Unraveling the double bind of sexual shame

by | Jun 14, 2021

This past weekend, someone I likely knew closely in the past attempted to anonymously shame my sexuality.

As soon as I read the comment, a stinging heat took over my inner experience. My heart squeezed, and my breath shortened. It was the beginning of a shame spiral and I knew it.

I knew it because this feeling is something I’ve lived with for most of my life.

As a kid, I experienced sexual trauma early enough in my developmental years that much of my nervous system began to wire my sexuality with shame. 

It wired together: Because it is shameful to be sexual, I must repress it to be loved and accepted.

The double bind? It also wired together: I’m a sexual being, and if someone likes me, I’m in danger. 

When I was 10, a boy and I really liked each other. We would spend hours on the phone after school, chatting away about our day and our friends. 

My mom was often perplexed, “didn’t you already see him at school today?” We didn’t stop picking up the landline every day, refusing to hang up until we felt satisfied. 

One day at school, he urgently mentioned that he had something to tell me. I was excited all the way home, rushing through dinner and homework so I could call him. 

As soon I heard his voice on the other end, I pressed him, curious with longing and naïveté. He stalled as long as he could. 

“It’s three words,” he finally said. “The first and last is ‘I and you’.” 

“Oh,” I said, mustering up the courage to let the following words slip through my mouth.

“Is the middle word ‘love’ or ‘like’?” The difference between the two somehow felt imperative. 

It took him a few moments, before saying “It’s love.” 

I don’t remember what happened next, though I have the impression that he hung up in embarrassment pretty soon after. 

On the other end of the dial tone, I was frozen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing a shame spiral, taking over any rationality. That, plus the validation of my own feelings towards him was overwhelming. 

The next day at school, the boy came up to me and my friend at the time. I had already told her what the boy had said to me, and that I didn’t know how to respond to him.

“Go away,” she snarked at him, speaking on my behalf without my consent. “Denise doesn’t like you and never wants to speak to you again!” 

I will never forget the look of disappointment on his face as he walked away, head down.

Three years later, I was in secondary school. My mom had moved us out of the city to a rural town and I knew no one at SMK Seri Sepang, except my sister.

There was a Malay abang, an older “brother” or man, working at the cafeteria. He had a gentle presence, soft eyes and was as tall as I could understand boys to be at my age of thirteen.  

We’d exchange hellos, and cash for mee goreng, or nasi lemak, whatever was on sale that day. He had graduated the year before, and it was the first time he’d met an amoi, a Chinese girl, from Kuala Lumpur.

The brief and subtle eye contact while I ate my keropok lekor, soaked in cili manis, was fun and made me feel flirtatious. It was a safe enough distance to be curious about desire. 

One day, he walked up to me. I immediately began to sweat in my baju kurung as soon as I saw him. Up until that point, he’s never left the barrier of the cafeteria counter, his apron no longer around his neck. He was modest and handsome, experienced.

I don’t remember if he asked for my number, or gave me his. I just remember, yep, you guessed it, the shame spiral that immediately swallowed me whole. 

He must have noticed the frozen look of terror on my face, and since that day I avoided making eye contact and purchased my daily lunch from the makcik instead. 

So you see, I’ve known shame as it relates to my likeability and sexuality for as long as I can remember. 

I don’t remember when it shifted from an active embodied experience that froze me to my core, to becoming repressed beyond recognition, lost in the shadows of my psyche and body, along with my queer and nonbinary identity. I hadn’t had the chance to bloom into sovereign sexuality.

It didn’t just happen with boys who liked (or innocently loved) me.

When I was 25, I began to reclaim the story of my childhood sexual trauma. I told of it in a sisterhood group I was a part of, an experience that came from seeking belonging.

This was when my body began to remember the years of shame that lived within me.

It was quiet at first, thawing away unnoticed in the background. Soon enough, with just the right amount of activation, it began to flood me with fear and anxiousness. 

It came up when a friend had emailed me, making false accusations of deception. It felt like a panic attack that drowned me in rebuttal and defense.

It came up when I perceived another friend, who held social power in our friend group, to be upset with me for not delivering on her website design. 

Both of these experiences had nothing to do with my sexuality, but with my loveability. 

And this was the primary reason I felt shame when the comment about me hooking up with the SDSU men’s basketball team was posted. 

It wasn’t that I was a sexual being, having had a hyper-sexual trauma response to sexual assault I experienced when I was 21, twice. That and years of sexual repression in a country that called our genitals kemaluan, literally meaning the shameful. No it wasn’t that.

It was that someone didn’t like me, or what I had to say, and that they went out of their way to make that known through shaming my experience.

Even as I’m writing this, I feel the tightness in my chest, a void where no breath can reach. 

“What if they don’t understand what I’m saying here? What if they judge me and don’t like me?” 

Naming that helps soften it a little. A bit more aliveness moves through the void. 

I know that this deep desire to be liked, even loved, for who I am and my story, comes from the inherent need to feel like I belong.

And I know I feel belonging when there’s connection, mutual empathy and shared desire to understand one another. I also feel belonging when I can express myself, sexuality included, without the fear of being shamed and made wrong. Intimacy and desire feels emergent. 

This isn’t always my reality.

I live in a culture of cisheteropatriarchy, and shaming a woman and/or femme’s sexuality is part of how this system thrives. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done a lot of work in healing my relationship to and expression of my sexuality:

  • Powerful, deep, safely-held somatic trauma resolution and healing facilitated with care and consistency by my mentor, Rachael Maddox. 
  • Learning how to build a fertile foundation of neediness and receptivity so that I may know I matter, that I am worthy of taking up space.
  • Practicing naming boundaries, saying no when I mean that, being brave where my conditioning wants to appease others and override my limits. 
  • Sharing the story of my sexual trauma (you can listen to that on my podcast), and sitting inside the age-old shame that emerged after with as much resourcing and somatic capacity I had available to me. 
  • Being in community that celebrated my gifts, my medicine. Talking about sex and sexuality, getting as giggly and giddy as needed. 
  • Slowing down, learning to be with both subtle and strong sensations of pleasure where my body would once shake it off in denial and unworthiness. 
  • Plenty of dancing in the mirror, at pole dance class, at drum circles, awkward and stiff at first, until my erotic essence and flow states began to emerge. Gently and quietly to begin with, soon enough intoxicating. 

These practices, over and over, a year, two and three passing by, taught me how to fall in love with myself. 

It most certainly didn’t happen overnight. But when that comment came, I drew upon the mountain of these practices to get me through the shame storm that came over me. 

My blueprint of self-love and belonging to myself was stronger than the storm. I casted the shame back to where it came from, called upon my ancestors to witness me in my growing power. I texted a few trusted friends, asking for reassurance that I am loved, especially in my sexuality, past or present. 

I have a long way to go in the reclamation of my sexuality and queerness, and the shame will likely be a familiar friend I must be committed to understanding, healing and loving throughout this journey. 

Perhaps one day I’ll shamelessly dance inside the blueprint of my desirability and loveability, and the erotic essence of my soul’s expression.

Until then, I’m going to keep pouring love into my being, tending to the tenderness of my wounds, moving with sensual seduction towards what I want and need; growing my somatic, energetic and emotional capacity to receive and experience love. 

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