What Is Sexual Repression?

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What Is Sexual Repression?

Sexual Repression

Sexual repression occurs when a person prevents themselves from feeling/experiencing natural sexual urges and desires.

A person with sexual repression harbors negative beliefs and feelings towards sex which may be conscious or unconscious. Sexually repressed people may consider sex, sexual desires, or sexual feelings bad, shameful, or wrong.

Sexual repression is a phenomenon that has been observed and reported in many different countries and cultures for centuries. However, very little research has been done to better understand this state.

This guide will take a look into sexual repression, causes of this behavior, as well as symptoms that can suggest a person is sexually repressed. It will also examine systems in society that worsen the chances of developing this trait, and possible methods to overcome sexual repression.

Causes of Sexual Repression

In many cultures, religions, and societies, sex has long been treated as a taboo subject. These belief systems have punished and judged sexual acts and desires as shameful acts that should be avoided, shut down, or only allowed in specific situations.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) hypothesized that sexual repression could contribute to emotional distress and mental health challenges including sex-related fear, anxiety, shame, and guilt. The negative impact of sexual repression continues to be studied and researched for greater understanding.

Sexual repression may be caused by any of the factors discussed below.

Society’s Treatment of Sex

In societies and communities where sex is a taboo topic, it may only be spoken of in condemnation. This is sometimes the case in strict religious environments.  

When a young person reaches puberty, their body will go through many changes that will trigger curiosity about sex. Ideally, adolescents and teens may begin to ask questions about these new changes and feelings. However, where their environment treats sex as a taboo subject, they may begin to view sex and sexuality in a negative light. A persistent negative view of sex may lead to sexual repression.

Past Traumatic Encounters

People who have experienced sexual trauma may view the act of sex or any form of sexual intimacy from a negative, fearful, or avoidant perspective. Curious or open feelings towards sex may be shut down and a survivor of sexual trauma may repress sexual thoughts and desires as a way to cope.

Sex or thoughts of sex may trigger the trauma of past experiences and if not addressed and tended to, may lead to sexual repression as a means of coping and attempted self-protection.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Signs of Sexual Repression

In human beings, sexual interest and curiosity may develop from a very young age. Repulsion to intimate encounters may also begin during childhood and adolescence.

Although controversial, Freud believed that children between the ages of 6 and 12 could begin to repress their feelings of sexuality and arousal in response to influences causing them to react to sex as disgusting, shameful, or immoral.

These feelings may then be concretized in adulthood, causing poor adjustment to sexual feelings and situations.

A person may be sexually repressed without even knowing it. This state of mind is easily covered up under devotion to religion, or moral uprightness. A sexually suppressed person may exhibit the following behaviors:

Discomfort Around Sex or Discussions of the Subject

One of the easiest markers of sexual repression is unease around sexual matters. A person may find that they are embarrassed and unable to maintain their composure during talks about sex. 

Of course, it is common for most people to feel a mild degree of discomfort around openly discussing sex. However, symptoms of sexual repression can include strong emotional and/or physical responses when sex is discussed. These symptoms may include active avoidance, feelings of anxiety or shame, or depression resulting in functional impairment.

It's also common for someone who is sexually repressed to feel anxious before or even during the act of sex for no identifiable reason.

Guilt or Shame Following Sex

Repression can take away the joy and pleasure commonly associated with sex. Instead, overwhelming grief may occur when a repressed person gives in to sex or thoughts of being intimate with other people. Tears, shame at submitting to desires, and repulsion with oneself are all traits exhibited when sexually repressed.

Difficulty Finding Pleasure in Sex

When a person has been raised to see sex as something shameful and inappropriate, it can be difficult to enjoy or be present during the act of intimacy. People struggling with sexual repression will often endure, rather than enjoy intercourse with partners. This can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness between sexual partners. It can also form an unhealthy relationship to sex.

Discomfort With Nudity

While people may feel some degree of discomfort looking at naked images for a number of reasons, a greater degree of distress may be observed in sexually repressed individuals. This may be due to feelings of guilt and shame about having sexual desires or arousal.

Suppressed sexuality can cause a person to view the nude form as immoral, bad, or wrong, and can spike self-consciousness, judgment, and distress or unease.

Consequences of Sexual Repression

When feelings of shame and despair are correlated with a healthy, natural, and safe sexual behavior such as mindful masturbation, this can produce negative sexual, emotional, and even physical effects. 

The individual or combined efforts of religious doctrine, family influence, and other factors can contribute to the suppression of sexual freewill. These can produce very damaging results such as:

Negative Feelings Towards Sex

Looking at a partner, or someone sexually and physically attractive can result in feelings of sexual arousal and curiosity. Common and healthy reactions to these feelings may be signs of physical arousal, a brief sexual fantasy, or even masturbation.

However, when these reactions are experienced by a person struggling with sexual repression, it may cause feelings of confusion, shame, humiliation, or judgment and self-deprecation. It may even cause projections of anger or blame towards the source of arousal.

Repression can cause shame at the body’s acknowledgment of sexual stimulation. Thoughts of masturbation or engaging in the act can lead to considerable distress. This may spark conflicting feelings towards intimate sessions.

Moral Confusion May Spring Up

When sexual repression is rooted in religious teachings or doctrine, experiencing physical arousal or thoughts in response to sexual scenarios may cause internal conflict and distress.

Sexual suppression can cause internal struggles as to whether or not a person feels they are good, holy, or pure enough when sexual thoughts and desires arise. Puritanical belief systems may have people categorizing their natural physical responses and sexual desires as a sin, causing concern and worry about their moral or religious standing. This can result in stress, anxiety, and depression.

Because these feelings are categorized as sin, a person may worry about their moral standing.

Pain During Sex

Repression usually causes a lot of fear and tension during sex. This may be irrespective of the level of comfort felt with a sexual partner or the amount of ease during intercourse.

For women, this tension can manifest as vaginismus—a condition where the vaginal walls tighten in fear of penetration of any kind.

Difficulty During Sexual Performance

Ideally, sex should be a pressure-free, mutually consensual exploration between willing partners. However, when guilt and shame stemming from sexual repression is triggered, this can cause strain during intimate moments.

Performance anxiety, embarrassment, and unhappiness, guilt, or shame about doing something "wrong" can affect performance, presence, connection, and enjoyment in intimate moments.

Suppressed Sexual Orientation

Within certain religions or cultures, the only acceptable form of sexual intercourse is between a man and a woman. Because of this restricting and judgmental teaching, a person may feel shame, anger, or disgust towards themselves, the feelings of arousal they may experience in response to a person of the same gender, or project their negative feelings towards others who are freely enjoying the experiences they wish they could.

Being unable to express a natural attraction to others can lead to questions about sexuality. It can also cause disappointment during sexual encounters. 

How to Manage Sexual Repression

Sexual repression can be born from physical, emotional, and mental encounters. These effects must be carefully tended to and undone.

Ultimately, the aim is to promote the odds of having enjoyable encounters around sex.

A person who has struggled with sexual repression may eventually find pleasure, relaxation, and enjoyment with sex and intimacy. On this path to healing, they may consider treatment methods such as those listed below.

Recognizing the Possibility of Repressed Traits

We can't change something without first acknowledging that it needs to be changed. When a person is able to see the impact sexual repression has on their life and is ready to respond to sex and intimacy differently, then the opportunity for change becomes possible.

By accepting, acknowledging, and expanding awareness around the different ways sexual repression can arise and impact their life, a person can avoid denying its effects and open up to the possibility of healing and change. This can be an important first step for a healthier and more aligned relationship with one's sexual feelings, beliefs, and experiences.

Receive Support in Healing From Sexual Repression

Therapy is trusted when it comes to managing many matters of well-being. An expert can help with identifying the triggers of repression, and factors that encourage its continued effects.

In addition to addressing repressed sexual feelings and tending to the source of sexual repression, therapists can share practices for a client to become more comfortable and accepting of their body's reactions and emotions—this can allow them to enjoy intimate moments with less shame, stress, and conflict.

Sex therapy can assist individuals and couples navigate sexual difficulties. Through expert help, individuals or partners can learn to enjoy intimate moments.

Communicating Changes with a Partner

Because repression compels strong discomfort around sex, ease is required to undo these feelings. By keeping a partner updated about repression and daily treatment steps can encourage comfort around the subject of sex.

A Word From Verywell

Sex in all forms—solo or partnered—should be enjoyed as a pleasurable activity. Being raised in a repressed environment, or holding repressive beliefs about this act can cause mixed feelings towards sexual behavior.

For anyone that views sex through a repressed lens, this might seem like the only possible way to approach intimate encounters. However, self-reflection, expert sex therapy, and more open and courageous communication about previously taboo subjects with a caring and non-judgmental support system can promote healthier attitudes and emotions towards sex.

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