Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor/Committee Member

John W. Thoburn

Second Advisor/Committee Member

Lynette H. Bikos

Third Advisor/Committee Member

Tina Sellers


Although sexual shame is widely present in social discourse and has previously been described clinically—as shame related to sexual thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attitudes—it has not been defined in an operational manner that can be empirically tested. This study creates a bridge between the colloquial knowledge regarding sexual shame found in clinical practice and the way in which sexual shame is defined and measured scientifically in the psychological research literature. Grounded theory was used in this study to generate theory related to the development and experience of sexual shame. The concept of sexual shame was explored from both a personal and clinical perspective, by interviewing two groups of participants: women who self-identified as having experienced sexual shame, and AASECT certified therapists who worked with individuals who experience sexual shame. Interviews were conducted with 15 total participants from both constituents. Lay participants (N = 9) added depth to the understanding of the phenomenology of sexual shame and were diverse in regard to age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Therapist participants (N = 6) provided rich information about sexual shame from their years of experience in clinical practice (M = 20.6) and were similarly diverse in regard to ethnicity as well as training disciplines. Two primary thematic constructs were identified related to the etiology of sexual shame as well as a phenomenological understanding of sexual shame. This study provides evidence for the emergence of sexual shame occurring across systemic levels of influence: from individual experiences at a microsystemic level up through influences from culture and society. Additionally, this study presents a model of sexual shame across systemic influences, and includes four subconstructs related to sexual shame: Internalized Sexual Shame, Partnered Relational Shame, Body/Biological Shame, and Vulnerability Shame. Each of these concepts adds to the understanding of the phenomenology of sexual shame and assist in differentiating the experience of sexual shame from a more global experience of shame as commonly defined in the psychological literature.

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