Separating Sexual Pleasure From Shame

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Reader’s Question

I have been feeling a lot of guilt and shame and confusion over this. When I was seven years old, in first grade, I had this friend who was being sexually molested at home by a relative. She would kind of act out what was happening to her with me. I don’t remember how or when it first started or how long it was. But we used to go to the bathroom together and we would touch each other’s private parts. I never liked touching her back, so I don’t know why I did but it kinda felt good when she would touch me and I even enjoyed it. And I have a lot of guilt over this, because I knew it was wrong and that it shouldn’t be happening, and I feel ashamed that it brought me pleasure. I feel ashamed that I touched her back. I know this happened more than once but I don’t remember how long it lasted. It had to have been less than a school year because I remember telling my mom and dad about what was happening, but I only told them it happened once so they immediately put a stop to it. The school was notified and it was stopped.

After it stopped I kinda missed it, so I would touch myself because it felt good and now I feel like I was just dirty. I knew it was wrong so why didn’t I stop it and why did I enjoy it? I kinda feel like I was violated and then I feel like I shouldn’t be feeling this much shame and guilt over this when kids are actually sexually abused and molested and raped and I have looked at the definitions of what each of these technically are and what happened to me is just considered kids exploring. So why do I feel like I was sexually assaulted or something?

Psychologist’s Reply

Sexuality is such a complex part of our lives -– and can be especially complicated or confusing when an unwanted experience occurs during childhood. Although most early elementary school age children engage in exploratory sexual activity (whether alone or sometimes with a friend), the level of shame, guilt, and confusion that you are reporting supports how this event falls outside the normal range of experience for you. By simply acknowledging the conflicting feelings you are experiencing about this event, you have already begun to shift the meaning of this encounter into something that will work better for you and your sexual health.

Most importantly, I want to acknowledge that anyone with a similar experience has every right to feel violated or sexually coerced. What you describe is not unusual among children who have been sexually assaulted -– they will at times act out the assault on other children (often younger friends or siblings) as a way to process their own victimization and feel more power and control. As you described, it was probably difficult even to know that you wanted to say “no” at age seven, and especially difficult to stop because it felt good (as sexual contact should). There was no way for someone at such a young age to know how they would feel about the experience, let alone have the ability or power to stop it in the moment it occurred. You responded to the situation in the healthiest way by reaching out to trusted adults. Telling your parents about the experience took courage and shows how resourceful you were in getting help for yourself (and perhaps for the child who initiated the unwanted contact).

However, when we have conflicting thoughts (for example, “I don’t want to do this/but it feels too good to stop”), we often feel guilt as a result. Combining those thoughts with other messages we receive from family, teachers, religious leaders, popular culture/media, etc., only adds more confusion about what we should and shouldn’t do with our bodies. Sexuality in Western culture is loaded with conflicting messages -– especially for girls. Trying to sort out what is culturally expected while simultaneously exploring what kinds of sexual experiences are desirable, safe, and welcome for our individual needs can be very difficult. Many individuals experience guilt and shame or feel “dirty” about sexual pleasure and can, at times, also experience sexual dysfunction as a result.

It sounds as if this unwanted encounter sparked your awareness of how pleasurable self-stimulation can be -– and how normal it is in human sexuality. Because the encounter was your first experience with sexual pleasure that involved another person, however, the guilt and shame about the encounter seem to still be entwined with the very normal act of self-pleasure for you. I would encourage you to talk with a licensed mental health professional to help you sort through the feelings of being violated, and to help you rewrite the story of your own sexual experiences. A licensed mental health professional can help make the guilt and shame smaller so that it doesn’t interfere with your sexual relationships or your ability to give and receive pleasure with a trusted partner (or with yourself!). Working through this incident now in a confidential, safe place could help you experience your own sexuality in a healthier way.

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