Melbourne Sexologist Kassandra Mourikis on Sexual and Pleasure Related Shame

We chatted to Kassandra Mourikis, a Melbourne based Sexologist and the founder of Pleasure Centred Sexology about sexual and pleasure related shame.

Kassandra is sex and pleasure positive and believes pleasure is central to wellbeing. She wants to increase the opportunity for open, inclusive and accurate communication about sexuality and pleasure. She also wants to make sex and pleasure accessible to folks who have consistently been prevented from learning about and experiencing pleasure.

We were lucky enough to sit down with her for a chat about sex and pleasure related shame and how we can address it, both individually and as a society. Below is a snapshot of our discussion together, we hope you enjoy.

As a sexologist, can you briefly explain what sexual and pleasure related shame is?

Shame involves believing that your whole self is bad, wrong or unworthy and may develop around pleasure and sexual experiences, thoughts or desires. Shame is experienced with real physical sensations of having this gut-turning, sick or empty feeling in your stomach, intense heat or hot flushes, body aches, racing heart, feeling frozen, tense or torn amongst others. When people experience shame they may want to be invisible, to hide away or fear being seen by others.

Why do you think people feel shame towards sex or pleasure and where does it originate from?

  • Shame sometimes occurs in response to a divergence from social norms and expectations. There’s a deep feeling of unworthiness or self-loathing for not fitting in or being different to what they’ve been taught they should be (namely cis, heterosexual, patriarchal, Eurocentric standards). Shame arises when these expectations are internalised, where people begin to hold themselves to these standards and recognise they don’t align. They believe that there must be something inherently wrong with them for having a different experience or desire.

  • Shame is also activated when something traumatic happens to you. We’re sent messages that we alone are responsible for everything that happens to us, including what other people do to us. These messages are intense and present through victim blaming, being told that only you decide what other people can do to you, being told that the harm occurred because someone was not careful enough or didn’t have strong boundaries.

  • Shame develops as a protective function - it wants you to avoid experiencing whatever it was ever again. It makes you pause and think before you act. Sometimes shame is motivation to change, do better, be different - but it's not an effective motivator and while it's doing its best to keep you safe, the way it does that (with judgement and self loathing) only creates more pain.

How common is it for clients to come to you expressing feelings of shame and what are some ways it can manifest itself in a solo or partnered relationship?

Shame shows up for almost every single person I have ever worked with. It is a normal, integral, sometimes protective emotion. When most people experience sexual, pleasure or sexuality-related challenges, these differences or difficulties are interpreted as breaking the norm and people feel abnormal, worthless, wrong or bad for having the experiences they do. When trauma or violence is involved, people feel shame because they believe they were somehow responsible or allowed what happened to them.

Shame shows up in an extensive number of ways:

  • It may show up as a desire for a partner to want to “fix” themselves or their relationship because they believe it to be broken.

  • Feeling unworthy of receiving pleasure (in any form) and restricting (touch, food, play, rest, relationships).

  • Believing they are undeserving of stating their needs and enforcing boundaries.

  • Being fearful of having open conversations around sex and pleasure and experiencing intense anxiety when trying to navigate sex in a relationship.

  • Engaging in sexual encounters when they don’t want to.

  • Believing they have to wait until they’ve changed and conformed to the norm because they can start dating or searching for partners because they believe no person would desire and accept them as they are.

  • Responding with anger, feeling resentment or contempt for a partner, especially when that partner wants to explore sex and pleasure or talk about needs and boundaries.

  • As overworking, carrying a heavy mental load or being a perfectionist.

  • As self-harm (overriding basic needs for rest, food, comfort and hyper-focused on negative, embarrassing, shameful, traumatic moments).

What are some things you recommend to your clients to deal with feelings of shame or guilt towards their pleasure?

  • When people feel shame they’ve internalised these external sociocultural messages. Understanding how society reinforces these messages and social norms, recognising that they didn’t come from within that person (eg they weren’t born thinking and feeling that way), rather they have been learned and turned inwards.

  • I remind people that the goal isn't to get rid of shame. Shame is an important, fundamental emotion. It tells you a lot about yourself and the world we live in, it's protective, it serves a purpose. So as the goal isn't to eradicate shame, instead it's about regulating it and making it manageable.

  • To do this: allow yourself to sit with shame, notice how it shows up in your body, name it, describe it (imagining what it might look or feel like) and letting it pass without judgement is an essential skill to dealing with shame. All feelings will pass eventually if you let them. What often happens however is a natural desire to avoid feeling, to turn away or to bottle shame up. This does not mean shame goes away, it sits in the body unfelt and has a real physiological impact and can often lead to physical or chronic illness.

  • How you feel about how you’re feeling matters and so being non-judgmental and kind to yourself allows you to sit with shame without inviting in and entwining other emotions. A helpful way to do this is to understand the purpose shame serves - maybe it's trying to motivate you or keep you safe from having a similar experience again. Recognising that at some point shame might’ve been helpful even if it no longer is serving you.

  • Prioritising pleasure and increasing your ability to sit with and savour satisfying experiences despite believing you don’t deserve pleasure. Through this process of exploring and making space for pleasure, people are teaching themselves that their pleasure matters, that they are worthy of pleasure and they’re learning to expand their window of tolerance and sit in sensations they don’t believe they deserve.

Is there anything we can do to change our own or our society’s attitudes towards sex and pleasure?

  • Recognising and unlearning limiting social norms as well as recognising the role we each play in maintaining them.

  • Advocating for accurate, critical, inclusive and pleasure-centred sexual education.

  • Calling out and challenging social norms and expectations that harms and excludes LGBTQIA+, disabled people, those that don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty such as those that are Black or brown, those with bigger or fat bodies - things like challenging victim-blaming and holding people accountable for oppression.

  • Practising consent in every experience and learning about the nuances of consent.

What are some ways we can become more comfortable talking about sex and masturbation?

  • With practice - We can all talk about it more often; with friends, colleagues, family, partners, online and normalise that pleasure, sex and masturbation are all okay as long as they are supportive and consensual.

  • Listen to, share and follow podcasts, social media pages, books and resources that discuss accurate information about masturbation and sex and that include a wide range of experiences beyond heterosexual, cis pleasure and bodies. The longer you spend in these sex-critical and pleasure-centred spaces the more you'll learn about diversity sexuality, sex and pleasure; you'll also be encouraged to reflect on your own wants and needs and these topics will be normalised and will begin to feel less and less awkward.

You can find more information and contact Kassandra here:

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