Monday, November 17, 2014

Benefits to less shame around sex -- both wanted and unwanted

Among social liberals, sex is agreed to be one of the great pleasures of life. Sex between (or among) consenting adults is just fine. We do have some societal rules about privacy, but there is no need to surround sex with shame. Far too many people have been taught otherwise, but they as individuals can work to reduce that shame.

Children are naturally curious about how their bodies work and about sex. They often discover some form of masturbation. It would be a much better world if any child could ask a parent a sexual question and get an honest answer delivered comfortably. Children are curious about the other gender and will play games of "show me". Girls do practice kissing with other girls. Boys have jerk circles. All are fine as long as all parties involved are willing.

Now for the negative... Considering all sex crimes, against children and adults, one thing that surprises me most is the extent to which victims feel shame. Perhaps my surprise springs from being raised in a household that was unusually forthright on sexual matters.

Shame has no role in positive, consensual sex, but it should have no role for abuse victims either. Anger -- absolutely. But shame? I don't blame any individual victim for that reaction -- I blame the broader society which has instilled those values. Women can drink and go places with strange men, and if something bad happens, they can feel rage. They might feel some regret if they realize they were ignoring warning signs and taking too much of a risk. But shame? It was fine for them to seek connection and intimacy up to the point they wanted it. There's no legitimate cause for shame if a man ignores a "no".

Ideally, we should raise children to feel the same way. A 7-year-old girl ought to be able to say, "Hey mom, John and I were playing doctor and looking at each other's private parts." And a mother ought to say, "Oh, were you? Was it fun?" And if the child continues, "It was fun for a while, then he started poking his finger between my labia. I told him to stop, but he didn't!" the adult should say, "Oh, that's a problem! John should absolutely have stopped when you told him to. How do you feel now?" And then discuss with their child what should happen next. John should be asked for his version of events. If he admits that he did as she alleges, something needs to be done. If he is roughly her age, that might be a stern talking to. If it happens again with her or with other girls, the consequences should be more serious. (On the other hand, in the less likely event that this girl makes this same allegation against several different boys who deny it, we might give her a stern talking to.)

It seems that a great deal of the harm from abuse is tied up with shame and secrecy. But given the culture we live in, there are good reasons for secrecy. I have heard several reports from abuse survivors who said the abuse was unpleasant, but when they reported it things got far, far worse. They can be called liars by people they trust. If their abuser stays in their lives, he might retaliate. Their abuse can be publicized and cause them embarrassment. They can be grilled endlessly and made to feel bad about activities they agreed to. They can be bullied into testifying against someone they don't want to testify against.

All of that needs to change. A child in collaboration with her parents should be in control of events. They can't of course require punishment beyond what the facts and the law allow, but they should be able to limit the publicity and the punishment.

A healthy memory might be: "I liked John and we were having fun playing with our underpants off. And I feel fine about how I let that happen. Then he did things I didn't want after I told him to stop. He was being very bad! I'm angry! I want to make sure it never happens again." Parents should support that conclusion. That seems like the foundation for a healthy recovery.

What happens when there isn't enough evidence to punish John? I think the parental answer could be something like this: "A few girls kind of like you might have been confused about what happened or even have lied about it. I'm sure you didn't. But the police can't tell which kind of girl you are for sure, so to make sure no one is punished who didn't actually do something wrong, they can't punish John. But I believe you. I'm so sorry! And the police will remember what you said so if other girls complain about him, then he will be punished." Obviously if the offender is someone close like a brother, judgment can't be reserved on both of them in quite the same way.

One excuse John can make is that the girl agreed to it at the time. If John was an adult, we have a good rule in place: we believe her and not him. John's committing a crime, and he might get away with it if the girl never comes to feel bad about it or doesn't agree he ought to be punished. But mostly he will be punished -- and the more positive result is he will most often be deterred.

My goal is to help abuse survivors to suffer less. A suspicious reader might think my hidden purpose is to clear the way for pedophiles to give in to their urges and abuse children since they won't really be hurt that much. I can't deny that this could happen to some small extent as an unintended consequence. It is not at all my purpose. I think a reduction of shame and more open communication would mostly deter child sex abuse by making kids more likely to talk about unpleasant things that happened. It would make them resistant to believing stories about how they will be in trouble if they tell anyone.

Reducing shame is great for enjoying sex as a positive thing. It is also good for reducing the harm from unwanted sex -- by encouraging open communication and reporting, and focusing on the harm caused by the abuse itself.


  1. Paedophile panic is a perfect storm powered by the twin low pressure zones of religiously inspired, sex-negative social conservatism and (hetero)sex-negative feminist separatists.

    Exploiting the resultant dynamic is the structural violence of the authoritarian state, which recognizes that sexual agency is the root of personal autonomy. Just as the genitals are the body's centre of gravity, erotic love and pleasure is the spirit's.

    This is why child sexuality is such a contentious arena, because this is the stage of development where self determination and autonomous allegiance to the pleasure principle are forcefully subordinated to social priorities.

    It's good to point out the obvious benefits of sex positive child raising, but unless one also takes up the cudgels against the contemptible ideologies ranged against it, it won't have much impact. I see this as a responsibility of paedophile liberationism. Paedo panic is a tool used by the state to control and oppress not just us but the population at large. The more we demonstrate this, benefit falls not just to us but to the whole population.

    Ironically, children are the pawns in this authoritarian strategy and they suffer the greatest harm by it.


  2. I'm not one much for thinking of the world in terms of "the structural violence of the authoritarian state". Some things are harder to change on an individual level than others. Levels of comfort and shape with regard to sexuality can to a large extent be set by individual parents dealing with their individual children. If large numbers of them saw the benefits, it is hard to see how some oppressive state could really get in the way. You can't legislate shame.

  3. I agree with you to a large extent. Think global act local, etc. But I think you're wrong about legislating shame. Fear is the driving political sentiment of our time, but shame runs a close second.

    I'm lucky to live in a country where public nudity is protected to some extent by law, but the right to go without clothes is always conditional, and I'd call this a kind of legislated shame. Why is this freedom absent from so many societies?

    On you blog, I agree strongly with you're essential point. Openness around sexual matters is a protective factor against sexual harm.