Discover more from Other Feminisms
Healthy Appetites and Healthy Shame
Making deliberate choices to train our natural instincts
This week, I’m returning to a commenter’s questions about pornography, sex, and shame. On Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of how to respond to the kind of “support” that leaves you thinking you don’t deserve help.
A few weeks ago, during our discussion of whether “ethical porn” is a contradiction in terms, Martha had a comment that I thought was worthy of a top-level post follow-up. Martha wrote:
I also think all of my thoughts matter—but there is a tendency in conversations about porn and sex to say "repress those thoughts! be ashamed of those thoughts!" We know through so many studies that feelings of shame and angst and the act of repressing certain thoughts does not help. And only gives whatever is causing those reactions more real estate in your brain. Great studies related to dieting here too!
And just like the diet industry, the "porn addiction" industry is self perpetuating and causing untold damage. By focusing so much energy on how terrible porn is and how terrible watching porn is in the eyes of God it gives porn *more* power, not less. It leads more people down a path of believing they are porn addicts. It damages their relationships, their self esteem and their sense of worth. And it creates billions of dollars of revenue for a few.
Instead of thinking you are terrible and need to be cured, you can get curious about your thoughts and feelings. I loved your example above, Catherine, about being aroused by mathematics! You can note it, reflect on it, decide whether or not to act on it, whether it aligns with who you want to be. Arousal is part of the human experience and we shouldn't fear it.
When I was a kid, my brother and I sometimes fought or behaved badly, and (at least some of the time) felt bad about our actions afterwards. My non-religious mom praised us not just for the apologies offered when we cooled off, but for feeling upset or ashamed about our behavior, and I think she had it right. Being ashamed was often a prerequisite for contrition—we had to feel the weight of what we’d done to be able to apologize.
Martha and I had a fruitful back and forth in the comments, and I liked the way she kept connecting the conversation about sex to the conversation about food and dieting.
To take the dieting analogy a step further, there's been discussion above about the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures. Instead imagine a book Good Food, Bad Food, that talked about how fruits & vegetables were good for you and fatty, sugary foods were bad food. Imagine that the book gave equal weight to both. Do you think that book would encourage your kid to eat healthfully? Or do you think it would increase their risk for eating disorders? I'm 100% in the latter camp and there's a fair amount of behavioral science research to back me up.
Of course I want my kid to eat healthfully, and watching porn is much more serious than eating a slice of cake. But creating a shame response and a sense of fear about naked bodies, arousal and sex isn't helpful.
I think the analogy is very helpful, even though the two cases aren’t identical. In both cases, we’re talking about a hunger or a longing that is part of being human, but which isn’t a reliable compass on its own, both because of our own sinfulness but also because of people deliberately trying to deceive us.
When it comes to both food and sex, one core thing I want my children to know is that there are people trying to sell something that arouses a natural hunger, but isn’t suited to it. On the food front, it’s junk-y, superstimulus-y food that never feels satisfying; it’s only enjoyable to keep eating, not to have eaten.
I’ve written before about the abusive design of slot machines, which similarly prey on the hunger for novelty and suspense, while being engineered to avoid satisfaction and promote addiction.
Shame isn’t sufficient as a response to being taken in by these tricks. There also needs to be space for righteous anger at the people and the industries trying to warp a natural appetite to serve their greed, not your good.
Back on the sex front, this means being suspicious of the suggestion that we ignore shame, since it’s one of our tools for discernment. Alyssa Rosenberg had a recent reflection on the toxic “support” offered to Monica Lewinsky in the 90s.
[T]here was something more going on in sexual culture and feminist thinking than an impulse to protect Clinton. The rush to grant Lewinsky agency, even to the point of oversimplification, was a reaction to decades of paternalism that denied women the right to sexual desire. Taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of thinking helped produce a culture that feminist writer Ariel Levy described in “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” — one in which women participated in their own objectification in the name of liberation.
I don’t simply trust people’s choices, desires, and appetites as reliable in a world where many people and powers are trying to shape them. Shame isn’t the only means of resistance, but it’s a powerful one.
Shame can be the healthy, human reaction to doing wrong. The absence of shame isn’t a neutral baseline, any more than the absence of pain is. If I don’t experience pain when I twist my ankle, I’m doubly hurt—once by the initial injury, and again by the absence of a warning to pause, retreat, and rest so I can heal.
I’m up to debate what merits shame, but I think a life without shame is a life that is poorer and less rooted in truth.
Where do you find shame fruitful?
How do you discern who and what are trustworthy tutors to your appetites?
Bonus reading: an interesting essay from Virginia Sole-Smith at Burnt Toast on parents’ worries about schools’ free lunch programs.