Excerpted from “The Cost of Sexual Shame,” an interview with Subjectified creator Melissa Tapper Goldman on Salon.com:
The cost of sexual shame
A new blog encourages women to share stories about their sexuality in hopes of making sex better for everyone
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.
READ ON AT SALON.COM where the interview originally appeared on November 9, 2013