Sex and shame in the encounter with death: a brief existential exploration

Jacquie Keelan

The focus of this essay is on both the embodied nature of shame, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualisation of the incarnate consciousness (1945); and on its interpersonal nature, characterised by Sartre as centring on the gaze of the Other (1943). In Sartre’s view, the gaze turns me from a for-itself (a human being) into an in-itself (an object) and the experience of shame can only occur in connection with the Other.

I will use the experience of sexuality described by two clients, one recently bereaved and one with a life-limiting illness, to explore and illustrate the theoretical underpinning of this view of shame as manifested in the encounter with death.

Heidegger describes us as beings-towards-death (1927), hiding from this awareness even while it stands before us. However, the difference between an intellectual awareness of the inevitability of death and a direct encounter with death in lived reality is profound. Yalom describes the confrontation with one’s death as “the nonpareil boundary situation” (1980,159), which propels one into a radical re-appraisal of one’s existential situation in the world.

Both clients referred to in this essay were living with the reality of meeting death directly. I will therefore also consider the applicability and usefulness of a theoretical conceptualisation of sex and shame to working therapeutically with clients in this boundary situation.

Existential philosophy holds that we live in the tension between polarities, so it is not surprising that a confrontation with death provokes a re-evaluation of life, perhaps even a search for ‘more’ life to ward off the ever-present threat of death.
It has been my experience that clients can invest sex with talismanic properties. Horne points out that sex is “one of our most vital, powerful and life-affirming activities as humans” (in Barnett, 2009, 68). Its embedded socio-cultural connotations of creation (whatever our practises, beliefs or choices), combined with the real possibility of losing oneself in an intense realm of the senses, can offer a powerful if temporary respite from rumination on death – which may otherwise seem inescapable.

Merleau-Ponty and embodiment

When Merleau-Ponty talks about the lived body he means my whole relation to the world as experienced through my body, encompassing my pre-reflective, historic bodily experience. My relation to the world is expressed through embodiment or being-in-the-world. I am my body and my body is intentional, dialogic and situational; a mind-body-world inter-related system.

For Merleau-Ponty, sexuality is a primordial way of being, an ontological as well as ontic experience. “In so far as man’s sexual history provides a key to his life, it is because in his sexuality is projected his manner of being towards the world, that is towards time and other men” (1962, 158).

Also, “Existence permeates sexuality and vice versa… There is no outstripping of sexuality any more than there is sexuality enclosed within itself” (1962, 169). Sartre is in agreement, concluding after an analysis of desire that sexuality is “a necessary structure of being-for-itself-for-others” (1943, 384). Both also see sexual behaviour as one aspect of sexuality.
Merleau-Ponty does not discuss shame here in relation to sexuality. But he does point out how the body expresses the ambiguity of existence in an endless dialectical oscillation between action and reaction, seeing and being seen, touching and being touched etc. As such, we contain subject and object as potentialities that are constantly re-calibrating (1962).

Sartre and ‘the Other’

Sartre elaborates the ambiguity in relation to shame (1943). For him, the interpersonal nature of being is what produces shame and he shows how my body becomes foreign to me when exposed to the gaze of the Other.

Hence I feel no shame in looking through the keyhole but I do feel shame when I realise I have been spotted doing so: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as on an object, for it is as an Object that I appear to the Other.” (1943, 302)

This experience of shame happens when my body’s free, spontaneous and pre-reflective expression in the world is abruptly interrupted and my intentionality forced back onto myself. The existence of the Other has reified and objectified me: I am now self-reflective and I don’t like what I see, which is what the Other sees. I make judgements about the appropriateness of my behaviour and thus shame becomes potently alive.

This intellectual response of self-judgement is compounded by a physical response. My own returning gaze may be subjugated by the Other’s: I cannot meet their eye, I look away, I try to hide. I may also blush or stammer. The affective component is to be found in my feeling response of embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace; states which only make sense ‘in relation to’. My alteration, precipitated by the eye of the beholder, is total. I am suffused with shame.

Clinical example 1

An example from my clinical work may lend weight to the power of the role of the gaze in shame. Susan’s husband had recently been killed in a motorcycle accident, along with their teenage daughter who had taken Susan’s place as a pillion passenger. Susan initially came for 10 sessions, talked almost exclusively about funeral and financial arrangements and their son’s grief, and declined further sessions.

Some months later she returned. This time she talked about the sexual encounters she had begun with a number of her husband’s friends within weeks of his death. She said she was concerned about possible complications to her social network, but insisted she was not ashamed of her behaviour “per se” (as if it were without context), having done what was necessary to get through a dreadful time. However, her body told a different story. For our first couple of meetings, Susan kept her eyes on the floor or gazed into the middle distance, occasionally glancing up to meet my eye before looking away again.

To avert my gaze felt collusive in what I supposed was shame. To even talk about shame felt undermining of Susan’s autonomy. Over time, Susan began to raise her eyes and make more frequent eye contact until we could regard one another calmly and comfortably.

Feeling shame about her shame (as she later described her situation) was compounding Susan’s misery. Denying the shame existed allowed her to continue to believe she had done nothing to be ashamed of. Not meeting my eye meant she didn’t have to acknowledge any other possible perspective. This mental juggling act was proving very hard to sustain.

I hope I didn’t judge Susan. But, being forced to view oneself in a new light, is inescapably prompted by the Other’s gaze. It is a reminder of my inherent ambiguity in that I am never entirely what I think I am and neither am I what the Other thinks I am. Sartre says, “It is a shameful apprehension of something and this something is me. I am ashamed of what I am” (1943, 301). Shame profoundly shakes my sense of self.

Crucial here is the point that I am being shown something that I recognise as me, which is why I experience shame. The Other’s gaze has not created a new me but reminded me of a view of myself I am already aware of but try to keep from my immediate awareness because it causes me pain.

Clinical example 2

The power of the gaze in showing us another, shaming dimension of ourselves could also be seen in the case of John. At 72, he was in the late stages of a terminal illness. His 45-year marriage to Miriam had been “up and down” but their sex life had always been good until his diagnosis two years earlier.

John was acutely conscious of his rapidly declining virility, frustrated that he’d been advised against taking Viagra, and angry with himself for “leaving it too late” to have as much sex as he wanted. He was desperate to have sex again because it “makes me feel alive.” But on the one occasion he attempted sex with Miriam, he saw what he read as a look of disgust in her eyes and was unable to continue. His body was battle-scarred by his illness and although Miriam cared for him intimately on a daily basis, John felt that in this context she was seeing it – that is, him – with fresh eyes, as an old man who was dying.

John felt profoundly ashamed. Firstly of his body, which he saw as ugly and non-sexual – another aspect of life he was barred from – secondly, his emotional courage in opening up his whole self or embodied consciousness to his wife had left him vulnerable. Her rejection, as he saw it, diminished him entirely. Rather than making him feel alive, the experience represented the failure of the miracle cure and death felt closer than ever.

I suggest that it is the inextricable inter-relatedness of these dual loci of shame – the body and the consciousness; or, existentially, the body-subject – plus the encounter with the Other – that makes sexuality a particularly fertile and fascinating field in which to examine the experience of shame. Like Gabriel Marcel, Merleau Ponty can claim that I am my body: “I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation” (1943,452). My body’s ugliness is my ugliness, my body’s failure is my failure; I cannot protect ‘myself’ by separating them, and my lived experience proves this to me.

Perhaps anticipating something akin to John’s experience of feeling fully seen with her new sexual partners, Susan favoured positions that hid the parts of her body she disliked and, equally importantly, enabled her to avoid eye contact. When one partner tried to look in her eyes during sex, she ended the encounter and the relationship.

Being seen, bad faith and intimacy

In both cases, it may be that the gaze of the Other threatened to expose something in Susan and John that they disliked in themselves: that is, a comforting but self-deceptive belief that they had control over their place in the world and their destiny at a time when life (or death) had shown them how little control they really had. Sex was an attempt to forget reality or disengage from life, and a defence against death.

Whether what Susan’s lovers or Miriam were seeing was the same thing that Susan and John were trying to hide is not important. The gaze itself was sufficient reminder to both of Bad Faith, or consciousness’ lie to itself, and having this dimension of themselves seen and reflected back was intolerable to both.

Sexual desire or activity is not always about the search for intimacy. A relationship may be too demanding or painful and what is preferable is a form of relationship “made safe by denying the possibility of reciprocal awareness, of being known and ‘seen’” (in Milton 2014, 99). Pearce also notes the ease with which a search for intimacy “can lead to its opposite” (in Milton 2014, 94).

What was safe for Susan seems to me in retrospect to have much of Sartre’s sado-masochism at its heart, in its refusal to meet the Other in terms of equality or intimacy (1943, 379-410). Her refusal to look into her partners’ eyes during sex was an attempt to protect herself from being either objectified or fully seen. The dialectical self, known by the Other, is the basis of the sense of shame. Pre-emptively, Susan was objectifying her partners.

In Buberian terms, we might see it as the ‘I-It’ relationship, with Susan the ‘I’. (1923). It is important to remember here that Buber’s relational modes are oppositional, and each always has the potential to morph into the other. But to Susan any alteration from her chosen relational mode represented a threat to her self-protective self-deception.

The sense of self, desire and nothingness

Sexual desire can also be missing from the pursuit of sexual activity. Susan said of one partner, “I didn’t even fancy him, I just wanted to forget everything for a while.”

Madison talks about the co-created interaction that is lost in bereavement, where “the bereaved person not only metaphorically but also literally has lost a part of their world” (in Deurzen and Arnold-Baker 2005, 200). Pearce discusses the role of sexual activity “in our search for ourselves through others” (in Milton 2014, 94). These ideas find congruence and their origin in the Sartrean notion of consciousness as a nothingness forever seeking to fill its nothingness (1943).
Having lost some sense of her selfhood when she lost her husband and daughter, it was this Susan sought to reinforce through the sexual encounter, not physical fulfilment.

Rather than aiming for true intimacy with Miriam, John was also attempting to reinforce his undermined sense of self through the sexual encounter. In this he can be compared with Yalom’s Marvin for whom “sex was just an ineffective means of trying to drain off surges of anxiety, springing from more fundamental sources” (1989, Loc 4085).
Just as neither Susan nor John wanted to be fully seen and subjected to the shame provoked by being seen, neither wanted to see their partner fully in the type of relationship that Sartre calls double reciprocal incarnation (1943: 391). This is the mutual, simultaneous apprehension of the Other’s subjectness and objectness, an ideal state belonging to sexual desire and destroyed by sexual contact.

The encounters I’ve described here weren’t about sexual desire but seem to illustrate Sartre’s rather bleak view of sex as struggle, conflict, power and possession. The encounters became unsuccessful peekaboo games of shame-avoidance through the avoidance of being truly seen.

However, both John and Susan had had past experiences of truly intimate, loving sexual encounters and I would suggest that this history (Merleau-Ponty’s “habitual body” [1945]) contributed to why the experience of shame around their latest sexual behaviour was so painful. They knew something was amiss. Sex had become a means to a self-serving end in the face of extreme existential threat; its failure forced them to face the threat.


The challenge of working with sexual difficulties is the possibility that practitioners may find their good intentions and expertise hampered by attendant complications of shame. I wonder if this is lessened when the stated theme of the work is death, particularly as a newly encountered boundary situation; in its shadow, it has been my experience that little else is taboo.

It has also been my experience that a framework of existential theory around sexuality and shame is hugely beneficial for deeper client work, in that it can help free both participants from the shackles of shame that inhibit open disclosure, frank discussion, and a more creative exploration of the client’s subjective experiential world.

Finally, like all our experiences, our sexual history is written on our body. While our past does not determine our present, it does influence our present and current behaviour is always best understood in its broader contextual perspective as described by the client.


Jacquie Keelan is a qualified person-centred counsellor and currently a trainee psychotherapist on the DProf in Existential Psychotherapy & Counselling at NSPC, London. She works at a hospice and has a particular interest in loss and end-of-life, and in PTSD and birth trauma.


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