Friday, December 3, 2021

Sexual shame is crippling people taught to be pure

For a long time, sexual education in Botswana was shaped and influenced by moral and religious forces. In fact, the underlying message of the country’s sexual education was based on the biblical dictum of no sex before marriage – which in everyday parlance is abstinence.

The abstinence-only sexual education has however collided with everyday realities resulting in health and sexual complications. Abert Gaopelo, senior marriage counsellor at Olorato Marriage Counselling says “How society views sex often influences how we view our own sexual lives and ourselves as sexual beings. We are often told by society at large what is sexually appropriate, who is sexy and how one should behave in one’s sexual life. Society’s construction of sex is idealistic and often fails to include the realities of sex and sexuality. Yet, we are expected as sexual beings to conform to this construction. Complications arise however when we realize that our sexual desires, choices and experiences do not coincide with society’s standards. This disjunction between the ideal standards and our actual lived experiences causes us to feel alienated, disconnected and confused about our sexual lives. We begin to doubt who we are and eventually feel shame and guilt associated with our sexual experiences and how we identify ourselves sexually.”

Most Batswana grew up under a sexual education rooted in the believe that choosing to not be sexual outside of a committed, monogamous, adult relationship was the best protection from exposure to sexually-transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancy. Along with abstinence-only education came the concept of “purity,” and the morally-based belief that remaining pure from sexuality until marriage was a good, moral and desired choice. The purity movement infused sexual education with a notion that our sexual urges are immoral, and that we are better people when we choose to live above them. Unfortunately, the vagueness and broadness of the sexual constrictions in the purity movement left people confused, and often feeling that they must reject even normal, healthy sexual urges. Sadly, only sexual urges within heterosexual, committed, adult relationships were defined as healthy. This leaves out a lot, and also abandons teenagers to be unable to learn or understand their own sexual urges, with the notion that they will understand them once they’re married. There is a tide of young people, riddled with immense shame and pain about their sexual urges, desires and behaviors, as these young people encounter the wide world of sexuality available outside the confines of these moral fantasies they are met with difficulties. The youth can now use their smartphones to see all the sex they want, they enter university, where they find that their newfound freedom is both exhilarating and intimidating.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “From childhood through adulthood, sexuality is the arena in which fundamental relational issues and struggles are played out. Sexuality has always been deeply linked with shame. We are socialized to cover our sexuality by means of appropriate clothing, secrecy around sex, hiding information through inadequate sex education programs, and the basic lack for acceptance of discussion of sex and sexual desires with others. Historically, developing into teen-hood and physical maturity is riddled with negativity for women, attitudes toward the female body still prevail today. The adolescent girl is not expected to have spontaneous expressions of sexual interest, is warned that one impulsive act could result in pregnancy and ruin her life, and that menstruation is something to be ashamed of. This expectation of young girls is still influential today; puberty and the beginning of womanhood was the beginning of feeling body shame, loss of freedom, loss of quality with boys, and loss of the right to be assertive or aggressive. “

The perception of sexuality as the most tempting, corrupting aspect of people’s physical lives, leads to sexual shame, where sexuality is portrayed as a weakness. Those who abstain, who take vows of chastity, are seen as most pure. Sadly, that leaves the rest of us as tainted. Deeply religious couples who have grown up in communities which emphasized modesty, chastity, and purity now find themselves as married adults, at a loss for where to begin. They struggle with what it means to be modest or pure within a marital relationship. They work to define what intimate acts are allowed and which are forbidden. They wrestle with the messages about gender and gender roles that they have been given. Sexual shame is a visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being, and a belief of being abnormal, inferior and unworthy. This feeling can be internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy. Sexual shame develops across the lifespan in interactions with interpersonal relationships, one’s culture and society. There is also a fear and uncertainty related to one’s power or right to make decisions, including safety decisions, related to sexual encounters, along with an internalized judgement toward one’s own sexual desire.

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