I’m beginning a new series of guest posts here on the blog called “Smokin’ Hot Conversations.” These will be posts about gender, relationships, power, and the church, meant to move us to deeper reflection and conversation about the often distracting or harmful messages in Christian culture. Amy Martin is kicking things off with this awesome post – thanks, Amy! She is a wife, mom, and blogger from Traverse City, Michigan. Learn more about her here.
And if you’d like to contribute to this series, drop me a line.
Let’s talk about attraction & shame. No really, let’s.
“Do you ever want to compliment someone, but feel like you have to lay out a million disclaimers first?” he asked at our third coffee together as newly acquainted cohorts. I told him I often see things I find attractive about someone and wish I could say something but, “Most of the time I keep it to myself. It feels too risky, and I don’t want my intentions questioned.” We talked a bit about how it was too bad that we were so fearful of (what often turned out to be very specific and gendered) repercussions if we dared tell others we found something beautiful in them, because the unfortunate flipside, is that with sincerity and safety, who couldn’t use to hear it? He stopped again, hesitating for a second, “Well, I think you’re very pretty. Glad that’s said.” I laughed, and said thanks. We moved on.
Normally, if a man I don’t know all that well compliments me, I say thanks to be polite, then quickly look for the escape. I employ the extremely well practiced Operation: Disengage & Lookaway. There’s a measure of fear for me in receiving compliments, and if I’m honest, there’s a measure of shame. I instantly feel at risk in some intangible way, and be it my dress, my engagement in conversation or even eye contact – some deep and shame-driven part of me feels like I’ve done something wrong. But with common assumptions in the open, the shared honesty and sincerity that prefaced the encounter produced the exact opposite effect: I didn’t feel fear and shame, I felt safety and connection. I felt trust. We’ve since become good friends.
What’s shame got to do with it? (Or, “smokin’ hot wives” and other ways to turn beauty into ownership.)
My own issues and fear surrounding attraction are no doubt in part due to my background in a church culture that repeatedly taught me wonky things about it, a culture with parallels to the one that’s birthed the smokin’ hot wife meme. Anyone who’s experienced or seen this culture’s utter fear of all things sexual for the last 50 years might wonder why someone would get his or her leather pants in a bunch about a public pronouncement of a wife’s is smokin’ hotness. However, there is undeniable collective sentiment that something about this phenomenon feels demeaning, so what’s the problem?
I venture to say the problem is shame, and our inability to look at it. Shame, at its core, is the fear of being unworthy of connection with others. Because connection is so fundamental to human well being, it’s a powerful and manipulative social tool. The smokin’ hot wife phenomenon is most rampant in a particular subset of Christian culture where shame is used for purposes of control and conformity, where men are expected to be manly and dominant, and women are expected to stay quiet and submissive. If you’re not these things, you’re not worthy of connection with those who are. In one way or another you’re shamed for these differences.
It’s also a culture where attraction is synonymous with lust, and where beauty and mystery are often seen as dangerous. How are these dangers controlled? Shame, of course. So I call balderdash on the smokin’ hot meme for a couple of reasons: One, in a shame-fueled culture, it too easily appears to be manly dominant men posturing over property value, and two, it puts women in an impossible double-bind. Her (quiet, submissive) beauty is both expected, (to find a husband and keep him from cheating) and vilified, (because her existence might lead men astray in action or in thought). A public proclamation of her smokin’ hottness puts her in the awkward social position of having her beauty publicly approved by her husband, (good) while also potentially making other men lust, (bad). What’s a girl to do?
Attraction is recognition of beauty, a call to connection (and not just that kind of connection).
In many ways, I grew up with pieces and parts of this culture, and it’s still the driving undercurrent of Operation: Disengage & Lookaway. It’s a remnant of the endless overt and covert lessons that his attraction is lust, and his lust is your problem. (‘Lust’, for the purposes of this writing, is defined in the biblical sense of wanting to own something that isn’t yours.) However, after growing up and growing out of that culture, I’ve come to realize something: attraction is not lust. In fact, I think it’s a dangerous coupling, a destructive entanglement of two fundamentally different experiences. The marriage of attraction and lust, controlled by shame and mixed with entrenched gender expectations, causes a perpetuation of heartbreak, misunderstanding, and less-than-ideal gender relations. It’s almost as if a tightly bound fear of the ‘L’ word blinds us to the huge wake of destruction caused by the fear and shame used to control it. Manipulation through shame never solves anything. In fact it actually keeps the whole gig going, because shame is always misdirection.
Shame buries what’s actually important.
In this case, shame doesn’t allow us to see that the root of attraction isn’t lust. In a sex-hyped culture, we’ve narrowed attraction down to simplistic terms, but the truth is we wouldn’t reach out to anyone, friend, lover or otherwise, if we weren’t ‘attracted’ to them in some way. Physically, emotionally, and more, attraction is simply a fundamental part of the human need to see and be seen. To connect. If humans are wired to do anything, it’s to recognize beauty and connect with other humans. Our lives are made meaningful by the former and simply depend on the latter. Here’s where shame makes a mess of the whole deal. Beauty calls us to the kind of engagement that sees the biggest picture possible, always remembers the other, and wants the best for all involved. However, throw shame into the mix and watch it push attraction underground where it morphs into possession. It’s shame that turns attraction into lust, and attraction-turned-lust via the dark art of shame is actually a move away from what we really need. It’s a move towards disconnection, disengagement, and in it’s ever-narrowing world, it can only remember the self.
Beauty is expansive.
Lust is constrictive.
Beauty moves us toward wholehearted living.
Lust moves us towards fractioned & compartmentalized living.
Lust undoes and makes impossible what attraction was calling us to connect to in the first place.
Oy. In the saddest of ironies shame leads to the very disconnection we fear, because it pulls us down into a narrow vortex of self-loathing. And shame doesn’t stay internal. We find countless ways to outsource this pain. If you’ve ever had a woman you were just being cordial with look away or disengage with fear or irritation, you’ve felt the repercussions of outsourced shame. If you’ve ever had a man make his lust your problem, you’ve felt the repercussions of outsourced shame. In countless ways I don’t even have time to mention, our experiences of shame in the area of attraction collide – creating one big shame festival.
And no one wants to go to a shame festival.
But attraction doesn’t have to lead to an uncontrollable vortex of possession/lust in mind or reality, and that’s why this whole mess is maddening to me. By binding two fundamentally different experiences together and controlling them with shame, we risk teaching people to disengage from the experience of beauty altogether. We teach people that beauty is dangerous. And women, oh how we know our beauty is dangerous – especially if we’ve grown up in the church. Our beauty has the power to make men stumble, it has the power to ruin lives, it has the power to put ourselves in physical danger – our beauty has the power to send men to hell. Therefore, of course we should cover up, stay quiet, avoid eye contact, disengage, submit. Is it any wonder then, when dealing with issues of gender and attraction, we constantly find ourselves in the non-amusement park of shame?
Amy says enough. We need to change our language.
As a woman, a wife, a mother, and a human being, I’m tired of the shame and the impossible double bind expectations it puts on all of us. And what if at times we do find ourselves narrowing down into self-focused lust? It happens to all of us, but we need to realize that shame is the cause, not the solution, and we don’t solve anything by burying it. We need to grant ourselves the complex experiences of attraction, allow it to pass through us knowing its part of our need to see and be seen, knowing we’re wired to engage beauty where we find it, knowing that feelings come and go, and it’s our actions that count. Until we do this, we’ll always be susceptible to a narrow self-focused attraction, and a growing shame that finds more and more ways to outsource itself onto the people around us. This isn’t what we want, I know it’s not. What we need is to find safe spaces to be open, honest, vulnerable – connecting outward with others and ourselves through the powers of empathy, the best antidote to shame there is.