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Sex, shame and society

Fri 18 Dec 2009 In: Comment View at NDHA

What does 'shame' really mean in the context of sexual politics and LGBT communities? Or in wider social and political contexts that affect us? As often tends to be the case, Canada's Xtra had a thought-provoking recent article on the subject of shame and sexual health and what it might mean. On the definitional level, 'shame' is the flipside of 'pride.' Whereas pride involves self-esteem, self-assertion and the active assertion of identity and one's needs, shame involves self-negation, self-hatred, concealment, closetry, duplicity, avoidance and denial. But what causes shame itself? Shame has two dimensions. Granted, there are times where feelings of self-hatred, concealment, anxiety and self-isolation are the product of one's unfortunate neuroanatomy. Happily, antidepressant medication and psychotherapy are there to keep one well and rewire one's neurohormonal sequencing and social interactions. One does not have to live in self-hatred, closeted and shut away from one's own needs and social interaction because of that. I should know. I've lived with depression for most of my adult life, but I will not let it define the terms of my life and how I live it. However, shame is also a social construct. It is the product of shamemongering dominant social institutions which seek to coerce women, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, lower socio-economic groups and other uneasily subordinated populations to internalise negative labels and attributions about bodily shapes, bodily processes, sexuality, ethnic identity and cultural values, economic marginality, transgender and intersexed identities and other aspects of bodily existence and social experience. If we accept these ideologies of shamemongering, self-negation and self-hatred, then we do not take pride in ourselves, assert ourselves, or identify or pursue our distinctive and diverse needs. Shamemongering has some particular adverse consequences for reproductive, sexual and mental health. Shame and self-hatred destabilise stable LGBT identity formation, community membership and participation and self-acceptance, which further disrupt continuing social interaction required to maintain good sexual health and avoid HIV and STIs. Shame leads to risk-taking because someone accepts the verdict of shamemongering institutions and their ideologies and they do not assert their right to safe sexual interaction with others as a consequence. (There does need to be a cautionary note to the above, which is that the right to consent to pleasurable sex needs to be paralleled with the right to refuse sexual activity if one has honest questions about whether one desires a particular partner or relationship, and whether there are issues of perceived personal boundaries or reasonable limits that are being dangerously disregarded in a particular context. This may be tied to issues of past trauma, particularly to do with rape, incest or paedophile abuse. To overcome these and regain one's sense of self-worth and the right to sexual pleasure and intimacy with a loving caring partner, therapeutic intervention can be useful to help survivors overcome past pain, bodily self-hatred and self-reproach that may have arisen after their hideous ordeal. After that is dealt with, survivors and their partners can acquire that sense of sexual pleasure, intimacy and nurturing relationships that they especially deserve after what they have had to deal with.) Religious conservative shamemongering is based on homophobia and misogyny, true. It is also based on erotophobia, which is the hatred of consensual sexual activity as a pleasurable end in itself, rather than to produce children and somatophobia, hatred of bodily experience. It is also based on hatred of female sexual, reproductive and social autonomy, and LGBT consensual sexual freedom. Shamemongering religious institutions harbour pathological hatreds against any acknowledgement of self-esteem, self-assertion, pride and personal validation of one's given identity. To combat this form of shamemongering, one needs to validate female bodies, gay sex, independent decision making and personal self-acceptance. This can be achieved through collective political activity and critical social analysis that combats shamemongering antigay, anti-women, antibody and anti-sex institutions and ideologies. However, what about nonsexual shame? I've been actively engaged in antiracist and pro-feminist politics over the course of my adult political life. It is only natural to feel initial grief, mourning and profound loss based on empathy with the victims of oppression and the lives lost or scarred. However, that must be allowed to become paralysing personal self-reproach on the basis of one's male sex or pakeha ethnicity. Instead, critical analysis and meaningful is needed to stand in solidarity with women or ethnic minorities as they resist dominant social institutions. It does not mean blindly accepting everything that members of particular social movements or ethnicities do when they actively work to injure or oppress others. I opposed conservative anti-sexworker feminists when it came to prostitution law reform. If either Brian Tamaki or John Tamihere think that Maori ethnicity will ever shield them from my condemnation of their hardcore New Right views or rackrenting tithing practices against vulnerable parishioners, then wrong, guys. I also refuse to tolerate paedophiles, lesbian/gay white supremacists and lesbian/gay anti-abortionists. And as for hardline pseudo-libertarians who view any call to collective responsibility as 'political correctness,' Ayn Rand's blind apostles need to take a long, hard look at their flawed icon and stop displaying hypocrisy and bad faith. While Ms Rand may have been a stringent critic of the ravages of communism, she did not refrain from using identical bullying, psychological manipulation and collective shaming sessions to those utilised in the context of Maoist 're-education' brainwashing sessions. Until they do so, I will continue to dismiss her creed of objectivism as the province of neurotic, puerile populists that it has sadly become within New Zealand. It is also difficult to make social conservative shamemongers ever feel any sense of shame or collective responsibility for damaging or destroying the lives of those that they define as 'deviant,' 'shameful' or otherwise 'inferior.' If there was ever a real and authentic discrete historical person named Christ, then yes, he was a great moral teacher. However, institutional religion has betrayed those foundational values, over and over again. Would the Nazi Holocaust have ever been able to happen without pathologically deep strains of anti-Semitism within German Catholicism and Lutheranism which poisoned German civil society and led to its hideous genocidal denouement? Would al Qaeda and the Taliban have existed if there had not been brutal murderous crusades that led to the deaths of countless innocent Muslim civilians, even pregnant women, the elderly and babes in arms? Let's not forget the incineration of 'heretics' and 'witches' or the lives of those lost in sectarian internecine warfare between rival claimants to the status of one true faith. Or African-American slavery, which the ancestors of today's US Christian Right condoned. Or condoning child battery because they believe that parents have the absolute right to hit 'their' children, and to hell with restraint of violent, abusive and dysfunctional parents who batter them. Or Catholic clergy paedophilia and the children whose lives have been scarred and destroyed by that abhorrent practice, or institutional collusion and concealment of the same. Or the hundreds of thousands of women who are butchered from backstreet abortions or die from maternal mortality due to multiple pregnancies because of Catholic-sponsored anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive legislation. Or Uganda and its calls to execute lesbians and gay men within that tragic, wartorn society. Whatsickens me is despite the above, fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic Christians still have the arrogance to believe that they somehow have any moral authority or credibility left when they fail to show any remote semblance of basic human empathy, grief, mourning, acknowledgement of collective accountability or shame for the acts of their coreligionists or the innumerable lives that they have destroyed. Irshad Manji has similar criticisms of conservative Islamist inhumanity, although I think she's far too soft on conservative and rightist Christians. And yes, there are still some good and honest progressive Christians around, but often on the margins of their edifices and institutions. Many have told me that they are intensely disgusted with the fundamentalist canker, its apologists and moral callousness to the humanity and suffering of others. They feel far greater community and solidarity with progressive secularists and those fellow critical members of the other great faiths, who share their sense of collective ethical responsibility, accountability and empathy for the victims and survivors of oppression. Sadly, some come to conclude that Christian institutional history and the near-absence of the latter is too sociopathic and pathological to redeem. As I did twenty or more years ago, they move on to secular humanitarianism. The Christian Right expects us to feel personalised and privatised shame for consensual acts of sexual pleasure, autonomous social existence and personal self-worth, when institutional Christianity has either directly perpetrated or condoned multiple murderous acts of collective and individual carnage, brutality and inhumanity? Oh, please. We aren't the ones who should be feeling ashamed. Unfortunately, one needs a conscience, empathy, compassion or open commitment to collective responsibility for collective actions. So far, they have manifested little or no evidence of that. Recommended: Andrea Zannin: "Sex and Shame: Let's Talk" Xtra: 02.12.09: Craig Young - 18th December 2009    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Friday, 18th December 2009 - 11:46am

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