In a recent Q&A session I did for a school (teachers, book yours here) I was asked this very good question: how do I get over the shame of sharing a nude?
How was the nude sent
If you shared a nude with someone who then broke your trust (and consent) they should feel shame, not you. Too often it’s the person who sent the picture is the person who feels shame of sharing a nude. There are lots of reasons for that (including how Sex Ed is taught, more below), but it’s wrong. If you did something with consent and the other person broke that consent then they are wrong, not you.
If you shared a nude with someone who didn’t ask to see it then shame is probably the right emotion for you to feel. Sadly this happens a lot, commonly with lads sending dick pics. You might have heard the phrase ‘unsolicited dick pic’, that’s what this is. It’s also not cool to send someone a picture of any other part of your body if they didn’t want to see it (whether they were upset by it or not).
If you shared a private nude of someone else then yes, be ashamed of that too. Sending a private nude of someone without their permission is wrong, even if other people have seen it. If the nude is of someone under 18 then you are breaking the law.
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Have you made someone feel shame when they shouldn’t? What happens in your school about this? Read this on how bullying happens and what you can do to stop it.
So I hope this is pretty clear so far. You shouldn’t feel ashamed of sending a nude if you were sending it in the context of a consensual relationship. If you shared an image of yourself without consent, then yeah be somewhat ashamed. Also feel quite a lot of shame if you shared someone else’s private image without their consent.
The law and nudes
One of the reasons that people people feel shame from sharing a nude is that the law in this area is a bit strange and the teaching of it is a bit basic. You might have been taught that ‘if you are under 18 and share a nude then you are breaking the law and so is the other person’. Under the law, this is correct.
However it implies that everyone who sends or receives a nude from someone under 18 is as wrong as each other (the legal term for this is ‘culpable’). As I’ve said above (and I’m sure you’ll agree with me) this is isn’t true and the way the law is used actually reflects that. I’ve explained this in more detail at my Sexting and the Law article. But if person A, sends a nude to person B (their partner), and then B sends that to person C without permission of person A, then B & C are in the wrong. It would be B & C who would be prosecuted and person A would be the victim not a criminal. The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines are pretty clear about that.
The reason this is really important is that the victim of a nude being shared without their permission should always be able to report it, even if they technically also broke the law.
Here’s more advice about how to be good at sexting.
Bad Sex Ed
Also Sex Ed’s role in this is really important. If the above wasn’t properly explained to you when you had the ‘dangers of sexting’ talk, then you will think that anyone sending a nude is in the wrong and ‘brought it on themselves’. This is an example of victim blaming. See also ‘they shouldn’t have been wearing a tight skirt’. Or ‘what were they doing out at night anyway’. And also ‘well they could have just turned off the Friends reunion episode, we didn’t make them watch it’.
Obviously the last one is a joke (don’t watch Friends) but do you see my point? When sex and relationships education oversimplifies things like this it can actually do more harm than good. It can actually increase the shame of doing consensual sex, rather than reducing it. It’s Bad Sex Ed Bingo in fact.
That said, I’m not encouraging you to send nudes under 18, but I’m not going to shame you into not doing it either. Just get the facts and think about it for yourself.
Uses of shame
Earlier on I was saying that in some cases, when you’ve done something wrong, that maybe you should feel shame. That might sound strange to you because we hear that shame is a bad thing and we shouldn’t be made to feel it. I disagree, shame is a very useful emotion when we have done something wrong. When people say that (eg) politicians are shameless for lying, or not apologising for bad things they’ve done, this is what they mean.
Shame is one of the key emotions that we feel. In the excellent film Inside Out they call it ‘disgust’ and it sits alongside anger, sadness, joy, and fear. All of these are useful emotions because they help us to look after ourselves and others. It’s just that we need to pay attention to them.
Shame has always been useful internally but has also been used for centuries as a way of punishing people. Examples of this are when people are shunned from tribal communities because of theft. Or being put in some stocks and ridiculed in the market square. Nowadays people doing community service might be forced to wear a high visibility tabard which labels them as an offender.
I’m not sure I’m into using shame as a punishment, but I do think that it’s useful to feel some internal shame if you’ve done something wrong.
How to feel shame
You might feel some redness in the cheeks, or like you want to turn away from the world. Maybe you might want to get rid of the emotion and jump to one of the other ones. Instead of that can you sit with it. Gently use that time to think of how you might have hurt someone, what you need to learn from it, and how you can make up for it. Big breaths, lean into it, and when you’ve done that allow yourself a treat.
I have a couple of articles related to this. This one about making someone else accountable,and this is one where I tell someone how they can be accountable.
Where shame isn’t good and useful
If you’re feeling the shame of sharing a nude, when you did nothing wrong, then shame is not going to be a useful feeling for you. Perhaps you might be able to catch those first signs in your body. Maybe it’s a tingling in your face, or a feeling in your tummy, you will know better than me.
When you notice the emotion beginning, just gently give yourself a bit of coaching advice. ‘It’s not me who should be feeling this feeling’. ‘There’s nothing for me to feel ashamed about’. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong here’. Don’t fight the emotion but just allow it to leave the body. There might be other emotions such as anger (at being let down) or sadness (that you have lost trust in someone) that you could allow in instead.
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If you are feeling stress in your body about this check out my article on how to deal with stress. It’s really good and has an amusing drawing of me in a panda onesie.
Feel the feelings and try to move on
Whether you have done something wrong or not it’s helpful just to learn to move on. We all make mistakes and, whether we have done wrong or not, it’s good to remember that we are all learning and changing and growing all the time. The key with feelings is to be able to feel them for as long as is useful and then be able to let go. Allow them to be in your life and allow them to leave.
If you find yourself being bogged down in shame for a lot of the time, then you might find it useful to speak to someone who can help. For example a counsellor or someone like that at school. Feeling stuck in a feeling for a lot of the time is not useful to you or to anyone else. Just like being stuck in fear for extended periods might be called anxiety. Or being stuck in sadness for a while might be depression. Being stuck in shame for a while is called chronic shame. This is something that you can explore with someone who can help you.
Check out the services page to look for the young people’s services near you in the UK. Also check out Young Minds on where and how to get help.
© Justin Hancock, 2021.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here