Recently I was introduced to a new concept called “Trauma Shame”. Trauma shame, which is taking its rightful place in the trauma lexicon, happens from persistent sexual shaming messages that are thrust upon children and adolescents, as part of a conservative religious upbringing, such as that of Evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah Witnesses, who all participate in some version of the “purity movement”. Other socially repressive cultures, such as some Muslim and Indian sects, also partake in this systematic shaming.
Linda Kay Klein, a survivor of the Evangelical movement, talks about the impact of the purity movement on women’s sexuality, in her eye opening and provocative new book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shaped a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. This is mandatory reading if you grew up receiving any of this religious dogma and are struggling with your sexuality.
What’s really profound about this book is that the author interviewed dozens of women who also left the Evangelical movement, and recounts their stories as well as her own. What emerges is a pattern of shame trauma, shutting women down from their sexuality and their pleasure, causing numerous sexual problems, including body shame, anxiety around sex, painful sex, and inability to orgasm. Not surprisingly, many of these women also had other physical ailments, such as fibromyalgia, panic attacks, and depression.
I immediately related to the panic attacks that many women experienced when having sex or thinking about it, and what author Klein termed “Sexual Shame PTSD” episodes. Reading this section of the book brought me right back to unhappy memories of visiting my high school boyfriend at his College in upstate New York, lying in his dorm room bed, with the room spinning, and running to the bathroom every few minutes.
At the time I thought I had a stomach virus which conveniently showed up whenever I went to visit him. I know now that I was in the middle of a full-blown panic attack because I assumed he wanted to have sex with me. Just that thought, which triggered anxiety and body memories of tolerating painful intercourse, threw my whole nervous and digestive system into disarray for days at a time.
The book also talks about how the conditioning both men and women receive about desire, suffering, and the binary gender roles that are taught and modeled, is also responsible for the widespread sexual trauma shame that women experience.
I regularly see the aftermath of this social conditioning, when I hear my female clients tell me that they feel guilty not having sex with their partner, even though it’s not pleasurable or comfortable. Many women just clench their teeth, and grin and bear it, feeling like it’s their “wifely” duty. This is a common refrain that I hear from women of all ages, races, and religious backgrounds.
Another “aha” moment I had from reading Pure was a better understanding of the origins of rape culture and the objectification and sexualization of women at the hands of men. Klein explains that in the Evangelical movement, women are socialized to fear their bodies (hence discomfort with sex, body image, masturbation) and men are socialized to fear their minds and inability to control their animalistic desires (hence making it a women’s fault if she is raped). This is not in any way to excuse this behavior, but having a better sense of where this conditioning come from provides the opportunity to address and correct this damaging false belief.
While most of this book focuses on women’s sexuality, there is some mention of trauma shame that men also experience. I have seen this myself in male clients who feel guilty engaging in fantasy or using porn, believing that would be cheating on their partner. Many men also have a hard time exploring their own sexuality and touching themselves, outside of masturbation. In many ways they are just as sexually shut down as women.
All of this sexual shame conditioning, which is heaped on both men and women in the Evangelical movement, makes it very challenging to have a healthy sexual relationship. Just like it took decades for these messages to be imprinted, it will also take a period of time to undo the damage. The place to start is to acknowledge its impact and share your stories and experiences with others. Knowing that there are so many others in similar situations, will help reduce the feeling of isolation and normalize your experience, which is the first step towards healing.