Shame and Sex in America


Here is a question I received from a reader:
“When I look at culture in this country, I see a lot of shame. Shame that is attached to sexuality in a fear-based and pathologizing fashion that doesn’t seem to be as present in other cultures in the same way. As you and Carl Jung suggest, we have the tendency to live in shadows when we are not as able to be authentic and fully integrated, including with our sexuality, and this seems like a problem to me. Why is sexuality so tied to fear in this culture?”

This question is near and dear to my heart – thanks for asking it. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time hunting down nuances of an answer. It is not a question with an easy straight-forward answer.  This answer requires we understand our historical roots and cultural paradigms. I will apologize now … this might be a long post. I have a book coming out this spring that reveals how we developed a sexuality of shame instead of a sexuality of love and wholeness; Sex, God & the Conservative Church – Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy

Here is a quote from a 35 year old – “There were not individual secrets about sexuality because everything about sex was kept a secret. The absolute dearth of information about sexual matters in my family clearly communicated that sex was something that was dirty and forbidden. In order to “maintain” the family honor any time anything related to sex came up, sexual matters were covered up and buried. The result was a family existence that was dark and uncompromising in its moral tone. We were all alone and ashamed in our sexuality.”

Shame in part comes when we believe something is fundamentally bad or unworthy about us. Kids who grow up with authoritarian parents or authoritarian messages, even authoritarian silence, often view their contrasting thoughts or actions, as a global reflection that they are bad. Kids do not isolate this message to the particular behavior or thought, but shame research shows, kids generalize the feeling of shame and attribute it to their whole being. This means they believe to their core that they are unworthy of love and belonging. After reading this research and hearing story after story of people’s deep seated shame, especially around sexuality, I began to wonder, how did we come to live with so much sexual shame hiding deep inside – and infecting our ability to give and receive love in our most intimate relationships?

Important history
Almost 2500 years ago people began to believe that the body was less than the mind or soul. This was the beginning of the mind/body split and began our long relationship with the body and its desires as depraved. Plato began the dictomization of mind from body in philosophy in 350BC and Descarte further cemented this split in science in the 1600’s. In the meantime the church cemented its own split of spirit from body beginning in the 2nd century and running throughout the development of western religion to the present day. The spirit, like the mind in philosophy and science, was seen as more important, of more value, “of the immortal”, “of God”. The body was seen as temporal, of the world, little valued, and in western religion, corrupt and not to be trusted. This began a long and detailed history of trying to control through authoritarian messages, through publically and privately shaming and ostracizing people who did not appear to comply or who questioned authority. This is present even today in one sector of our society that endorses abstinence only teaching about sexuality, silence around sexual knowledge, and discourages sexuality education.

There is a particular problem with a “don’t do that” message coupled by no guidance or education about sexual development, sexual desires, sexual responsibility, the integration of life, relationships, spiritual and sexual health.

Sexuality is something we are – not something we do.  It is more than a set of behaviors.

It is the vital creative force of our life – our very soul and mind manifest its loves and passions through our body. We create and appreciate creation through our body. We hold and love through our body. In fact when our body exhales its last breath we cease being able to live out our mind, heart and soul here on earth.

The desire to love with our bodies, to understand and appreciate the awakening sexual desires across our lifecycle, is core to our human experience.

It is fundamentally human … like breath or the desire to eat, belong, love and be loved. When you tell a child or teen that they are not to think or act out of this fundamental part of self and provide no guidance, people will go underground with their sexuality. Their sexuality, sexual desires, and sexual behaviors are seen as fundamentally wrong and must be in secret.

Underground ‘education’ comes from peers and a media that is all too happy to sell sex that is disembodied from meaning, relationship, care for other and care for self. Sexuality fed this message becomes further shamed and hidden. And further ignorant and potentially hurtful.

When institutions and parents give children no education, no guidance, no ongoing conversation of the role of healthy sexuality in life, relationship and faith, they fill them with shame, drive their sexuality underground, and in essence inadvertently throw their kids to the dogs of a consumer driven culture that uses people and sex to sell products.

A Glimpse into European Culture and Sexuality
Let me contrast our market driven culture that justifies objectifying and using people, women, men and sex to sell whatever it can with the particular European culture in Sweden – the homeland of my grandparents. In Sweden as in many other European cultures, there is less teenage pregnancy, less abortion, less divorce and significantly lower incidence of STI’s than in America. Their view of premarital sex is more relaxed and life education (which integrates sexuality education) begins in first grade and runs through high school. Sexuality is also an ongoing open conversation in most homes and when parents don’t know how to guide, there are readily accessible family workers who guide the whole family.

The result is far less underground sexual activity and overall far fewer sexual partners prior to marriage. There is less casual sex and ‘hook-ups’ than in America and prostitution is nearly non-existent. In Sweden, 87% of men and 95% of women say they are sexually active with someone they love. There is less ignorance, less shame and higher sexual satisfaction.

Many in America believe that an open sexuality conversation leads to sexual chaos. Yet in America, adolescents are becoming sexually active at the same time as Swedes – between 16-18 years old. For teens raised in religious homes, the research shows that the average age of first intercourse is 16.9 for protestants and fundamental protestants, and 17.7 for Catholics. This is a surprising fact for some who believe our way of forbidding sex until marriage lowers onset of sexual activity. It does not. What it does is lowers the use of contraception and increases teen pregnancy. What I found that significantly contrasted American culture was that in America we focused on ‘right rules’ and ‘wrong behaviors’. These rules (and at times laws) are a reflection of the influence of the institutionalized western church which determined one side of the mind/body split was good and the other, bad. It was a world view of right and wrong behaviors. We rewarded and punished based on rules and behaviors. Thus we are set up to condemn others, hide our deviations, and to be afraid of that which is outside this paradigm.

Sweden on the other hand, embraced and legislated a value (not a rule).  The value is that no one has the right to use another, and that all people are to protect and care for children, the elderly and the disabled. This subtle but significant difference has profound cultural implications. When we legislate and uphold a value, we offer a lens to filter behaviors through. Does this or that behavior use or hurt someone? Am I caring for self and other? Inside having a value as their guide, they honor people’s freedom while giving them the responsibility to uphold the value without telling them what they can and cannot do. There is a central ethic in place that covers all human interaction. By giving freedom of choice in behavior while providing a guiding value, it is more respectful and honoring to the people – thus there is less hiding and underground activity. It allows more human expression while providing boundaries. It has choice and freedom. There is less fear, no reason to hide, shame or ostracize. Sex doesn’t go underground and there is more acceptance of difference provided this value is upheld.

Sweden’s Development of a Sexual Ethic
This shift began around 1920 when Sweden initiated the first democratic family laws in the world providing for equal roles and mutual rights and responsibilities for husband and wife. Sweden was pagan until the 11th century. From the 11th century until 2000 Sweden was a Lutheran church state. Prior to 1920 and for a while following, the church continued to try and mandate an abstinence only message as their ‘sex education program’, and ignore the inadequacy of this message alone to deal with youth sexual activity, unwanted pregnancy and a rise in STI’s. Between 1920 and 1965 concerned citizens and legislators worked together to pass new laws upholding Sweden’s core value in all aspects of community life. This led to a comprehensive life education program adopted over the church mandated program that continues to this day. It is an integrated program that teaches about life, relationships and responsibility, including sexuality and sexual health, in age appropriate ways beginning with first grade and running through their last year in high school. At its center the same core value is the guiding principle. What I find unfortunate is that rather than the church-state examining if it was reflecting Jesus’ values of love, justice and grace demonstrated in and through relationship, it continued to be a rule based institution focused on gaining control and compliance through dictating acceptable behaviors and rules (not unlike here in America). In Sweden, church became known as control, rules, power abuse and obligation. Not the place where the values of love, grace, forgiveness and justice are carried out in the context of relationships. I can’t imagine finding Jesus in their institutional demonstration of Christianity … but I certainly have seen him in many a Swedish family home.

If you want to learn more about these thoughts read: Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola, Sex and Society in Sweden by Birgitta Linner, Body, Sex and Pleasure – Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics by Christine Gudorf, the article Christian’s Caught Between the Sheets – How an Abstinence Only Ideology Hurts Us  or books and articles by James B Nelson.



Sex, God & the Conservative Church – Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy

Synopsis: This book is the first of its kind written to help people of faith who have experienced religious sexual shame. This shame and trauma comes as an inadvertent byproduct of the sex-negative sexual ethic of conservative religion.  Based on ten years of research, it explains what happened in the formation of the Christian church and how American culture can compound the problem. It goes on to reveal a sex-positive ancient Hebrew story that was buried in Christian history and the sex-positive gospel ethic that was never developed. Finally it offers a four step model for healing religious sexual shame, and actual touch and non-touch exercises to bring healing and intimacy into a person’s life.  The book is appropriate for clients, patients, therapists, clergy, physicians, and those who train sociology students, therapists, sex therapists, clergy or primary care physicians.  It also is a text that would function well in a book group or study group and for those who want to explore the impact of religious sexual shame and those who want to heal or help someone else to heal.  It is sensitive to those who grew up in conservative church environments, while simultaneously providing adequate information for the provider that may not be familiar with that culture.




Living in the US, it’s so hard to imagine passing values-based laws–but I love the idea of it. On a practical level, it feels like our country is just too huge to manage the processes that would entail. On an ideological level, we’re just too divided–aren’t we? It’s really nice to know Sweden is doing so well, but I’m trying to not resign myself to sighing, “Oh well, it’s nice for them, but we could never have that.”

For a politically minded activist like myself, what would you suggest as a priority or starting point for helping to move the US to a values-based, justice-centered, family education model?


Hi Annie –
Public policy is not my area, so I am not sure I can be of much help here. But if I were to do some research, I would look at how countries like Sweden instituted this. I know that their paternity and maternity, childcare, eldercare, disability, education, and healthcare laws all support the value that children, the poor, the aging, the disabled, and all citizens are entitled to healthcare, education, and basic care. They know that to provide for the basic needs of their citizens is to support the wellbeing and success of the whole country regardless of gender and status. So I think this is one way that you see their laws back up their values. I think you see something similar (but different) in the United States. Our laws represent that we value profit at any cost, money more than people, men more than women, adults more than children, the healthy more than the unhealthy, and the con artist more than the truthful. It’s unfortunate, but true.


Thanks! This is a helpful reminder–of course our laws are values based as well, it’s just a matter of what those values are. It’s disheartening to think what values we’ve chosen to live out of in the US, but I suppose naming them is the only place to start. There’s much work to be done! Glad to come here for inspiration along the way :)

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