The Shame of Sexual Shame
Sexual shame is the biggest elephant in the closest of the human psyche. Because hiding and ignoring that elephant doesn’t stop it from dumping its dung, sexual shame needs to be brought into the light of day and downsized to the nuisance of a squirrel.
At the heart of sexual shame lies the sordid nature of lust. What makes lust feel so shameful is that its primitive nature is entirely uncaring and selfish. It’s not the same as the desire to “make love” with a romantic heart. It’s function isn’t to care about anyone's feelings, but to basically say “take off your jeans so I can pass on my genes.” Pubescent children are too typically unprepared for the flood of hormones making them feel like they're being transformed from angels into devils. Lust acts like a maniacal passenger hijacking the plane to fly toward every arousing destination it sees out the window. Welcome to adolescence.
Shame is a consequence of deep personal judgments that strike at the core of who we are as a person. It inflicts feelings of disgust, humiliation, self hatred, and the dread of being thoroughly rejected. For those who believe in a punishing God, it spells a life and an afterlife of hell. While everyone experiences momentary bouts of shame that cause minimal harm, intense and enduring shame is a toxic threat to mental health. And the battle to keep it secret just makes everything worse.
As horrible as shame is, there’s an understandable reason why it is so tied to sex. Even though lust is the biological rocket fuel that propels reproduction, it can also be incredibly destructive. Lust drives people to molest, assault, rape, manipulate, and exploit vulnerable people in countless ways. It has a mind of its own devoid of heart or conscience, an “inner sociopath” we must all contend with within ourselves and others. Because it is so difficult to restrain, shame is the big gun often employed to prevent its urges from causing trouble.
The problem with shame is that it is a blunt force instrument that often causes far more harm than good, like calling in the S.W.A.T team to control a toddler’s tantrum. It not only leads to anxiety, depression, anger, low self esteem, substance abuse, and risky rebellion, it sabotages the ability to embrace one’s unique sexuality in healthy ways. Importantly, lust can be tamed without shame, just like wild horses can be tamed without “breaking” them into submission.
That said, the screen age we’re living in has complicated matters by fanning the flames of lust to degrees never before imagined. The limitless availability of hard core pornography is only one part of it. Sex is the backbone of the advertising and entertainment industries, which continuously bombard us with sexual stimulation through all our screens. There’s no way to avoid it or protect our children from it unless we literally disconnect from the rest of the world. The consequences of this sexual saturation are complicated and mixed. The normalization of alternative expressions of sexuality has fortunately relieved countless people from their burdens of sexual shame. Unfortunately our hypersexual media has warped how we regard ourselves and others as sexual beings.
Lust and sexuality are obviously complicated matters to understand and manage. But here’s the point: The greatest shame of sexual shame is how destructively it’s been used to control sexual behavior. Shame needs to be replaced with honest information about the nature of sexuality and how to manage it in saner ways. Children and teenagers need to be taught earlier than ever how to draw lines between their impersonal fantasies and their personal conduct. They need to be taught that their lust does not define who they are or determine their lovability. And, perhaps most of all, they need to be encouraged to empathize with those who have been harmed by sexual abuse and those who have beenharmed by sexual shame.