The following article contains spoilers for Yes, God, Yes,
In an opening scenes of the new film Yes, God, Yes, 16-year-old Alice (played by Natalia Dyer) roams the halls of her Catholic school, surrounded by abstinence posters. Later, she attends a “morality class,” where Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) teaches that masturbation and sex before marriage are “against God’s will.” Her friends spread a rumor about her “tossing someone’s salad” (a term she doesn't know the meaning of), and shame her for rewinding back to the the sex scene in Titanic.
Still, like most teens, the Iowa native is curious about her sexuality, and explores it in decidedly early-aughts ways: Alice uses an old school phone as a vibrator and stumbles across a sex-focused AOL chat room. In one scene she ditches her faith retreat to go to a lesbian bar, where she drinks a wine cooler and confesses to a fellow patron (played by the fabulous Susan Blackwell) that she’s worried she’ll go to hell for her sexual urges.
Blackwell reassures her (and encourages her to apply to colleges on the East and West coasts). In many ways, Alice ultimately overcomes the toxic ideology that is floating in the air around her. But not every kid who's raised in a sexually shaming environment ends up so lucky, experts say.
“Sexual shame is profoundly impactful on your ability to experience intimacy and form attachments,” says Tina Schermer Sellers, a therapist, sex educator, and the author of Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy.
Being shamed for your sexuality and natural urges can result in a “visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust towards one’s own body and identity as a sexual being,” Schermer Sellers explains. Ultimately, it can make you feel "abnormal, inferior, and unworthy." It can affect your confidence and self esteem, adds Emily Morse, Ph.D. the host of the podcast Sex With Emily.
“I believe the feeling of shame is pervasive in almost everyone, from different cultures, different walks of life,” Morse says. “It’s not just about religion. It’s about society, media, and our family. [These] institutions do not offer accurate sex education.” Much of American sex-ed taught in schools still emphasizes abstinence, Morse says. “There’s all this fear instilled about getting STIs or getting pregnant, but there’s no discussion of pleasure,” Morse says. “None of us are safe from this belief.”
Schermer Sellers says sexual shame’s roots go back even further than classrooms. “Somewhere between 10 months old to a year, your hand is gonna find its way to your genitals when you get your diaper changed or when you’re in the bathtub,” she says. “[Often] that caregiver is going to slap your hand away or yell at you and you won’t know why. This is the first time that you’re going to experience sexual shame. And that’s going to happen in different ways hundreds and hundreds of times over your life.”
Untangling the concept of sex from shame can be a difficult road. But with a little work, you can disconnect the wires in your brain that make you feel a pang of guilt every time you masturbate or get frisky with someone you like. Start with these strategies.
Ask yourself: “Does the information I received from my school or family about sex and sexuality still serve me?” Morse suggests. “Is what I learned [growing up] true?” Then, do your own research. “People can overcome sexual shame in their lives without having to abandon their religious beliefs,” Morse adds. “And that happens through education.”
Schermer Sellers calls this building a “frame” or “scaffolding” of understanding. “It could be educating yourself about relationships, consent, body awareness — there are all kinds of things to cover,” she notes.
You start by consuming sex positive media, whether you’re reading books, listening to podcasts, or watching movies, suggests Alexandra Roxo, an erotic coach and the author of F*ck Like A Goddess. She grew up in the Bible Belt in Georgia. She says it took her a long time to accept the idea that “God didn’t make a mistake” by letting her body orgasm. But when she came across French films in her youth, she saw desire represented as something that was “holy and sacred” in its own way. “I thought, wow, they’re not ashamed!?” says Roxo. “That’s what I want.”
Talk about it
“You are among millions of people who really had their sexuality damaged when growing up by not having someone care for you and unfold your sexuality in a loving, caring way,” Schermer Sellers says. “You’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly normal in the way you are feeling.”
Finding an accepting community where you can talk about your desires can really improve your relationship to sex, Schermer Sellers says. Whether you do that over wine coolers in bar, at home with close friends, or at a book club is your call. “Finding out that you are not alone helps the shame disappear because it cannot live in a compassionate, empathetic group,” Schermer Sellers says.
Accept yourself for how you are
It will take time, but Schermer Sellers recommends focusing on accepting that your body is wonderful the way it is, whether you’re talking about size, or the way it feels when you touch yourself. It also means accepting your background, acknowledging that your history with sex may be fraught, and working to change that narrative. For many of us, that’s a tall order.
It will take patience, intention, and, in some cases, therapy. Schermer Sellers also says journaling can help. “Imagine that you have a wise part of yourself, and that internal voice is talking to you about how beloved and valuable you are,” she says. “Keep a running journal of this wise version of you talking to you about your sexuality and how sacred it is.”
Sexual shame won’t “disappear overnight,” but it’s worth working through so you can ultimately “claim your body and sexuality as something good,” Schermer Sellers says.
“Coming to the awareness that ‘Oh, my body is actually beautiful and the way that it expresses itself is healthy’ is amazing,” Roxo says. “It was created this way.”
The movie Yes, God, Yes premieres Friday, July 24, in virtual cinemas and drive-ins.