Darrel Ray, founder of Recovering from Religion and director of the Secular Therapy Project, published a thought-provoking article in the last few days about “male shame” (you can read that article here). Or at least that’s what part of the article was about. The beginning and end of the article were both about how the purveyors of religion shame males into obedience to their dictates, and Ray argues that this subjugation of men is the root of the subjugation or shaming of women. The bulk of the article addresses the ways people in general are controlled by religious traditions with a special emphasis on how men experience these controls, although I would argue that most of those controls are at least as focused, if not even more focused, on women in order to keep them in line.
I would personally restate Ray’s thesis to say that male shame is a root of female shame but not the root. On the contrary, I would suggest it’s more often that the reverse the case: Female shame is most likely at the root of most male shame, because think about it: When a boy is told he throws like a girl, it’s meant to insult him, but think about what that says about girls: It says that there’s something shameful or undesirable about being a girl, doesn’t it? It makes me think of this brilliant commercial I saw not too long ago (which some have argued is a bit self-important for a tampon manufacturer, but I still like its message):
What if it weren’t an insult to be compared to a girl? What if women weren’t seen as inferior to men? Would it still be an insult to tell a man he does something “like a girl?” Maybe male shame isn’t the root of female shame; maybe it’s the other way around. I would argue that keeping women down is at least slightly more important to most kinds of fundamentalism. But the heart of Ray’s article makes an even larger point: The church has used shame, particularly about sexuality and binary gender roles, as a primary means of controlling people for centuries. The church needs both men and women to remain subservient to its control, and it plays both sexes in slightly different although often interrelated ways.
Male Shame: The Struggle is Real
I must confess that I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of male shame myself. Social systems thrive on people fulfilling their expected roles, and gender binaries are a staple element for most of the cultures I’ve been around. Boys are supposed to be boys and girls are supposed to be girls and any mixing, blending, or blurring of those lines is met with swift and ruthless punishment. I know this from experience for at least a couple of reasons.
First, I have always been a more sensitive male than most, more of a nurturer than a conqueror. Even in those sports in which I am most skilled, my enjoyment has always come from the execution of the sport, not from the beating of my opponent. I derive little thrill from besting my competitor, and some of the most enjoyable matches of my life have ended in a loss for me. I just didn’t care though, as long as I was enjoying how I played at the time. I wasn’t the aggressive type, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, much to my football coaches’ dismay. Passionate, yes, but not domineering. I’ve hardly ever been interested in dominating other people, least of all women (although there is one arena in which that’s not the case, but this isn’t that kind of article).
Because I’m not the aggressive type, I’ve caught my fair share of grief from other males for not being masculine enough. Like any other boy, I got my share of bullying at the hands of bigger kids. One time I even remember being put in a headlock outside my school building (still remember the kid’s name, in fact). After he let go, I got so mad that I turned around to kick the door to my school building, forgetting that there would be a small narrow window right about where my foot struck the door. I thought for sure the school would call my parents and make them pay for that window, but fortunately it was minutes before leaving for Christmas break, and I don’t think anyone felt like going through the hassle.
The second place I learned male shame was from my own father. He and I have always been very different creatures, and our differences have made for some rough patches in our relationship. In his defense, I have learned over the years just how bad his parenting model was, and I see now how much he had to overcome in order to care for me the way he did. But he still felt the need to toughen me up. On many occasions he felt I wasn’t “manning up” and he told me so. There were times he told me not to “be a pu**y” and there were many times he pushed me to do things I didn’t want to do.
In retrospect, I cannot honestly say that I didn’t benefit from that in any way. The truth is, I did get tougher, and I did develop some skills and capabilities that served purposes of my own over the years. I can’t say it was all bad, since so much of what I’ve come to see as strengths in myself as an adult were at least partially instilled in me by my father’s pushing me so many years ago. Some of his machismo probably rubbed off on me, and frankly sometimes it’s fun to have. Just bein’ honest. But that doesn’t mean he stopped at the right points (plus I’ve heard Betty White would have some instructive things to say about the use of female anatomy to denote weakness). Many times he went too far, and his own determination to make me a more “manly man” instilled enough shame in me to leave me with plenty of insecurities which could in turn be exploited by anybody looking for a way to control me. Which brings me to the larger point Darrel makes with the bulk of his article…
Religions and Their Social Controls
Religions depend upon the loyalties of their adherents, and just like all other institutions they have systems in place which ensure their survival. Maintaining binary gender roles is a large part of that system because religions need reliable handles by means of which they may exert influence over the behavior of their members. It won’t do to have boys and girls swapping roles, or blending functions (or having sex in the wrong ways or at the wrong times). How can an institution maintain order amidst an ever-mixing soup of progressive ideologies? In short it can’t, so it resists change in those established roles because it has to for its own survival.
The church is no different. It needs women and men to be very different, and it needs them to follow a carefully developed script. Deviation from those expected roles will be punished, and the outliers and troublemakers will be shamed for being different. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the church’s treatment of the subject of sex.
I’ve puzzled a long time over the church’s obsession with controlling sex. What’s always bothered me is the question why? Why do they care so much what people do with their genitals? Why in the vast scheme of things is this one thing so friggin’ important to them? They seem to have placed “proper genital use” at the very top of their priority list, judging some people’s character almost exclusively by this single criterion. But why? Why didn’t they include other restrictions, like dietary regulations? Those take up as much discussion space in the Bible as the sexual ones do. I’d say it’s because Jesus expressly addressed the dietary ones when he said that it’s not what you put into your body that makes you unclean but what proceeds out of your heart…but why doesn’t that extend to sex? Why is it that putting bacon into your body doesn’t make you unclean but putting in a penis does? I call inconsistency, here.
The best answer I’ve ever heard puts a spin on something the book of James says about controlling speech:
Like the rudder of a ship, if you can control what people do with their privates, you can control everything else about them.
That’s why religion exerts such obsessive control over sexuality in general and over women in particular, with men trailing close behind. If they can dictate what you do while naked, then they’ve got complete control. Our sexuality lies at the very core of our being, and it relates to our most important and intimate relationships. Life itself depends upon sex, if you think about it. And for large chunks of a person’s life, the desire for sex drives a significant portion of what he or she does. That’s why controlling it matters so much to religions.
Sex must be controlled, and the greatest means of control is shame. People young and old must be bombarded with messages of shame in order to keep everyone in check. They must be started on very young, and teens in particular must be compulsively controlled since those years see the strongest surge in hormones (without the requisite maturity to rein in those urges which we learn later on, after the chemistry has begun to fade). It’s not just boys who get this, but girls, too. That’s why youth ministry has become such a major focus of all the churches which experience numerical (and financial) success. If you can control that situation, you can control everything.
So What Can We Do?
For starters, we can try to open up the conversation about shame, both male and female, and encourage more honesty about what’s going on. We need to learn to speak about sex without the shackles of shame which our religious backgrounds have placed on us. We need to challenge the incessantly simplistic binary categories into which our traditions keep trying to force us all. They have no right, and we must inform them of that. Which leads to an unavoidable hurdle:
We must address the dogmatic structures which facilitate this shaming process, calling into question what business they have telling people how to be, whom to love, and how to do it. Personally, I don’t think that can be done without challenging the metaphysical roots of their dogmatic beliefs. People will never listen to what we have to say about sexuality and shame as long as they’re convinced that God has told them to think this way. They’ve got a religious text which tells them what to think, and until we challenge their approach to that text, I personally don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.
That’s why I spend as much time as I do typing out my thoughts about the religion of my upbringing, and it’s why I spend time building bridges with natural allies who may still believe some of those texts but at least approach them with more of a mind that’s open to see things differently. I keep my eye out for those people because I believe they can help. They have already helped me develop a vocabulary for addressing the church’s dogma from within a system which they aren’t yet ready to abandon. Sometimes liberal Christians can help the more fundy-leaning ones see the light of reason. Sometimes not, but hey, it’s worth a shot, right?