Monday, February 16, 2015

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” ― Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

In my first post on #sexUUality I said I wanted to have a conversation about sexuality. To quote myself, I said, “I want to begin a conversation with you, my ten faithful readers, the other bloggers, and myself about how healthy, sacred sexuality can appear in our lives, through the different phases of our lives: single, coupled, exploring; in times of wild passion, aching desire, or deep rest. I want to include our bodies and our hearts and our spirits in this conversation as well. I want to talk about when our passions deepen our understanding of who we are and how we love, and when our passions seem to betray us, leaving us vulnerable to pain.”
So, for the past couple of posts, I’ve been writing about different ways of seeing our sexuality as sacred and holy, as diverse and complex, with so many more flavors than vanilla (although vanilla is a flavor, too, in the words of butch lesbian comedian Lynn Lavner.)
And when we can live into our wholeness, our whole-i-ness, by being authentic to our truest self, it truly is a holy, healing, sacred moment. But what happens when our passions seem to betray us, or when we seek healing in a way that leaves us feeling shame and guilt and regret?
What happens when we find ourselves in situations where we feel incapable of stopping something that is happening, or when, in the midst of emotional and spiritual pain we allow things to happen to us or actively engage in sexual activities that don’t feel sacred or bring healing to our lives and in fact, mire us in the tar pits of shame and its BFF self-loathing?
Because the truth is, those things happen, too.  And sometimes they happen to us, and sometimes we choose them. This is what I heard from one of my ten faithful readers when I asked for suggestions on what to post about sexuality: Nothing has caused me deeper, more-lasting shame than allowing myself to be used sexually when this felt like a violation. I was a teenager and young adult then and have currently survived into my late sixties without being able to find my way out of that deep shame and into embracing sexuality as a fulfilling aspect of being human. I'd like you to write about healing sexual wounds.

This is the power of shame and, I believe the exponentially increased power of shame when it’s connected to our sexuality. My reader feels shame for things she allowed to happen, even though it felt like a violation. My heart aches for this person—and all others—who take on the responsibility of sexual activity that wasn’t their idea and wasn’t pleasurable to them. In our teens we are so vulnerable to this type of sexual exploitation. For my reader, something happened that she felt incapable of refusing. For me, it was slightly different.

 I remember one summer day when I was waiting for the bus transfer downtown. It was early morning, I was about 15 years old and was working the opening shift at Sir John’s Steak and Cake House. I didn’t have a car and so took the bus, which I boarded about a block and a half from my home. The first jaunt took me to downtown and dropped me off at a transfer station. It was about 6:30 AM and I was leaning against the wall of a business that wouldn’t be opened for hours; I was tired and thinking of the much needed cup of coffee I’d brew first thing when I arrived at the restaurant. Then a car pulled into the parking space in front of me. I looked disinterestedly at the driver but he waved me over. Being a non-visual person, I thought maybe this was a father of a friend that I hadn’t recognized so I walked over.

“Hey,” the man said, “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied. I noticed a car seat in the back seat. This was the late 70’s and the fad was just beginning to catch on. It was unusual enough for me to remember. “How are you?”  I returned politely.

“Good,” the man drummed his fingers on the door where the window was rolled down. “So,” he said, “let’s go get naked.”

I felt stunned and as if I had been slapped in the face. I didn’t know what to say. I wish I could say that I responded angrily and righteously and that I took down his license plate number as he sped shamefully away, but that’s not what happened. He was an adult. I was a child. Instead I said, as if regretfully, “I can’t. I have to work.”

He then wanted to know where I worked and I told him! He left then and I returned to the shelter of the building. Do I look like a prostitute? I wondered. At that age I was still being mistaken for being even younger than I really was, but I instantly thought I must have looked like a prostitute, leaning against the wall of that building, like I was selling my body for money, like it was my fault that he pulled over and waved me to his car.

I carried that shame with me for a long time. I can’t even imagine the weight of the shame my dear reader carries for things that actually did happen.

And who knows what we do, and why, in our younger years? We are still soft-skulled creatures, our ability to reason and make informed decisions not yet fully formed until our mid-20s. And we carry baggage—family drama and trauma that scars us and can disfigure us like the foot-binding practices of early Chinese cultures—so that actions we take aren’t organic or natural to what we would have normally done.

And sometimes, in the naiveté of youth or in a time of sexual curiosity we choose to explore things or we allow things that we ultimately regret. And in our sex-phobic culture if that sits unopened or unexplored, it can be covered with the mold of shame that then becomes the overwhelming flavor we taste and smell in our sexuality—not vanilla or other exotic flavors; just the mold of shame.

The truth is that sometimes we will have regrets, sometimes we will make mistakes, sometimes we will even sin. I love the scene in the movie “Shortbus” where a wizened old man asks an adorable young gay man (“Seth with a C”) “How did you sin?” Ceth becomes defensive and asks “What do you mean?”

The old man asks again, “How did you sin?” When Ceth responds defensively again, the old man talks about his tenure as mayor and his sin was that he became impermeable. Then returning to his unanswered question to Ceth he says, “Whatever your sin is, I’m sure you did your best.”

So how can there be sexual healing? How can my faithful reader and others (or, okay, maybe all) of us find healing for our sexual shame? I wish there was a definitive answer to that. I went through years of therapy and reading self- help books and plunging myself into experiencing myself as a sexual being that was sacred and good. I still don’t have it down pat.

Brene Brown, who is quoted above suggests sharing those shameful stories with others, though she cautions, Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: ‘Who has earned the right to hear my story?’ If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.”

Another healing thing to try is to imagine yourself as you were in that moment that seared you with shame. See the vulnerable, wounded person—as a child or an adult—that you were. And take the hands of the younger you and tell her or him, with your broader perspective from the now you inhabit, that it wasn’t their fault, that they did the best they could, that you love and cherish them.

It sounds hokey but it’s very powerful.

In a decidedly non-sex positive blog I recently read, the author refers to Father Smith, the main character in The World, the Flesh and Father Smith, by Bruce Marshall as saying  “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God” I find some truth in this. When we engage with another sexually, when we expose our bodies in such a vulnerable manner, we really are, often, seeking a sense of the sacred, a sense of connection with the holy. So when we fail or when we
realize we’ve been manipulated or coerced into something that actually does us harm, shame is the first responder. But shame doesn’t have to have the last word. We can reclaim our sacred bodies, our holy sexuality, our embodied sense of loving and living. It’s not easy. But we owe it to our past and present and future self to try. Because our bodies and our sexualities are sacred and holy; we are fearfully and wonderfully made, according to the Hebrew psalmist and we are all too beautiful to allow anyone or any memory to rob us of our divinity.

And we owe it to ourselves to seek to find this last testament to our own lives so artfully written
by Raymond Carver, from All of Us:
Late Fragment
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

I hope that my faithful reader who asked the question and all those who read this answer can call themselves beloved and to feel beloved on this earth. You are all beloved to me.


Jo said...

Thanks, Nori.

lkdean1961 said...

So true when you feel your child-body betrayed you by reacting physiologically. Hard to let that go...

Rev. Dr. Nori J. Rost said...

I agree lk, our bodies are bodies and respond to certain stimuli, even when it's not wanted. Big hugs.