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Sexual Shame Survey Results: The TEDx Talk

The idea of sex without shame may sound about as beautiful and possible as a world without war. But we need to work towards both, (and will try to avoid mentioning the porn collection found in Osama Bin Laden’s den when he was killed, illustrating, perhaps, a metaphorical link between shame and violence. And the fact that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors.)

That was the point of the TEDx talk that I gave on sexual shame. As I was preparing to give the talk, it occurred to me, perhaps a little too late, that there was very little research on sexual shame amongst “straight” folks. And that no matter how compelling I was (which remained to be seen, because I was so nervous I could barely think about it) I would still need to find a way to show people that they were part of the shame soup in which we all swim.

The idea wasn’t as simple as “do you feel shame?” That is a hard enough question to answer because we have all been taught to interpret shame as some form of weakness, which then makes us feel even more ashamed. Further, our shame about sexuality is so deeply ingrained that in many cases we neither notice nor question it. I know that having been raised by feminists and survived rape, I felt shame about the fact that, for whatever reason, I am wired to like rough sex. I had been taught that it was demeaning, and therefore never asked for it and believed that I was “right” not to ask for it. I didn’t question whether “right” was really just a societal code word for “shame.”

The point I was more interested to make with my audience, however, was that we, as a society, are responsible for how other people feel shame. As I said in the talk, I see shame as an external force that is placed on you by other people as a way to control you. What I wanted the audience to do is ask themselves if they understood that. If they could be responsible for it.

But goodness, that sounds so accusatory. It implies all sorts of negative intent, which is unfair. After all, we all feel protective of our sexual beings, and have a very natural fear when anything approaches our sexuality. As a result, our fear of people whose sexuality is different than ours may feel like shaming to them, even if that wasn’t our intent.

So how do you open that up in a way that people can look at it?

Two nights before my talk, I had an idea to do a very quick (and it turned out, also very sloppy) survey with the audience. 10 overly simple questions about sexual shame in a survey that would be crumbled up and anonymously thrown around the audience enough times that nobody would be able to trace whose answers they were reading. The audience would then pick up a survey and read it. My hope was that they would all see something that was so similar to their own answers that they would realize our fears around sexuality were very similar, regardless of how different we are. But more than that, I wanted people to know what it was like to hold someone else’s “fear” and “shame” and “hope” in their hands. What it would feel like to do so without shutting down.

I wanted to start building a cultural muscle of acceptance.

At first, I wasn’t even going to collect the surveys – which is part of why they were not written in a more careful manner. But, the data-whore in me just could not stand the idea of all that juicy data spilling on the floor with no one to quantify it. So I collected them. And they were fascinating.

So fascinating that I posted the same survey online, and got more answers. SO FASCINATING.

First, the demographics:

56.1 % Female. 43.9% male. (0% trans because yours truly didn’t do that right and didn’t ask the question right, though people filled it in, so there are some answers that are trans specific even though I didn’t specifically ask for it. I should have known better.)


Under 30: 35.2% 31-50: 50.0% 51-65: 12.5% 66 or older: 2.3%

Sexual Orientation:

This fits well within the range of data I could find in existing research, that was kind of gratifying.

Heterosexual: 69.2% Homosexual: 32% Bisexual: 22.1% Other: 43%

Relationship Orientation:

Yes, I tend to think of some people being innately monogamous and polyamorous in the same way that people seem to be innately gay, straight or bi. This number surprised me. I assume that the number is quite skewed because the people who would have spread this survey around the web are likely to be more sexually open than the general population, but then again, I don’t know. Polyamory is certainly one of those things about which people are fairly hush-hush.

How Fulfilled Are You With Your Sex Life?

The general breakdown seems like a pretty healthy and predictable spread to me, but it gets a little more interesting when you break it down a bit.

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Women V. Men

Look at the “fully fulfilled” line. Women 32.8% and Men 19%. What’s that about? Especially when you compare it to the “good Enough, I Guess” line, Men 34.8% and Women 23.6%

Sexual Orientation

Then look at the “Fully Fulfilled” sample: 57.1% of gay respondents as opposed to 24.6% of straight respondents. What’s that about? I want to wonder out loud about the idea that maybe if you had to fight against the grain, and shame, to claim your sexuality, you actually do “claim” it with more vim and vigor? That would be an interesting question to ask.

Lastly, let’s look at age, especially the 66 and older set.

The spread here was really at the edges. 40% have no sex life, and 30% have a sex life beyond their wildest fantasies, with 30% filling out the three middle options to flesh out the range.

Are There Things About Your Sex Life That You Are Afraid Other People Will Find Out?

I was a little surprised to only find 20.7% are careful to hide something. Though when you add in 34.3% aware of potential embarrassment, that’s about half of us hoping no one finds out.

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But let’s crosstab that one for sexual orientation as well.

Gay and Bi are 10% higher than straight when it comes to hiding. But roughly the same amount lower when it comes to embarrassment but not fear.

What about age?

Are You Afraid Of Losing Something Because Of Your Sexual Activities?

Damn, look at that. Pretty much everyone is afraid of losing the respect of the people in their lives because of their sexual activities. Ouch. That fear? That’s the precursor of shame. That’s relevant.

Are There Sexual Things You’d Like To Try But Are Afraid To Ask For?

For the most part, this was the same across all orientations, which I interpreted as a confirmation that we’re all pretty much the same on that one. We all fear rejection, we’re all a little afraid to try something new. We’re all a little kinkier than we think those around us are.

Have You Engaged In Sexual Activities That You Didn’t Really Want To Do?

I am not sure what I was looking for here. People who were gay but having straight sex? People who felt pressured? The gray area between date rape and regrettable sex? (And yes, I do see that as a very large gray area in which many people I know have spent time, myself included.)

In general, this interested me, again because of the distribution at the edges rather than a nice steady spread.

But let’s break this one out by orientation also. Still at the edges, but the reverse correlation here between Straight and everything else totally fascinates me.

If you Found Out That A Colleague You Enjoy Is Into Sex That You Think Is “Weird,” Would It Change Your Opinion Of That Person?

Well, check that out, virtually no one would be more guarded or want to end a relationship. Most people either wouldn’t care at all, or would find their colleague more interesting. Is it possible that we’re all a little more worried than we need to be?

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And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, what are we all doing, or thinking about doing, behind closed doors?

Which Of The Following Things Are You Into, Whether You’ve Done Them or Not (check as many as you want.)

Well, check that out. I don’t even know how to respond to that, except with a flirty “I told you so.” Whatever you’re thinking about trying, chances are really good, your friends, colleagues and even your lover might be into it too.

But let’s break it down by gender and see how it looks.

Almost twice as many women as men are into the idea of same sex sex, which won’t surprise very many people. Slightly more men than women report liking porn, and slightly more women than men like toys, no huge surprise there. What stands out to me is how similar both men and women are.

Lastly, let’s see if those gay / bi / trans people are really so much “weirder” than the rest of us.

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Well damn, look at that. Straight people are more into costumes, porn, bondage, anal sex and group sex than gay people. That kind of blows the whole “gay people do weird things that erode society for us straight people” nonsense. It also kind of blows the “straight sex is boring” nonsense.

Sex is a many splendored thing, that’s for sure. While this was FAR from solid science, it’s a pretty interesting snapshot of the American sexual psyche. Hopefully it can be the beginning of a dialog from which we can learn that we are diverse, and it is not as simple as gay /straight / by / trans or any of the other labels that we use to define and confine each other. That there is a lot of fear and shame around sexuality, and most of it is unfounded, since most of us don’t care what other people are doing – maybe because most of us are doing it too.


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