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Culture of Shame

Arts & Culture | October 6, 2014

When Wesleyan’s Art House was shut down in 2003, questions were raised about the perception of sexuality at the university. The house was best known for its naked parties, and its closing invoked an uproar from its members and the Wesleyan student body. In a 2003 article in the Wesleyan Argus, former Art House leader Ben Popper said, “It’s all part of a push to clean up Wesleyan’s image, and they don’t like what we represent in the community.”

The possibility that the house was closed based on fear of negative representation is indicative of a societal judgment that Wesleyan’s administration feared. That societal judgment is the stigma that surrounds sex in American culture. According to Tufts professor Sarah Pinto, this stigma is related to certain societal standards regarding sex. She told the Observer, “To say the word ‘vagina’ is taboo…it’s not what we’re talking about, it’s what we’re allowed to say.”

But if what people are “allowed” to say stems from what is acceptable in society, then the images of sex dictated by the current sex culture have great amounts of power in influencing the discourse of sex. Professor Pinto explained, “We live in a time and place where the idea of women’s bodies are a thing to be looked at; this shapes the way we raise our children, the way that we dress. When it comes to sex, that thinking shapes how we think.”

This way of thinking reflects the ways that sex is represented in mainstream culture. American Apparel billboard ads show young, skinny women in lingerie, dressed just enough to avoid complete exposure. HBO features series such as Girls and Game of Thrones that push the boundaries of what is and is not considered illicit every time one of their frequent sex scenes is aired. Music lyrics and videos do the same thing: J.Lo openly talks about sex, and her famous video “Booty” features an endless supply of scantily clad butt shots.

Retail ads and cable shows are far from real life—they are a reflection of how society views sex, and in turn, how institutions and individuals can view sex. Individuals, it seems, have been socialized to expect judgment based on a set of standards set by mainstream culture, where they are judged based on the models given to society by modern examples.

In fact, a recent poll found that almost 65 percent of Tufts students feel judged by others for how their sexual choices—or lack thereof—are perceived.

“There is a quote from the Breakfast Club: ‘If you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut! It’s a trap,’” muses Audrey Chu, a member of VOX: Voices for Choices, a student association dedicated to reproductive justice and sexual health.

Perhaps our perception of sex is inherently linked to our perception of ourselves: sex can easily become linked to shame when the fear of negative judgments—anything from “slut-shaming” to being called a “prude”—from others can become a reality. “We are deeply influenced by the people around us, especially those who have known us for a while. How I see myself depends on how I think these others see me,” said Professor Pawan Dhingra, a sociology professor at Tufts. This idea is what sociologists call the “looking-glass self.” It is a process of socialization, of how humans act within a community based to gain a positive meaning from others. “We all want to feel good about ourselves,” said Dhingra. But sometimes, it seems that is a hard thing to accomplish when certain actions and words are seen as illicit.

It may seem even harder when some views are way past the line set by society. Tufts Kink, a group dedicated to providing a safe space for discussing sexual kink, is a club with such views. Kink member Robert Goodfellow tells the Observer, “We understand that what we do for fun is NOT the norm…we are first and foremost an interest group where like-minded individuals can share in some of our most amazing, thrilling enlightening, and cathartic experiences of their lives without guilt or shame.” The existence of a group like Kink might make it seem as if society is open to these kinds of dialogues. The need to create separate spaces for discussion is indicative of the stigmas that persist around sex. This is especially true when that sex is beyond culturally-dictated norms.

Though extremely different, sex-related clubs send similar messages. Chu tells the Observer, “We need to change the dialogue to demystify sex, or change the image around it, and make it more open and simple…not one of self-shaming.”

As humans, people will always want to feel good about themselves, and therefore always want to perceived in a positive way by others. Sex may never become something that is not entirely private. But perhaps society can evolve to a point where people can feel free to engage or experiment in everything from kinky to casual sex—or abstain from sex completely—without fear of judgment.