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I grew up associating queer sex with shame. Here’s how I’m unlearning it

Growing up in a religious household was never dull, that’s for damn sure. If like me you’re LGBTQ+ like I am, just existing could be seen as defiance. During my formative years, sin — and the fiery pit it allegedly leads to — was used to teach us who we shouldn’t be, or say, and never do. In Catholic grade school, sex, homosexuality, and eternal damnation were mentioned together so often that as an adult, it’s hard for my mind to separate the three. It’s a flawed and automatic association that happens before common sense has a chance to weigh in. Looking back, as you can imagine, that’s led to some problems surrounding romantic love and intimacy, and shrouded my perspective of sex in shame. Would it be possible to unlearn it all?

Step one, for those earlier in their process: Relinquishing shame starts by knowing where it’s coming from. Mine stemmed from childhood “lessons” that still remain pervasive. “Religious suggestions and teachings come from a seemingly helpful place in that they aim to provide a roadmap for having values, virtues, and how to live a life that will ultimately pay off in eternal peace,” says Dana McNeil, a San Diego-based marriage and family therapist. Unfortunately, however, historically, religion has often been used for less saintly purposes by some — see the English Reformation or Prosperity Theology for a couple of wild examples where using scripture to advance political power or make cold hard cash is clearly wrong.

Even recently, a London church was selling a bogus "coronavirus protection kit". While different, in nature, from linking sex to sin, using religion to prey upon people’s fears is unethical and hugely exploitative. “These people aren’t coming from a loving place. [They are] interpreting religious teachings through a veil of fear,” McNeil says. Recognizing what exploitative rhetoric sounds like is a big part of the journey towards sexual (and other types of) liberation.

An early experience that taught me what shame-free sex is like came from a former roomate. His straight-man-privilege made our dating lives different in a few major ways. One was that he appeared to be less apologetic about enjoying sex; I became of aware of that because I could hear him clearly through our thin bedroom walls. I thought about how I’d always avoided making any noise at all while having sex — which, let’s be real, kind takes some of the fun out of it. But my roommate and his, err, guests always sounded so free, “Is that how everyone sounds? Why don’t I?” I wondered. Turns out I was close to an important self-realization.

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I also hid my sexuality — both my orientation and my identity as an active sexual adult — from my family, who still equate sexuality with sin, for a long time. Sexual intimacy, to me was intrinsically connected to shame. “Shame is the foundational issue, and intimacy suffers as a result of shame,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychotherapist, of my predicament. “Embarrassment can also be a result of shame, as is self-censorship, in effect trying to be invisible and silent.” As for the censorship: I have, at once time, shushed a man mid-hookup. And it quieted his interest in me at exactly the same time.

Today, as someone who identifies as agnostic, I am making steps to be okay with sex and my part in it. Still, talking to a religious figure if I need to doesn’t need to be daunting. “For people who are religious, or even for people who are agnostic and can tolerate talking to religious leaders or attending a church service, find a LGBTQ-welcoming church to visit once or twice to add affirming voices to counterbalance the pathologizing voices,” Pitagoria tells me. Truly, ditching the parts of religion that shame sex doesn’t need to mean ditching spirituality altogether. And oddly enough, sometimes healing involves getting back in the same vehicle that hurt you and intentionally driving it in a different direction.

There are many churches that are doing online services — even my childhood church — and a few may be even better for someone feeling too much shame to go in person. Pitagora suggests a few NY-based places of worship from a list they created for a client dealing with church-installed internalized homophobia and sex-related shame like mine. They include First Corinthian Baptist Church, Church of the Village, and Greenpoint Reformed, a church I used to walk past and never thought of stopping into. Maybe I should have.

But, if you're over religion altogether, I get it. Seek out people you trust, such as respected peers for mutual support and positivity. I do this often. “Talk about the harmful lessons you’re trying to exorcise with them to find validation and a universalization of experience, and replace those messages with as many affirming ones as you can,” Pitagora says.

Intolerance and shame are cyclical, so for the sake of the next generation, pay attention to what messages are still lurking in the present. It’s something I continue to pay attention to: What oppressive norms do I subconsciously perpetuate? Everyone has been socialized in some way, and that sometimes means not being able to “break the intergenerational conspiracy of silence around non-conforming behaviors,” Pitagora says. “Stigma is a form of social control, and internalized homophobia and shame are symptoms of the methodology used by people in power who wield control over others to retain it.”

That’s a heavy reality, but we do have at least come power over his control, should we choose to exercise it. Though deeply rooted, shame can take vigorous work to free yourself, but it’s possible. It took years to unravel the lie that sex for pleasure, for love, for personal enrichment, is wrong.

Private school, Sunday mass, and my family were the Holy Trinity of ideals and “guidelines” that I used to judge myself. Even while researching for this story, I perceived my experience as “abnormal,” which is another roadblock to self-acceptance. “Just because you aren’t thinking about sex or sexuality in the way the adults in your life implied you should does not mean you are broken,” McNeil says. I continue to work to see myself as complete. And I hope that everyone in the same boat, regardless of orientation, can begin to nurture their sexual identities as natural, whole, and worthy of love.