Children growing up in purity culture are massively burdened by sexual shame. This was certainly true for me as a boy raised in religion. Growing up Christian myself, I experienced an incredible amount of shame about my sexuality.
The foundation of purity culture was that all sex outside of a heterosexual marriage was sinful. It was sinful to look at women with desire (aka lust) and it was sinful to even think of someone sexually. Masturbation, porn use, and sexual expression were demonized. Sex education was fear based, focused on scaring us into avoidance and abstinence.
I was a Christian teen who was “on fire” for Jesus and incredibly committed to my church community. And just like other teenagers going through puberty and beyond, I was incredibly sexual. Instead of exploring and celebrating my emerging sexuality, I learned to fight it. I got accountability partners, tried to “bounce my eyes” off of attractive women, and did everything I could do to control my sexual desires.
But my desires were not just going away and I would eventually give into them by watching porn or masturbating. A flood of shame followed. I was in agony after “giving in,” apologizing profusely to God, confessing to others, promising I would change, and hating & punishing myself. This cycle went on for years and I was so caught up in it that I thought I was a porn addict. I took my “recovery” very seriously, suppressing my sexuality for decades. I even wrote a book about it.
What other explanation did I have? Could it be that I was just a normal teenage boy with hormones and a body wired for sex? Could it be that NOTHING was actually wrong with me? Could it be that the only thing wrong was that I was in a religion that shamed me for something completely natural and beautiful? It took a lot of deconstruction and personal work for me to see my story this way.
When you are in it, it is impossible to see. But leaving religion doesn’t necessarily make you see either. When we leave religion, our sexual shame comes with us. We may stop believing in sin or a God who cares about what we do in the bedroom or with our own body. Still, after years of fighting ourselves, we may enter the world feeling ashamed that we know nothing real about sexuality, terrified of exploring our desires, and guilty about expressing ourselves sexually.
If you are a man who resonates with what I have shared here, I invite you to consider joining an online coaching group I am co-leading called Healing Sexual Shame: A Support Group for Men Affected by Toxic Purity Culture.
My colleague Jeremy Schumacher, who is also a religious trauma coach, is joining me in co-leading the group. Here’s Jeremy’s experience and perspective on the topic of religious sexual shame:
“Being raised in a conservative, high-control branch of Christianity, I wasn’t taught anything about sex other than it was bad (like really, really bad) before marriage. This severely impacted my early romantic relationships in a significant way. Working in several different Christian counseling settings, I saw how this lack of information and double punch of guilt and shame negatively affected lots of other people, too. As a therapist, I moved away from these ideas as they ran counter to what research and evidence in the field showed, but it wasn’t until my own deconstruction that I saw how many of these unhealthy thoughts and teachings can linger. The process of healing isn’t just turning away from an unhealthy belief system, it’s more importantly about building something healthy, and learning to nurture that.“
Our Healing Sexual Shame support group begins March 16 and will cover the following topics over 6 weeks:
1. Introductions and religious trauma
2. Sexual Guilt & Shame
4. Porn and Lust
5. Healthy Sexuality
6. Processing and putting it all together
We plan on discussing consent, sex education, body acceptance, and other relevant topics as well. We want to provide a group that is shame-free and supportive. Our time together will be educational and a time of connection. If you are interested in the group, please email me at ForestBenedictLMFT@forestbenedict.com to set up a screening to see if the group is a good fit for you. If you are not able to make this group but are interested in sexual shame coaching or future groups, I invite you to reach out to me.
It is important to note that our Healing Sexual Shame group is not aimed at those who are in purity culture or committed to its values. This group is for those who have deconverted or significantly deconstructed from religion and want to learn about what sexuality can look like that is not based in religious shame.
Whether you are interested in the group or not, I want you to know that religious sexual shame can be healed. It is a challenge to unlearn many things we have been taught, often from a young age, about sexuality and ourselves. We will need to compassionately take ourselves by the hand as we learn all of the basics and beyond. It may require therapy to release the sexual shame embedded in our nervous system. We will feel like beginners as we take uncomfortable new steps. But all the work is worth it. We can be free sexual beings. Our sexuality can become a source of great joy rather than deep shame.
May we all find the freedom and healing we need and deserve.
In compassionate support,
Forest Benedict, LMFT
Religious Trauma Therapist & Coach