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Sex Shame, Orgasms and the Idea of Dirty Genitalia

Psychologists have used the term ‘sex-shame’ in their research but there still is no clinical definition for it.

According to a study on the subject by Orla Day, “Sexual shame, is shame associated with sex, sexuality, sexual desires and other sexual constructs of the self that would discourage a person from discussing or sharing those things with others.”

In the study, Day discusses how shame is an emotion that comes with negative connotations whereas sexuality is a “core element of human function” which should be associated with pleasurable feelings and emotions.

Despite living in a society where we are absolutely bombarded with all things related to sex and have pornography available at the touch of a button, so many adults’ sex-lives still exist under a veil of silence and shame.

Female masturbation is constantly shamed in society today. Although it’s commonplace nowadays for men to masturbate on television and in movies, the representation of the female side of things is much smaller.

Often women’s conversations about their sex lives centre around their relationships with their partners, but not about their sexual relationships with their own bodies. Many women are hesitant to admit they masturbate, some have absolutely no problem speaking about it and some women have never done it and probably never will.

But why? Sites like Reddit where people can anonymously discuss things are awash with women who are sexually unsatisfied in their relationships wondering how they can improve the bedroom experience with their partners.

A lot of hesitancy to explore the experience of orgasm either alone or with a partner can lie in people’s insecurities about their genitals. An article about genital perceptions and sexual activity in a college population referred to Rubin (1990) when they said, “the aversion to women's genitals? To the taste, the smell, the fear that they're unclean.”

The insecurity about the general appearance and scent of their vulva is an insecurity shared by a lot of women. Primary school teaching student Claire admitted that she doesn’t like her boyfriend performing oral sex on her because she’s insecure about her vulva’s appearance.

“He sort of knows not to ask now. It’s not really a problem anymore. I think he realises it’s something I’m uncomfortable with” she said, “Of course it would be ideal if I could just get over it, but I can’t and I know that if we try it, I’m just going to be too busy worrying to enjoy myself.”

But with the surgically-altered vulvas that are commonplace in pornography nowadays it’s easy to see why people might become worried about what theirs looks like. The site Labia Library has a gallery of all different kinds of vulvas and is very informative about how different vulvas can be appearance-wise.

Another reason female masturbation is often overlooked is the centuries old idea that sex is a woman’s duty to her husband and ideas that sex is not about female pleasure.

The idea that sexual relationships are something that should only exist within the confines of marriage and that sex should be merely for male pleasure and procreation should be something of the past, but these old normalities still affect the way women are treated with regards to sex even today.

A DCU communications student admitted that in the past people she has dated have shamed her for the number of sexual partners she’s had, despite the fact she's never been in a long-term relationship.

“A few lads I’ve dated have asked me about my sexual history and made comments about the number of people I’ve had sex with,” she said.

Irish society has been expert in sex-shame for decades, mostly due to the influence of the Catholic church. In 1929 we saw the Censorship of Publications Act which aimed to protect the people of Ireland from literature that was seen at that time to be immoral.

We’ve seen women being shamed for sexual activity or potential sexual activity in the history of the Magdalene Laundries. While some women who ended up in the laundries were prostitutes, a lot weren’t. Other women working in the laundries included girls who had not yet had sex and mothers who’d had a child out of wedlock.

Dr Frances Finnegan, the author of Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalene Asylums explains that the type of woman in the laundries expanded from prostitutes to basically any woman who challenged the typical idea of Irish morality at the time.

Ignorance about men’s sexual activity and the hyper fixation on women’s sex lives spans decades, not only in Ireland - but all around the world. In fact, in the United Kingdom in 1864 a piece of legislation was introduced called the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA)

This was introduced during the Crimean war and was intended to prevent the transmission of sexually-transmitted infections amongst the armed forces.  During this time the CDA allowed female sex workers to be taken in off the streets and subjected to compulsory pelvic examinations to check for syphilis. Men were excluded from these examinations.

“Although things aren’t really as bad now as they have been, I still think people judge women for enjoying sex and having an active sex life,” primary teaching student Claire added.

“It’s really up to society now to kind of realise that, yeah - women enjoy sex, that women are human beings that should never feel they have to live up to anyone’s ideals, that they should be able to explore sex the same as men do.”