Guest post by Darrel Ray, Ed.D., a psychologist and author of several books including Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality and The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture. Dr. Ray directs The Secular Therapy Project and is the founder of Recovering from Religion. This article also appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine.
For thousands of years, religions have used shame as a method of control. It is easy to see how shame is detrimental to females in patriarchal religions, but it has grave consequences for males as well. We hear a good deal today about the shaming of women and girls, but we don’t hear as much about male shame. Male shame is all around us and starts at infancy. Its message is strong and consistent: males must act a certain way or they are not really male. Males must always be seen as distinctly different and superior to females. From male shame comes a wide range of behaviors designed to oppress women and ensure male dominance. Understanding the interplay and dynamics of shame makes it possible to explain much of the misogynistic behavior we see in the religious and non-religious alike.
Male Shame Messages
These messages are on bumper stickers, church billboards, in religious child-rearing books, and in sermons. You can hear them in speeches by politicians opposing women’s rights and marriage equality. Real men love Jesus, real men don’t watch porn, real men don’t have sex before marriage, real men don’t “spare the rod,” real men are straight, real men are tough, real men don’t masturbate, real men control their women, real men discipline their daughters, real men don’t believe in gay rights, real men openly shame other men who do not conform to the religious ideal. These are only a few of the messages that our culture in the U.S. deeply programs into many men.
Male shame is most easily seen in relation to women or girls. Boys who act superior to girls are exhibiting the results of male shame. Someone taught them this idea, and behind the idea are a number of shaming messages beginning with, “If you are like a girl in some way, then you are less than male, less than a man.” For example, if a boy has a mannerism that is seen as feminine, he may be teased and bullied by other boys for acting like a girl. In this case, it is the bullies who are responding to male shame. They feel they must contrast themselves from the feminine in order to avoid being shamed themselves. They are afraid of the feminine but terrified of becoming the objects of shaming and teasing by other boys.
The ultra-masculine bully tends to set the tone for everyone around him. His power comes from the threat of him labeling someone else in the group a “homo,” “fag,” “sissy,” etc. Out of fear, other men go along. It is a form of intimidation and bullying that keeps the group in line and any potential “gay” threats at bay.
This is a powerful pattern that starts early in life and is perpetuated across generations by parents, teachers, preachers, coaches, and other authority figures. A father may tell his son, “Don’t cry like a girl when you get hurt.” A mother may tell her son, “Toughen up and act like a man.” Neither the father nor the mother would tell their girl to toughen up and act like a woman or not to cry like a boy.
Churches and religious organizations teach male shame as Biblical principles. For example, the Man Up Ministries Channel on YouTube posts a weekly “Manhood Minute” and Man
Up Philly is an annual conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. There are countless other examples.
The path to adulthood is full of signals about gender-appropriate behavior, roles, and expectations — as well as the consequences for not complying. They are the roots of the social constructs we live by every day for a lifetime.
All patriarchal religions are hell-bent on maintaining the gender binary, which is the social construct that defines sex and gender as the two distinct and rigidly fixed categories of male and female. It is a critical component of the strategy to keep people shamed and guilt-ridden. In my book The God Virus, I talk about how guilt and shame are the currency by which people stay infected with religious ideas about sexuality. What would happen to most religions if shame were not part of sexuality? Without shame, the notion of virginity, for example, would be meaningless. Remove that shame, and it becomes clear that men are programmed to protect a daughter’s virginity as if her body were his property and not her own. Tying virginity to shame is part of a larger system of social control, one that could be called the procreation culture. It is a culture that wants to tightly control who to marry, when to marry, and what the status of the bride must be. Virginity ideas also say a lot about male status. A man who marries a non-virgin is seen as less of a man and may be shamed by other men.
“The concepts of abstinence and virginity support the religious mantra that sex is for procreation, never for pleasure’s sake alone,” says Sandra Meade, vice chair of the Kansas Equality Coalition and the host of The Tenth Voice on KKFI-FM in Kansas City, Kansas. “The concept of the gender binary is also used to enforce the mantra of ‘sex is reserved for doing god’s will after marriage.’ When same-sex relationships are denounced by a religion, it is because the couple can’t procreate. A couple that can’t procreate goes against god’s law and is unnatural. A transsexual woman doesn’t have a uterus and therefore cannot give birth, which violates the acceptable boundaries of the female role codified by the rigidity of the gender binary. Virginity and the gender binary are both used as control mechanisms to enforce a culture of procreation in god’s name.”
In a patriarchal society, a man is only a man in relation to his status with women. If other men see him as submissive or subservient to a woman, he is less of a man. If he cannot control the women within his family, he is less of a man. If a woman can beat him in a so-called masculine activity, like a sport or an intellectual enterprise, he is less of a man. If a man in a patriarchal society has one or more of these characteristics, then they probably are related to male shame that is rooted in religious dogma about gender roles.
The essence of male shame is related to insecurity about one’s role and place in the world. Patriarchal religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are rooted in the gender binary and dismiss all other forms of sexuality as unnatural and morally wrong. Sexuality not condoned by the religion is a sin and impacts the status of the man. That is why gay men and male masturbation get so much more public attention and condemnation from religious authorities than lesbians and female masturbation. Neither homosexuality nor masturbation are procreative for a male. Therefore, they are useless to the religion and patriarchy. These behaviors blur the lines and call into question religious categories and the gender binary.
Male Shame and Domestic Violence
In most religious societies, males are at the top of the pecking order and receive the message that they are superior to women. But their senses may tell them otherwise. A man may observe that his wife is better at math, his daughter may be better at sports than his son, or his female boss may be better at handling people and getting results. The evidence for female equality, if not superiority, is all around them, yet their religion and religiously dominated culture say otherwise. This leads to confusion and emotional turmoil in men who try to live as their religion dictates. Reality constantly interferes with dogma. The result can be threats and violence against those who don’t conform to the patriarchal ideal. Independent women, girls, homosexuals, and transsexuals all violate the patriarchal norm and deserve ostracism, punishment, or worse.
I would suggest that male shame is at the heart of much sexual abuse, both emotional and physical. It begins with the messages boys receive from infancy. Many religious parents display anxiety when infant boys touch themselves. There are actual discussion groups on religious websites that discuss what to do when infants or young boys touch themselves.
As boys grow up, they get constant indoctrination from religious music, literature, teachers, and peers about the evils of sex and the temptations of the body. Even if they are raised in a somewhat sex-positive home, any boy suspected of “playing with himself” will get teased and harassed in the locker room, school, and playground. At church, he will be told that any kind of sexual activity before marriage is sinful. At school, he may be subjected to “abstinence-only” classes that have strong messages of shame for both boys and girls. In these classes, they will be taught about the importance of protecting a girl’s virginity and how sex before marriage will eventually destroy the marriage.
Male shame around masturbation is just the beginning of religious training. With this insidious brainwashing come other messages about manhood and dominance over women, about a woman’s duty to serve and please a man, about men’s bodies and sex organs, and about male dominance. At the same time, boys are taught to judge people with these religious notions, from judging boys on how manly they act or don’t act to judging girls on their bodies and looks. The father who uses religiously based shame on his daughter for dressing too provocatively is exerting dominance as the patriarch over the females in his family or group. The mother who tells her son to marry a virgin is perpetuating ideas of male ownership of women’s bodies.
It is only a small step from here for the father to feel the right to use emotional or even physical means to enforce his shame message. The religious father who harasses his daughter feels he is well within his rights as the patriarch. Often the mother is totally complicit in this. What is the motivation? In religious families it is twofold. First, religious families fear being shamed for not controlling their children, especially their daughters. Second, the threat of eternal damnation in the afterlife is very real to many religious parents. I will discuss these in order.
In patriarchal religions, a man must be seen as being in control and in charge, especially of his family, and, most of all, the females. His fear of losing control may lead him to shame and even abuse his wife, daughters, or any sons who are not manly enough. Loss of control can bring shame down upon the man by other men and women. “How are you a man if you cannot control your own daughter or wife?”
In some communities, the shame of the man may even lead to expulsion from the family or death to the daughter. Honor killings in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even Toronto are a product of males protecting their honor and expiating the shame they perceive from the community.
These horrendous acts toward girls are really shame-avoidance behavior. In shame-based religions, men are taught that shame must be avoided or else vindicated. This leads to violence, largely against girls, though it can and often is used against boys, especially gay boys. Many Mormons and other Christians find great shame in a homosexual child. That is why 40% of all homeless children in Salt Lake City are gay boys and why so many Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, and Pentecostals disown their gay and lesbian children.
The focus on eternal punishment or separation from a god is central to many patriarchal religions. Believing that one’s child will be damned for their sexual behavior or identity gives the parent license to do almost anything, including beating, isolating, and even disowning them. They do this for the child’s own “eternal good” and to prevent other children from catching the disease. A child who disobeys a fundamental sexual premise commits an unforgivable sin. Unless that child turns away from their sinful behavior, they might as well have not been born.
The afterlife is an excuse for all kinds of control and abuse of children and spouses. In the name of the afterlife, fundamentalist Christians beat their children so they will not go to hell. Muslims disown or even kill daughters for having premarital sex. Mormons condemn their gay sons and kick them out of their homes. Concern for an afterlife gives a parent permission to invade a child’s private space, tell him what he can and cannot do with his body, ostracize him for sexual behavior that the god disapproves of, and beat or otherwise punish him for rebellion against the god.
Without the worry of having to avoid hell, the reasons for abuse disappear. Focusing on present life makes people more cognizant of goals and desires in the near term, rather than in some vague eternity. When the afterlife is constantly looming in a parent’s mind, the anxiety often overwhelms common sense about normal childhood behavior and leads to incredible parental anxiety and anger against a defiant child. This can often lead to a power struggle as the child naturally resists this unnecessary and irrational level of control and the parent becomes even more insistent and controlling to keep the child from disobeying god. All too often, the result leads to panic and punitive action by the parent, and abuse and emotional trauma for the child.
You may think that I am talking about isolated events or at least something that’s uncommon in your neighborhood. It is not. If there is a Baptist, Mormon, Pentecostal, or Jehovah’s Witness church in your neighborhood, to name a few, it is happening in the majority of those families with preteens or teens.
Male shame is an excellent tool for tight social control. That is why all cults use it liberally. The rules about marriage, baptism, diet, clothing, etc., vary dramatically from one cult to the next and can be quite arbitrary. What does not vary is the shame each cult places on violating those rules. A Jewish Orthodox man who does not dress exactly as prescribed will find himself pushed from the community. A Wahib Muslim man who educates his daughter instead of his sons would be seen as blasphemous. A Jehovah’s Witness father who openly approves of his daughter’s marriage to a Buddhist would suffer serious consequences in the community. An Amish father who supports his children going to high school — never mind college — would be seen as betraying the community. Serious consequences for deviant behavior are what make a religious community cohesive and able to resist the outside world. The cornerstone of this begins with male shame and moves on down through the generations and genders in the form of female shame.
Over the years, I have spoken with many fugitives of religion and cults. Those who left mainstream religions often say it was the fear of hell and damnation that kept them in the religion. Those who have left cults, however, speak of hell and damnation, but also of the shame and fear of being ostracized, cut off from family, losing contact with lifelong friends, losing children. Whether Jehovah’s Witnesses or fundamentalist Hindu, families fear the shame that comes when one of their own leaves the cult. In order to show that the disease has not infected everyone, the family must cut off all contact with the lost member. These are almost universal rules for cults, and the enforcement of these rules falls heavily on the men.
Unfortunately, it can be far worse than simple ostracism. Some cults enforce physical penalties such as stoning, rape, or selling a girl into prostitution or slavery. The horrors being committed by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is just one example.
How do societies convince men to enforce such horrendous crimes against their own families? Fear of shame from the entire community, especially other men, will drive men to do many violent acts. Allowing communal violence against a fallen family member demonstrates the willingness to defend the community as a whole against threats both physical and ideological.
These examples may seem extreme, but they can be found anywhere religion holds sway. If you have a Jehovah’s Witnesses family in your neighborhood, there is tremendous shame being taught to girls and boys every day. If there is a strictly observant Muslim or Jewish family near you, the shame being taught in those homes is ruining lives in the name of keeping the religion pure and the family untainted by sexual sin. In a misguided approach to religious freedom, many states in the U.S. allow children to be beaten. What would otherwise be classified as child abuse is tolerated as religious discipline in the home.
Even if you or your family are not directly connected with any of these cults, you are still surrounded by shame rooted in religion. As a member of this culture, you were exposed to these ideas long before your rational mind had the ability to evaluate them. No matter how you identify — transsexual, bisexual, heterosexual, male, female, etc. — our culture has a shame message for you, and you probably respond to some of those shame messages at some level. Our challenge is to identify the beliefs that hook us into shame. You cannot feel shame if you do not have the shame hooks already present in your belief structure. Shame is a learned process, and it can be unlearned. You were not born feeling shame about masturbating, fantasizing, or being homosexual; you learned it.
If you are afraid to admit you masturbate, chances are good that there is a lot of religious shame underlying that idea. You may believe that real men don’t need to masturbate, that masturbation is for sissies, that a man who masturbates is violating his body and damaging his marriage, or that it is shameful. I have met many non-religious people who are quite uncomfortable with the whole notion of masturbation. Even if you are a secular parent, you may be passing along this message to your children, just as you may have learned it from your parents.
If you are interested in getting science-based sex education into your schools, you will face a host of shame-filled parents who want an “abstinence-only” curriculum. If your son is on a sports team in high school or college, he will frequently hear male-shame messages in the locker room. He will hear other boys using religious ideas about sexuality to shame girls and berate them. He will get strong shame messages about homosexuals and transsexuals. He will hear male coaches berate boys by using terms such as “sissy,” “girl,” “pansy,” and other sexist and misogynistic language designed to shame boys and show that girls are inferior.
It is time for our culture to face the destructive power of male shame and recognize that we cannot hope to improve the treatment of women in our culture until we deal with this insidious belief system being taught to boys and men in locker rooms, sports teams, and churches right now. If men are encouraged and taught to use dehumanizing language for those who do not fit the gender binary, then we cannot hope to see homosexuals and transsexuals treated with dignity in our society.
Male shame seriously disrupts healthy relationships with women and other men. In my book Sex and God, I talk about how male shame keeps men from exploring their emotions and communicating them to those they love most. Male shame keeps a man from telling his partner his innermost sexual feelings and desires. Male shame makes a man hate himself every time he masturbates. Male shame can drive a man to express his sexuality illegally or violently when he projects his shame onto homosexuals or women. Male shame leads a man to violence against those he loves when he feels other men may think less of him if his wife isn’t properly submissive. Male shame keeps a man enslaved with the fear of hell, damnation, or public humiliation.
We can break the chains of this system. Let us begin by recognizing and challenging male shame in ourselves. What shame messages were you taught? What secret beliefs about women or homosexuals do you harbor? What ideas about masculinity and power over women are part of your inner world? Where do you feel shame in your sex life?
If you are in a relationship with a man, consider that male shame impacts you as well, and that you may inadvertently contribute to it. If you feel shame around your own sexuality, that may translate into poor communication with your partner. If you are horrified of your partner sharing his real feelings about sex and sexuality, especially if those feelings do not conform to your masculine ideal, you may be responding to shame-based beliefs. If your partner told you he often fantasizes about sex with other people — male or female — what beliefs would you reveal in your response?
All too often, men and women say that they want their partners to be open and honest with them, but when that honesty is expressed, shame-based beliefs rise up and create huge barriers to communication. This leads to less honesty and a shutting down of communication. It can, and often does, lead to the loss of intimacy.
Eliminate male shame, and the roadblocks to intimate communications fall and the relationship can develop without the corrosive influence of sex-negative religious ideas. Openly examining male shame will shed a bright light on religion-based child abuse, pederast priests, the beating and brainwashing of children, and the shaming of girls by men and boys. Men’s own mental health will benefit by eliminating the oppression of dogma and learned fear.
Humanist sexuality focuses on healthy human development, informed adult consent, education, and open communication about wants, desires, and needs. It is a refreshing vision for anyone who wants a full life for themselves and their families. It is also invigorating to explore and identify shaming beliefs and change them into affirming ideas and behaviors.
It is my hope that the West, especially the U.S., moves rapidly toward a humanist society that values people for who they are, not what their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion may be. It is a final step in the journey toward everyone having the civil rights to be who they are without fear of persecution or bullying. As we challenge male shame, I think we will find that alternative ways of relating to one another are much more rewarding. Having a full appreciation for sexuality in all its forms will liberate us from the shackles of religious sexual shame and make communication within and between the sexes much more enriching.
This article also appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine, available for free to members of American Atheists, and for purchase at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the U.S. and at Chapters/Indigo bookstores in Canada.
Darrel Ray, Ed.D. is a psychologist and author of several books including Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality and The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture. He is director of The Secular Therapy Project and the founder of Recovering from Religion. You can view his latest talks and interviews on the topic of male shame here. His podcast, Secular Sexuality, is available to download for free. Its discussions are aimed at ridding us of the effects and control that our religious culture has had on the way we view sex, our bodies, the bodies of others, and so many other important ideas that affect our quality of life.