No shame: Why we need to talk about sex

You can’t miss it, when I’m embarrassed. The heat crawls up my face to advertise to the whole room that I feel self-conscious. Blushing is my tell and it is capricious in its treachery, only drawing more attention to my mortification.

I spend my life talking about sex and bodies – a subject that has been traditionally treated as something to blush and squirm about. I write and speak publicly to make the case that sexual wellbeing is a right, and that our social shame and taboo about sex contribute directly to the sexual violence I see in my day job as a criminal lawyer.

Australians need to talk more about sex and not feel shame.Credit:iStock

On a near daily basis, I participate in respectful, healthy, embarrassment-free discourse about sexuality and relationships. I was on a flight last weekend blithely chatting with the person next to me about how my early sexual experiences had been shaped by my education, as she told me about the way she had supported her own kids’ sex ed.

I was occasionally conscious of our proximity to others, but carried on anyway, so important it is for such conversations not be pushed into private spaces, relegated to hushed tones and euphemisms. I’ve even written a whole book about this stuff.

Recently, however, I found myself on a stage speaking to a group of young people about how unhelpful it was for them to grow up seeing the adults in their life get embarrassed about sex, learning that it is something to be ashamed of – when a familiar feeling came over me.

“If the adults in your life are shy and embarrassed about even just the words, like sex,” I began.

Uh oh. I felt the colour come across my face, unbidden.

“Penis,” I continued, trying not to think about it as I looked out at a sea of faces staring back at me, expressionless.

“Vagina,” I persisted, a nice shade of scarlet by this point.

“Orgasms…” Now I was contemplating fishing out the face mask still floating around in my handbag, just to cover my chops.

By the end you could have fried an egg on one of my cheeks. Nice one. Way to stay on message, I internally scolded my epidermis for betraying me.

As I say to the young people I speak to: feeling embarrassed to talk about sex and our bodies is not something innate – we are taught to feel that shame from a frighteningly young age. I have seen countless primary school kids, as young as five, giggle at the words penis and vagina, insisting they are ‘naughty’.

These social norms are so deeply embedded that, even when you actively try to resist, the shame still comes calling sometimes. The idea that the subject of sex is, by nature, impolite and dirty, is dangerous.

It took me a very long time to give voice to the sexual harassment I had experienced from my forty-something manager in one of my first jobs, when I was still in high school. Even as an adult, in my late twenties I found myself unable to tell someone close to me what I had experienced.

It wasn’t that I did not want to, it was that I physically couldn’t. Something was keeping the words from coming out, like one of those medieval torture instruments holding my tongue down.

Such is the power of shame.

I remember trying to explain to my closest schoolmates what was going on at the time but, too mortified to repeat the things he had said to me, feebly I settled for, “He just makes me uncomfortable.” If I couldn’t communicate about it to the people I felt safest with, how on earth was I meant to say anything to him? One time, I managed to squeak: “does your wife know you talk to me like this?”

It was my one attempt at standing up for myself, and it did exactly nothing to stop it, for he knew he could count on my silence.

I look back now and think my younger self quite brave in that moment, and I am proud of her. I only wish she’d had a better chance – that she hadn’t grown up in a world that left her to fend for herself in a vacuum of power and a deficit of knowledge. I wish instead that she had grown up in a world that normalised sexual wellbeing as something she was entitled to, something she could feel confident putting words around. A world that articulated the difference between positive sexual experiences and negative, abusive ones – rather than one where anything and everything sexual was collapsed into the one shameful shadow.

If we want all of us to have better expectations of our sexual experiences, to safeguard our own and each other’s sexual wellbeing, we must put down our weapons of silence and shame.

We have to talk about it. So I’ll be writing regularly about sex, sexuality, bodies, relationships and society – but you won’t just hear from me. I’ll bring you ideas and advice from experts and those with relevant lived experience as well. We can explore these topics together, navigating our way through the serious, the meaningful, the fun and the joyful.

At least in print, nobody will see me blushing.

Katrina Marson is the author of Legitimate Sexpectations: the power of sex-ed, and works as a criminal lawyer in the justice system. She writes regularly for this masthead about sex and relationships.

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