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Sex and Guilt

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By Nora Naushad:

While pondering over topics to write for my college newsletter during a day-dreaming session in class, I happened to overhear my friends talk about sex, exchanging harmless information, of course. And soon the whole class had found the conversation more intriguing than their opened textbooks and joined in, but hushed down as a teacher passed by, and then hushed down when a batch mate who wasn’t a part of the class passed by. It seemed natural to me to hush with them then but then it got me thinking, why did we lower our tones while discussing sex even within our class? Why don’t girls ever talk about masturbation?  Is virginity over hyped as a virtue? Is pre-marital sex stigmatized and if so why?

My first hypothesis to the above query was guilt. There is a feeling of regret that fills in stemming from the belief of having violated a norm; a norm of “good girl, bad girl” drilled in to us as children by parents, religion even the media. Restricting myself to Indian context, I take liberty in assuming it a rare occasion in most families where children are sat down and briefed about sex or masturbation, so the derivation of the guilt-sex association evoked can’t be credited to parents alone, then how is the conditioning initiated?

Looking back into my experience as a child for some insight into the initiation of “sex — bad deed” association, the first memory that cropped in my head was of the Bollywood drama movies wherein the innocent girl falls in love with  a tall dark and handsome prince charming, who in Tollywod can sometimes be fat stout and hairy, regardless, following a dance sequence in the rain, camera zooms out  to a day in the maiden’s classroom where she rushes out to vomit, which, after a decent amount  of exposure to these movies, I knew was a bad sign, and that soon she would be pregnant and would bring shame to her family. Then there is also the religion that articulates the appropriate distance from the opposite sex that ought to be maintained at all times as the child grows into teenagehood, is this how the first association is made?  Probably, but critics will say that personal experience does not constitute enough scientific fact to correlate sex and guilt, so here are the facts:
-Guilt was negatively associated with frequency of orgasm for women.

-Guilt was negatively associated with the frequency of women initiating sex.

-Guilt was negatively associated with the frequency of intercourse.

-Also in women, guilt is negatively associated with internal fantasy, masturbation, and erotic visualization, all of which are fun according to women who do them frequently.

-People who feel intense guilt are less likely to use proper contraception during casual encounters, which in turn leads to intensified feelings of guilt and the negative consequences listed here.

-Curiously, guilt specifically reduced the use of diaphragms – because women were ashamed to touch themselves in the rather intimate ways necessary for insertion.

Atheists have far better sex lives than religious people who are plagued with guilt during intercourse and for weeks afterwards.

(Source: Lamb S. Review of ‘The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt’. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2003)

So there it is, Guilt and sexual enjoyment are negative correlates on many levels.  From masturbation to marital enjoyment to safe sex to sexual health, guilt prohibits people from fully enjoying their sexual experiences.

So many religions and customs have linked sex with guilt, that only a few of us are entirely unaffected. We may rebel against this unfortunate guilt-sex link by proving how “sex-positive” we are. Or we may buy into the link between sex and guilt. Then we either avoid sex or – more likely – find its “forbidden” status hooking us into an addictive cycle made even stronger by shame. As we will see, our neurochemistry actually pushes us in this latter direction.

Ought there to be a link between sex and guilt? Surprisingly, yes.  It is one of the most predictable repercussions of our brain’s mating program. Fertilization-driven sex has a neurochemical hangover built right into it. Its lingering effects can make us feel extremely vulnerable, and defensive. So it is natural for one to feel guilty or for ladies to blame-shift, the male partner into feeling guilt. We set off this neurochemical hangover ourselves. Following our instincts, we use the mechanism of sex to create the recurring sense of lack that keeps one’s fear-based voice loud.

So then, is it okay to encourage the sex-guilt link to practice precaution? Ironically, guilt is one of the most powerful triggers for sex addiction. Why? Dopamine rises sharply when we take risks or do something “novel”. These behaviours often led our ancestors to new territories, more resources, and more mates – hence our brains chemically “reward” us for engaging in them. When we engage in an activity that we believe is “naughty” or even “sinful,” we believe that we are taking a risk. The result? We get a bigger-than-usual neurochemical thrill…followed by an especially nasty hangover. It is easy to convince ourselves that we’re being punished for sinning, which can destroy our sense of self worth and further erode our judgment. In short, unless we release the idea that sex is sinful, our spiritual yearnings may actually work against us by causing us to believe we are damned, which only makes the forbidden behaviour seem more risky and thrilling.

To conclude, “Guilt” can be healthy, it is the feeling we experience when we do something we judge, by our moral code, to be wrong. Healthy guilt tends to guide individuals to socially acceptable pathways. However, Guilt is often defined as our conscience too. And it should be noted that this ‘conscience’ is not always a reliable arbiter of ‘good and bad’, as it is quite capable of making itself known even  when the misdeed is  minor but appears consequential to the majority.

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  1. Cinderfella

    Interesting article. I would like to share this with you because I think it might be something you would like to read.

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