Sexual shame is something many people deal with, and it can manifest in a myriad of different ways. The shame could be surrounding one’s body or genitals, sexual acts or positions, fantasies and turn-ons, internalized homophobia, pleasure and more. For the partners of those experiencing sexual shame, it can be difficult to know how to support their partner while continuing to feel desired themselves.
Yiyao Zhou, IU Ph.D. student and associate instructor teaching Introduction to Sex Counseling, said sexual body image issues can stem from many sources. They can include shame induced by family, peers, partners or by portrayal in the media.
“I think sexual body image issues stem from cultural expectations largely based on what is unrealistically portrayed in the media and porn,” Zhou said. “It’s pretty common for people with vulvas especially to feel uncomfortable with their body and worry about how they look, which takes away focus from enjoying sex or a sexual experience.”
One of the best ways to help a partner recovering from sexual shame and body image issues is to have open, honest communication. This conversation can be asking your partner what they need from you, checking in on what boundaries they have on any given day, giving your partner permission to be vulnerable or assuring them that you don’t expect them to look like the people in porn.
“It can be a delicate conversation because it depends on each person’s experience and the discomfort they have around their body,” she said. “Don’t force the conversation if they aren’t ready, but let them know you are supportive and ready to talk about this.”
Navigating your partner’s sexual healing while maintaining your want to be desired can be tricky. While there are many ways to sexually explore oneself, specifically through masturbation, it is also important to identify where these feelings of being undesired come from. Zhou has a few examples of questions to ask yourself in these moments.
“What does being desired mean to you? How important is it to you? How much do you trust your partner and feel secure with them?” she said.
These conversations can be difficult to work through on your own, and they can be harmful to one or both parties if not handled with care. Resources available in the IU community include the Kinsey Institute and IU’s Counseling and Psychological Services program.
“Kinsey has lots of educational resources as well as FAQs and facts on their website, but more specific questions would be better addressed with a therapist,” Zhou said. “The CAPS program sometimes has sex and relationship therapists that you can contact for more support.”
You can find a sex therapist or counselor near you at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists website. You can follow its referral directory to find a sexuality professional in your area that can help you and your partner engage in an easier and safer conversation.
Speaking of Sex will be an affirming, nonjudgmental space exploring a myriad of topics related to gender and sexuality such as bodily normalization, pleasure-focused sex, healthy boundaries, consent and alternative relationships. You can submit questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or anonymously in this form.
Editor’s note: Advice offered is intended for informational use and may not be applicable to everyone. This column is not intended to replace professional advice.
Taylor Harmon (she/her) is a sophomore studying sexuality, gender and reproductive health with a minor in theatre and drama.