"It's amazing how much 'mature wisdom' resembles being too tired." --Robert Heinlein

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The critical factor of shame

This isn't an original observation -- many historians and others who study sexual behaviors across different societies find that the greater the amount of shame that is attached to sex, the more prevalent you'll find sexual abuse and sexual assault.

This is because the victims experience shame, on top of the violence, on top of the violation, on top of the feelings of fear and powerlessness. They feel shame for having engaged, even unwillingly, in the sexual act.

And this shame forces them to keep quiet. And if they do tell someone, often this shame forces both of them to cover it up. If the aggressor is somebody they know, like a teacher, a priest, an uncle, a brother -- this shame also leads to feelings of guilt. That if the victim complains, they would be bringing shame upon the entire family, the entire school, the entire church.

If the aggressor is a politician, you would bring shame upon the entire city, or state, or country.

Why is there shame attached to sex?

Partly it is because we don't want our minors and our loved ones to engage consensually in risky behavior. Shame is intended to keep children from saying "yes". To keep married women from saying "yes" to somebody who isn't their spouse. To keep unmarried women from saying "yes" to anybody.

But the shame goes farther than that. It also attaches to victims who are forced to engage in nonconsensual sex. Because it is very difficult to prove that you did not consent. Especially after a small amount of time has gone by -- the physical evidence goes away. The semen and pubic hairs left behind will wash away. The bruises will heal. And then you've got nothing except your word. And your shame. And ... your silence.

I think shame is not only a barrier to enjoying your own personhood, your own autonomy, your own sexuality. Shame is also an insidious ally of our sexual abusers.


The last time I was sexually assaulted, while delivering a pizza in my 20s, I immediately told the other guys at the restaurant, including my boss. Some of them had their suspicions that I was gay, but I was already out to my family and friends, and I had no shame that a man had revealed his erect penis and forcibly tried to keep me from leaving his apartment. We didn't think to call the police. Instead, when the assaulter called to order another pizza the next day, we sent our toughest male employee to go 'splain things to the guy.

I wish I could extend this lack of shame to every victim, so that they would immediately tell everybody what just happened, so that their pals, coworkers, families, teachers, parishioners ... everybody would back them up and reinforce the message that this behavior will not be tolerated here.

When you teach your child shame about sex, you are teaching your child to remain silent in the wake of a sexual assault. You are teaching your child not to tell you when the neighbor violates her.

Teach your children there is no shame to having sex. There are more or less risky ways to go about it, but there is no shame to having sex. The only shame should be placed upon sexual abusers who do not respect the sexual autonomy of others.

And there should be no shame placed upon those who accuse somebody else of sexual assault. We should take those accusations seriously, and take remedial actions immediately.

Let's get rid of the shame attached to sex.

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