All Episodes

  

Have feedback? Want to be a guest on the podcast? Questions, comments or concerns? Contact us here.

Love the podcast? Leave a review!

Let's Get Intimate!

Episode 7: The Power of Sexual Healing (1/2)

Sexual shame is a global issue, but it turns out that in the US it’s “even worse that we thought it was.” From religion to media, in school and at home, we are bombarded messages about our sexuality that can be subtle yet extremely damaging to ourselves and our relationships. How do we cure sexual shame in order to reclaim not only pleasure but above all else- our mental health and wellbeing? Dr. Tina Schermer is the author of the book “Sex, God and the Conservative Church,” founder of the Northwest Institute of Intimacy, and an advocate for Positive Sexuality. Show Notes! Follow us on Instagram! Facebook BBXX website Sign up for our digital “book” club — a twice-weekly curation of the best digital content about identity, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships!

Sasza
Well, everybody we are here today with Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, thanks so much for joining us.

Tina
Yes, thanks for having me.

Sasza
So, Tina is the author of the book “Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy” and I had the pleasure of seeing her as a speaker at a sec a sect annual conference and the topic of that was sexual shame in the United States and how it’s so much worse than we realize. So, I’d just like to tell you because I think we can all say that there is so much shame perhaps associated with the church and all of that, but even going back a step from that and from my own personal experiences. How much shame is there even outside of the Catholic Church, outside religion in general. I was raised with somewhat of a religious background but would not by any means call me religious and I went to a high school in San Francisco California, had no sex education and would say looking back even calling my experience a neutral one. The way that my experiences were shaped in my mind was shamed the consequences were actually much more negative than positive. So, in what sense is that kind of that one of the problems we have that the standard kind of been neutral is actually this negative culture of shame?

Tina
Right, that’s a fabulous question. You know, I think a lot of people think that it is the religiosity that creates the shame but actually what we find and what I’ve seen clinically, it’s a combination of being denied access to sexual knowledge which has been rampant for people for over the last 30 years. You know, we began withdrawing sex education in the United States with our abstinence only education programs, which began in the early 80s and so we were denying kids access to sexual knowledge. So, that is a huge aspect of what begins sexual shame because you don’t know what is right, you don’t know what is true, and so silence and denial of sexual knowledge and then if you are shamed for your sexual curiosity as you’re growing up. So, every or just about every 2 year-old or 18 month old is going to find their pleasure places in between their legs, while they’re taking a bath, getting their diaper changed or whatever and if the adult around them was also shamed for finding their pleasure places, their reaction is likely to be “Don’t do That” you know, slaps our hand away or get upset with them. And then when they’re five and they’re with their cousin or their friend or whatever and they’re like: “Oh here look at my body is different than yours”. [Laughs] And they’re poking at each other and playing doctor and somebody finds them doing that and gets all upset with them. Then, there’s shame again and many times kids have shaming experiences, several shaming experiences that they don’t even remember but what sits inside of them is this sense that “I’m not okay, something is bad about me that has to do with my body”. They are naturally acting from a place of natural curiosity but somebody that they love gets super super angry with them and they have no idea why they’re getting in trouble because they’re just doing something that’s super normal and natural. So, they don’t understand why this person is getting so angry but they know it has to do with them but what they assumed is; it’s the them the whole of them, right. And so, you have this combination of denial of access of information that continues through their whole life, really their whole growing up years and then you have people getting really upset with them. And then, the only other thing that we end up providing kids that have to do with sexual information is what the media provides, which really is we sell people and we sell bodies and it’s a very skewed idea of what bodies and sexuality are what makes them valuable, what makes people valuable. And so regardless of whether it’s religious or not, it leaves that people feeling shame. Now what religion can add to that is it can add the message that if you do a B C or D, God will be disappointed with you or will not love you, or you know some other kind of message can get tacked on to it.

Sasza
Right, and I remember there’s one part in which you mentioned that kind of people are shamed for; and you don’t use the word sexuality, you use the word humaneness and I thought that was incredible to kind of think of it in that way as it really is. One of the most human things ever like the way in which human beings are sexual is what makes us different from other animals, the way that we procreate is through sex and sexuality. So by then relating it back to just our humaneness and that being something that is shamed, I think from that perspective it makes so much more sense or so much less sense and that people can begin to kind of understand how backwards that is, rather than with this cultural norm that we’re currently experiencing. And I think to also catch up our listeners a bit and if you had a comment on that.

Tina
Well you know, I think probably the context with which I was talking about that in is when you think about it, we are hardwired for connection and pleasure and our sexuality is a part of that process, that mechanism if you will. We’re born or come out of the womb and we’re immediately seeking connection and pleasure, we’re seeking the breast, we’re seeking the body of the mother and we’re rooting. That’s the turning of the head towards the mother, towards the breast and it’s not because we’re hungry, because the milk doesn’t come down for two or three days. We are seeking that connection, we’re seeking that pleasure, we’re seeking that smell. That is we’re hardwired for that connection and pleasure, we know that if little children, infants and toddlers if they don’t get enough tactile loving touch, they’ll actually have neurological damage. You can walk down the halls of an Alzheimer’s unit and people who don’t even have memory will still be seeking connection and pleasure with other humans. And it’s one of the challenges for people who care for people in Alzheimer’s unit is how to manage people who are seeking connection and pleasure, actual sexual relationships with other people who they’re living with because it is so hardwired in that. So unlike other animals that might come into heat let’s say at particular times of the month or of the year or whatever, we actually are not just procreating at particular times, we actually are seeking connection and pleasure throughout our lives and some of those times it might be have to do with having procreation, but very very rarely. Does it have to do with procreation? Most of the time it has to do with connection and pleasure because we are a bonding creature and that is where our humaneness is. That’s what it has to do with.

Sasza
You making it so incredible really to define it the most human thing about us is connection, and also that this kind of shocking scientific argument behind that. But you know as infants before we’ve developed conscientiousness or after with Alzheimer’s kind of the evidential proof of that, this is hard wiring if you take away that aspect and people are still seeking that same thing. I think that’s incredible, so jumping a bit into the book but to set the scene a little bit for our listeners, if you could just maybe define exactly how does one define sexual shame?

Tina
That’s a great question we actually didn’t have an operational definition that came out of research until a little over a year ago, and it actually one of our PhD students at the university, that I teach at Seattle Pacific University who had been following my work, actually wanted to do research on religious sexual shame and got into the literature and realized; we didn’t have an operational definition for sexual shame. So, she ended up doing that research so we had that foundational definition in place and. So, if this is out of the work of Noel Clarke and the operational definition that came out of her work says that: “Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being, and a belief of being abnormal, inferior and unworthy this feeling can be internalized. But also manifests in interpersonal relationships having a negative impact on trust, communication and physical and emotional intimacy. Sexual shame develops across the lifespan in interactions with interpersonal relationships, one’s culture and society and subsequent critical self-appraisal”. So what that’s describing is? It creates this continuous feedback loop. So like I said, it originally begins usually very very young, between the child and a really important other whether they’re getting shamed for something that they don’t understand. Something very natural and so then it creates this internal critic that says: “Something’s really bad about me”. And then it happens again and then it reinforces that sense that something’s really bad. So this internal critic gets going and then the very next time that something happens that feels at all slightly negative, then that reinforces the internal critic. So now you have this feedback loop that just gets reinforced throughout their life that happens between them and someone else and then reinforces the internal critic. Then it goes on to say there is also a fear and uncertainty related to once power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions related to sexual encounters along with an internalized judgment toward one’s own sexual desire. And this is something that we see a lot I think clinically, it was reinforced and Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Se, navigating the new landscape that just came out in 2017, where we see across the United States a we have lots and lots of young women feeling very powerful in every single area of their life, and tell they go out for the evening and they’ll put down three, four or five shots of alcohol. Simply because they don’t feel like they have the right to keep themselves safe at night or that they can keep themselves safe at night when they go out, and it’s what we saw in our scene with the Me too movement.

Sasza
Yeah, I think that has such profound consequences in terms of the… as you mentioned The Me Too Movement and consent with that definition. I’d love to see through your work the people you’ve worked with in the transformations that they’ve had. If you could kind of paint the picture of with that definition of sexual shame, what does that sound like? what does that voice sound like? what does that person struggle look like?

Tina
Yeah, well I’ll give you an example of an email that I got a while back and just so that your listeners can have a sense of how it might manifest in someone’s life in, and this is a like “Muh”. I wouldn’t want to say a little more extreme except it’s not really, but this is somebody who it’s affecting them at this particular moment in their life in a way that feels extreme for them. And yet, I want to say that this is somebody who’s healing is very very possible and they did heal and moved through their process of healing and I talk about an evidence-based healing model in my book, and ways in which not only can you apply the model but actual practices that people can do to heal. But here’s how the email came across initially: “Hi Tina, I do not know what to say other than to ask if you can help me. I’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong with my sexuality. My whole life, I grew up in the church and I always had this view that God would send me a husband or whatever. When it was his will or when I finally became the sort of person he wanted me to be, I felt so much pressure to be good but I was never good enough, you know I’m only human. I see this now but at the time, it was not clear at all. I’m 25 now and unsurprisingly, God has still not sent me anyone yet. I’m honestly not religious anymore but I still suffer from the insanely messed up sexuality I imagine I got from my upbringing, I think my mother had something to do with it because she is the sweetest person I know, but I think she passed on this dismissive romantic idea to me. I think this combination of ultra-religious, sex is bad and something dismissive has led me to think the way that I do. In addition, I cannot believe I did not even start to realize I was so messed up until about a year ago. Now, I think about it all the time, I know I am a sexual person and I can think about sex and fantasize about it normally, but when it comes to acting on anything I close off and feel nearly numb. I am still a virgin and I have little experience with much else and I cannot honestly imagine that changing. I have guys that I’m attracted to and I feel sexual in an abstract sense but I never feel the desire to kiss anyone much less do anything else. I hate it, it plagues me. Not to mention the shame I feel now from not even being able to measure up to the idea the non-Christian world has about somebody’s sexuality. I feel like such a failure, I want so badly to be in a healthy relationship but I think I’m too dysfunctional for it, I can’t imagine anyone would want to put up with this part of me. I mean even if I did decide to power through and try to have sex with somebody had cared about, it’s not as if I would suddenly be normal. I’m not sure I could ever get over this, I mean I kissed a guy once and I couldn’t deal with it emotionally. My body had such a strong reaction, it closed itself off completely and I never contacted that guy again. I do not know if I can explain what it felt like, it was not at all enjoyable and I just felt this profound blankness. After, I wanted to hide my head in my hands and I could not handle it. I was fine with talking and cuddling but even kissing was too far, too sexual. Can you understand what I’m trying to say? Anyway, that is where I am now, sorry if it is strange that I’m writing you this, but I just don’t know who else to talk to and it’s 1:30 in the morning and all I want is to be well. I’m seeing a therapist now but she does not seem comfortable with sex and I don’t really feel comfortable talking about this with her anyway. I know I need help talking, I also do not think that she could understand the influence my religion has had on me. I really need help, please tell me what to do. I do not want to be like this anymore”.

Sasza
People truly feel that maybe they’re the only one going through this, that this isn’t you know normal.

Tina
Right, yeah.

Sasza
Quote un quote “they weren’t normal”.

Tina
Yeah, that’s a big part of that.

Sasza
Not realizing that’s a part of being alone.

Tina
Yes.

Sasza
That sadly this is much more common than it should be, and secondly the fact that a lot of therapists who you know people think of as professionals to deal with whatever humaneness is. But as we just discovered sexuality being a huge part of what makes us human that even therapists themselves are often not equipped for this type of thing. So, what does that really say about again like my values of our culture and the educational system in general [Laughs].

Tina
It’s really true and I’m so glad that you brought that up but you know that was part of why I wrote the book, you know. I wrote the book both for people like this, for people who have been affected by abstinence-only education or by being in the church as well because it’s just filled with story, after story, after story. But I also wrote it to the therapist or the clinician who doesn’t know how to walk alongside somebody like this because they never got the training. Because we don’t provide that training in any of the graduate programs across the United States, unless you go get specialized training in sexuality. It’s just not there and most people don’t realize that. But like this young woman figured out, she could feel it, she could feel the uncomfortableness of her therapist, and most people can eventually feel that from their therapist or their physician. And I’m such a proponent of seeing to the students; the marriage of helm therapy students that I teach, you must go on and get advanced training in sexuality, you must. You are not done learning until you go on and get more training, it is critical that you know more about sexuality and the interface of sexuality and religion in people’s lives because it can be profound in their lives. You’ve got to understand that.

Sasza
Yeah, and I think what’s so interesting again to acknowledge that this young woman didn’t even come from what we would call like a negative background, she didn’t even explicitly say anything about you know abstinence-only education like coming from what could possibly be really a mild upbringing and having these consequences.

Tina
Right.

Sasza
When I only then imagined like this is truly not even an extreme case, this is quite common. And so then if we think to the abstinence-only programs, these viral YouTube videos you know of the people who try and get around either some of the videos about the truly terrible and horrific things said and done in these abstinence-only education programs. Or you know, the kind of people are trying to help get around it by showing the sock on, the shoe condom on. So, for those kind of people in those extreme situations but also again for just I think anybody who could easily be experiencing shame outside of religion. You have this framework that you talk about the four elements of healing the righteous sexual shame.

Tina
Right.

Sasza
So yeah, how would we then kind of prescribe and strategically use that framework to try and help somebody this type of situation.

Tina
Well again, I really recommend getting my book because it goes over how we got here you know, how this happened so people understand that this was a history that was never meant to happen and that really helps people understand; “Oh my goodness I just… I was actually taught the wrong thing” And we weren’t actually never meant to be sex-negative as a culture, as well as the church that helps people understand they can still hold on to their faith if they have a faith they want to hold on to. You can still hold on to it and be true to it, but the framework I call it “Getting out of the mess”, that the model for erasing sexual shame and its frame name claim a name. And frame is get yourself a framework of solid sex education and I have on my website and the website of the institute that I run which is
www.nwioi.com which is North West Institute On Intimacy, there is resource page that has books on sex education that you can look at, read, understand you body. You need to have, it’s like your vocabulary, you need to understand your body, that’s the framework. The naming is telling your story and part of what the book is for, is getting in a book group and read it with other people and having a place to talk about: here’s what happened to me, here’s my story. We also started a website myself and a bunch of students, about 5 years ago called www.thankgodforsex.org, where there’s about 30 people telling their story on video. It’s kind of like the “It Gets Better Project” that Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller started for gay kid, I don’t even know 10 or 15 years ago and that’s a great place to hear stories but tell your story; find out that you’re not alone, that you know almost everybody has sexual shame if you grew up in the United States, if you didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in a family where talking about sexuality all time was an okay, good thing to do and then claim is learning to claim your body as a good wonderful wholesome thing regardless of its shape and size, we’re told constantly that our body is not good enough exactly the way it is. Simply so that we go out and buy more crap as far as I’m concerned, or change it in some way. I was just talking to my daughter’s she’s 27, yesterday last night and she was saying that she’s got friends already talking about Botox and surgeries at 27, you know. And this is what we’re sold all the time and it’s ridiculous and it’s terrible and what? So other corporations and corporate CEOs get rich, I mean it’s ridiculous. So, that’s claim… that’s a frame name and claim and then when we do those three things, we begin to aim which is write a new sexual legacy for ourselves; that is sex positive that we love, that we live into and that we pass on to others that no longer has that sexual shame in it and we begin to claim our lives loud, bold and clear. And we changed this BS that we have been in for generations because we deserve that, our sexuality is one of the most vital, dynamic, luscious, powerful part of ourselves and we deserve to have it, and have it out loud and stop having people tell us that it’s bad and dirty or whatever, because it’s not it’s vibrant and it’s wonderful and it can be so good. I mean I think it’s one of the most wonderful gifts we have as humans and the fact that we’ve got people around us that tell us that it’s perverted. Yes, it can be used to hurt people definitely but it also can be used to heal us and heal our world, and we just don’t have those messages out there. 

Sasza
I think that’s so incredible what you said kind of about the power and impact of it and I also just think it’s so incredible how this framework, yes for healing sexual shame but literally for anybody.

Tina
Right.

Sasza
And guys just for identity in general. I don’t… I can’t imagine there’s a single person who couldn’t be a benefit from this and using it for not even any insecurities, but just developing their own identity, connecting with themselves and living a more true version of themselves through this, it seems just like incredible thing to do and it should be taught everywhere.

Tina
Right, Yes. 

Our conversation with Dr. Schermer was so good that this is the first episode in a two part series!

Tina Schermer Sellers is the author of the book Sex, God and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy and an Associate Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and Director of Medical Family Therapy at the Seattle Pacific University.

Sexual shame is an issue that many of us deal with at some point in our lives, as it is ever present in the messages we receive from our family, the media, and our faith/religion. In this episode, Tina lays out a blueprint of sexual shame – where it comes from, how we can heal from our past in order to accept our humanness, and how we can have a positive and empowering view of our sexuality.

The Culture of Shame

Many believe that religiosity creates shame, however, Tina’s research has concluded that “abstinence-only” sex education denies youth necessary sexual knowledge, and this lack of information coupled with shame for sexual curiosity equates to adolescents who don’t know how to relate to sex and sexuality in healthy ways. This knowledge vacuum allows for misleading ideas about sex and bodies projected by the media. What religion can add to that, is the message: “If you do A, B, C or D” God will be disappointed in you, or will not love you”.

Many times kids have several shaming experiences that they don’t even remember, but what sits inside of them is that sense that “I am not ok, something is bad about me that has to do with my body”

The Importance of Connection

Tina asserts, “We are hardwired for connection and pleasure” of which our sexuality is a huge factor. The most human thing about us is connection.

We actually are seeking connection and pleasure throughout all of our lives… because we are bonding creatures, that is where our humanness is.

Sexual Shame

From Noel Clark: “Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust towards our own body and identity as a sexual being, as well as the belief of being abnormal, inferior, or unworthy. This feeling can be internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships, having a
negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy
. Sexual shame develops across the life span.”

Feedback Loop

Beginning very young, children learn shame from their caretaker(s) by feeling ashamed for something they don’t understand, despite it being natural, so those feelings of shame tell them whatever they’re doing is very bad. This continues throughout one’s formative years, reinforcing
that something is really bad.

There is also a fear and uncertainty related to one’s power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions regarding sexual encounters and internalized judgement towards our own sexual
desire.

This book is for people who have been affected by abstinence-only sex education and conservative church doctrine as well as therapists, or clinicians, who have not been exposed to the church culture. Tina discusses how we got here and how it happened, so that people understand the history and that this was never meant to happen.

We were never meant to be sex negative.

Getting Out of the Mess

The model for erasing sexual shame is to: Frame, Name, Claim, and Aim

  1. Frame: Begin by getting yourself a framework with solid sex education.
    Resources:
    tinaschermersellers.com
    North West Institute of Intimacy : a resource page with books and sex ed that you can access.
    thankgodforsex.org: 30 people telling their stories on video. Is like the It Gets Better Project, but for sexual shame.
  2. Name: Put names and language behind your body and your story: “Tell your story, find out that you are not alone, that almost everybody has sexual shame.”
  3. Claim: “Learn to claim your body as a good, wonderful, wholesome thing, regardless of it shapes and size. We are told constantly that our body is not good enough exactly the way it is, simply for us to go and buy more crap.” After we do those three things, we begin to aim!
  4. Aim: Creating a new sexual legacy for ourselves which is sex positive and that we can pass onto others. This legacy has no sexual shame and will allow us to claim our sexual lives so that we can live boldly and change our culture for generations to come. This is what we deserve.

Our sexuality is one of the most vital, dynamic, luscious, and powerful parts of ourselves and we deserve to have it, and have it out loud and stop having people tell us that is bad and dirty or whatever, because it is not. It is vibrant, it is wonderful, and it can be so good. It is one of the most wonderful gifts we have as humans. We can use it to heal ourselves and our world, and we don’t have those messages out there.

Recommendation: Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein

About the Expert

Tina Schermer

Dr. Tina Schermer is a sex educator, author, therapist, and speaker who provides tools and resources that help free people from sexual shame. She is the author of the book "Sex, God and the Conservative Church," founder of the Northwest Institute of Intimacy, and an advocate for Positive Sexuality.

book+club+man-+contrast

Join the club!

A weekly curation of the best digital media content (podcasts, TedTalks, documentaries, etc) to help you better understand yourself through the lens of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.

We respect your privacy.