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.
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:
- STIs are stigmatizing. Unlike other infections, they’re seen as dirty, immoral, and/or degrading. Charlie Glickman points out how irrational this is – nobody thinks you’re a disgusting human being for having the measles or the flu, for instance.
- Sex work is stigmatizing. For whatever reason, selling your body under capitalism is fine when you’re using your hands to build or clean things, but not when you’re giving people sexual pleasure. And this taint is a long-standing one: if someone’s outed as a sex worker it can become difficult for them to find employment, maintain custody of their kids, and so on. This is an excellent read about how criminal laws reproduce stigma against sex workers.
- Women who get abortions or have miscarriages face stigma. Cultural silencing of these experiences is harmful and can isolate women when connection and empathy would help the most.
- Alternative gender identities carry stigma. It can be difficult for people who don’t conform to their expected gender box to date, use a public restroom without harassment, keep a job, or even stay alive (transgender people are at disproportionately high risk for violence and murder). Note that this can affect people who are cisgender (meaning they identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) as well as people who are transgender, intersex, and so on.
- Alternative sexual orientations are seen as stigmatizing. The fact that gay conversion therapy still exists (though it’s mostly discredited) is proof of this. People who choose to be non-monogamous or to engage in kink/BDSM are often regarded as deviant, weird, or broken.
- Being sexually available (a.k.a. “slutty” or promiscuous) carries stigma. As this study shows, there’s a double standard for promiscuity by gender, and women’s decisions about whether to have uncommitted sex are influenced by perceived negative stigma.
- Even people who study sex can be tainted by association. Scholars Natalie Hammond and Sarah Kingston note: “Just as paying for sex lies outside of the boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour and moral conduct and selling sex is seen as a dishonourable way to earn a living, research into such a topic is also held in less regard.”
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.