About Last Night: Why we shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed 10-06-18

July 11, 2018

 Q: Bill Cosby’s conviction triggered memories of a drink-spiking incident I experienced. An older married man, who I’d volunteered with for ages, got me a drink at a volunteers’ function. After two wines, I couldn’t talk, or move properly. He tried to take me to his house in a taxi. I managed to call my husband, who found me, stumbling, beside a freeway, where I’d been dumped. Shock, anger and shame stopped us going to the police. When I told my father, he blamed me, bringing back childhood memories of his own dubious transactions with women. I feel like a loser.

A: What you experienced was not your fault. Engaging with the police when you are in shock is difficult, and it would have been better if your husband could have put his feelings to one side, backed you up, and encouraged you. Your father’s unfair victim blaming, combined with your memories of his own misbehaviour, served to compound your own doubts about your judgment. It might be too late to pursue the matter with the authorities, but you would benefit from talking to a therapist so that you can overcome your low self-esteem.Shock anger are natural emotions to feel after such an attack, but shame has been used as a tool of control for too long, especially against women. Many cultures, and religions, place a ridiculously high value on virginity, sexual purity, and a woman’s virtue. Women are often disempowered in these societies, and yet they carry all the blame for rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancy.

In some cultures, female rape victims can be charged with a crime, are shunned and know that no man will marry them. Until this year, Irish women were banned from terminating a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest. Women who dress provocatively have been described as meat put out for cats.

Often the men involved close ranks to preserve male privilege, to save face or guard their honour, or to avoid taking responsibility for their own misogyny or bad behaviours. The tool that is used to maintain these injustices is shame.

Sexual guilt or shame refers to a feeling of grave responsibility and deep remorse associated with participation in or even thoughts and fantasies about sexual activity. For some people, this reaction is so deeply entrenched that they are incapable of enjoying healthy sex lives with their partners, resulting in depression, relationship strain, and the passing on of unhealthy attitudes to their children.

This indoctrination goes very deep and is not just a gender issue. Women who have internalised the patriarchy can be the harshest enforcers. Also, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed that thousands of boys were victimised.

Any form of abuse is traumatic, but for many survivors it was their sexual shame that was ultimately most disabling. Their indoctrination kept them silent, allowing the perpetrators to continue with impunity. I encourage everyone to take stock of their own levels of sexual shame.

The opposite of feeling ashamed is not shameless promiscuity, immorality, a loss of self-respect, or the abandoning of modesty and good taste. It is a healthy respect for, and appreciation of, the human body. It is being comfortable looking at your naked self in the mirror, including your genitals. It is being able to fully express and enjoy sexual desire and intimacy. It is also being comfortable getting medical help when necessary. Too many people compromise their health because they are too embarrassed to have a pap smear, or a prostate examination.

As a first step, take a look at these videos. For men, Overcoming Sexual Shame and Guilt (www.youtube.com/watch?v=fP5SibT7hGU), and for women, Overcoming Sexual Shame (www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8Y8n1o7BOo). Having heard what these doctors have to say, you might decide that it is too difficult for you to tackle this issue alone. Seek out a sex therapist to help you. They are particularly qualified to assist with a topic that even some medicos, psychologists and counsellors find confronting.

In order to do better in future, it is also vital that our children get a healthy, accurate, and emotionally balanced sex education.


CORRECTION: Last week’s column mistakenly said that Jamie McCartney’s artwork The Great Wall of Vagina was at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. There is a similar work at MONA by Greg Taylor and friends called C—-… and other conversations, 2001–11.

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