The Polyamory Community Has a Huge Slut-Shaming Problem

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When I started practicing consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, I expected to get hit with slut-shaming from monogamous friends, family, and wider society. And predictably, I did. (“So she’ll just open her legs for anyone like a 24-hour supermarket?” was one memorably horrible quote said by an old childhood friend about me.)

What I never expected, though, was to encounter slut-shaming from within the non-monogamous community. But this has happened to me multiple times over the 15 years or so I’ve been polyam, as well as to many of my friends and lovers. And I have come to realise what a significant and pervasive problem it actually is.

Before I dive in, I want to shout out the other polyamory writers, thinkers, and educators who have spoken on this issue, especially Leanne Yau of PolyPhilia, Mainely Mandy, Eldiandevil, and Ramona Quaxli. Their perspectives and insights are tremendously valuable and have informed, validated, and helped to shape my own.

What is slut-shaming?

Planned Parenthood defines slut-shaming as “accusing someone — usually girls and women — of being “too sexual,” and using that as an excuse to humiliate, bully, or harass them.”

Slut-shaming can take the form of calling someone derogatory and sexual names (such as “slut”, “whore”, or “slag.”) But it can also take forms such as:

  • Criticising a person for wearing sexualised or revealing clothing
  • Blaming the victim or saying they “asked for it” in cases of rape, sexual violence, revenge porn, sexual harrassment, and so on
  • Gossiping, making assumptions, or spreading rumours about someone’s sex life or sexual behaviour
  • Criticising or shaming a partner for their sexual history prior to your relationship (or during it, in the case of consensually non-monogamous relationships)
  • Acting entitled to someone’s body because of their actual or perceived sexual behaviour (e.g. “if she puts out for other guys why not me?”)
  • Accusing someone of being a “sex addict” for their level of desire, number of partners, kinks and fetishes, or other actual or perceived sexual behaviour

In short, it’s anything that is designed to put a person down or make them feel guilty or ashamed of the ways that they express their sexuality.

But how can there be slut-shaming in non-monogamy!?

When people enter the non-monogamous community, they often come in with certain expectations. One of those expectations is that it is going to be a free love utopia, apart from and unaffected by any of cisheteromononormative society’s hangups about sex. I mean, our unofficial community Bible is literally called The Ethical Slut. We’re all totally enlightened and sex-positive over here in non-mono-land, right?

If only.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this, in the past, just as I have been a victim of it. But the polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM) community has a huge, enormous, glaring, and under-addressed slut-shaming problem.

Let’s look at a few of the ways it manifests and why they’re problematic.

“It’s not all about the sex!”

Polyamory Weekly, which ran from 2005 until 2022, is by far the longest-running and best-known polyamory podcast. When I first started listening way back in around 2009, I didn’t think much of the goofy little tagline at the end of the show: “and remember, it’s not all about the sex!” On the rare occasions that I dip back into the PW back catalogue these days, I cringe a little every time I hear it.

The purpose of this section is not to call out PW specifically or exclusively. It’s a great resource. I’m glad it existed for 17 years and I’m glad its 600+ episodes live on for new polyamorous folks to find. But I do think this tagline is an example of a wider narrative within the polyamorous community.

I understand the purpose of phrases like this. Mainstream society aggressively sexualises non-monogamy and casts aspersions on our collective character as a result (itself a form of slut-shaming). In much the same way that LGBTQ+ identities had to fight to be seen as more than sexual fetishes, non-monogamists are now fighting a similar battle. But, in striving for this more nuanced recognition of our identities, we must be careful not to shame those for whom sex does play an important role in their non-monogamy.

Some people are non-monogamous, in part, to have more sex and to experience more sexual variety. As long as those people are honest with their lovers and taking reasonable steps to be safe and considerate partners? I do not think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.

Other versions of this trope include “just because I’m polyamorous doesn’t mean I’m a slut!” and “I might be polyamorous but I still have standards!”

“But amour means love”

The equally insidious sister to the above is something I see all the time in the polyamory groups, forums, and other online spaces: “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY. The amour means love!” This one comes out when a person talks about having a lot of casual sex. However, it also comes out when a person is struggling with sexual difficulties, sexual incompatibility, or sexlessness in one of their relationships. Its purpose is clear: to slut-shame the individual because sex matters to them.

If you’ve ever uttered this sentence, you might not like what I’m going to say next: for many of us, sex is part of how we love. For some people, this is intimately connected to physical touch as a love language. Sex with someone you love can be tremendously bonding and connective, helping you to feel closer and more intimate – both emotionally and physically – with your partners. Sex can make you feel desired, allow you to express love and care through touch and the giving of pleasure, and give you an opportunity to be exploratory and playful together.

In addition, in a newer relationship, sex can help you to bond, deepen and strengthen your connection, and feel out whether you’re compatible for a long-term relationship.

In short, sex is allowed to be important to you. Leanne Yau says, “I can have sex without love, but I cannot have love without sex.” I’m not sure I’d go that far for myself, but I know I would really, really struggle in a sexless romantic relationship. It is only recently that I’ve stopped feeling shame around that fact.

So yes, sure, “polyamory” means “many/multiple loves.” But love can take many forms and, if sexual compatibility matters to you or if sex is an intrinsic part of how you express romantic love, that’s not only valid but super normal and common. Those “many/multiple loves,” by the way, can also include friends with benefits, comet partners, and other forms of connection that don’t look like traditional romantic relationships, if you like.

Phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” place non-sexual love as inherently higher, more pure, or more real than sexual love. And I think that’s bullshit.

“Sounds like you’re just a swinger.”

People outside the CNM community conflate swinging and polyamory all the time. However, while it’s certainly possible to be both, the crossover is probably significantly smaller than you think it is and they are quite different cultures. In fact, it has sadly been my experience that a lot of swingers do not like or trust polyamorous people very much, and that this feeling is very mutual. I believe this has less to do with any inherent differences or incompatibilities, and more to do with misconceptions, snap judgements, and in-group/out-group politics.

In many polyamorous spaces, there is a huge amount of policing of other people’s non-monogamies. This includes the oft-heard cry of “that’s not polyam, it sounds like you’re just a swinger!” in situations where casual sex, group sex, or promiscuity are involved.

I think it’s telling, in itself, that so many polyamorous people see “swinger” as an insult. What gives us the right to place one version of non-monogamy on a pedastal and look down on others? Sure, the mainstream hetero swinging community has its fair share of problems. However, so does the polyamorous one. When we set ourselves apart and cast judgement on swingers, all we are doing is perpetuating the same slut-shaming, sex-negative rhetoric that the mononormative world perpetuates against us. And that harms all of us.

As polyamorous people, most of us also have sex with multiple people. Do you think that cisheteronormative, mononormative, sex-negative society will spare us its judgement if the sex we have is for Twue Wuv Only while we loudly shun the swingers for their casual shenanigans? Because I promise you it won’t. But it would love for the different schools of consensual non-monogamy to get distracted tearing each other apart rather than banding together to tear down the sociocultural structures that harm us.

Whether you are polyamorous, a swinger, both, neither, or somewhere else entirely on the spectrum, I believe that all of us under the consensual non-monogamy umbrella should be allies and need to stick together. We’re on the same damn team.

The one penis policy

The infamous one penis policy, or OPP, is where a polyamorous cis man tells his (usually cis women) partners that they can date other people with vulvas, but nobody else with a penis. It’s highly problematic in a bunch of ways, from cissexism and trans erasure through to simply being a bad way to handle jealousy and insecurity. I’m going to write an entire piece about it soon.

Increasingly, I believe it is also tied to slut shaming.

At the root of the one penis policy, very often, is the belief that sex is only “real” when it involves a penis. Men who enact the OPP often believe (even if on an unconscious level) that there is something inherently bad or wrong about their female partners having a lot of sex or multiple sexual partners, but convince themselves that it only really counts if those sexual partners have a penis. This allows them to keep seeing those partners as “pure,” as long as they only have sex with fellow vulva-owners.

Many polyamorous men explicitly or implicitly devalue their female partners when or if they have sex with multiple penis-owning partners. You’d be amazed at how often, in online polyamorous spaces, I see variations on this theme: “my wife just had sex with her boyfriend for the first time and now I can’t help but see her as tainted.” Which is a pretty fucking rough deal for straight or bi+ polyamorous women.

This is by no means a comprehensive list

This piece is not intended to provide a comprehensive list of all the ways that slut-shaming shows up in polyamory and CNM. Like all systems of oppression, it is insidious and multi-faceted and not always easy to spot. It takes many forms and harms people in many different ways.

There is, however, one consistent truth that sits at the heart of this phenomenon:

It’s misogyny, isn’t it?

Purity culture is deeply and inherently tied to misogyny. Purity culture “encompasses the way society and popular culture reinforces the idea of sexual purity as a measure of a person’s worth” (John Loeppky for VeryWellMind) and is used to control, police, shame, and curtail women’s sexuality and sexual agency.

Just like mainstream purity culture, slut-shaming and sex-negativity within the polyamory and CNM communities are intimately tied to misogyny. A person of any gender can be slut-shamed. However, in reality, it is always going to mostly weaponised against, and have a far greater impact on, women, femmes, AFAB folks, and anyone socialised as female.

When we begin to unpack sex-negative and slut-shaming beliefs, misogyny – including internalised misogyny on the part of women and other marginalised genders – is almost inevitably at the core of it. To dismantle slut-shaming requires us to take a close and critical look at all the things our society and upbringing have told us about gender, sex, and sexuality, and to consider the ways in which those narratives are doing a disservice to ourselves, our loved ones, and our wider community.

Towards an expansive and inclusive version of CNM

None of this is to say that your polyamory or consensual non-monogamy must include casual sex, or must include sex at all. It is entirely possible to have no interest in sex whatsoever and to never slut-shame anyone else. I do believe, however, that everyone in these communities has a responsibility to intentionally cultivate a sex-positive attitude.

As a reminder, my working definition of sex positivity is as follows:

“Supporting the right of all consenting adults to have sex, or not, in whatever ways work best for them, free from stigma or shame.”

The point of sex-positivity isn’t that more sex is better. The point is that we all have a right to choose how much and what forms of sex we have, and that all consensual and freely made choices are of equal moral value.

We must recognise that the CNM world is not a sex-positive utopia, much as we might wish it was. The first step to addressing our sex-negativity and slut-shaming problem is to identify it, talk about it, call it out when we see it, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t an issue.

We all carry toxic beliefs from our upbringing or our society, and it is our job to address and unlearn them. This is hard, long-term, potentially lifelong work. Fighting the tide of cultural norms isn’t easy, and I am not trying to downplay or simplify it. But, if we want to build truly radical and inclusive communities, it is absolutely necessary.

Finally, we must stop this in-fighting. Stop shaming and attacking our own. Whether we’re polyamorous or swingers or relationship anarchists, whether we’re asexual or demisexual or hypersexual, whether we have orgies every weekend or only have sex in committed romantic relationships, we must stop throwing each other under the bus for crumbs of respectability from a culture that seeks to judge and repress all of us in exactly the same ways.

Cisheteromononormative society shames us all enough. We like to think we’re better than to also do it to each other. And right now, we’re not.

But what if we could be? How radical and awesome would that be?

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Sluttier in Theory: Swinging, Casual Sex and Me

I have recently been dipping a cautious toe back into some swinging spaces, albeit almost exclusively very queer ones. These adventures have brought up some thoughts and realisations about the ways that I operate in sexual spaces that I’ve been thinking about a lot. So, because blogging is cheaper than therapy, let’s talk about them shall we?

I’m not sure I was ever really a swinger, to be entirely honest. Years ago, I wrote about things I disliked about the mainstream (read: hetero) swing community, from the weird prevalence of sexual racism to the casual kink-shaming. And I don’t think I’m really a swinger now, either. Or at least, claiming that label feels disingenuous when the last time I did anything more than hand sex with a stranger was literally years ago.

I’m a polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous person who also enjoys some casual sex with lovely people every now and then. (Exactly where the dividing line between “swinger” and “whatever the fuck I am” lies, I am truly not sure.)

Thing is, I’d really like to be sluttier than I am. In theory, at least, I’m a huge Ethical Slut. I love flirting, giving and receiving sexual attention and interest. I love making connections, making plans, making out, that slow but certain escalation when it becomes apparent that yes, this thing is ON. And I love sex. I’m a high sexual desire person (it’s not a drive!), and in an ideal world I’d be having sex several times a week at least. Yes, I’m a horny fucker.

So why do I find it so fucking hard to actually make that leap and do the things in a more casual context?

I’m envious of people who can just dive in. People who can pull a stranger or leap into the centre of an orgy without thinking too hard about it. I wish that could be me. So why don’t I and why isn’t it? Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to untangle.

My Sexuality is Complicated

Being very sapphic certainly complicates things. The overwhelming majority of people in swing and casual sex spaces are cis man/cis woman couples, most of whom – as is typical in that community – do things exclusively together. This is tricky when I don’t fancy very many men, though.

I’m not going to fuck a guy I don’t fancy just so I can play with his partner, and I’m not going to tolerate hands wandering after I’ve set boundaries about who can and cannot touch me and where. Realistically, I’m also not going to fuck a woman for a man’s enjoyment. Performative queerness does nothing for me. Less than nothing – it’s an active turn-off.

So where does this leave me? Probably limited to playing one-on-one with other women, playing with very trusted friends, playing with couples where the guy will happily accept “I’ll fuck your wife with you but I’m not going to fuck you”, or waiting for the cases where I am attracted enough to both/all parties to also fuck the guy(s.) The last two scenarios on this list? Well, they’re rare. In practice, my sexuality limits who will be interested in me and how I can play simply because I don’t typically offer much for the guys.

Hitting on women is hard, too, for a simple reason: I don’t want to make other women feel the way that creepy men make me feel. (Yes, there’s a whole other post in this, too.) More than once I’ve noticed an attractive woman at a party and then totally failed to even talk to her. I always kick myself afterwards, of course, but I haven’t figured out a way to overcome this one yet.

Sexual Health Fears

There’s also the sexual health angle. I got an STI about a year ago (ironically, during a particularly non-slutty phase) and it really rattled me. Though it was dealt with, I have no desire to ever repeat that experience. I feel like I’d be absolutely furious with myself if I inadvertently contracted something and then passed it on to one or both of my partners.

I preach open communication about sexual health constantly, but in reality it can be really hard to be the person saying “hey when were you last tested?” when no-one else in the room has raised it.

The reality is that, if we are going to be sexually active, there is a risk of STIs. This is even true in monogamy, because people can cheat and people can have symptomless infections for years without knowing it if they’re not testing regularly. There is no way to be a sexually active human and totally eliminate this risk. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. If anything, it gives us a greater responsibility to take the reasonable steps we can to mitigate the risk to ourselves and our sexual partners.

In some ways, this is probably the easiest issue on this list to solve. This one can probably be solved with practice and giving fewer fucks about seeming like a buzzkill for being the person to open the conversation.

“I Shouldn’t Be Doing This”: Internalised Shame

On a less practical and more cerebral level, I think I’m probably still dealing with some internalised shame around casual sex. Like so many of us, I grew up in an intensely sex-negative society and “slut” was one of the worst things someone could call you. (I got called it for having sex with my one boyfriend of well over a year when I was sixteen, but that’s another topic for another day.)

“But Amy, you’ve been polyamorous your entire adult life!” I can hear some long-time readers saying. And yes, I have. However – and this is also going to be the topic of another post soon – the polyamorous community has a massive slut-shaming problem.

Hang out in polyamorous spaces long enough and you’ll often hear phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” to deride casual sex. You’ll also hear derisive language used towards swingers (and anyone sluttier than the name-caller approves of), as well as assertions that casual sex “ISN’T REALLY POLY.” Mainely Mandy did a fantastic video on this subject. It’s over an hour long but I really urge you to watch it all if you can. Mandy is insightful, engaging, hilarious, and just so right about this topic.

I suspect there’s still some internal work – and probably work with my therapist – to be done on unpacking this shame. I find it so easy to celebrate others getting all the hot sex they want with all the partners they want, as long as it’s ethical and consensual. I’m not sure why I am finding it so hard to extend that to myself. But I do know that once in a while, I get hit with this overwhelming feeling of “I shouldn’t be doing this”. And that’s a mood-killer if ever there was one.

Vulnerability is Fucking Hard

Finally, there’s also the fear of making myself vulnerable. I know not everyone will agree with me here but to me at least, there’s an inherent level of vulnerability to sex (or at least to good sex.) If I stay completely detached, there’s just no point. I’m not going to enjoy it and will probably end up feeling used rather than fulfilled.

But as the title of this section says: vulnerability is fucking hard. Vulnerability, in my experience, often leads to pain.

Of course, on the flip side, vulnerability can also lead to some trancendently wonderful experiences. Vulnerability has brought me beautiful relationships, deeper communication and intimacy with my partners, hot sex, leg-shaking orgasms, the kind of memories that still get me wet when I recall them years later.

But it’s really, really hard to be truly vulnerable and it does not come easily to abuse survivors in particular.

So… What Now?

I don’t really know, to be honest. Maybe I need to just be brave and take bigger leaps into the things I want before overthinking gets in the way and stops me. Or maybe some things do need to remain “in theory.”

I sent a draft of this post up to this point to my girlfriend, having no idea how to finish it. Because she’s brilliant, she made this suggestion: “Imagine someone has written that post and sent it to you asking for your advice.” A lightbulb went on instantly. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The conclusion of this piece will take the form of an open advice letter from me to me.

Open Advice from Me to Me

Hey Amy. This sounds legitimately complicated and like there are numerous different factors at play.

First I want to validate something for you: this stuff is complex. I’ll also let you into a secret: it’s complex for almost everyone! Those people you see at parties, who seem to be having all the casual sex all the time without a care in the world? That’s probably not their reality. Behind the scenes they are likely thinking things over, considering their boundaries and desires, perhaps discussing things with their partners. They probably have many of the same insecurities as you, and plenty of their own unique struggles too. So first, please don’t think you’re alone or weird for feeling conflicted about this. You’re not. What you see at parties is, in all likelihood, the smallest tip of the iceberg.

Next I want to tell you that your sexuality is perfect as it is. We live in a deeply, aggressively heteronormative world and it can be hard when you fall outside of that. You never, ever have to have sex that you don’t want to have. If you want to have sex but only with a certain gender or genders? Awesome! If you’re open to other genders but only occasionally, sporadically, or circumstantially? Great! If some types of sex appeal to you but not others? Excellent self-knowledge, well done.

I would advise simply being very upfront with potential playmates about who you are, what you want, and what you can offer.

Will this mean some people aren’t right for you? Yes, absolutely. And that’s okay! No-one is everybody’s cup of tea, and having incompatible needs with some people doesn’t mean that your needs are wrong (or that theirs are.) If someone isn’t into what you’re offering, you can wish each other well and move on to more fitting connections. If someone deliberately breaches boundaries you’ve set or oversteps your consent? Get up and leave. You deserve better.

I hear your frustration that suitable connections seem to be relatively few and far between, possibly due to your low interest in men. But a small number of great connections is vastly preferable to a lot of bad ones. You seem to be doing this already, but continuing to prioritise explicitly queer and queer-positive spaces is much more likely to get you the kinds of experiences you want.

Your sexual health concerns are also valid and understandable. They particularly make sense with the context that you’ve had an STI in the past and do not want to repeat the experience. Sexual health is a sensible thing to be concerned with. Most STIs are not a big deal – they are treatable, curable, or manageable. However, some can have a significant or even life-changing impact, and antibiotic-resistant strains of certain infections are a growing concern in the medical community. Even easily curable STIs are, unfortunately, still heavily stigmatised.

I know you know this, but you are not being a buzzkill for raising this topic. If someone rejects you or gets annoyed with you for discussing it, they’re not right for you. By having this conversation before hooking up, you’re being a responsible partner and caring for both your own and your partners’ sexual health.

One possible way to become more comfortable with this conversation might be to have it in advance where possible. Are you chatting to people online prior to meeting them? If so, raise the topic during your pre-party flirtations. Are there online spaces, such as forums or Discord servers, where party or event attendees hang out? If so, why not get a sexual health discussion thread going in those spaces? This takes the “in the moment” pressure off. It also normalises the conversation and allows you to get a feel for people whose risk tolerance aligns with yours.

As a general rule, sexual health practices should default to the boundaries of the most cautious person. If you want to use a barrier, for example, then your prospective partners can either use that barrier or decide not to hook up with you under those conditions. What they cannot – or should not – do is try to talk you out of your boundaries. Trying to change your mind about sexual health protocols is a major red flag, and one you should not ignore.

Internalised shame and fears around vulnerability are, unfortunately, harder to overcome. You’re right that we live in an intensely sex-negative society. It also sounds like you have some personal experience of people weaponising sexual shame against you. Shame is complex, multi-faceted, and unpacking it can be an ongoing (even lifelong) process.

Next time they arise, I invite you to sit with those feelings of shame and ask yourself what they are telling you. Then hold those ideas up to your values and beliefs about the world. Do they align? And if not, where did they come from?

For example, perhaps you realise that your feeling of shame is telling you “people who respect themselves only have sex in committed relationships.” Do you really believe that is true? Presumably not, since you accept and embrace the fact that casual sex can be a positive and joyful thing (and that sexual behaviour is not correlated with self-respect.) Okay, so where did that belief come from? Perhaps it was your parents, your peers, school, the media, or the religion you were raised in. By unpacking the things shame is telling you, you can take more control over which of those beliefs you internalise and which you choose to consciously reject.

On your fear of vulnerability, I want you to know that it makes perfect sense. Existing as a woman or femme in this patriarchal society is hard, and doubly so for survivors of abuse. When vulnerability has been used against you or resulted in pain in the past, it can be incredibly difficult to let yourself go there again.

This fear is your body and brain’s way of keeping you safe. Try to remember that when you’re feeling frustrated with yourself. All those positive things you identified that allowing yourself to be vulnerable has brought to you? What do they all have in common? They all had to happen from a place of safety. This likely meant coming to vulnerability in your own time, not forcing it from yourself. If getting to that baseline of safety takes you longer than it takes other people, or takes you longer in some circumstances than others, then that’s okay.

One vital thing I want to invite you to do is just to listen to yourself. Your body is deeply wise and intuitive. Try to tune into what it’s telling you in any given situation. Try to learn what your personal “yes, more, this” feels like, as well as your personal “no” or “ick” or “I’m not sure about this.” What does safety feel like? What does it feel like when you truly, deeply want something?

Learning to follow those intuitive clues will teach you to trust yourself. It will also help you to come into a deeper understanding of what you really want and don’t want, both in the big-picture sense and in any given moment. In time, you’ll learn how to move towards your “yes” and away from your “no” more authentically.

Finally: remember that there’s no right or wrong here, and you’re not in competition with anyone. You are not less of a non-monogamous or sex-positive person if you’re slower to warm up and get comfortable with being sexual. It’s okay to be a “yes” on one occasion and a “no” on another. It’s okay to be choosy, to be selective, to make sure any given situation is right for you.

It is okay to explore, try things out, surprise yourself. To like things you weren’t sure you would, and do dislike things you were sure would do it for you. And it’s okay if some things need to remain “in theory,” for now or forever.

Breathe. You’re doing fine.

Amy x

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How to Get Rid of Shame and Guilt After Masturbating

Did you know that May is Masturbation Month? This month, aimed at celebrating all things jerking off, started life with the first National Masturbation Day on 7 May, 1995, declared by sex shop Good Vibrations in honour of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders (who was fired by President Bill Clinton a year earlier for suggesting that masturbation should be part of the sex education curriculum. Yes, really.)

It will not come as a surprise to anyone who reads my writing that I believe masturbation is a wonderful thing. (What else would the woman who owns over 150 sex toys say!?) Unfortunately, it’s still a highly stigmatised and under-discussed topic in society generally. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of masturbation for women and people with vulvas, though all genders can be and are impacted.

I couldn’t find any reliable statistics on how many people feel shame and guilt after masturbating. However, based on anecdotal evidence, I am willing to bet it’s a significant number. So what can you do if you’re one of them? I don’t have any easy answers, because this stuff is complicated, but I do have a few suggestions for you. As always, take the ones that work for you and leave the ones that don’t.

Figure Out Where the Shame is Coming From

If you feel shame or guilt after masturbating, those feelings have come from somewhere. None of us are born with an inherent sense of shame about our bodies and our sexuality.

Often, it’s religion. Unfortunately, repressive religious teachings about sexuality have a lot to answer for. These teachings tend to be utterly unrealistic (“never have a single sexual feeling until you get married, then have amazing sex with your spouse right out of the gate”, anyone?) They are often laced with all kinds of factual inaccuracies. They’re also wildly hypocrital, because A) as we’ll see, most people masturbate, including those who rail against it, and B) sexually repressive religion is an absolute hotbed of sexual abuse and violence.

I’m a committed atheist and I’m certainly not going to tell you what your relationship with religion or God should look like. But I invite you to consider this: do you really think that, considering *gestures at the entire world being on fire in all of the ways*, God’s biggest concern is whether you enjoy some self-induced orgasms? Religious sexual shame is primarily a mechanism of control, particularly of women and women’s bodies.

Or perhaps your feelings come from a time when someone else shamed you for touching yourself. This shame might have come from parents or other adults in your life when you were young, from peers and friends, from regressive sex education, or even from sexual partners.

It’s also possible that you have had none of these experiences, and have simply internalised some societal messaging about masturbation. That happens to so many of us. It’s also possible that a collection of experiences have led you to where you are now.

Once you understand where your guilt after masturbating stems from, you can start addressing it. Whatever it was, start by hearing this: you’re not alone, and you’re not broken.

Get Educated

Ask yourself what you learned about masturbation when you were growing up, if anything. Where did those messages come from? Chances are they came from a place of stigma and misinformation, not facts. The absolute best way to combat misinformation you’ve been fed is so arm yourself with accurate info instead. That means it’s time to get educated on all things self-pleasure.

Some of the resources I recommend include the classic Sex For One by Betty Dodson, The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex by Jenny Block, Getting Off: A Woman’s Guide to Masturbation by Jayme Waxman, Bang!: Masturbation for People of All Genders and Abilities by Vic Liu, and V: An Empowering Celebration of the Vulva and Vagina by Florence Schechter (a more general book about vaginas and vulvas that includes a section on masturbation.)

You know what? Let’s get started right now. Here some facts for you:

  • The vast majority of people of all genders masturbate at some point in their lives, and many do so frequently.
  • There is no “normal” amount to masturbate. Whether you do it multiple times a day, once in a while, or not at all, that’s all healthy and good as long as it is what works for you.
  • It is also normal to go through periods of masturbating more or less frequently. Hormones, physical or mental health and illness, age, disability, stress levels, pregnancy and birth, trauma, body image issues, relationships, living situations, medications, and overall happiness or life satisfaction are just a few of the factors that can impact how often a person masturbates… or if they do at all.
  • Huge numbers of people feel guilt after masturbating, but this is because of societal stigma, not because there is anything wrong with masturbation itself.
  • There is no clinical diagnosis of “masturbation addiction” and it is not recognised as addictive by the American Psychological Association. Some experts believe it can occasionally become “compulsive”, but unless your masturbation habits are seriously impacting other areas of your life, such as work, school, relationships, friends, hobbies, or health, it is highly unlikely that they are in any way problematic.
  • Masturbation is not physically harmful in any way. It will not cause you to go blind (do people still believe that one?), cause you to grow more body hair, cause your penis to shrink, or lead to infertility. If you have a vulva, masturbation will not “permanently stretch” your vagina or otherwise damage your genitals.
  • Masturbation is also not emotionally harmful in any way. (Though shame around it can be emotionally damaging – but that’s why we’re working on getting rid of that shame, not getting rid of masturbation!)
  • In fact, masturbation can have some positive health benefits! It can help you to sleep, boost your mood, relieve stress, relieve pain (especially menstrual cramps), and improve your self-esteem. For people with penises, a 2004 study showed that more frequent ejaculation correlated with a decreased risk of prostate cancer!
  • It is still okay, healthy, and perfectly fine to masturbate when you’re in a relationship. Any partner who tells you not to isn’t someone you should be with.
  • It is impossible to tell from physical genital appearance whether or not a person masturbates.

Reframe Masturbation in Your Mind

Now that you’ve identified the source of your shame or guilt after masturbating, it’s time to start reframing the act in your mind.

Instead of viewing masturbation as something shameful or dirty, how about seeing it as an expression of self-care and self-love? For many people, it can also be tremendously empowering. Think about it: you’re enjoying your body on your terms, no-one else’s input or participation required, and you can give yourself such incredible pleasure.

You might find your mind drifting back to those thoughts of shame and guilt. That’s totally normal. Reframing your thoughts and feelings takes time! When this happens, try to gently and non-judgementally notice the feelings and consciously guide your mind away from them.

Think about the other things you do to look after and pamper yourself. Perhaps you like to take hot baths, practice yoga, go to the spa, get a massage, eat your favourite foods, or just snuggle under a blanket in your comfiest clothes. Masturbation is no different. It’s a sensual and sensory experience that you do because it makes you feel good.

It can also help to focus on all the positive benefits you get from masturbation. Aside from the obvious – pleasure, perhaps orgasm – it might help you to feel happier and calmer, to be less stressed, or to sleep better.

In other words, this is all about teaching yourself – through repetition, affirmation, and positive reinforcement – that masturbation is normal, good, healthy, and absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.

Touch Yourself in All Kinds of Ways

When we talk about masturbation, we are typically referring to touching your own genitals for the purposes of pleasure and possibly orgasm. While this is wonderful, it can also be pleasurable and healing to touch yourself in all kinds of different ways. Why not try giving some love to your balls, labia, nipples, breasts or chest, or any other erogenous zones you have instead of going straight for your penis, clit, or vagina?

You can also get a lot of pleasure from touching yourself in non-sexual ways. Try stroking your own body, experimenting with different kinds of touch. Do you prefer a lighter or a firmer touch? Do certain areas feel good while other areas feel unpleasant to touch? All of this is such valuable information that you can take forward into both solo or partnered sexual adventures.

You could give yourself a massage (with or without a sexy massage oil), or experiment with solo sensation play toys and techniques such as ice, hot wax, Wartenberg wheels, vampire gloves, clips or clamps, sensory deprivation, or stroking with different textured materials.

Watch Others Masturbate

No, not in a creepy or “peeping Tom” way!

Again: the vast majority of people masturbate. Seeing other people do it, and observing the beauty and sensuality and hotness of it, can help to not only normalise masturbation and shed feelings of shame around it, but also to open up different avenues of pleasure that you may not have thought of.

The easiest way to do this, of course, is porn. If you go down this route, please seek out ethical and consensual content and pay for it. Buying directly from the performers is usually best where possible. Some people suffer from increased guilt after masturbating if they use porn. Please remember, though, that – as long as you are not watching content that is stolen or non-consensual – there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

If porn isn’t your thing, how about a series of educational videos showcasing real masturbation techniques? I’m really into the content at Climax, particularly the videos about self-pleasure for vulvas. You can subscribe for a monthly fee to get access to the full library of content, or buy and keep the individual programmes you want. OMGYes is another hugely popular resource, though I haven’t tried it myself.

If you live in a location where such things are accessible and legal, you could even attend a hands-on masturbation class such as the world-famous Bodysex series of workshops.

Finally, if you have a partner or partners, you could experiment with masturbating in front of one another. This can be not just extremely hot, but also have that validating and normalising effect I mentioned above.

Visit a Feminist, Pleasure-Positive Sex Shop

If you’ve never visited a sex shop before, take a second to think about your idea of one. Do you envision something seedy, hidden away down a back alley and frequented by creeps? Think again! Many of today’s sex shops are erotic boutiques that are welcoming, inclusive, non-threatening, and pleasure-focused.

Visiting a good sex shop, whether to buy a toy or just to browse, can be a profoundly validating and healing experience if you deal with shame around masturbation. You’ll see a huge variety of toys, apparel, kink gear and more on display, showcasing all the different ways people like to get off and get it on (with themselves and with others.)

Some of my favourite UK-based sex shops are Sh! and Coco de Mer in London and She Said in Brighton. US-based readers have places like Good Vibrations’ nine retail outlets, Portland’s SheBop, and Babeland in Seattle and New York. In Canada, there’s Come As You Are and Good For Her in Toronto, and Venus Envy in Halifax and Ottawa. A quick online search will help you find your nearest feminist sex shop.

Can’t get to one or prefer to shop from the comfort of your couch (or bed)? My favourite online feminist sex shops include The Pleasure Garden and SheVibe.

Consider Seeing a Sex-Positive Therapist

Shame is an incredibly powerful feeling, and you might be struggling to vanquish it by yourself. If you are struggling to get rid of guilt after masturbating, it’s time to see a sex-positive therapist. You might go down the route of psychosexual therapy (sometimes just called “sex therapy” for short) or seek out a regular psychotherapist who is sex-positive and experienced in supporting clients with issues surrounding sex, masturbation, and sexual shame.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting some professional support. These issues are complex and you don’t have to tackle them alone. Be gentle with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Have you ever suffered from shame or guilt after masturbating? How did you handle it and do you have any tips or strategies to share that may help others dealing with the same thing?

This post contains affiliate links as well as non-affiliated resource recommendations. Image by Deon at Let’sTalkSex.

Five Books That Changed My (Sex) Life

You will be unsurprised to know that, as a writer, books hold an extremely important place in my life. There are many things I am grateful to my mother for (she’s a pretty awesome lady) but one of the biggest is instilling a love of books in me when I was very young. Through the toughest points in my life, I’ve turned to reading for information, for comfort, for that priceless feeling of not being alone.

But this is, after all, a sex blog. So today I want to tell you a little about five of the books that profoundly impacted my sex life.

Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski

I read this one on a flight to Italy. Goddess knows what the people around us thought, when I kept reading out interesting snippets to Mr CK!

Nagoski’s message is, in brief, that we are all normal and we are all fine exactly as we are. She explores concepts such as spontaneous vs responsive desire, and the congruence gap between reported mental desire and genital response. (If you haven’t watched her recent TED talk on this very thing, please do so, it’s fucking brilliant).

Come As You Are taught me how to stop worrying so much about being “normal”. It taught me how to stop saying “I should feel X,” and start saying “I feel Y, and that’s okay”. And perhaps most important, it approaches these concepts through actual, hard science that cannot be argued with. It’s a warmfuzzy affirmation of your deepest desires wrapped up in a blanketof irrefutable evidence, and it’s perfection.

“Even if you don’t yet feel that way, you are already sexually whole and healthy. The science says so. I can prove it.”

Get your copy now.

The New Topping Book & The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton & Janet Hardy

Okay, I’ve cheated here because these are actually two books. But I kind of conceptualise them as two halves of one whole, so they’re getting a shared entry.

These were the first two books I ever read about BDSM, when I was barely nineteen and only just coming to the realisation that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got aroused from being spanked and verbally degraded.

As a new submissive, I devoured The Bottoming Book. I absorbed all its lessons on how to get horrible things done to me by wonderful people in a safe and respectful way. I credit it, in large part, with quelling the rising sub-frenzy and preventing me from spiraling too quickly down a path I was ill-equipped to handle. Even now, I throw it at new and young submissives frequently. I’ve lost count of how many people have borrowed my copy.

I’ve actually read The Topping Book twice. Firstly, from a purely academic perspective – as a submissive, I wanted to understand the Dominant perspective better. It fascinated me, but I didn’t feel any pull to do those things. Much later, when I started exploring my switchy side, I read it again with a more practical application in mind.

These books are, even all these years after their initial release, still the best 101 guides on the market, bar none.

“We bottom in order to go to places within ourselves and with our partners that we cannot get to without a top. To explore these spaces, we need someone to push us over the edge in the right ways, and to keep us safe while we’re out there flying.”

Get The New Topping Book.
Get The New Bottoming Book.

Trauma and Recovery – Dr Judith Herman

I debated long and hard about including this one. It is not actually a book about sex, kink or any of that good stuff. But actually, it had such a profound impact I couldn’t not include it.

I first approached this book, a dense academic text, at twenty-one and barely out of my first long term abusive relationship. I’ve since referred back to it countless times, especially over the last three years as I try to recover from the worst abusive dynamic of my life.

What this book taught me is that my response to the trauma I’ve suffered is normal. It reassured me that I’m *allowed* to struggle with PTSD even though I’m not a military veteran or childhood sexual abuse survivor. It spoke so profoundly to what was going on in my head, and in my life, that I was frequently reduced to sobbing reading it. I usually couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Through Dr Herman’s words, I learned that I could recover with time and the proper support… but that it was and is 100% okay to not be fully “there” yet.

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.”

Get your copy.

Opening Up by Tristan Taormino

There are a lot of how-to books on polyamory on the market now. However, amidst all of them, Opening Up stands out to me as the most rational, sane, compassionate and balanced of them all.

What I love about this book, which I read when I was relearning how to do polyamory after escaping an abusive situation, was how many options Taormino presents the reader with. She doesn’t dictate, as so many how-to books do, that Relationship Anarchy and The Church Of No Rules is the only way to do things right. Instead, she treats relationships as a create-your-own-adventure story, and offers us a smorgasbord of possibilities to pick and choose from. Amidst all this, there are practical tips on time management, communication skills, jealousy busting, and more.

This book came into my life at the perfect time. What it taught me is that I do not have to live up to anyone else’s idea of The Perfect Poly Person, no matter how many books they’ve sold or how many events they’ve spoken at. Instead, all I need to do is collaborate with my partners to create something that works for us.

“Nonmonogamous folks are constantly engaged in their relationships: they negotiate and establish boundaries, respect them, test them, and, yes, even violate them. But the limits are not assumed or set by society; they are consciously chosen.”

Get it here.

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Ah, virginity. Has there ever been a topic to provoke so much judgement and angst and stigma? A long time ago, the man who I first had PIV sex with (I don’t believe “losing one’s virginity” is a meaningful concept) made it clear that my value was in my “purity”. I was precious to him because no-one else had touched me, like an expensive work of art you keep behind a glass case lest anyone else get their dirty fingerprints on it. A while later, the second man I had PIV sex with berated me for not having “waited for him,” because – being the youngest woman he’d ever fucked – I represented the closest he’d ever come to “taking a girl’s virginity”. A right, he believed, that I had denied him by shagging someone else three years before I met him.

As a result of these experiences, I’ve dealt with a lot of shame around my level of sexual experience. I fuck a lot of people, and have a lot of casual sex, and 90% of the time I’m more experienced than my sexual partners regardless of their gender. This book showed me how the “cult of virginity” has been manufactured by the patriarchy in order to control women’s bodies, and by extension women’s lives. It showed me that virginity is a medically meaningless concept, and that the only value it has is that imbued by sex-negative, patriarchal, anti-woman culture.

Valenti’s book gave me the permission to go “yeah purity is a bullshit concept”. It helped me to fully embrace my sexual experiences, past and present, as part of the rich tapestry that make me who I am. As a feature, if you like, not a bug.

“The idea at play here is that of “morality.” When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens.”

Get it here.

What books had a profound impact on YOUR sex lives, friends?

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