Sexual Guilt and Shame

Sexual guilt or shame refers to a feeling of grave responsibility and deep remorse associated with participation in or even thoughts and fantasies about sexual activity.

Individuals who feel guilt related to sex or particular sexual activities generally believe that sex (or a specific sex act) is immoral, sinful or unclean.

The understanding of guilt associated with sexual activities began with the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

While many people, including many psychologists and psychiatrists, reject a Freudian approach, his ideas are of interest as a starting point for understanding sexual guilt. Freud maintained that libido, or the sexual instinct, is one of the core drives in human behavior and personality formation.

Sexual Shame: Message From Birth

From birth, a child receives messages from its parents about what are and are not acceptable ways of expressing sexual desire, as well as messages about approved or disapproved attitudes toward sexual issues.

These social hindrances on the free and open expression of basic desires contribute to the formation of three distinct aspects of the human personality, according to Freud.

First, there is the id, a combination of the most primitive drives and the psychic energy needed to initiate actions designed to satisfy these desires, including the desire for sex.

Next, there is the ego, which refers to an executive function in the human mind that takes in information from the body's sense organs about the external world and directs the day-to-day fulfillment of sexual and other desires in socially acceptable and achievable ways.

Finally, there is the superego, consisting of the learned and internalized social standards of behavior received from parents and others, including an understanding of banned or punishable behaviors.

The superego is our conscience; it consists of internally held values about what is right and commendable, on the one hand, and what is wrong and condemnable on the other. Transgression of superego standards leads to guilt feelings as well as to a sense of remorse, anger directed at oneself, and a loss of self-esteem. These transgressions need not be actual behaviors, such as participation in banned sexual activities. They may occur in dreams or fantasies as well.