Contact Theses In Human Sexuality: Guilt and Fear in the realm of Sexuality HOME



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Guilt is a reflexive emotional response when the self judges itself as culpable of violating internalized standards of morality. This is an important factor in human sexuality, since traditional standards of morality prohibit many forms of sexual activity, specifying both immoral sexual objects and immoral sexual acts. Within Western culture, these exclusionary sexual standards limit sexual activity to coitus in the missionary position with a monogamous marital partner for pro-creative purposes, and though commitment should be involved, passionate love or ecstasy should not. Sex is to be neither passionately hedonic nor passionately romantic, since either might interfere with duty to God and God's laws. It is the moral residue from Paul's teaching that it is better to marry than to bum, but it is best to be chaste and celibate.

Psychological research demonstrated that individuals disposed to sex guilt have engaged in fewer advanced nonmarital sexual activities (e.g., coitus or oral sex) than their less guilty contemporaries. They had less sex with fewer partners, believing premarital sex to be immoral and reporting that they did or would feel guilty for engaging in sexual activities.

Not only are guilty individuals not to engage in sex, they are not to imagine sex or respond to sexual stimuli. Feelings of guilt were reported by high-sex-guilt individuals following exposure to self-generated sexual fantasies or to presentations of explicit sexual materials. Pornography activated sexual excitement and sexual disgust; many of the sexual acts and sexual objects were regarded as abnormal.

Apparently because of the differential socialization of gender, men scored lower on sex guilt than women. Thus, many sexual activities were more desired and accepted by men than women before marriage. Moreover, men's sexual desire and levels of sex guilt affected the decision to have coitus within dating couples more than did the level of sex guilt in women. The traditional socialization of women places them in a bind: they are to uphold restrictive sexual standards, to submit to men, and to make relationships endure as a gender norm.

Although high-sex-guilt women were more reluctant to engage in premarital sex, use contraception, or seek abortions, they faced these dilemmas relatively unprepared. Because of their traditional sexual standards, having sex was un-planned (since they cannot plan to sin, they must be overcome by love, passion, or persuasion). Less likely to use contraception initially and more likely to delay or avoid using contraception later on than low-sex-guilt women, high-sex-guilt women had more unplanned pregnancies that led to either an unwanted child or an abortion. Were it left up to them, high-sex-guilt subjects would not grant many requests for abortion, particularly following casual sex, because they believe immoral sex should be punished� presumably an unwanted child fits the sexual crime of casual sex.

Sexually active high-sex-guilt women had difficulty with moral reasoning or with articulating justifications for their traditional law-and-order morality. Their tendency to avoid sex (a taboo) restricted both thought about sexuality and the development of interpersonal skills that come from confronting sexual choices in everyday interactions with peers.

Guilt over masturbation reduced subjective and psychological sexual arousal to sexual materials. Although men masturbated at greater frequencies than women, they remained equally guilty over it, still believing many myths about masturbation and experiencing guilt and disgust over their own masturbation. Women who scored higher on masturbation guilt avoided selecting a diaphragm as a method of contraception, feeling disgusted when they imagined inserting a diaphragm, which�like masturbation�requires touching the genitals. Masturbation guilt apparently produces adverse psychological reactions to having a sexually transmitted disease, including more stress, fear of telling partner, and outbreaks of herpes that are associated with stress. Although masturbation may teach individuals about their own response to sexual pleasure, prepare them for orgasmic response during coitus, and be a safe-sex outlet, it induces guilt in many men and women. Moreover, the more macho men must avoid masturbation as unmanly, increasing the pressure on them to engage in "real" sex, even coercive sex.

A number of studies demonstrated that the disposition to high sex guilt reduced sexual arousal to several forms of explicit sexual material in the laboratory. Such a reduction might follow both from the processes that instigate cognitive concerns about morality (or that avoid sexual fantasy or desire) and from activated shame, guilt, and disgust over explicit sexual material. Believing that they had drunk an alcoholic beverage even when they had not appeared to reduce such cognitive concerns in high-sex-guilt men; they looked at pornography longer, they had fuller penile erections.

Sexologists are concerned about the socialization of sexuality and the moral development of children. Sexual ignorance, myths, and negative affects associated with sexuality do not prepare youths for coping with their sexuality. Sex guilt was associated with lack of sexual information, belief in sexual myths, and traditional moral and gender standards. Sexual dysfunctions are common in marriage, as the inhibiting effects of sexual guilt do not automatically cease with the marital vow; sexual pleasure requires communication and mutual respect. The disposition to sex guilt appears to inhibit sexual arousal; to produce disgust, shame, and guilt; to contribute to sexual ignorance and unwanted pregnancies; and to activate moral condemnation of self and others for moral violations�all without engaging critical ethical reasoning.

Thus, sexual guilt is a rigidly antisexual script that lacks flexibility in judging context and relationship, just as it lacks rationality in moral socialization. The disposition to sexual guilt and the misery of feeling guilty over sexual thoughts, desires, and contacts follow from a punitive socialization of sexuality that seeks to restrict sexuality to narrow channels of moral purity.

Sexual guilt is implicated not only in sexual dysfunctions; it may also play a significant role in the development of paraphilias. More research is needed on this issue. Certainly, we do know that sexual guilt contributes to general depression and to adolescent suicide in reaction to gender dysphoria.

William A. Percy


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