The cost of sexual shame

A new blog encourages women to share stories about their sexuality in hopes of making sex better for everyone

Published November 10, 2013 12:30AM (EST)

  (<a href=''>surely</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(surely via iStock)

At a time when a twerking, tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus can dominate several news cycles, it might not seem that sex is lacking for attention -- but a new blog, Do Tell, is trying to get people to talk even more about it. The aim, though, is to get women to share the kind of honest, uncensored personal stories that are too often ignored in our sex-saturated culture.

Do Tell is the brainchild of Melissa Tapper Goldman and a virtual continuation of her documentary "Subjectified: Nine Women Talk About Sex." Both projects are concerned with what Tapper Goldman calls "the cost of shame" -- in other words, the harm that is done by stigmatizing women's sexual experiences and encouraging silence. The stories that have been published thus far on Do Tell show the vast range of women's experiences. "An explosive orgasm?" asks a 23-year-old woman from Massachusetts. "Maybe I’ve gotten it once from a guy, but mostly I can only give them to myself." "K.S." from Minnesota writes, "He took the time to really feel and understand my body, giving me the most numbing and mind-blowing orgasms I had ever had at the point (my body literally went numb from the pleasure)." There are a disproportionate number of tales about sexual pain and abuse: "I was molested at 12 by a friend’s older brother," writes "C," a 42-year-old from Chicago. "I didn’t understand it to be sex, just weird that he would hold me on his lap and tickle me."

I spoke with Tapper Goldman about how "shame causes cancer," the impact of sexual silence on men and where to draw the line between honesty and over-sharing.

So what exactly is "the cost of shame"?

It's not a surprise that sex in American culture is associated with shame and stigma. But in my work, I've found that we're slow to acknowledge the real, direct toll this takes on our lives. Silence is not just an absence of input -- it actually creates an environment of shame. We cultivate stigma when we avoid the topic of sex. So we find ourselves in a strange position where sexuality is part of all of our lives, it's all over pop culture and media. But at the same time, authentic, diverse expressions of real sexuality, particularly women's, are nowhere to be found in media. When we're so pointedly not talking about sex in our own lives, those skewed media depictions take on even more influence. It's like if all we knew about lunch was what we learned in Subway ads.

You don't have to be a feminist, or even a woman, to care about the cost of shame -- this is an issue that directly impacts anyone who has sex or thinks about sex or might someday have sex. So what do we lose when we can't talk about sex openly? For one, shame gets in the way of actually enjoying our sex lives, which I feel totally indignant about. But there are other more lethal costs, like so many women not believing that their experiences or health or even consent really matter to other people. How comfortable do we make it for an 18-year-old in Mississippi to ask her doctor for birth control or her pharmacist for Plan B if she chooses to have sex? A friend of mine in her late 20s asked me to accompany her to a cervical biopsy after a nurse made her feel humiliated for having contracted a sexually transmitted infection. And we wonder why pap smear follow-up rates are under 50 percent! At that point, it's not a stretch to say that shame causes cancer.

One of my best friends was raped by an ex-boyfriend when she was 17. She had no idea how to talk to me about it, and I had no idea how to really listen or support her. To this day, I'm horrified to think that my reaction added to her feeling of shame and isolation. Bearing in mind the staggering statistic of one in four women raped in her lifetime, how many rape survivors feel comfortable talking about their experiences or seeking much-needed support? Sex and rape are most definitely not the same thing, but the shame that many people experience after rape, that's our sex stigma in action.

Luckily, it just doesn't have to be this way. We can make another choice to be open about sexuality in our relationships, romantic and platonic. That's true for people who are sexually active as well as those who choose not to be. Speaking up about sex in all its complexity is one of the few effective ways to push back against the cruel and unfair expectation of silence. That's why I made "Subjectified" and why I recently created Do Tell.

Is this something women disproportionately face? How does it impact men?

Well if women aren't having good sex, then it definitely does impact most men! It's absolutely true that men are shamed and silenced about their sexuality as well. But when women are expected to look pleasing and sexy, to be sexually available for other people's pleasure, we receive a very direct messages that our value as people is tied to our sexuality. Our entire identities get bound up with our sexuality in many different ways. So that's an intense and important thing to feel that you can't talk about. Women are specifically punished for speaking up, even for just describing our basic life experiences. If a woman talks about her sex life, or her birth control, or a rape or abortion, she runs the risk of losing relationships, people's respect for her, even her job.

One unexpected reaction to "Subjectified" is that men have particularly appreciated having the topic broached. Many desperately want information about their partners' experiences -- what gives them pleasure or what emotional setbacks they are dealing with -- but these men can't seem to get answers from the women they're sleeping with. Maybe they're asking the wrong questions or they don't know how to start a conversation that feels safe to their partners. But many women are really terrified to talk about these things -- sometimes with good reason, given the repercussions women can face for speaking up. It's a lot of pressure to work this all out within that one sexual relationship rather than as a lifelong series of conversations with trusted friends and lovers. So men also suffer because of the shame we put on women. If they love and respect the women in their lives, they're suffering. But the consequences of silencing are much more severe for some than others: women are hurt by this disproportionately, as are people of color, queer and gender-noncomforming people, and those without the resources to obtain appropriate reproductive healthcare.

What have you learned so far from the submissions you've received?

Do Tell is just beginning, and I'm inspired to see people's stories start to come in. But I've had seven years with this material through the interviews I did for "Subjectified." What I've learned, and what motivated the women in "Subjectified" to share their stories, is that we absolutely do want to talk about these things. Curiosity about sex and a desire to connect with others is human nature -- it's the silencing that's unnatural. No matter where women fall on the political spectrum or what kind of sex they do or don't have, they perceive themselves to be judged, minimized, pigeon-holed and misunderstood when it comes to sexuality. It's easy to feel that way when we're so busy not talking about some of the most intimate and life-changing experiences we've had. We want to feel witnessed. This was just as true for the teen mom, for the abstinent Catholic and for the woman whose high school classmates spread rumors that she had "slept with the football team."

The other element that I found staggering is the sheer struggle that women face just to be true to themselves while growing up in the U.S. Whether that's choosing a workable contraceptive method, asking for what they want -- or don't want -- in sex or learning to be comfortable with their bodies, it's not an easy process at any point. It's given me so much respect for women's guts and perseverance. There are the more extreme examples, like the pastor's daughter who was excommunicated from her father's church when she realized she was a lesbian and came out to her family. And there are the subtler revelations, like the woman who spent the first decade of her sex life performing "histrionics" in the bedroom because she thought she was expected to react like a porn star. In fact, she was expected to! But she got over it. "I probably really embarrassed myself," is what she told me with a sheepish grin. I love the chutzpah that it takes to tell a story like that. That's a public service to everyone who hears it.

Why is it so important for women to speak openly and honestly about sex?

Shining a light on sex breaks the stranglehold of silence. When a sexual dynamic exists solely between two people, when one other person is your only source of information or social reinforcement about what's acceptable, that's a perfect formula for abuse. But let's talk about pleasure. Getting to know your body doesn't happen in a vacuum. We hear all kinds of messages about our bodies: their purpose -- often to please other people -- their sexual response, even anatomy. Unfortunately, these messages, especially in pop culture, are often disastrously misinformed. We can't take away pop culture's influence, but we can add more and better information, and we can let the people in our lives know that we support them making healthy, empowering choices.

One of the most common questions my sexologist colleagues get is, "Why can't I just have a normal orgasm?" Where "normal" means from vaginal intercourse without any additional stimulation. The anatomical fact is that the majority of women cannot have an orgasm that way. Many, many people in 2013 still don't know this. And knowing it doesn't even being to address the complicated feelings that many women have about their sexual response being out of sync, or in conflict, with their partners'. Movies like "Orgasm, Inc." and books like "What Do Women Want?" have begun to document the incredible, often destructive lengths that women go to in an attempt to fit their pleasure into a mold that simply has nothing to do with us. We're literally willing to risk our lives in the process, because when our sexuality is us, what else is there to lose? That's a terrifying thought. So again, talking reinforces that there is more than one mold for sexual experience, and that our experiences do matter.

When talking about sex, where do you draw the line between vital honestly and self-indulgent over-sharing?

This idea of "over-sharing" is such an easy target. When people call "TMI," that's often a function of their discomfort with some real talk. I don't need anyone's permission to speak about my experiences, and I sure as hell am not going to wait around for it. Given the magnitude of our silence around sex, there's plenty of reason to over-correct in the direction of honesty. If we solve this problem in the next 10 years, we can revisit this question. But given that Salt-N-Pepa's 1991 hit "Let's Talk about Sex" hasn't been topped, I'm not concerned with over-sharing. Not everyone's comfortable talking about sex, and that's fine. It's not necessarily easy to talk about, especially for survivors of sexual violence. But giving another person the message that she should be more uncomfortable sharing her experience, that's just punitive and cruel. And that's so often what we do when we label something as over-sharing. That's called "yucking someone's yum."

I'll grant that there are different motivations for communicating about sex. If we're driven by a desire to shock or titillate without the audience's buy-in, that can be cruel or self-destructive. But it reads very differently than expressing ourselves to make connection, to make our reality understood. My work is about building compassion and connection, showing that people are making complicated choices thoughtfully and with heart. I think the distinction between self-motivated, authentic expression and expression that exists to manipulate an audience is pretty immediately clear. Regardless, though, the dangers of over-sharing are nothing compared to the dangers of silence.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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