Shadow work is a term in healing and Psychology that relates to working with the parts of ourselves we try to deny or disown. Carl Jung saw the shadow as everything that a person refuses to acknowledge about themselves.
The shadow is different for everyone, and shadow work–the work of recognising and integrating our shadow–is never done. After all, we change, and what we deny or disown can also change with time.
This blog entry is about sexuality as part of our shadow. We’ve also reached a point in modern culture where we have no lack of language to talk about sexuality and can define ourselves as some combination of straight/queer/asexual/hypersexual/aromantic/polyamorous/monogamous/cis/trans/nonbinary/etc; we also recognise our need for connection and/or touch, have started canceling kink-shaming or any shame around sex; and have status labels for every kind of relationship. In progressive circles (and definitely out of most religious spaces), these terms have largely been de-stigmatised and the information on oneself can be offered as openly as one’s Myers-Briggs type. Friends can discuss fuckbois and thirst traps and sexual health in the same conversations about ice cream goals.
I remember growing up in a very different world and I could not be more happy about the open, accepting, and more informed culture I can now choose for myself. Of course, large pockets of older and/or more conservative people still choose to see these topics around sex, attraction, and relationships as private and taboo, with traditional rules not to be fucked with or else it’s the end of civilisation.
(On that note, civilisation has always been built on shared knowledge and wisdom. Refusing information in preference for judgmental ignorance, prejudice and superstition is usually what holds back progress, or undoes it. Sexual mores in different cultures in history have at times been very different but puritanical ones may persist today thanks to certain organised religions.)
(Janet sotto voce: Maybe no one will notice the fighting words if I put them in parentheses.)
I am still learning and growing in my relationship with sexuality. As with every other part of my life, I’ve been gathering experiences and thoughts, letting these bubble and cook till I fling them onto a page. This is that page, and I offer it not as wisdom or Truth, but an exercise in my own sense-making.
Sexuality as the Shadow
I was taught to split myself off from my body. Not in a cool astral-projection way (though I did that too, later). But to hate it. To not feel it. To wish myself disconnected from this mortal coil, to see the body as a burden and a prison, especially when puberty and health issues hit. (Life After “Dead Inside” Part 3 records part of this.)
The value of the body, as I subconscious learned it, was in how it could be monetised and appreciated/used by others. If it wasn’t beautiful to others or doing something productive, it was worth less. Of course, no one actually said this out loud. It was just reinforced by the parental figures’ non-stop commentary on the female bodies and faces on TV, and the judging of people’s worth by their salary/possessions/status. It’s naturally inevitable that I learned to evaluate everyone, myself included, by these measures.
Sex, sexuality and sexual attractiveness in this environment was commodified, at the same time sex was shameful product, at least according to my mother. Sex was stripped of its emotional worth, just as emotional anything was basically anathema in the home. It was a very misogynistic view of sex; with no mention of consent, desire, and or even fun anywhere in the conversation, to say less of likes and contraceptive options.
Thankfully I got my sexual education from other places, but as I mentioned before, some things can still be subconsciously absorbed.
So when I started working for the Eros Guide in 2004, it actually wasn’t a bad fit. I held no prejudices against adults providing other adults… company. I also didn’t question the self-apparent truth that guys were horndogs and some could pay for whatever they wanted; I also assumed mutual informed consent. Of course there can be unequal power dynamics, but that’s a topic I’ll leave to others, like Philosophy Tube’s Sex Work.
Me, I’d learned to see my sexual needs the same way I saw my emotional needs: They were uncomfortable and I didn’t have them. Also, I was “better” than others for denying them while not being squeamish or religiously brainwashed on the topic. Sexual organs and drives all were just part of the frailty of the physical body, and mine sucked because endometriosis and allergies and suspected PCOS.
The sexuality part of my shadow was not about sex, or the shame others associated with it. It was not lack of education. My shadow was tied to the emotional aspect of sex. The emotional, feeling side of me had learned to associate all emotional needs with shame, rejection, betrayal and abandonment. It’d learned to hide all desire, disappointment, weakness and failure or else the Critical Voice would come in. It would tell me everything I did wrong, or that my mistake was in trying, feeling, caring, or wanting. (ie. Janet was a bad Buddhist; stoicism and self-denial were the only answers to everything, obviously. /s)
Even writing this, there is an anticipation that I’ll be criticised because I’m not ashamed of the “correct” parts of sexuality. Thing is, most mainstream/religious authority figures struggle with their own sexuality and our education in it will always be adversely affected until we remove shame from the topic.
Healing Shame and Sexuality
Part of shadow work and healing / reparenting ourselves means recognising the needs and aspects we might have been taught to deny and disown. In many cultures, sexuality was and still continues to be made to be part of our shadow. Damaged or misinformed as our authority figures may have been, we don’t have to inherit their ignorance or limits, especially in this age of information.
Sex positivity is thus an empowering and healing movement, and needed in the shadow work that involves one’s sexuality. Working with one’s sexuality is also a journey that takes time, like any healing. And it is better served in an environment that does NOT make this topic, its discussion and its learning methods, feel unsafe.
Everyone has the right to understand their sexuality and to enjoy physical pleasure without shame.
News (for July-August 2020)
I am one of the partners and presenters for the upcoming Sugar & Spice Virtual Festival, Asia’s first sex and sexuality festival by Asians and for Asians. I will be presenting on the topic of open relationships and polyamory with Janice Leong. This international festival of Zoom talks and webinars is happening online from August 1st to the 15th, with my topic being hosted on August 6th. Early Bird Ticket prices apply until July 28th! Participants are entitled to recordings of the presentations for up till 30 days after the end of the Festival. Do check it out here!