“If she’s slept with more than one man, she’s a puta,” my tía told my mom during her visit to our home in Riverside, California. I was 22 years old, and I felt heat rising to my face. I prayed no one could read the guilt in my sweat. According to my aunt’s definition, I was a puta—and her daughter was one, too. I was ashamed.
In traditional Latinx culture, sex is reserved for cis, straight men and women after they’ve wed. Virginity—albeit a social construct—is something sacred; it belongs to your future spouse, your parents, or a higher power, but certainly not to you. Those who own their sexuality, indulge in sexual pleasure, enjoy multiple partners, or dare to speak about their sensual desires are shamed and outcasted with words like “puta” and "sucia." By claiming their sexuality, these women are a threat to the status quo and are condemned by the same culture that celebrates male sexual prowess.
Those who own their sexuality, indulge in sexual pleasure, enjoy multiple partners, or dare to speak about their sensual desires are shamed and outcasted.
Growing up hearing these ideologies, I’ve often been left with more questions than answers. Thankfully, social media has introduced me to women and femmes who own their sexuality and provide sex education. Connecting with other sexually liberated folks has reminded me that I’m the CEO of my body and I’m also not alone in my journey to reclaim my sexuality and desire for myself. As I scroll through Instagram, I see Latinas and Latinx femmes talking openly about sex and finding their sexy, whatever that looks like for them. For the first time, this level of sexual and bodily autonomy seems within reach for us—except so many of us still feel icky during self-intimacy, are scared about increasing our so-called body count, and would rather give up sex altogether than have abuelita know what we do in our bedrooms late at night.
Even when the world around us seems to make progress, there remains a tumultuous internal battle around sexual shame—and memes alone won’t heal us. Unlearning the harmful messages and feelings we’ve been taught to associate with sex and pleasure takes time and mind-body work. We spoke with four sex experts who share their advice on healing sex shame, no matter where you are on your journey.
Irma Garcia, CSE, Sex Educator and Creator of Dirty South Sex Ed, Texas
I lead abortion access work at Jane's Due Process, a nonprofit organization in Texas that helps minors obtain a judicial bypass for abortions. I’m also a sex educator; in 2020, I created Dirty South Sex Ed to help my community of Black and brown folks release their sexual shame. I wanted to present sexual health information in a very relatable and palpable way.
I was raised in a culturally conservative and religious town where young women, especially in Black and brown communities, are told that they have to present a certain way in order to be seen and valued as respectable, and that always bugged me. Since I was a young person, I’ve always been in touch with my sexuality. When I took Women's and Gender Studies classes at the University of Texas at Austin, I was able to gain the language that I needed to talk about my experiences and found a community that helped me be my most authentic self. Stepping out of that shame and voicing my opinions on sexuality, respectability politics, and purity culture have all been freeing for me.
As a certified sex educator, I recommend anyone who is experiencing sexual shame to try engaging in self-pleasure. For some, this could mean masturbation, but this level of self-intimacy isn’t for everyone. If you feel uneasy touching yourself, engage in other forms of pleasure like eating a cupcake (there’s a lot of stigma around food as well), resting, or doing anything that brings you joy, period. Practice giving yourself that “yes” and honoring it; this will help make it easier for you to say “yes” to sexual pleasure when you’re ready.
Still, overcoming sex shame isn't a goal you can achieve quickly. It's about healing, and healing can be a lifelong journey. You can be sexually liberated and still carry some shame. Wherever you are in your journey is valid, and it's important to see sexuality as just another component of your overall well-being.
Dr. Janet Brito, Certified Sex Therapist and Sexual Health Educator, Hawaii
I'm the CEO of the Hawaii Center for Sexual Relationship Health, a therapeutic sex-positive practice devoted to helping people manage difficult aspects of their sexuality, gender, and reproductive health. While in this role I now mostly focus on program development, supervision, and management, I still wear a clinical hat, providing sex therapy for individuals and couples. I also run the Sexual Health School, which is an online training program for individuals who want to be trained in sex therapy.
As a queer woman, it took my family many years to accept my sexual identity and my partners. It was the most painful thing in my life. I dealt with it by studying human sexuality in school. It was so liberating to learn about sexual health and the diversity of human sexuality. I felt like I was home. I understood that nothing was wrong with me but that there was a lot wrong with society and its scripts around gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality. I wanted to give this feeling of home and freedom to others.
For some people, the struggle isn’t around their sexual orientation but rather their preferences. They might feel a lot of shame around being aroused by something atypical, wanting a threesome, or exploring a polyamorous relationship. There's so much shame around doing things that are nontraditional, and there's a lot of unnecessary pain caused by the scripts imposed on us.
As a sex therapist, it's important for me to validate where this shame comes from. For Latinxs, some of these scripts are defined by marianismo, which values harmony, inner strength, self-sacrifice, and morality in women, and famialismo, which promotes dedication, commitment, and loyalty to family. These are beautiful traditions and they're part of our culture, but if we hang on to something too rigidly, then it can be harmful. However, sometimes there's some grief and loss that comes with retiring cultural values and traditions. Some can wonder, Am I betraying my culture? It's scary. But it's not about letting go of culture and the values that make up the richness of our community; it's about being open to other possibilities that are not as limiting.
Rebecca Alvarez Story, Sexologist and Co-Founder & CEO of Bloomi, California
I’ve been a sexologist for more than 10 years. As part of my work, I provide coaching for a variety of intimacy topics for singles and couples. I’m also a consultant for multiple projects, like company education and product development. About three years ago, my two worlds came together when I started a sexual wellness and intimacy company called Bloomi.
While there was a lot of sex positivity in the world, I realized it was hard to find in the real world. My parents did their best; we had that big awkward sex talk. But in high school, I had abstinence-only sex education. It left me curious, and I felt shame in wanting to know more. I didn't have any conversations about sexual pleasure until I got to college. Understanding how healing and empowering these discussions were for me, I helped UC Berkeley create the first sexual wellness major. I later went into a master's program in sexology, thinking, I'm going to make my own career out of this. I think the world needs this.
Growing up in a Latinx household, these conversations were uncomfortable. It reminds me so much of the cultural phenomenon going on right now with Encanto’s "We Don't Talk About Bruno." I think so many Latinxs resonated with that song because we don't talk about uncomfortable topics. We don't talk about our bodies. We don't talk about pleasure. But to heal shame and stigma we must be open about it, even if it’s to ourselves or our communities.
When it comes to healing sexual shame, it's important to surround yourself with people who are sex-positive. This can be friends, a tía, a cousin, or anyone else. What’s important is to build a community you can lean on with these types of topics and conversations. This way, you can exist very confidently around people who hold shameful ideologies without absorbing it in the same way.
One of the beautiful things about sexuality and our sex lives is that our desires will change throughout our life. Give yourself permission to unlearn what doesn't serve you. One way to do this is by exploring your body and interests so you learn what does work for you. Create a life that's full of intentional pleasure; that’s what helped make a difference for me.
Stephanie Orozco, Podcast Host of Tales from the Clit, Boston
Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence
I'm the host of Tales from the Clit, a storytelling sex education podcast, and also a graduate student studying sex, sexuality, and gender as part of my Public Health master’s degree at Boston University. In many ways, my interest in sexuality and passion to destigmatize consensual sex is rooted in being sexually assaulted as a child.
I grew up in a Mexican immigrant community, and I felt like I couldn't turn to anyone to talk about what had happened to me. I also went to a public school in Southern California that didn’t have comprehensive sex education or instruction on consent. Alone and confused, I thought I was pregnant for eight years after I was assaulted.
For years, I carried a lot of pain, doubt, and shame. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and have been in therapy on and off for 15 years. There wasn’t one particular thing that made me realize what I had experienced was sexual assault, but there was so much shame and pain attached to the experience that I started going to therapy because I knew it wasn’t something I could process on my own. At the time, I was so uncomfortable just being naked. To heal my relationship with my body, I first tried getting comfortable with being naked. I would hang out in my underwear while watching TV in my room alone. No one else needed to be a part of that. Once I started making peace with my body, including the parts that I didn’t like very much, it made it easier for me to think about consensual sex and be nude in front of other people.
In 2014, when I was 21 years old and had started learning about sex, consent, and pleasure through sex educators like Sex Nerd Sandra, I started to organize sexual health events in my community. As a member of my college's Social Observation Club, I put together a sexual health fair, panels, and interactive activities where people felt safe enough to ask questions. I set out to be the kind of sex educator that my younger self needed when I was lost and afraid. I wanted to teach comprehensive sex education that is culturally relevant to my community.
Healing sex shame is a long-term project. This is not going to be fixed by learning how to orgasm or where the clit is. There's more to sex education than just talking about managing STIs and pregnancy; there is anatomy, consent, and pleasure. But this isn’t going to be normalized in our communities overnight. It has to be intergenerational, and it has to start with our generation.