American culture marginalizes the pleasure of those with vulvas, teaching us that our bodies are shameful.
Oppression Shapes Our Relationship to Self-Love“Dominant culture has really vilified sexuality,” says Brown-James. From stigma around body size and disability to the deep effects of racism and colonization, our relationships to our own bodies are fundamentally shaped by the ideologies that structure society. Unfortunately, many of these are toxic to self-pleasure. American culture marginalizes the pleasure of those with vulvas, teaching us that our bodies are shameful. Many people with vulvas “haven’t even looked at their vulva or they’re taught that their vulvas are dirty things that need bleaching agents to be clean,” says Brown-James. This feeling of “dirtiness” can couple with purity-based ideologies to send us the message that our bodies are simply vessels for the pleasure and procreation of people with penises. Sexual assault and abuse—which women, LGBTQ people, and people living in poverty are especially vulnerable to—can reinforce the message that our bodies don’t deserve gentleness and respect. Ableist stigma and internalized fatphobia can also falsely teach us that our bodies are not worthy of pleasure and love. Many of us have been raised with religious teachings that stress virginity as a virtue, or that stigmatize non-reproductive forms of sex, including masturbation. Brown-James says she’s worked with people from a variety of belief systems, from Evangelical purity culture to Judaism and Hinduism, who struggle to embrace their own sexual pleasure in the face of internalized shame. Religious belief can provide a path to self-acceptance and pleasure for some people. But “because historically leaders have not necessarily always been femme-identified folks, that message has gotten lost over time,” Brown-James says. Often, these sex-negative messages are tied to histories of racism and colonization. White supremacy functions even more broadly to rob people of color of bodily agency, using everything from racist school discipline to police brutality. “There are folks who say walking around in a Black body in the United States is trauma itself,” says Brown-James. “Existing in any body that’s marginalized can be traumatic.” These violent forces cohere around the uniquely harmful way in which Black women and femmes are sexually shamed. Since the beginning of transatlantic slavery, says Brown-James, white people have projected their sexual desires and taboos onto Black people’s bodies. A long history of white supremacist propaganda sought to derogatorily depict Black children as precociously sexual, justifying sexual violence and abuse against them. “Can you imagine trying to get pleasure through your body when your body has been vilified or demonized from
Shame Lives in the BodyShame isn’t just ideological, and it’s not just something people with explicitly conservative value systems experience. It’s somatic, a feeling that lurks in the deepest levels of our bodies. Shame can show up as intrusive thoughts during masturbation. It can show up as a lurking sense of dread or anxiety during self-pleasure or the feeling that we must keep our self-pleasure totally hidden. Shame can also make us shy away from certain fantasies that might be appealing to us, or certain parts of our own bodies.
Begin by asking yourself: “What do I need to work on my healing and my pleasure?”Shame may show up as physical reactions even if we’re not registering it emotionally. Some people may feel a tightness in their chest or head. “Your body goes to your back, you hug your shoulders,” Brown-James says. Shame can feel like a “natural kegel” as your genitals tense up. You might sweat; your heart might race; you may get a pounding headache or a “quicksilver feeling in your belly.” There are a lot of similarities between a shame reaction and a trauma response—in fact, shame is often a result of sexual trauma. If you have experienced sexual abuse or assault, you may find yourself dissociating when you touch certain body parts during masturbation; you may tense up or cry. You may find yourself fantasizing about an abusive ex-lover or a situation of sexual harm. Those thoughts and feelings can be disturbing, but they are totally normal. There is nothing wrong with you. Rather than either “grinning and bearing” these painful moments, or avoiding masturbation entirely, you can approach them with gentle curiosity. “Sex always can pause. We can always take a moment,” Brown-James says—including when we’re having sex with ourselves. It can help to breathe and ground yourself in the present: Notice how your toes feel. Notice what the light looks like on your wall. By paying attention to these painful reactions, you can begin to address them: Pain and shame are ways our bodies invite us to heal.