In today’s world, we shame children for normal developmental behaviors and desires. We shame them for how they express who they are and whom they love. As adults, we think that shame will extinguish the we don’t like or don’t want them to feel or think. However, sexual shame doesn’t work that way. Shame is highly correlated with all sorts of negative behaviors including violence, addition, and eating disorders.
Sexual shame over a lifetime may result in people dealing with sexual dysfunctions. Shame can lead to difficulty enjoying sex, lack of sexual desire, engaging in unhealthy relationships, and an inability to give and accept pleasure.
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all — there is no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.Brené Brown in Daring GreatlyThe more insidious results of sexual shaming include compulsive sexual behaviors, intolerably high rates of sexual assault, abuse, domestic violence, unhealthy body image, and eating disorders. Many people deal with one or more of these experiences. These are all fueled to some extent by shame.
The language of sexual shame
Shaming language is everywhere. Our children and teens hear one or a variety of messages that can lead to life-long problems. This is the stuff of sexual shaming:
- Don’t touch yourself down there, it’s dirty.
- Don’t eat that! You will get fat!
- Don’t you think that outfit is a little slutty?
- Sex is dirty and wrong if you’re not married.
- You are too young to be asking about that, go to your room!
- Don’t be such a girl!
- Real men _________
- Only perverts think that way
How to raise a sexually healthy child
Let’s just not use this kind of language. Instead, lets focus on raising sexually healthy children. We start by understanding what normal sexual development looks like. And we move forward by our continued willingness to stare down our discomfort and our own issues with sexuality. We meet every challenge even though it’s uncomfortable, because we are parents and our kids are important.
Here are the ingredients for the special sauce of raising sexually healthy children.
Adjusting Our Attitudes
- Acknowledging they are sexual beings from the moment they are born. Babies get erections and lubricate even before they are born.
- Accepting that teens have sexual feelings and desires. They need you to help them manage those feelings in a healthy way.
- Accepting that people self-pleasure (masturbate) unless told not to. Knowing that attempting to shame people into not masturbating can be harmful.
- Modeling behaviors that help them acquire the skills they need to have healthy relationships (effective communication, generosity, self-care, vulnerability, empathy, setting boundaries, etc).
Teaching them about their bodies
- Naming all their body parts with correct names (nose, elbow, forehead, vulva, penis, buttocks, testicles) from infancy.
- Encouraging love, wonder, awe and appreciation of their body for what it does for them – no matter what it looks like or what level of ability it possess.
- Being honest with them about where babies come from and how they are made. Have this conversation before the age of 8. After that age it just naturally gets harder and more awkward.
- Being respectful of their bodies and giving them power over who touches them and how. Don’t force or shame your kids to hug and kiss if they don’t want to. This is sexual abuse prevention 101!
Encouraging a loving attitude towards themselves and others
- Teaching them about love and relationships – romantic and platonic. Encourage them to trust and be trustworthy, to love and be vulnerable, and to set healthy boundaries.
- Teaching them the importance of physical and emotional self-care.
- Embracing and supporting whom they love and crush on.
- Accepting and affirming their identity by creating an environment where their true selves can thrive. Allowing children the freedom to express and explore various gender expressions is how they figure out who they are. Limiting their sexual identity limits their core selves.
Being honest about sex
- Celebrating that most of the time sex is about responsibility AND pleasure.
- Making sure they have access to good and healthy resources and information to maintain their sexual health.
Trusting their experience
If your child discloses inappropriate sexual behavior believe them and take necessary steps to keep them safe and help them heal.
Where to go from here
This is just setting the stage for raising sexually healthy children. You want to continue having conversations and sharing your values at different ages and stages. Just like everything else, it gets more complicated and nuanced as they get older. You want to be able to help them sort through those complications. Start the conversations early and have them often! They will be more likely to come back to you if you have not made them feel ashamed for what is a natural and integral part of being a human being.