Stigma & Sexuality

If we define stigma as an undesirable identity that gets attributed to a person (often against their wishes), then it’s possible to explore the intersections of stigma and sexual identity, sexual acts, and so on.

CDC image in public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.
CDC image in public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

In this blog post I’ll describe some of these connections, and in an upcoming post, I’ll talk about why the stigma around STI status is such a public health concern (but could be easily fixed with better comprehensive, accurate, and shame-free sex education). Additionally, people who are stigmatized face higher risks of violence, discrimination, and microaggressions (which can add up, even if they’re “small” things like slurs and insults).

So, stigma and sex. Which sexual acts can you think of that are regarded as deviant, wrong, dirty, and polluting? Which sexual identities are seen as tainting someone beyond redemption? Here are a few of my thoughts on these connections:

This is a far from exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a start. Until recently masturbation was seen as pretty damning, and some folks still think it should cast shame and stigma on its practitioners. Same with premarital sex and divorce. Other supposedly “weird” sex acts get treated similarly, like phone sex or anal sex. The list goes on and on.

There are so many ways in which deviating from “the norm” in terms of sexual identity, sexual acts, and gender identity/expression can stigmatize a person – and most of these are pretty benign acts and identities when you get down to it. For example, infidelity sucks, but is not the same thing as consensual non-monogamy (like swinging or polyamory). There needs to be a cultural conversation around how we treat people who are sexual assault perpetrators or who experience attraction to minors, but that doesn’t mean we should lump into that same stigmatized group folks who play with these ideas in consensual adult fantasies.

In short, I think the dialogue around stigma and sexuality needs to be nuanced in a number of ways. We need better ways of talking about actual harm (rather than ontological harm, which I discuss here) and better ways of distinguishing sexualities that are common from those that are upheld as normal. What does normal even mean, anyway?! It’s high time to stop punishing people from departing from social norms, terms of sexuality and beyond.

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