For some people, sexy thoughts bring up excitement and anticipation around past sexual encounters or possible future experiences.
Lingering on these thoughts might turn you on or lead to masturbation. (Totally normal!)
If you’re dealing with sexual repression, even the word “sex” could trigger embarrassment or shame.
What do you mean?
Maybe you learned in childhood that sex was unpleasant or just for marriage.
Your parents may have told you masturbating or thinking about sex meant you were sinful.
As a result, you learned to squash your (perfectly natural) desires in order to protect yourself.
If your fear of these thoughts led you to ignore them entirely, as an adult, you might find it difficult to express yourself sexually.
When you do masturbate or have sex, you might feel bad or guilty afterward.
Is it the same thing as sexual frustration?
Sexual frustration describes a situation where you’re having less sex than you’d like — whether in a relationship or when between partners — so it’s not the same thing as repression.
Most adults experience sexual frustration at some point.
Some common signs include:
frequent sexual thoughts and fantasies
Frustration and repression occasionally play off each other.
When working through years of sexual repression, you might notice sexual urges you aren’t sure how to express.
You want to get better at expressing your sexuality but haven’t quite reached the point where you feel comfortable doing so.
It’s normal for this process to take time, so you might notice some frustration in the meantime.
What causes it?
Typically, sexual repression happens in response to restrictive ideas or attitudes about sex.
Parents or other caregivers may teach these ideas directly, but you might also simply absorb them from watching other people as you grow up.
At first, you might knowingly stifle sexual thoughts, but over time, this repression often becomes automatic.
Negative experiences or beliefs about sex
People tend to associate sexual repression with religious upbringings, but traditional ideas about sexual behavior can stem from other sources, too.
Some caregivers might warn children about sex due to fears of sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, or sexual trauma in their own pasts.
A history of sexual trauma can also factor into repression. Rape and sexual abuse can cause significant, long lasting emotional pain, and thoughts of sex might trigger memories and further distress, making it difficult to enjoy or want sex.
If you’ve had a lot of bad consensual sex, you might decide all sex is the same and question your desire for a different experience.
If you decide your urges are unusual, you might bury those thoughts and have a tough time finding a positive sexual relationship.
Misinformation or lack of information
If your caregivers didn’t talk about sex, your peers may have provided plenty of conflicting information that didn’t do much to normalize healthy sexual expression.
You may not have absorbed negative ideas about sex, exactly, but some of what you heard from others might make sex seem weird and uncomfortable.
You might reason that, if sex is normal and healthy, your parents would have mentioned it.
Sexual thoughts and arousal might cause confusion, even disgust, if you don’t know what causes them.
Strict gender roles
Beliefs about sex often relate back to an upbringing clearly defined by gender roles.
For example, girls might absorb the message it’s OK to trade sex for protection or affection, but not to express enjoyment — unless they want people to think of them as “sluts.”
In other scenarios, boys might grow up believing they have a right to sex and that it’s OK if women don’t enjoy it.
This (entirely faulty) belief may not seem to relate much to repression, but it does have an impact.
Some children grow up questioning this message, and the desire for a sexual experience that’s positive for everyone involved can cause feelings of confusion, if early messages about sex relate to control.
Sexual orientation can also play into repression. Many children learn, directly or indirectly, that only men and women should have sex with each other.
If your sexual orientation doesn’t align with that dictate, you might repress your feelings in order to avoid rejection.
Not knowing how to name or accept your sexuality as normal can cause plenty of distress.
People who are transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming may have even more complicated, difficult experiences.
Sex and gender aren’t the same thing, of course, but when caregivers invalidate your identity by preventing you from expressing your gender, you might also begin to question other aspects of your nature, like sexuality.
How do you know whether you’re experiencing it?
Sexual repression involves feelings that affect you negatively. Repression is not:
asexuality, or lack of sexual attraction
disinterest in sexual experimentation or casual sex
limited sexual experience
Some people have interest in a wide variety of sexual activities.
Not wanting to try things like oral sex, anal sex, BDSM, or sex with multiple partners doesn’t mean you’re repressed.
There’s nothing wrong with only wanting one type of sex. Some people might label this “prudish,” but remember it’s your desires that matter.
If you don’t want to have sex until you’re in a committed, long-term relationship, that’s entirely your decision.
Wanting to wait on sex doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sexually repressed — as long as you make this choice yourself and feel good about it.
In short, repression refers to deep-seated negative feelings around the very idea of sex. Common themes and behaviors include:
shame and distress associated with sexual fantasies
guilt and other negative feelings after sex or masturbation
difficulty enjoying healthy, consensual sex
negative self-talk after sexual thoughts or activity
believing your body is unattractive or unworthy of sex
What can happen because of it?
Sigmund Freud, one of the first to explore and write about the idea of sexual repression, cautioned that repressing sexual urges could have unwanted consequences.
Some of these effects can have far-reaching implications for your emotional well-being.
People working to overcome repression often report physical symptoms, including:
difficulty with orgasm or premature ejaculation
pain or discomfort during sex
Repression can also contribute to emotional distress and mental health symptoms, including:
reluctance to act on sexual desires
sex-related fear and anxiety
guilt associated with sexual desires
harsh self-judgment of sexual thoughts
Difficulty accepting your sexual orientation
If you identify as LGBTQIA+ but grew up in an environment where being straight and cisgender were the only acceptable options, you may have felt the safest hiding your identity and sexuality.
Even when you finally felt like you could express yourself, doing so might not have felt natural.
Despite knowing your orientation is a normal expression of human sexuality, you might continue struggling with guilt or fear around your identity, especially when trying to counter years of religious upbringing.
Negative attitudes toward others
If you begin associating sex with negative emotions from an early age, you could end up with some negative views toward people who freely express their sexuality.
This could happen in a relationship — say, when your partner brings up a sexual fantasy they’d like to act out.
You might also internalize more generalized negative values toward LGBTQIA+ people or people who have casual sex, for example.
Lack of interest in sex
Some people don’t have much of a sex drive, so disinterest in sex doesn’t always relate to repression.
But sometimes, it can. If you’ve successfully tamped down your desires, you may not really know what you enjoy.
If you don’t get much pleasure from sex, you might not see the point and avoid initiating sex or pursuing it yourself.
This can make it difficult to sustain a relationship since varying degrees of sexual interest can often create challenges in romantic relationships.
Inability to ask for what you want
If you feel ashamed of your sexual thoughts, you might struggle to acknowledge them without guilt.
Sharing these desires with a partner, even someone you love and trust, might seem impossible.
Repression can make you feel guilty about enjoying sex, so when something makes you feel good, you might feel ashamed or critical of yourself and avoid trying it again (even when you really want to).
Confused sexual boundaries
One serious effect of sexual repression involves difficulty recognizing personal boundaries.
You might have a hard time grasping what is and isn’t OK when it comes to sex, in your own behavior or the behavior you accept from others.
You might find it difficult to create and enforce personal boundaries around sex. Even when you want to say no, you might not feel able to.
If you believe you’re entitled to sex, you may not understand the importance of consent or respecting boundaries.
What can you do about it?
First, know that sexual repression is real, not all in your head. Second, know it isn’t your fault.
Simply having an awareness of the signs of repression and how it affects you can help you take steps toward countering it.
Other helpful tips:
Practice mindfully accepting sexual thoughts
Mindfulness can help you become more comfortable with sexual thoughts by increasing your awareness of them and learning to accept them without judgment.
If a sexual thought comes up, you might notice it, remind yourself it’s normal, and let it pass without criticizing yourself.
You might also follow that thought with curiosity and explore what it suggests — an experience you’d like to have, perhaps?
Read up on sex positivity
Sex positivity can help counter sexual repression, so getting more comfortable with the idea of sex as a healthy activity can help you work through repression.
Exploring sex positivity could involve reading essays or books about sexual expression.
It can also mean familiarizing yourself with sexual expression in books, films, and art. There’s always porn (including ethical or independent porn).
You can also find toned-down explicit scenes in ordinary books and movies, too, so you don’t have to look for erotica — unless you want to.
Get comfortable with your body
Repression can sometimes affect how you feel about your body.
Instead of loving and accepting your physical self, you might have a tendency to hide or desexualize your body by wearing loose, constricting clothes and avoiding nakedness.
To increase your comfort with your own body, you might try:
looking at yourself in the mirror naked
listing five things you like about your body
Talk to your partner
Sometimes, opening the door to conversation with an understanding partner can help you feel more comfortable voicing your desires.
You might say, “I’ve never felt comfortable talking about or acknowledging what I like in bed. I want to improve, but it will take time.”
Mindfulness during sex can also help you recognize when you enjoy something since it lets you focus on your experience without letting unwanted thoughts distract you. This way, you can better express your enjoyment.
Breaking the cycle
Plenty of parents who pass down misguided or harmful ideas about sexuality don’t mean to cause harm. They’re simply sharing beliefs they learned themselves.
This can, of course, cause a lot of problems, especially when the cycle keeps repeating.
Addressing sexual repression in yourself can help, especially if you plan to have children.
You can also promote healthy ideas about sexuality by:
talking about sex honestly, in an age-appropriate way
exposing children to relationships between people of all genders, through real-life or media portrayals
teaching children what healthy romantic and sexual relationships look like
providing affirming resources to LGBTQIA+ children
teaching consent from an early age
Where can you find support?
Working with a compassionate sex therapist is a great way to begin addressing sexual repression.
Some sex therapists might specialize in religious-based repression, while others focus on helping LGBTQ+ people accept their sexuality.
A quick internet search can help you find a sex therapist in your area.
For such an intimate, personal topic, it’s essential to find a therapist you can open up to.
It’s completely understandable (and normal) to want to try out a few different therapists. They want you to feel comfortable, too!
Without a good working relationship, therapy won’t have as much benefit.
The bottom line
Religious or social expectations around sexual behavior can lead to sexual guilt and shame, regardless of gender or identity, but this is something you can absolutely overcome.
Reaching out to a trained sex therapist is often a helpful first step.