Embarrassment as a barrier to communicate about sex

Sex & sexuality is something that's difficult to ignore in our lives because it's everywhere. It's reflected in magazine and TV advertising, fashion, music, TV series and movies, it’s part of our culture. One could conclude that a majority of us is open, relaxed and comfortable talking about it, but often the opposite is true. In fact, a lot of people find it extremely hard to talk about sex. It can be a sensitive and awkward topic that raises feelings of embarrassment, shame or inadequacy.

Embarrassment is one of the often-ignored emotions of young people when it comes to discussing issues around sexual health weather it’s about prevention and/or treating dysfunctions. There have been many sexual health studies on knowledge, attitudes and behavior of young people over the past two decades, but emotional aspects have been largely ignored, despite a growing literature among sociologists.
So, why is it so difficult to talk about sex?

Sexual communication involves a degree of risk.  By opening up and talking about sex with our intimate partners, we can become vulnerable to judgment, criticism or sometimes even if temporary, rejection. Revealing your sexual desires to your partner can therefore be scary, especially when your partner's spontaneous reaction is not positive, which can make you feel embarrassed, ashamed or humiliated.

Avoiding embarrassment, as for many of us, is a compelling drive. [1] Embarrassment exists among young people around issues related to sex education and sexual health services, but it seems to decline when young teenagers grow older. Not only are there elements of sexuality, sexual health and sex education that some young people themselves perceive to be embarrassing, they also sense a feeling of embarrassment in adults providing them with sexual advice/education, including teachers, parents & family and health professionals.[2,3]

Thus, it is important for policy makers, teachers and sexual health promoters to acknowledge and understand young people's emotions, especially feelings of embarrassment, in order to be able to improve future sex education and advice and tackle potential barriers among young people before counselling starts.[3]

MD, FECSM Carla Veiga Rodrigues & MD FEBU FECSM Sam Ward


Suggested readings

  • [1] Tangney JP, Miller RS, Flicker L, Barlow DH. Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? J Pers Soc Psychol 1996;70:1256–69. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.70.6.1256.
  • [2] Widman L, Choukas-Bradley S, Noar SM, Nesi J, Garrett K. Parent-Adolescent Sexual Communication and Adolescent Safer Sex Behavior. JAMA Pediatr 2016;170:52. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.2731.
  • [3] van Teijlingen E, Reid J, Shucksmith J, Harris F, Philip K, Imamura M, et al. Embarrassment as a Key Emotion in Young People Talking about Sexual Health. Sociol Res Online 2007;12:1–16. doi:10.5153/sro.1535.
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