks it is wrong, check the “Wrong” box. 

Do I desire it?

How I feel about it afterward

Others’ Values

Yes

No

Good

Bad

Family

Religious Community

Peers

Right

Wrong

Right

Wrong

Right 

Wrong

Using porn while in a relation-ship

X

X

X

X

X

Oral sex

X

X

X

X

X

Anony-mous sex

X

X

X

X

X

The way you fill out this table can reveal a number of important points about your sex values. Let’s look at each row to see how you might interpret your answers:

  • Using porn while in a relationship: The person filling out this row said that they desire using porn while they’re in a relationship, and when they do, it makes them feel good afterward. It looks like both their family and their religious community see using porn while in a relationship as wrong, while their peer group thinks it’s okay. Although their family and religious community thinks it’s wrong, they might feel okay participating in it because they know that their peers think it’s okay. Perhaps they know that their peers are also using porn in their relationships and they respect their peers, or that their partner(s) support them in using porn while in a relationship. Therefore, they are able to participate in it without shame. Here are some additional questions you might want to ask yourself if your row looks like this: 
    • What do I enjoy about using porn while in a relationship? What makes me desire it? 
    • What helps me feel good about using porn while in a relationship? Who supports me or would support me if I talked to them about it? What helps me feel okay about having a sex value that is different from my family group and religious group? 
    • What does my family think is wrong about using porn while in a relationship? What does my religious community think is wrong about using porn while in a relationship? Do I agree with any of these points? Which points do I disagree with?
    • How important is it to align my values with the values of my family? Of my religious group? What would it mean to have different values from them?
    • Why does my peer group think it’s okay to use porn while in a relationship? Do I agree with any of these points? Which points do I disagree with? 
  • Oral sex: The person filling out this table said that they do not desire oral sex and they feel bad after doing it. This might be an example of a person who is participating in oral sex because they feel that they have to, or because their partner(s) wants it. Their family and religious group thinks oral sex is wrong, but their peer group thinks it’s okay. Some questions this person might ask themselves are:
    • What don’t I like about oral sex? (Maybe your answer is that you just don’t enjoy it!) 
    • What makes me feel like I have to do it anyway? What am I afraid will happen if I say no? 
    • What does my family think is wrong about oral sex? What does my religious community think is wrong about oral sex? Which points do I agree or disagree with? 
    • How important is it to align my values with the values of my family? Of my religious group? What would it mean to have different values from them?
  • Anonymous sex: This person said that they desire anonymous sex but they feel bad about it afterward. This signals that there might be some internalized shame here. Their family, religious community, and peer group all think it’s wrong. Some questions for further reflection if you answered similarly: 
    • What do I enjoy about anonymous sex? 
    • What does my family think is wrong about anonymous sex? What does my religious community think is wrong about anonymous sex? What does my peer group think is wrong about anonymous sex? Which points do I agree or disagree with? 
    • What does it mean to me to engage in a sexual act that doesn’t align with my family’s values, my religious community’s values, or my peer group’s values? What does it mean to have values that are different from my family’s, religious group’s, or peer’s values? 

Closely examining your sex values can highlight areas where there is conflict between your values, your behaviors, and the values of the people who are important to you. It can raise a lot of questions about identity, belonging, internalized shame, and other sources of shame like sexual abuse or sex/relationship trauma. If you would like to process these feelings with the support of a therapist, we are here to help. Make an appointment online or call (215) 922-LOVE.