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About Last Night: I struggle with the intimate side of my relationship

Q: An anecdote you shared about a child being so shamed by her father that it ruined her adult sex life (October 4) resonated with me. My parents were religious, and I learned that my body was dirty and that sex was shameful. I still struggle to enjoy the intimate side of my relationship, even though I love my partner.

A: The beliefs and mores we internalise in childhood take a deep hold and can be difficult to shake. My parents were very religious too, but, although I was taught that sex should only happen inside marriage, they had a demonstrative and passionate relationship, and I was repeatedly told that sex was a magnificent gift from God to be enjoyed and celebrated. As a result, I have never felt sexual shame, but I am as vulnerable as anyone to social shame.

Maureen Matthews.

Maureen Matthews.Credit:Simon Schluter

It is important to differentiate between shame and guilt. Researcher and author Brene Brown has some useful insights about shame, and these are covered in a speech she did for Ted Talks called The Power of Vulnerability.

She says that feeling bad about a wrong action, such as stealing, hitting someone or lying is a healthy sign that you are capable of feeling empathy. This is guilt, which serves to encourage us to observe social rules, and is expressed as, “I did a bad thing”.

Shame, however, is the destructive belief that “I am inherently bad, and am unworthy of society’s acceptance". Shame can have an extremely damaging effect on mental health and can cause people to withdraw from society. Its killing effect is reflected in the word "mortified". Avoiding triggering situations, such as physical intimacy, does not make shame go away, but it can stop you being fully alive.

Annette Kammerer in an article in Scientific American called The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame, writes: “Women are quicker to feel humiliated than men, and adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and adolescents are more susceptible to the negative effects of shame, such as low self-esteem and depression.”

"Age seems to affect how readily people experience [shame]: adolescents are most prone to this sensation; the propensity for shame decreases in middle age until about the age of 50; and later in life people again become more easily embarrassed. As we enter old age and worry about declines in our body and our appearance, we begin to feel self-conscious again.”

Other research suggests that men’s visceral horror of being humiliated lies behind much adult male violence.

For society to function, we need laws, and sanctions for law breaking. Guilt plays a role here. Shame, however, is not an effective way to control people, and should not be used by parents, teachers, judges or lawmakers. Some call for offenders to be "named and shamed", like they are in China, but Jon Ronson disagrees.

His book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, explores the current form of this practice occurring on Twitter, and other social media platforms. Ronsonnotes that in America’s Puritan settlements, public shaming – whippings, the stocks and the pillory – were common. However, as early as 1787, founding father Benjamin Rush was calling for this to stop, because ignominy was "a worse punishment than death”.

These records also show the shifting nature of what is deemed shameful. Plagiarism could ruin a modern academic, but not a sexual affair. In Puritan society, however, the scholar might get a whipping, but an adulterer got a year’s hard labour, and life imprisonment for a second offence. Within living memory, the outing of a gay man often resulted in his suicide, and families went to extraordinary lengths to cover up illegitimacy.

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Overcoming shame takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. People with a healthy level of self-esteem are less susceptible to shame so work on loving yourself. Look at the beliefs and assumptions that lie behind your shame and challenge them. This is not easy, especially with culturally induced sexual shame. A professional sex therapist can help you to begin a process of liberation that will allow your intimate life to flourish.

Email: abtlastnight@gmail.com

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